Today in fact, 27 March

Mary Mallon was born on September 23, 1869 in Cookstown, Ireland. According to what she told friends, Mallon emigrated to America around the age of 15. Like most Irish immigrant women, Mallon found a job as a domestic servant. Finding she had a talent for cooking, Mallon became a cook, which paid better wages than many other domestic service positions.

Mallon was a healthy woman and a hard worker. The only problem was that people got ill and died of typhoid around her. In 1906 in New York, six of the eleven people in a large summer house came down with typhoid. Mary was their cook. Since the common way typhoid spread was through water or food sources, the owners of the home feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the disease. They hired an investigator, George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause. Mallon had left the Warren’s approximately three weeks after the outbreak. Soper began to research her employment history for more clues.

Soper was able to trace Mallon’s employment history back to 1900. He found that typhoid outbreaks had followed Mallon from job to job. From 1900 to 1907, Soper found that Mallon had worked at seven jobs in which 22 people had become ill, including one young girl who died, with typhoid fever shortly after Mallon had come to work for them.

In March 1907, Soper found Mallon working as a cook in the home of Walter Bowen and his family. To get samples from Mallon, he approached her at her place of work. Having a strange man come up to you, to accuse you of spreading disease and of killing people and then be asking for some of your blood and excrement, might put anyone over the edge. Mary grabbed a carving knife and chased Soper from the house. Eventually the police and the health Department were called in. They arrested Mary without charge and placed her under forced isolation. Took stool and blood samples. Typhoid bacilli were found in her stool. The health department then transferred Mallon to an isolated cottage (part of the Riverside Hospital) on North Brother Island (in the East River near the Bronx).

Mary Mallon was taken by force and against her will and was held without a trial. She had not broken any laws. So how could the government lock her up in isolation indefinitely?

In 1909, after having been isolated for two years on North Brother Island, Mallon sued the health department. For nearly a year preceding the trial, Mallon also sent samples of her stool to a private lab where all her samples tested negative for typhoid. Feeling healthy and with her own lab results, Mallon believed she was being unfairly held.

This contention that I am a perpetual menace in the spread of typhoid germs is not true. My own doctors say I have no typhoid germs. I am an innocent human being. I have committed no crime and I am treated like an outcast — a criminal. It is unjust, outrageous, uncivilized. It seems incredible that in a Christian community a defenceless woman can be treated in this manner.”

The judge ruled in favour of the health officials and Mallon, now popularly known as “Typhoid Mary,” “was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York.”10 Mallon went back to the isolated cottage on North Brother Island with little hope of being released. In February of 1910, a new health commissioner decided that Mallon could go free as long as she agreed never to work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mallon accepted the conditions.

Five years later, the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered a typhoid fever outbreak. Twenty-five people became ill and two of them died. Soon, evidence pointed to a recently-hired cook, Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown was really Mary Mallon, using a pseudonym.

If the public had shown Mary Mallon some sympathy during her first period of confinement because she was an unwitting typhoid carrier, all of the sympathy disappeared after her recapture. This time, Typhoid Mary knew of her healthy carrier status – even it she didn’t believe it; thus she willingly and knowingly caused pain and death to her victims. Using a pseudonym made even more people feel that Mallon knew she was guilty. On this day in 1915, Mary Mallon was sent back to North Brother Island to live in the same isolated cottage that she had inhabited during her last confinement. For twenty-three more years, Mary Mallon remained imprisoned on the island.

So why is Mary Mallon so infamously remembered as “Typhoid Mary”? Why was she the only healthy carrier isolated for life? Mary was a foreigner without family; she worked as a menial domestic servant and had a violent temper, refusing to believe in the germ theory of disease. The press, in consort with health officials used Typhoid Mary to spread the word about germs and the germ theory of disease. She was an ideal victim of an awareness campaign to promote public hygiene.

During her life, Mary Mallon experienced extreme punishment for something in which she had no control and, for whatever reason, has gone down in history as the evasive and malicious “Typhoid Mary.”

In a century have our attitudes and approaches to foreigners, the poor and those carrying dread disease changed?

Doug Racionzer, author of the wonderful