The Carrier: ‘Typhoid’ Mary Mallon

It was in 1906 that much of the Warren family came down with typhoid fever. The Warrens had been renting a summer home in Oyster Bay and owner George Thomas was nervous about the home’s future. Who would want to rent a house after the Warrens had come down with typhoid? He shuddered to think and hired someone to find the source. When investigations turned up nothing, Dr. George Sopher was called in. Sopher learned after much digging that the Warren’s cook, Mary Mallon, had left suddenly after the outbreak. She had given no explanation, she had just left. Sopher visited employment agencies and learned that in each of Mallon’s employers’ households, members of the staff or family had contracted typhoid. Mallon was a murderer, in Sopher’s eyes, and needed to be stopped.

Mary Mallon Courtesy Wikipedia

Sopher finally caught up with Mallon in 1907. She had ‘struck again’, a well-to-do family’s daughter having died as a result and two other persons were ill. Mallon didn’t flee this time, though. She was still working for the family, when she agreed to speak with Sopher. While he said he was diplomatic in his discussion, he seemed to have lacked wisdom. In what must’ve been an embarrassing experience for Mallon, Sopher demanded he be allowed samples of blood and such so it could be tested for typhoid. He strongly believed that Mallon was a  typhoid carrier. He requested this in front of members of the infected family and household staff. The proud Mallon went after Sopher with a carving fork as he made a quick retreat outside of the home. Even after the confrontation Mallon continued to stay on with the family.

Sopher followed Mallon home one night, unbeknownst to her.  He found that she lived in a seedy boarding house with Breihof, a drunk. Sopher was able to get info from Breihof, mainly through drinks. Behind Mallon’s back the oblivious Breihof  set up a meeting with Sopher and Mallon. When Mallon found out she was furious. She told Sopher that she had never had and did not have typhoid. She was perfectly healthy. Sopher eventually left, his memorized speeches having gotten him nowhere. He went to the Health Department and told them of Mary’s situation.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker

Dr. Sarah Josephine Baker Courtesy Wikipedia

The Health Department sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker to speak with the Irishwoman. No matter how willing Baker may have been, Mallon was not going to have any of their nonsense talk about her having typhoid. The nerve. There wasn’t a healthier person around than Mallon. The next day Baker returned with an ambulance and group of policeman. As can be expected, Mallon ran. After several hours of a wild goose chase the ‘posse’ noticed a water closet. Inside was Mallon. Baker tried to reason with Mallon, but it was a waste of time. When she refused to cooperate, five policemen and Baker struggled to get Mallon into the ambulance by force. It was a difficult task as Mallon gave a mighty struggle and shouted profanity. On the way to the hospital Baker was forced to sit on Mallon.  At the hospital Mallon was locked up in a room. Sopher came by to further question Mallon. He explained as best as he could her situation. He told Mallon that she had spread the disease by not properly cleaning her hands before cooking and that her gallbladder needed to be removed, as that was the most likely place that the typhoid germs resided. He also assured her that she would function just as well without a gallbladder, as she did with it. After he finished prattling on, Mallon left him without a word.

In 1907 Mallon was sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, which had a dreary history. An angered Mallon hired lawyer George O’Neill . In 1909 Mallon pleaded her case. While she was held against her will in a ‘prison’, other recently discovered typhoid carriers were roaming free. The battle continued to rage on as Mallon fought for her freedom. In 1910 Mallon was released, having ‘learned her lesson’. While she wasn’t cured she now knew how to keep herself from infecting others. In late 1911 she sued for $50,000 although it never came to trial. Now that Mallon was free she was forbidden to work as a cook, instead she was forced to take a job as a laundress. She also had to make regular check-ups at the Health Department. It looked as if it would be a dark future. Things worsened when Breihof died. Having lost nearly everything Mallon stopped reporting to the Health Department and took up cooking again.

Riverside Hospital Courtesy Wikipedia

In 1915 there was an outbreak of typhoid at the Sloane Hospital for Women. When the staff was tested for typhoid it was found that a cook was carrying the disease. That cook was Mallon. She fled to a friend’s, but it is believed that she was betrayed. This time there was no fight as she left with the police. She was taken back to North Brother Island. There she befriended some people. One was Adelaide Offspring and another Dr. Alexandra Plavska. Plavska made the dispirited Irishwoman her lab assistant, Mallon also working in the came capacity for bacteriologist Emma Sherman. Those that counted Mallon among their friends remembered her as being eager to please. Indeed, Mallon often tried to show them kindness, bringing them little things now and then. Many of those that knew her, also remembered her as being a large woman and that she looked like a man.

In late 1932 Emma Sherman went to find Mallon when she didn’t show up for work in the lab. She found Mallon in her dark, filthy shack, paralyzed.  Mallon had suffered a stroke. Sherman continued to visit Mallon at the hospital although Mallon didn’t recognize her. Finally she quit thinking it was pointless. On November 11, 1938 Mallon died, no doubt a lonely, broken person. In her will she left a considerable sum to Offspring. Also named in her will was Plavska and a few others. She paid for her own headstone which was simple. The epitaph read Jesus Mercy. She is buried in the Bronx.

For further reading you may consider Typhoid Mary by Anthony Bourdain. This was the only book of Mallon I could get and frankly, the author could’ve of been so much more professional in his writing. His ‘colorful’ language does nothing for the book.

Source: Bourdain, Anthony. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical.

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21 thoughts on “The Carrier: ‘Typhoid’ Mary Mallon

  1. Anthony Bourdain probably considers himself somewhat of a ‘gonzo journalist’ but mostly he’s just a huge egotist. I did enjoy this blog post; not knowing much more about poor Mary than her status as a typhoid carrier I am now much better informed. — Cindy

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  2. It’s a fascinating story. Check out Judith Walzer Leavitt’s ‘Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health’ — its a great read that offers a fascinating perspective on the case. Much different than Bourdain’s amateur treatment.

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  3. That’s a great story. Interesting how typhoid could take one person and spare another. I can understand her reluctance to getting her gallbladder out. I wonder if the doctor was right in that being the spot the germs would be.

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  4. As I understand it, Mallon was unusual in that her body allowed the typhoid bacteria to co-exist within her, without either causing Mary to show symptoms of the disease or allowing Mary to kill off the bacteria. She was a healthy carrier, which is why she unknowingly infected others.

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    • Yes, that’s true. This also probably caused her to think that Sopher was some type of nut. Being a healthy carrier was a fairly new concept, some work having been done on it in Europe. I wish there was more information to be had on Mallon’s ‘pre-typhoid-carrier’ life.

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  5. Thank you for this story. I have read so much about Typhoid but never knew how it originated! Now I know what the phrase Typhoid Mary means : )

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  6. Pingback: Esceptica | Bios: Sara Josephine Baker

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