- Historic Sites
The Passion Of Typhoid Mary
Mary Mallon could do one thing very well, and all she wanted was to be left to it
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
Nor was she ignorant in the least. She wrote a good, legible hand and read for pleasure. She was particularly fond of Dickens’s novels, and her preferred newspaper was The New York Times , then, as now, the most serious-minded of the New York dailies. And she loved to cook. The man who was now explaining his suspicions to her was a mortal threat to her livelihood. She rejected them utterly.
Athough she probably had no knowledge of the latest theories about typhoid, one wonders if she did not, at some level at least, suspect something. Certainly the disease followed her about like an incubus. At one household, when only she and the master of the house—who had had typhoid long before—were not prostrated by the disease, she nursed the stricken tirelessly. Her employer gave her an extra month’s wages for her efforts, but she left soon afterward. In fact, she seldom stayed long at any situation as she tried to outrun this awful disease that struck all about her while leaving her untouched.
So her reaction to Soper’s request that she submit samples for testing was understandable, psychologically at least, if not morally. She seized a carving fork and chased him out of the house. Soper then informed the Board of Health of his findings, and the authorities dispatched an ambulance, a couple of interns, three burly policemen, and Dr. S. Josephine Baker.
Mary Mallon herself opened the door when they knocked at the servants’ entrance and immediately realized what was up. She fled into the house, slamming the door behind her. The other servants claimed not to know where she had gone, and a thorough search of the house failed to find her.
Then a policeman noticed footprints in the snow in the back yard, leading to the fence that separated it from the yard of the house on the next block. At that house again they searched in vain for three hours. Finally someone noticed a scrap of gingham cloth caught in a door to an outside closet.
Opening it, they found Mary Mallon inside. Trapped, she defended her freedom like a tiger. “She fought and struggled and cursed,” Dr. Baker remembered. Finally, “I told the policemen to pick her up and put her in the ambulance. This we did, and the ride down to the hospital was quite a wild one.” In fact, Dr. Baker had to sit on Mary Mallon for the entire trip to keep her under control.
It was soon determined that she was indeed incubating Salmonella typhi . Soner tried to reason with her but got nowhere. “Mary looked at me steadily,” he remembered, “but neither spoke nor moved. Her eyes gleamed angrily.” He told her she would be released if she promised never to cook again professionally and checked with the health department regularly. She refused to make any such agreement. He offered to see that her gallbladder, thought to be the seat of her chronic infection, was removed. She dismissed the offer out of hand.
Because she would not cooperate, Typhoid Mary, as the press was already calling her, was detained. Soon she was moved to Riverside Hospital, on remote North Brother Island, off the Bronx in the East River. Finally, after nearly three years’ detention and promises of good behavior, she was released. She vanished immediately.
She could no longer get a job as a cook in a private house and worked in various hotels and institutions. As before, typhoid followed along behind, laying waste to all about her. But as before, she moved often and managed to elude the authorities for five years. Finally, after an outbreak of typhoid at the Sloan Hospital for Women in New York, where she was cooking, she was identified and captured. This time there was no violence, just a sullen, passive defiance.
She was returned to North Brother Island, and it would be her home for the last twenty-three years of her life. The first of those years were bitter, and “she was like a moody, caged jungle cat.”
Then, slowly, Mary Mallon adjusted to her situation. She began to make friends on the hospital staff, although she always refused to discuss her background or her medical situation. Her family, even where she was born, remains unknown. She was given a job in the hospital laboratory. There she read all the books they had on lab work and was soon a competent medical technologist and a valued member of the hospital staff.
They gave her a house on the shore of the island, three rooms with a front porch overlooking the less-than-splendid view of the Bronx shoreline a few hundred yards away. She was allowed to go into Manhattan now, because the authorities knew she would return to what had become, for better or worse, home. Often she would come back with special foodstuffs from fancy stores.
Her friends from the hospital would come to visit her at her little house on the shore. But when it was time for dinner, they would leave and she would cook and eat her dinner alone. It must have been a profoundly lonely time for her each day.
You see, cooking was not only Mary Mallon’s lost profession but her pleasure and her art as well. The urge to create lies deep in the human soul, and most of us garden or paint watercolors or do needlework or cook for no better reason than the fact that we love it and have some modest talent for it to offer our fellow creatures.