Sunday, July 4, 2010
In the early 1900’s, America was suffering from a fatal disease called Salmonella Typhi, also known as typhoid fever. 3,000 to 4,500 New Yorkers alone were infected with typhoid fever, a painful and sometimes deadly virus. Living in fecal matter, urine, and blood, typhoid attacks the bloodstream rapidly, centering its attention on the entire body. Typhoid causes a continuous fever as high as 104 degrees, inflicting splitting headaches, weakness, loss of appetite, and spotty red rashes. In addition, patients also may be afflicted with severe stomach cramping. With rest and good care, a person can survive typhoid fever within several weeks. In patients with weak immune systems such as the elderly and small children, typhoid fever can quickly eliminate lives.
In the streets of New York in 1900, plumbing was not regarded as sufficiently sanitary as it is today. Hygiene was also still somewhat in its infancy. People knew to wash their hands before preparing a meal, but there was no “100% bacteria killing” soaps and hand sanitizers. Even if these soaps had been available to citizens, typhoid still might have found a way into rural as well as affluent homes. The reason for this is that there are carriers of the virus; people who can function well in society without becoming sick. Carriers often are people who have suffered from typhoid fever at an earlier time and “carry” the virus in their body. When confronted with a sick person, the carrier is incapable of catching the virus, but is able to spread it anywhere else.
The very first known healthy carrier of typhoid fever in America was a young heavily accented cook named Mary Mallon. Immigrating to New York from Cookstown, Ireland at age 15, Mary was forced into working as a domestic servant to support herself. She was regarded her many employers as friendly and well-mannered. As her talents were recognized, she quickly moved from maid to cook, which meant a much needed increase in wages for Mary. Because domestic help was not always a long lasting trade, Mary frequently changed jobs from 1900 to 1907. Before departing from seven of her jobs, she left behind fevered and ill employers distressed and crying out for help.
The first researched outbreak was in 1906 involving the Warren family of New York. Charles Warren decided to vacation with his family in Oyster Bay, Long Island, bringing with him his servants and his trustworthy and fine cook, Mary Mallon. The Warren family had an excellent time in Oyster Bay, but within days, six of the eleven people in the Warren household came down with typhoid fever. Mary left the Warren household 3 weeks after the outbreak. George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever, first suspected the cook as the first infected person. One of the common ways to spread typhoid is through water and food. Mary Mallon alone had worked with both.
Soper, in his search for Mary, finally tracked her down to the family of Walter Bowen, where she was again working as a cook. When he asked for blood, stool, and urine samples, Mary grabbed a carving fork and attempted to attack him. She did not understand why she was being bothered by a man demanding her most personal bodily “details.” She had not been told that research done on her would help benefit the findings and possible cure of typhoid fever. They also failed to tell her that she was in any way connected to the virus infecting all that she came into contact with. Deciding to try approaching her at home, Soper and his assistant Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler, tried again to get evidence from Mary. She became very violent and refused testing. Shouting and screaming at them, Soper and his assistant were forced to leave her home.
After going through Mary’s work records, Soper found that she was in fact a possible carrier of the typhoid fever virus. She had no signs of sickness while working with and caring for the ill, and it was suspected that she had never actually had the virus to begin with. Showing his research to Hermann Biggs at the New York City Health Department, Soper was able to have police presence and an ambulance go to Mary’s home. She stared out the window at the men she had come to deeply distrust, and vanished from the home. Found several hours later at a neighbor’s house, Mary was forcibly taken in an ambulance to a local hospital. Soper reportedly had to sit on her the whole time she was being transferred.
After being apprehended by health officials, Mary was taken to the Willard Parker Hospital in New York. Mary was tested for the typhoid virus and doctors found in her stool trace evidence of typhoid bacilli. Because she had committed no willful act of crime, police used sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter to hold her. These sections essentially mean that a person infected with a disease can be detained to offer protection to the public. Mary was then taken to North Brother Island, near New York, to live in isolation. She had one companion, a dog that could not be inflicted with the deadly virus.
After two years in seclusion, Mary sued the New York Health Department, and lost. In early February 1910, a new health commissioner heard Mary’s case and decided that she should go free under several conditions. She was not to work as a cook again and was told to go to extreme measures to wash her hands and be as hygienic as possible. Mary agreed, happy to be freed from the little cottage she shared with a dog and no one else. It was proposed that Mary have her gall bladder removed, the place where typhoid centrally resides. Mary refused the surgery, determined to continue working. Although it is said that she was educated and literate, Mary did not understand how she could be infecting others with typhoid when she herself had never been sick. The carrier theory had absolutely no bearing on her whatsoever.
Mary went back to work as a laundress sometime in 1915. Finding the wages not as competitive as she wished, she went back to her old job as a cook. Nobody knew that she was the Typhoid Mary written about in local newspapers, for she went by the alias Mrs. Brown, allowing her free reign to cook wherever she pleased. In January of 1925, the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan was crowded with another typhoid outbreak in which 25 people were sick and 2 died. Evidence pointed directly to a recently hired cook, Mrs. Brown, who was really Mary Mallon. The fact that Mary went back to work as a cook and used a false name made the public believe she was willingly causing harm to her employers.
Finding that nearly fifty people had become infected in Mary’s care and three had died, Mary was taken back to the same cottage on North Brother for 23 years. Though not much is known about Mary’s life in the cottage, she did help at the local hospital and spent her time visiting sick children. In 1932, Mary suffered a major stoke rendering her paralyzed. She was taken to the children’s ward and stayed there until her death in November 11, 1938.
It has been suggested, though not confirmed, that Mary’s mother was a sufferer of typhoid fever while pregnant with Mary. When Mary was born, she might have suffered from typhoid, leaving her immune system able to cope with the virus later in life. Others claim that Mary was briefly infected with typhoid as an adult and had recovered, allowing her to cater to the sick without becoming ill herself. The CDC even claims that sufferers of typhoid can lead normal lives, having virtually no symptoms and appearing seemingly well. Mary’s constant changes in her job might have been related to the virus. If she was indeed aware of the illness she was causing, she was freely committing murder. But work was hard to come by and hard to keep, so it is entirely possible that Mary was simply and smartly maintaining employment security by hoping from job to job.
Three percent of those with typhoid fever become carriers, making it somewhat likely Mary was a carrier. The fact that she never was ill while caring for her employers and never had any symptoms builds a strong case that Mary was a carrier. But knowing she was a carrier and continued work as a cook after being warned by health officials shows that Mary might have had some urge to kill. Her actions when George Soper attempted to speak with her showed a very violent and aggressive side to her personality. Lunging at him with a serving fork proves this point. At the same time, in order to keep a decent salary, Mary might have felt she did not have any choice but to remain as a cook even after she was told to stop. Another weaker and less substantial reasoning, Mary might have had a particular flare for cooking and enjoyed it so much, she would not take any other work.
The last explanation for Mary’s case was the fact that she was a devoted and dedicated caretaker for the ill. Even when isolated at the cottage in North Brother Island, she excellently watched over and visited the sick patients voluntarily at the local hospital. If it was an effort to show the public that she was a compassionate and helpful person, she surprised them with flying colors. If it was an effort to continue murdering, she failed, for no one on her ward became sick with typhoid fever.
Judith Leavitt, author of Typhoid Mary believes that the controversy involving Mary Mallon was unjust and had to do with prejudice against her. Not only was she Irish and a woman, but Mary was also without a family, had a vicious temper, and was a lowly domestic servant. People wanted to point a finger at someone for the death of their families and friends. That someone was Mary Mallon, who went to her grave believing she was not a carrier of typhoid fever.