The Case Of The Disappearing Cook


The legal battles attracted much attention. Newspapers dubbed the cook Typhoid Mary, and cartoons depicted her frying typhoid bacilli the size of sausages, or dropping human skulls into a skillet. Some were kinder, viewing Mary as the lonely victim of bad luck, sitting out her life with only a faithful mongrel at her side. Punch , the British humor weekly, devoted a column of poetry to her. The notoriety also brought her a suitor, a twenty-eight-year-old Michigan farmer who wrote the Health Department for permission to marry her, confiding that he had once been in an insane asylum but had since been declared mentally sound. The Health Department, meanwhile, had rounded up hundreds of suspected typhoid breeders, concentrating on cooks and dairymen who had come in contact with typhoid victims. Many proved to be chronic carriers but were allowed to return to their homes after pledging not to take any job that entailed contact with food or its preparation. In February, 1910, Mary convinced hospital officials that she, too, was prepared to take special precautions to avoid contaminating others. She promised to give up making her living as a cook and to report to the Health Department every three months.

Almost as soon as she was released, Mary vanished. For five years she drifted from job to job, avoiding work in private homes. She tried running a cheap rooming house but lost money at it. She took in ironing but found that cooking paid better. Carefully staying clear of employment agencies, she found jobs in a Broadway restaurant, several hotels on Long Island, and at a fashionable resort and a sanitarium in New Jersey. In each there were cases of typhoid, but the record was incomplete, and Mary, who sometimes called herself Marie Breshof or Mary Brown, was not identified at the time.

Then, in February, 1915, Soper was called to the Sloane Hospital for Women by Dr. Edwin B. Cragin, head obstetrician and gynecologist. Twenty-five persons, most of them nurses and attendants, had been suddenly stricken with typhoid, a crippling loss for the institution. Two of the victims were dying.

Sloane was one of the best hospitals in New York, a model of good sanitation. Soper examined the personnel records. A cook had been hired three months before the outbreak. He was told that when the other employees had teasingly called her “Typhoid Mary,” she had left without notice. Shown a sample of her handwriting, Soper quickly identified the cook as Mary Mallon.

For the first time, he wondered if there was something mentally wrong with Mary. She had deliberately taken chances with human life in a hospital—“spreading typhoid germs among mothers and babies and doctors and nurses like a destroying angel”—where the risk of being caught and severely punished was greater than anywhere else.

Mary’s trail led to New Jersey, then to Long Island, where city detectives spotted her, heavily veiled, carrying a bowl of gelatin to a friend’s house. Police surrounded the house, while others slipped inside. This time Mary had little chance to struggle. On March 27, 1915, Mary was returned to North Brother Island.

The staff at Riverside Hospital tried to rehabilitate and cure her. Dr. Park experimented with a kind of hyperimmunization, feeding and injecting Mary with six billion typhoid bacilli. She was given a billion by hypodermic and supplied with the rest of the dosage in pills that were to be taken at stated intervals. Mary either threw the pills away or hid them; anyway, the immunization failed. Rejecting any attempts of help, she doomed herself to the life of an outcast. Whatever rights she once possessed as an “innocent” carrier were lost now. She was dangerous, an incorrigible—and was to be kept in almost complete isolation for the rest of her life.

At least fifty-three cases of typhoid and three deaths were attributed to Mary Mallon, a small tally compared with that of other carriers who were found. But how many outbreaks or epidemics she actually touched off, or how many sick and dead she accounted for in all, would never be known. Mary herself never disclosed a word about her past, only that she had been born in the United States. She continued to refuse to answer any questions or to have her photograph taken. And she never expressed any remorse for all the suffering she caused.

Almost forty-eight years old, a great deal heavier, and with much of her remarkable energy gone, Mary drew into herself, a lost and sullen woman. For a long time she responded to any gesture of friendship with “almost pathological anger.” A less intelligent and dedicated staff might have given up on Mary, but the nurses and doctors at Riverside Hospital slowly drew her from her shell. In her fifties she was given a job in the hospital laboratories and proved herself an intelligent aide. Mary learned the intricate work, read every book available on the island, and sent to the city for textbooks. Paid sixty dollars a month as an inmate staff member, she prepared slides for the pathologists, kept records, and generally helped in the laboratory. Occasionally she was allowed to go into the city for a few hours alone. She found solace in religion and became a devout Roman Catholic.