The Case Of The Disappearing Cook


In 1923 the city gave her a home of her own on North Brother Island, a comfortable, one-room cottage with its own small plot of lawn and two elm trees. From its porch she could look north to the gas tanks on the Bronx shore, south to sleazy apartment houses and factories in Astoria, and east to the city prison on Riker’s Island. An occasional ferryboat glided past in the sludgy waters, and at night the river lapped against the rocks in an unnerving beat. In fair weather she often entertained friends from the hospital on the porch. But when mealtime came, the guests departed. There was no talk about it, no jokes; Mary cooked and ate alone. When alone, she sewed, took walks, or read (Dickens was her favorite author). She was examined periodically, but the virulence in her body never lessened.

On Christmas morning, 1932, a deliveryman found Mary on the floor of her cottage, paralyzed by a stroke. She lingered six more years, a helpless invalid, in the hospital ward. On November 11, 1938, after spending nearly half her seventy years in confinement, she died. That night, her coffin was carried from the hospital through a side exit, taken to the small pier, and loaded aboard a launch. The death certificate was handed to the captain, and he signed a receipt for his cargo. Then the craft cut into the dark river, heading toward the Bronx shore.

The next morning a short Requiem Mass was held in St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church. Nine mourners attended, but none would disclose their identity to reporters. No one followed her coffin to St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.

Always an enigma to others, Mary Mallon remained in memory only the symbol of pestilence called Typhoid Mary. When she died, there were 349 chronic typhoid carriers registered in the city, only one of whom the Health Department felt it necessary to keep isolated. The incidence of typhoid, much to Soper’s credit, was down to a few hundred cases a year.

Soper, who later was a pioneer in the campaign for cancer research, wrote what could have served as a fitting epitaph for Mary:

“Surely a mysterious, noncommunicative, self-reliant, abundantly courageous person; a character apart, by nature and circumstance, strangely chosen to bear the burden of a great lesson to the world.”