For the summer of 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren and his wife began what should have been a delightful summer vacation with their family. From George Thompson they had rented a large summer home on scenic Oyster Bay, Long Island. The Warrens hired maids, gardeners and a woman named Mary Mallon to be the family cook. On August 27, one of the Warren daughters became desperately ill with typhoid fever. In rapid succession, Mrs. Warren and two maids became sick, followed by their gardener and another Warren daughter. Out of 11 people in the household that summer, six came down with typhoid. All suffered excruciating headache, fever, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.
Fortunately no one died, but Thompson, owner of the property, faced a dilemma. Today, typhoid is effectively treated with antibiotics, but such treatment was not available at the turn of the 20th century. Houses believed to be contaminated were often burned to the ground in order to destroy any remnant of the disease. The prospect of financial disaster was very real for Thompson since he could not rent out the summer house again until the source of the typhoid outbreak was uncovered.
Local health authorities were mystified. They suspected the outbreak had something to do with food consumed between August 27 and September 3. Initially they suspected clams had caused the illness. However, not everyone who became ill had consumed clams. When local health officials reached an impasse, Thompson hired a medical sleuth, Dr. George Soper, a highly regarded New York City area epidemiologist with a doctorate from Columbia University, to further investigate. Soper quickly concluded that everyone who fell ill with typhoid had consumed a dessert of homemade ice cream and fresh peaches. That dessert was prepared and served by the family cook, Mary Mallon, but she was the only individual that Soper was unable to interview since she had departed abruptly as soon as the outbreak began spreading. Mallon seemed to have vanished, leaving no forwarding address.
Working with the agency that had placed Mallon, Soper pieced together her biography. Born in Cookstown, Ireland, she immigrated to the United States when she was 15 and found work as a domestic servant. She was tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed and described as heavy set, strong and healthy, single and very much a loner. Tracking her employment history from 1900 to 1906, Dr. Soper found that typhoid outbreaks accompanied Mallon from job to job during those years.
1897-1900: Mallon was a cook for a New York family. There was no problem until 1900 when a visitor spent time with the family—within 10 days he developed typhoid fever. Less than a week later, Mallon suddenly quit.
1901-02: Mallon was again employed as a cook for another New York family. A laundress caught typhoid shortly after Mallon joined the household.
1902: Mallon was employed by New York City attorney J. Coleman Drayton to work at his summer home in Maine. Two weeks into the summer vacation, typhoid struck seven of the nine people living in the residence. Only Drayton and Mallon remained typhoid free. A nurse hired to tend the sick quickly came down with typhoid. Drayton persuaded Mallon to remain with him and the two of them tended the ill. The sick became sicker during the time Mallon acted as nurse. A grateful Drayton gave Mallon a $50 bonus—the equivalent of five weeks’ wages—for staying on.
1904: Mallon cooked for a Long Island family. Upon her arrival, four servants caught typhoid fever.
1906: After the Oyster Bay typhoid outbreak at the Thompson place, Mallon found work with a New York family living in Tuxedo Park in Orange County. Shortly after Mallon joined them, two servants were hospitalized with typhoid, and the family’s daughter died from the ailment.
In addition, Soper identified Mallon as the most likely cause of a 1903 typhoid epidemic in Ithaca, N.Y., which resulted in 1,400 cases. Although evidence strongly indicated that she was a carrier of Salmonella typhosa, the bacterium starter of typhoid fever, he needed clear scientific proof. He knew that the disease was spread either by food and water contaminated by feces from an infected person or by direct contact with such a carrier. Soper decided to visit Mallon, explain the situation and request samples of blood, urine and stool.
In March 1907, Soper located Mallon working as a cook for the New York City family of Walter Bowen.“I had my first talk with Mary in the kitchen of this house,” Soper explained. “I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood.” Mallon, who was in good health herself, was not receptive to having this stranger accuse her of spreading a potentially fatal disease. Mary Mallon immediately became enraged. “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction,” Soper recalled. “I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall, through the tall iron gate…and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.”
Though frightened, Soper was not deterred. With the aid of the New York City health commissioner, Soper returned with five police officers and an ambulance. Mallon, upon learning Soper was back, came out holding a “long kitchen fork in her hand like a rapier.” Lunging at Soper and the police officers, she created enough fright and confusion to escape. After a five-hour search of the neighborhood, the group found Mallon hiding in a closet. One of those assisting Soper was New York City Health Department official Dr. S. Josephine Baker who described what happened when Mallon emerged from her hiding place:
She came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigor. I made another effort to talk sensibly and asked her again to let me have the specimens but it was of 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. The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being [in] a cage with an angry lion.
Mallon was taken to Willard Parker Hospital in New York, where samples were taken. Typhoid bacilli were found in her stool, and her gall bladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. After further interviews with Mallon, Soper concluded that Mallon spread typhoid primarily because of her own poor hygiene. Mallon admitted she didn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom and saw no need to do so. The bacteria she unknowingly carried was transferred from the bathroom to the kitchens where she worked as a cook.
By this time, Soper’s investigation into Mary Mallon was widely reported in newspapers. In many sensational accounts, she was called “Typhoid Mary” and referred to as “the most dangerous woman in America.” Additionally, she was cited as the culprit in various typhoid epidemics, even though it was improbable that she was always responsible. Because of the public outcry concerning Typhoid Mary and her unwillingness to cooperate with health authorities, she was taken by force and, without trial, essentially placed under house arrest. Mallon was quarantined in a small cottage on the grounds of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. Three years later, she was released, instructed never to work as a cook and required to report to the Department of Health every three months. Mallon failed to comply, and the health department simply lost track of her.
Changing her name to Mary Brown, she found employment as a cook. During the next five years, she moved through several family kitchens, leaving behind cases of typhoid. Incredibly, in 1915 a typhoid epidemic spread through the staff of New York’s Sloan Hospital for Women, resulting in 25 cases and two deaths. During an investigation, authorities discovered that one hospital employee had simply vanished. Following her usual pattern, Mary Mallon had slipped away. They tracked her to where she was working as a cook for a family on Long Island. When authorities confronted her, she offered no resistance. She was sent back to North Brother Island to live under close supervision and in isolation for the rest of her life.
After suffering a paralyzing stroke, Mary Mallon died on November 11, 1938. She was given a funeral Mass at St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church in the Bronx. Present were three men, three women and three children, all of whom refused to identify themselves to curious reporters. She was buried on November 12 by the Department of Health at St. Raymond’s Cemetery, also in the Bronx.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.