Life without parole: the strange case of Typhoid Mary

The way George Soper told it, it might have been a case for Sherlock Holmes. “The typhoid epidemic that broke out in the Summer home of Mr George Thompson at Oyster Bay was a puzzling affair,” he told the New York Times. It was 1906 and typhoid was rampant in the city; nearly 700 died that year alone. The house had been rented by a wealthy banker and his family. Among four family members and seven servants in the household, six had fallen ill. Soper, a sanitary engineer, was hired to track down the source of the outbreak; he zeroed in on the household’s cook. She must carry the infection, he deduced, without suffering from it – a novel concept in epidemiology at that point.

The cook in question was an Irish woman named Mary Mallon, who had come to the US as a teenager in the 1880s. Soper confronted her at her next job, in the kitchen of a brownstone on Park Avenue, and asked for samples of her urine, feces and blood. Mallon, indignant, threw him out. He traced her to her lodgings, “a rooming house on Third Avenue… where she was spending the evenings with a disreputable-looking man [whose] headquarters during the day was in a saloon… I should not care to see another [room] like it. It was a place of dirt and disorder… not improved by the presence of a very large dog.” Again, Mallon refused.

Soper turned to the authorities in the form of city health official, Sara Josephine Baker. Baker’s first attempt to get Mary to comply, in March 1907, fared no better than Soper’s. “Obviously here was another case of that blind, panicky distrust of doctors and all their works which crops up so often among the uneducated,” Baker later wrote.

But she came back that evening, with three policeman and an ambulance. Mary lunged at her with a kitchen fork and then fled into the night. Some hours later they found her, hiding behind some ashcans. “She came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigour,” Baker said. “She was convinced the law was wantonly persecuting her… The policeman 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.”

Tests confirmed Soper’s groundbreaking hypothesis. “Nothing of the kind had been done in America,” he later proudly recalled. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that Mary’s resistance was entirely reasonable for precisely that reason. But what to do with her, now she had been identified? The doctors wanted to remove her gallbladder; Mary refused. They tried various medicines, none of which worked.

By now she was famous. The source of her nickname is uncertain, but it stuck. “I have been in fact a peep show for everybody,” Mary complained to her lawyer. “Even the interns had to come to see me to ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world.” She was confined to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island in the East River. The authorities called it quarantine. Fellow patients used a different term. “‘There she is, the kidnapped woman,” they said of her.

Mallon sued for her release in the summer of 1909. Even Soper saw she had a case. “She had been advertised to the world as a dangerous person and had been treated worse than a criminal,” he wrote, “and yet she had not been guilty of the least violence toward anybody.”

The court didn’t want to take the responsibility of releasing her, but the following year the health department agreed to release her as long as she promised not to earn her living cooking. Mallon stuck to the agreement for a while, but then went to ground. It turned out she was working as a cook under a false name. In 1915, there was an outbreak of typhoid in a maternity hospital. “I went up there one day and walked into the kitchen,” Baker recalled. “Sure enough there was Mary… spreading typhoid germs among mothers and babies and doctors and nurses like a destroying angel.”

There would be no second chance for Mary now. “I’m afraid that liberty is an impossible privilege to allow her,” Soper said. The medical authorities agreed.

Mary Mallon died on 11 November 1938. By then, there were some 400 known healthy carriers of typhus in New York. Mary remained the only one to lose her freedom. Likely responsible for 57 cases of typhoid and three deaths, she had been detained for 26 of her 69 years.

This piece first appeared in the September 2021 issue of History Today.

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