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The Case of the Disappearing Cook

April 2024
15min read

Why did people fall mortally ill wherever she worked? Typhoid Mary was not about to help the inspector find out

On August 27, 1906, the daughter of Charles Henry Warren, a New York banker, fell sick at the family’s rented summer house in Oyster Bay, Long Island. For the first few days the illness was deceptively mild; then the doctor began to note alarming symptoms—a high fever and low pulse rate, nosebleeds, nausea, and diarrhea. A rose-colored rash appeared on the girl’s stomach, which was slightly distended and sensitive to any pressure.
The syndrome was classic: the girl had typhoid fever, one of the most contagious of communicable diseases. At the turn of the century thousands of people were stricken in typhoid epidemics, and nearly twenty-three thousand died in the United States in the year 1906 alone.
Within the same week that the girl became ill, five more persons in the household, including Warren’s wife, were stricken with typhoid. Experts were brought in to investigate the outbreak and concluded it was due to contagion from the daughter. They could not pinpoint the source of the original infection but said that she had probably contracted the disease from contaminated water or milk, or perhaps spoiled food. There had been no other instance of typhoid in Oyster Bay either before or after the outbreak.
The outbreak might have been forgotten had not George Thompson, the owner of the house, been afraid that it would be impossible to rent it the following summer unless the cause was definitely established. He asked George A. Soper, a sanitary engineer in the New York City Department of Health, to investigate the matter. A well-known epidemic fighter, Soper had been instrumental in setting up emergency health procedures when typhoid epidemics struck Watertown and Ithaca, New York, a few years before.

Retracing the initial investigation, Soper quickly eliminated the usual sources of contamination: the water supply and drainage, the single inside toilet, the cesspools, manure pit, and outside privy. No detail had been overlooked. Frustrated, Soper suddenly sensed that some extraordinary factor had shattered the placid household shortly before the outbreak. He began to concentrate on the possibility of a human carrier, a new theory developed by the noted German bacteriologist Robert Koch. Humans, it was already known, were carriers as long as they were ill themselves and sometimes for several weeks after recovery, when their urine was still highly infectious. Koch, however, believed that outwardly healthy persons also spread the disease, continually breeding the typhoid bacilli within their bodies and discharging the germs in their feces, although they may never have suffered even a high fever. Soper was the first man in America to put the theory to a test.

Because the normal period of typhoid incubation is ten to fourteen days, Soper figured that all the victims in the Warren household were stricken by food or drink taken on or shortly before August 20. He studied the movements of each person without success; no one had left Oyster Bay during the crucial period. However, the Warrens had changed cooks on August 4. The new one, a woman named Mary Mallon, was missing. Mrs. Warren told Soper that she had hired Mary through a New York employment agency that catered to the domestic needs of the well-to-do. Mary was a “pretty good” cook, though not particularly clean and somewhat difficult to talk to. (“Few housekeepers seem to know anything about their cooks,” complained Soper.) Mary left without a word about three weeks after the sickness began.

It was little more than a hunch, but from that time Mary Mallon became Super’s prime target. With the determination of a detective, he began to track her down. He already had a good description of her: Mary was about forty years old, tall, with a buxom figure, blond hair, clear blue eyes, and a firm mouth and jaw. But there was little else to go on. Nothing at all was known about her personal life.

Soper started with the employment agency that had referred Mary to the Warrens. He interviewed dozens of people, collected every scrap of information about her, however innocuous, and with painstaking care, reconstructed a patchy mosaic of her working record for the ten years before she became the Warrens’ cook.

In 1897 Mary began working for a family in Mamaroneck, New York. Early in September of 1900 a young houseguest was stricken with typhoid ten days after his arrival. It was thought at first he had contracted the fever during a visit with friends on Long Island, near an army camp where typhoid was prevalent. Mary left Mamaroneck suddenly a few days after the young man became ill.

During the winter of 1901-2 she cooked for a family in Manhattan. On December 9, one month after Mary arrived, a laundress was taken sick with typhoid and removed to a hospital. There was no investigation, and Mary stayed on for a time.

She next turned up in the summer home of J. Coleman Drayton, a New York lawyer, at Dark Harbor, Maine. The first case of typhoid broke out on June 17, 1902, a few weeks after her arrival. Within the next two weeks six more persons in the household fell sick. Only Mary and Drayton, apparently immune because he had once had typhoid, escaped being stricken. Together they nursed the others. Mary remained until the fever was blunted, and the grateful lawyer gave her a fifty-dollar bonus. The investigators’ report stated that a maid, the first afflicted, had contaminated a water tank that infected the others. However, there was no explanation of how the maid had caught the disease.

Soper then tracked Mary to the summer estate of Henry Gilsey in Sands Point, Long Island. On June 8, 1904, shortly after her arrival, typhoid felled a laundress who had been on the grounds only ten days. Then three more servants fell ill. Because no one in the Gilsey family was affected, the fever was believed to be rooted in the servants’ quarters, which were separated from the main house. One expert, Dr. Robert L. Wilson, the superintendent of hospitals for communicable diseases in the New York City Health Department, was convinced that the laundress had been infected before coming to Sands Point, but he could not determine how she had contracted the disease.

The next two years in Mary’s past, until she went to work for the Warrens, were a blank, but in December, 1906, Soper broke a fresh trail. Mary had taken a job in Tuxedo, New York, on September 21, only a few days after vanishing from Oyster Bay. Two weeks after her arrival a laundress collapsed with typhoid. Mary left abruptly on October 27.

The evidence of Mary’s implication was now overwhelming: typhoid broke out wherever she worked, and she escaped illness each time and, invariably, ran away when the sickness appeared. Soper was certain that Mary was the innocent victim of her body chemistry—a living culture tube in which the deadly bacilli found a congenial environment, breeding and. multiplying. If forewarned, she could lead a normal life, with only a few restrictions. More important, Mary had to be found before any further outbreaks occurred, and tests had to be taken to prove that she was a chronic carrier—for if she was, then innumerable others might also unwittingly be carriers. Soper needed specimens of her body waste to confirm his theory.

Mary, however, proved an elusive creature, and the search seemed to be at a dead end. Soper, familiar now with her pattern, believed she was probably somewhere in New York City, still working as a cook for some wealthy family. Then one day in March, 1907, he came face to face with her in a private brownstone on Park Avenue in the Sixties. The owner’s daughter was dying of typhoid and a maid was ill with the fever when Soper went by to investigate. He was taken to the kitchen and introduced to Mary.

As she wiped her hands slowly and leaned against the cupboard, Soper calmly began to explain that he suspected her of being a typhoid carrier. It was necessary, he said, to obtain specimens of her blood, urine, and feces. Without warning, Mary grabbed a large carving fork and advanced toward Soper. He fled the house, feeling helpless.

Learning that Mary often spent her nights with a man who lived in a run-down Third Avenue rooming house, Soper decided to confront her again. Accompanied by Dr. Raymond Hoobler, he waited for her at the top of the stairs one evening. Mary got angry the moment she saw him. No sooner had Soper begun telling her that he meant no harm than Mary started shouting that she had never had typhoid nor carried it. She was clean, in perfect health, she insisted, and had no sign or symptom of any disease. There had been no more typhoid where she worked than anywhere else—typhoid was everywhere—Soper was persecuting her. If he knew about Dark Harbor, then he knew she didn’t harm the family but had helped them. Didn’t Mr. Drayton reward her? Nothing Soper said would swerve her. The two men left as Mary stood at the head of the stairs, cursing after them.

Realizing that it was hopeless to reason with her any longer, Soper appealed to Health Commissioner Thomas Darlington and Dr. Hermann M. Briggs, the department’s medical officer. Mary, he said, was “a living culture … a proved menace to the community.” Under suitable conditions, he declared, “Mary might precipitate a great epidemic.” Darlington and Briggs thought that one more attempt should be made to get the specimens peacefully—by someone other than Soper.

On March 18, 1907, Dr. S. Josephine Baker, a Health Department inspector, went to see Mary but had no more success with the unyielding woman than Soper. Mary, her eyes glinting and her jaw set, refused to submit the specimens in a way “that left little room for persuasion or argument.”

The following morning, Dr. Baker returned with an ambulance and three policemen. Her superior, Dr. Walter Bensel, assistant sanitary superintendent for Manhattan, had issued a firm order: get the specimens. If Mary resisted, she was to be overpowered and taken to the Willard Parker Hospital for Contagious Diseases, at the foot of East Sixteenth Street.

Leaving the ambulance at the corner, Dr. Baker stationed one officer in front of the house, a second at the back, and, accompanied by the third policeman, approached the basement entrance under the front steps. Mary, on her guard now, opened the door just wide enough to lunge viciously at Dr. Baker with a kitchen fork “like a rapier.” The doctor fell back into the officer, who then managed to jam his foot in the doorway as the cook fled toward the rear of the house. When they recovered and reached the kitchen, Mary had vanished. The other servants, out of loyalty, denied seeing her.

Dr. Baker and the officers searched the house for three hours and turned up only a single clue: footprints in the snow outside leading to a chair set by the high fence between the brownstone and the one adjoining it. A search of that building proved fruitless, and Dr. Baker called her superior to report that Mary was gone. Dr. Bensel merely replied, “I expect you to get the specimens or to take Mary to the hospital,” and hung up.

Commandeering two more policemen in the street, Dr. Baker resumed the search. After two hours of scouring every possible hiding place, she was ready to give up, wondering how she could face Dr. Bensel, when one of the policemen spotted a piece of blue calico caught in the closet door in the areaway under the high outside front stairway of the second house. A dozen ash cans were stacked in front of the door, evidently put there by the cook’s servant friends.

The cans were removed and the door pulled open. Mary sprang from a crouch and came out fighting and cursing (“both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigor,” the doctor recalled). A big, strong woman, Mary put up a bitter struggle for her freedom. It took all five policemen to finally subdue her and lift her, kicking and screaming, into the ambulance.

“I made another effort to talk to her sensibly,” said Dr. Baker, “and asked her again to let me have the specimens, but it was no use. By that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her, when she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had never had typhoid fever; she was maniacal in her integrity. There was nothing I could do but take her with us. … I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”

Mary Mallon was locked away in a bare, stark-white isolation ward, classified as a dangerous patient who might attempt escape. She was the charge of Dr. Robert L. Wilson, who had investigated the Sands Point outbreak in 1904, and Dr. William H. Park, chief of the Health Department’s bacteriological laboratories.

The first analysis of Mary’s feces showed a pure culture of the deadly bacteria. Subsequent examinations for the next eight months disclosed that except for intervals of a few weeks, her body was continually discharging the deadly germs. The tests established, without doubt, that an outwardly healthy person could breed and spread typhoid fever.

Shortly after her arrest, Soper, in a sense her nemesis but with compassion for Mary, visited her at the hospital. She was “fearfully angry-looking” as he spoke:

“Mary, I’ve come to talk … [to] see if between us we cannot get you out of here. … You would not be where you are now if you had not been so obstinate. … Nobody wants to harm you. You say you have never caused a case of typhoid, but I know you have done so. Nobody thinks you have done it purposely. … Many people have been made sick and have suffered a great deal; some have died. … You were arrested and brought here and the specimens taken. … They proved what I charged. Now you must surely see how mistaken you were. Don’t you acknowledge it?

Mary only glared at Soper as he continued, “Well, I will tell you how you do it. When you go to the toilet, the germs which grow within your body get upon your fingers, and when you handle food in cooking they get on the food. People who eat this food swallow the germs and get sick. If you would wash your hands after leaving the toilet and before cooking, there might be no trouble.”

Soper tried to glean some sign in her face that he was breaking through, but Mary remained silent and grim, staring at him with angry eyes. He persisted, saying that the bacteria were probably hatched in her gall bladder and that it should be removed. The operation was difficult and not always successful, but her case called for the most drastic preventive measures.

“You don’t need a gall bladder any more than you need an appendix,” Soper concluded. “There are many people living without them. … I don’t know how long the Department of Health intends to keep you here. … I can help you. If you will answer my questions. … Above all, I want to know if and when you have had typhoid fever, and how many outbreaks and cases you have seen.”

Her eyes digging into Soper’s, Mary rose from the bed, drew her robe about her, walked into the bathroom, and slammed the door. Refusing to co-operate, she thereafter maintained that the operation was only “a pretext for killing her.”

After several weeks at the Willard Parker Hospital, Mary was transferred to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, a bleak, thirteen-acre patch of ground in the East River between Long Island Sound and the roiling waters of Hell Gate. She was eventually allowed to work as a laundress, but otherwise she was cut off from contact with others. Mary Mallon, however, was no spirit to languish without a fight.

Two legal actions to free her were brought against the city. On June 9, 1909, Mary and a lawyer who specialized in medical cases, George Francis O’Neill, appeared before a state supreme court judge. She testified that she had been kept “like a leper,” with only a dog for company. Three times a day, she said, a nurse shoved food through her door, then ran away in fright.

O’Neill argued that Mary was being deprived of her freedom without having committed a crime or knowingly having done injury to any person or property. She had been held without a hearing, he pointed out, and was apparently under a life sentence, contrary to the United States Constitution. Such action was without precedent in law, he declared.

The judge, however, ruled against Mary’s petition. He expressed sympathy but said he was unwilling to take the responsibility for freeing her.

Nearly a month later, on July 22, 1909, another judge denied a writ of habeas corpus, stating that the Health Department had acted within its rights in holding Mary Mallon in custody. As authority he cited sections of the city charter dealing with “imminent peril,” as well as the state’s health law.

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.

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.”

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