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The Passion of Typhoid Mary

June 2024
6min read

Mary Mallon could do one thing very well, and all she wanted was to be left to it

Longfellow notwithstanding, precious few of us leave footprints in the sands of time. Even today, while our names will probably remain, buried in such things as old phone books and Social Security records, most of us will be utterly and forever forgotten within a generation or two of our deaths. Like it or not, only the great and the infamous are remembered.

Every now and then, however, an ordinary person somehow slips by the bouncer outside the nightclub of immortality and joins his betters inside. Perhaps my favorites in this category are A, B, C, D, and E. They were the typesetters who set the First Folio of Shakespeare, printed in 1623. In the centuries since, scholars have pored over each page of it with such intensity that they have discerned their existence and were able to determine which of the five set which page by their characteristic spellings and typos.

So we do not know their names or where they lived or whom they loved or what made them laugh. We know only what words they had trouble spelling. That’s enough, however. Centuries after their deaths, hundreds of thousands of readers of American Heritage are thinking about them for a moment this month, and they are not forgotten. Shakespeare, it seems, was righter than even he knew when he wrote, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Her friends visited her, but they always went away and left her alone during dinnertime

Last year’s food-poisoning episode at Jack in the Box restaurants brings to mind another person who falls into this category. She lived in New York City at the turn of the century and made her living as a “good plain cook.” In this case we know her name, Mary Mallon. But she is immortal as Typhoid Mary.

Food poisoning is the nightmare of the restaurant business. It can’t be insured against. It can strike in even the best-run establishments. And the results, for restaurant and patron alike, are all too often fatal. Employees who fail to practice proper procedures, and thus pass microorganisms from themselves to diners, are a far more common cause of food-poisoning outbreaks than is tainted meat. Of the many diseases that can be communicated in this way, typhoid fever is one of the most serious.

Typhoid was recognized as a separate disease in the early nineteenth century, and the organism that causes it, one of the dreaded Salmonella genus, was isolated in the 1880s. Characterized by a high and extended fever and numerous possible complications, the disease had a death rate before antibiotics of 10 to 15 percent. The main means by which typhoid spread in the nineteenth century was contaminated drinking water, and as clean water became ever more available, the incidence of the disease declined. Still, in 1900 about twenty thousand Americans died of typhoid.

Intriguingly, typhoid often broke out in groups of people who were associated with a single location, and where the water was not contaminated. Because of this, those working in the dawning science of epidemiology suspected that some people might be chronic carriers of the disease. Although having no symptoms themselves, they harbored the bacillus and shed it constantly. While this seemed a likely theory, no one had ever identified an actual chronic carrier. It remained a theory.

In the summer of 1906 typhoid struck a house in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s North Shore, rented to a New York banker named William Henry Warren. Of the four family members and their seven servants living in the house, six came down with the disease. The local public health authorities investigated but failed to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak. The owner of the house, however, feared he would never be able to rent it again unless the cause was found. So he hired George A. Soper, a sanitary engineer by training but a gifted epidemiologist by instinct.

Soper zeroed in immediately on the servants, especially the cook, Mary Mallon, who had arrived in the household on August 4, three weeks before the first typhoid case had appeared. That is exactly the average incubation period for the disease. He learned that she often made a dessert that was a great hit with the family, ice cream with fresh peaches mixed in. It was, as it happens, a near-perfect medium for transmitting typhoid.

Soper then went to the agency in New York through which the cook had been hired. He obtained a list of other cooking jobs she had held, and sure enough typhoid had erupted at most of them shortly after she arrived. At her latest situation, a house on Park Avenue at Sixtieth Street, there were already two cases of typhoid, one a little girl who would shortly succumb. Soper knew in his heart that he had found a typhoid carrier. He went to see Mary Mallon, hoping to enlist her cooperation. He didn’t get it.

The traditional image of Typhoid Mary is of a slattern, ignorant, unkempt, and uncaring of others. The truth is rather different. Mary Mallon was about forty years old at that time, with blonde hair and clear, intense blue eyes and a “determined mouth and jaw.” She stood about five feet six and had a good figure, although she was rather plump, a common enough failing among professional cooks.

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.

Just imagine painting pictures no one else can ever see or writing stories that must be forever unread by others. That was the fate of Mary Mallon. It was, in the scale of things, a very minor tragedy, but it was hers. No wonder she fought so long and so fiercely against it.

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