Typhoid Mary: The Bringer of Disease and Death

Typhoid Mary: The Bringer of Disease and Death


Not many remember the name of Mary Mallon. If not for tragic circumstances, a strange
immunity, and her position at the center of an outbreak of disease, it’s likely that she
would have faded into obscurity as just another ordinary immigrant who gave up her homeland
for the promise of America in the mid-1880s. Mallon was just a teenager when she left Ireland
and headed west, landing in New York City in 1883 or 1884. She had connections there, at least, an aunt
and uncle she lived with until she found her feet. If that was all there was to the story, history
wouldn’t remember her. She would have been one of millions of Irish
who emigrated to the US in the 19th century, a time when an estimated 50 percent of the
country’s population picked up roots to try to make a better life elsewhere. But Mallon was carrying a deadly disease with
her, and marked her as Typhoid Mary. But there’s more to her story than just a
gory nickname, and remembering her as just as a carrier of disease doesn’t quite do her
credit. TITLE: What is typhoid fever, anyway? Since typhoid fever is one of those olde-timey
diseases that isn’t talked about much in the modern, industrialized world, this conversation
deserves a short foreword on what exactly the disease is. It’s caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi,
and most of the time, it’s passed from one person to the next through food or water that’s
been contaminated. In some cases, being in close contact with
someone that’s infected can spread the disease, too. Symptoms can take up to a week to develop,
and they’re generally unpleasant. The infected have to contend with a wide range
of disease markers, including fatigue, muscle aches, abdominal pains, swelling, and sweating,
ranging all the way up to fever and extreme gastrointestinal distress. Without treatment, the disease can progress
to delirium and the so-called typhoid state: laying there, too exhausted to move, eyes
half-open. It’s at that stage when other complications
can develop: some might start suffering from hallucinations and paranoid psychosis; others
might develop inflammation of the heart, pancreas, or brain. The most serious complication is intestinal
bleeding, which, in some cases, can lead to holes in the intestines. Typhoid is treatable today, but even modern
vaccinations aren’t 100 percent effective. The cause of typhoid was confirmed in 1880,
after years of attempts to document exactly how contained instances of disease can turn
into epidemics. Typhoid had about a 10 percent fatality rate
at the turn of the 20th century, and the first vaccine wasn’t developed until 1911. That’s five years after Mary Mallon was hired
to cook for a well-to-do New York banker named Charles Henry Warren and his family. TITLE: Typhoid Summer Not much is known about Mallon’s early life
in Ireland, or her first years in the US. She was born in County Tyrone — one of the
poorest areas of Northern Ireland — on September 23, 1869, and left her homeland for the US
when she was only 14 or 15 years old. There was nothing unusual about her; in fact,
she followed the normal route of settling in with family members who had made the crossing
before her, then finding work as a domestic servant. Things started to change in 1900, when one
of her employers discovered she was a talented cook. They put her to work in the kitchens, and
it was a move that changed her life, and the lives of those who employed her. Mallon worked for eight families in the years
between 1900 and 1907, and where she went, typhoid fever often followed. At the time, typhoid was an illness associated
with crowded and poor urban communities with nonexistent sanitation and little access to
fresh drinking water. Mallon, however, was working for some of the
most affluent families in the city, which were not exactly the sort of families that
tended not to suffer from afflictions like typhoid. Doctors did notice they were unusual victims,
but remained baffled by the outbreak of illness in homes where there seemed to be no logical
explanation for it. Mallon’s peers became sick at seven of the
eight jobs she held in those years. At least 22 individuals fell ill, and at least
one died. There’s nothing that indicates Mallon initially
had any idea the illnesses were connected to her in any way, and she continued to cook
for various families. Because she did move around a bit, and because
she never left a forwarding address, it took a while before anyone could connect the dots. In the summer of 1906, Mallon was hired to
be a summer cook for Charles Henry Warren and his family. They had rented a house on Long Island and
in August, one of his daughters took ill. It was, of course, Typhoid, and it wasn’t
long before her sister, mother, a gardener, and two maids were also sick. The owner of the house was George Thompson,
and he was understandably worried; no one would want to vacation there if it gained
a reputation as a place where an entire family could fall mysteriously ill. They were afraid the area water source was
contaminated, and knew they had to find out exactly what happened before they could rent
the property again. Thompson looked for and found a professional
to get to the bottom of things. He hired New York City Department of Health
sanitary engineer George Soper to find the source of infection, and he knew exactly what
to look for, as he had specialized in the study of typhoid outbreaks. At first, Soper thought the freshwater clams
that had been served to the family were a likely source, but not everyone who developed
typhoid had eaten them. Eventually, he honed in on Mallon as another
potential source for the disease. His theory was quickly confirmed. Mallon moved on from the Warren family and
showed up next as a cook in a home on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. That’s where Soper followed her, and when
he met her. TITLE: Confronting Typhoid Mary In order to confirm Mary Mallon was, indeed,
a carrier of typhoid, Soper knew he needed to have her bodily fluids tested for presence
of the bacteria. It’s hard to imagine just how awkward that
conversation had to be; when Soper introduced himself to her and asked her to provide samples,
well, he described the encounter like this: “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. It did not take Mary long to react to this
suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in
my direction. I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall,
through the tall, iron gate, and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.” Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy
to vilify Mallon. We know she was a carrier of Typhoid, but
she almost certainly did not. She had never developed the disease herself,
and she did, at one point, voluntarily subject herself to testing for the bacteria. The chemist who performed the tests — who
was a respected professional — declared she was free of any sign of disease. It’s suspected the tests were performed when
she was in a period of remission, which certainly didn’t make things any easier on either her
or Soper. Just imagine: a stranger appears out of nowhere
and accuses you of being responsible for spreading disease and sickness everywhere you’ve worked. You are, allegedly, responsible for deaths,
despite the fact that you feel fine and have never been sick. At one point, a doctor has even told you that
you’re fine. It’s no wonder that Mallon was less than willing
to submit to more tests, amid rumors that would put her entire livelihood on the line. There is another element at work here, too,
that may have attributed to Mallon’s violent outbursts when confronted. The late 1800s was a time when the Irish were
emigrating to the US in droves, fleeing oppression and starvation in their homeland. Some made the journey on so-called “coffin
ships,” packed with desperate immigrants and so filled with disease and death that an estimated
25 percent died before they completed their journey. Their bodies ended up at the bottom of the
Atlantic. Those that did reach America’s shores were
starving and destitute by the time they got there, and there were a lot of them. Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment was
strong, and while there were some groups who offered charity to the refuges, there were
more that whispered of a secret plot orchestrated by the Vatican to instill Catholicism in America
as the dominant religion. The Irish were condemned for supposedly taking
jobs from Americans and gallivanting as drunken criminals. Politicians who railed about the Irish nuisance
were preaching loudly from their pulpits to a public that was more than happy to listen. Homes and churches were burnt, and mob violence
took lives. It was only in the 1880s that some politicians
began to see the large numbers of Irish as valuable allies, but signs of “No Irish Need
Apply” were still fresh in everyone’s memory. For Mallon, it very well could have felt that
this was just one more way her new home was persecuting her for the accent she kept throughout
her entire life. Soper couldn’t give up, though, as he was
sure he was right. Still, Soper knew he was right and couldn’t
walk away. He discovered exactly what it was that Mallon
had served to get everyone sick: ice cream with fresh peaches. Heat may have destroyed the bacteria in other
foods, but the uncooked peaches and Mallon’s unwashed hands were the perfect way for disease
to spread. In 1906, there were 3,467 reported cases of
typhoid, and 639 of them were deadly. The actual number of cases was probably much
higher, and if Typhoid Mary was spreading it everywhere she went, it was only a matter
of time before the city had a potential outbreak on its hands. At the time, Soper was familiar with the idea
that people infected with disease could pass bacteria on to others through various bodily
fluids. But since Mallon wasn’t sick and never had
been, this was completely different from anything he’d seen before. By the time Soper caught up to her at her
new job in Manhattan, there were already instances of typhoid in the household she was cooking
for; one servant was infected, and the family’s only daughter was dying. So, he followed her to the boarding house
she was living in and confronted her again, with no more luck than the last time. After he was turned down for fluid donations
a second time, Soper requested help from the New York City Health Department. He gave them a warning: in this case, they
needed to be prepared to use force. The Health Department gave her one more chance
to peacefully agree to submit to testing, and sent Dr. S. Josephine Baker to see her. When she still refused to cooperate, they
sent the police. Mallon tried to flee, but was eventually found,
forced into an ambulance, and taken to the Willard Parker Hospital in what Dr. Baker
described as a “wild” ride, one where Dr. Baker was forced to sit on her the entire
way to help restrain her. She wrote, “…it was like being in a cage
with an angry lion,” and it was no wonder she struggled. Police had carried her into the ambulance
after a five-hour chase, and Mallon was convinced she had done nothing wrong. TITLE: Mary Mallon enters into medical history Once Mallon was transferred to the care of
a hospital, her bodily fluids were tested repeatedly — three times a week, from March
to November — for traces of the bacteria that causes typhoid. Most of the tests confirmed the Typhoid bacteria
was there, but there were still some tests that came back negative, which explains why
she might have had a clean test prior to Soper’s intervention. It wasn’t long before Soper found himself
sympathizing with Mallon. She hadn’t infected people on purpose, after
all, but she was still dangerous. And now, she was being held in a small, uncomfortable
hospital room, under lock and key, while she herself was of perfectly sound mind and body. He tried talking to her, getting her to cooperate,
even suggesting she could have her gallbladder removed, as it was a nonessential organ that
was probably the source of the infection. But she refused to talk to him. She stayed in custody for a full two years
before she sued for her release. Mallon argued in court that she had never
been sick, but the courts viewed the findings of the medical research far more compelling,
and refused to release her. That was, they said, largely because they
didn’t want to bear any responsibility, should anyone else get sick or die from contact with
her. It was another eleven months before Mallon
made a deal with the Health Department: she could go free as long as she checked in with
them every three months, and never cooked or handled food for others again. Mallon agreed, was released, and promptly
disappeared. Here’s where things get a little dicey. Mallon did spend some time working in other
professions, and she did get jobs in places like laundries, where she would have been
no danger. But she found it almost impossible to support
herself, and the temptation to return to cooking — which paid a lot more — was too high. So she went back in the kitchen, where she
continued to cook and continued to infect a lot of people. Soper was officially off the case, but he
continued to keep an eye on her. She popped up cooking under the pseudonyms
Mrs. Brown and Marie Breshof, finding work in a fancy hotel and a sanitorium, both in
New Jersey, along with a hotel in Southampton and a restaurant on Broadway. It’s impossible to tell just how many cases
Mallon caused, but there were a lot. It was during this period that the press had
officially christened her Typhoid Mary. But here’s the thing. There’s no real evidence that suggests Mallon
ever truly believed that she was the cause of all these instances of typhoid fever at
the time she was first arrested and diagnosed. She was the very first example of a completely
asymptomatic patient ever studied. If the medical community didn’t understand
the mechanics of what was going on, how was Mallon supposed to? It’s also suggested that there was another
massive oversight in Mallon’s case. When she was released, she was told not to
cook, and to take extra care when it came to hygiene. But she was never given any sort of specific
instruction on how to properly disinfect herself and keep the bacteria off her hands, and she
was never given any kind of retraining or direction on other ways she could support
herself. There was no welfare system or aid available. Mallon assumed authorities were simply trying
to label her a scapegoat for the outbreaks; she didn’t seem to think she was actually
doing any harm when she returned to cooking. TITLE: The Question of Confinement Mallon was initially released in 1910, and
it wasn’t until five years later that a man named Dr. Edward B. Cragin approached Soper. He was an obstetrician at the Sloane Hospital
for Women, a facility that had recently had more than 20 people fall ill to typhoid. He had a suspect and a sample of her handwriting,
and asked Soper if he could identify their cook. He could. It was Mallon. Soper advised him to reach out to the Health
Department, and he did. Mallon was arrested and sent to quarantine
on North Brother Island, an island in the East River that was home to a hospital and
quarantine facility built in 1885. It was home to patients suffering from illnesses
like tuberculosis, smallpox, yellow fever, and, of course, typhoid. Mallon would live among them until her death
in 1938. Instead of feeling relief, Soper painted a
heartbreaking picture of a woman who no longer fought against her own confinement. He wrote: “…she had been advertised to the world as
a dangerous person and had been treated worse than a criminal, and yet she had not been
guilty of the least violence toward anybody.” Mallon seemed resigned to her lot in life,
finally admitting to herself that there was a wave of typhoid that swept along behind
her wherever she went. She was not the same person when she was apprehended
the second time, and there was little left of what Soper described as her “almost pathological
anger.” She settled into her confinement willingly
enough, and they gave her a job in the laboratory, where she ran medical tests. They even gave her permission to visit the
mainland, where she regularly headed into the city. She always came back. If she seemed resigned to her later confinement,
it was a resignation she hadn’t felt in her younger years. Most of what we know of Mallon is through
the writings of Soper and other medical professionals, although there are a few of her letters that
have survived. In one, she describes being so distraught
over being arrested and confined to a hospital for the first time, that she developed an
eye twitch that led to the paralysis of one eye — a condition which went untreated. When she was given medication, she complained
that she didn’t need it: it was mainly used to treat kidney issues, and she didn’t suffer
from those. She wrote of doctors that told her she needed
to have her gallbladder removed, then admitted to her that the surgery might not make a difference. And she wrote: “I’m a little afraid of the
people… I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and
ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say, “There she
is, the kidnapped woman.” Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William Park would
like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.” It brings up an important question: did Mallon
deserve to be vilified to such an extreme extent? Should she have been advertised as cracking
skulls into a frying pan, as at least one illustration showed her doing? Or was she simply a victim of typhoid in her
own way, too? TITLE: Unraveling the Mystery of Contagion Mary Mallon was credited with directing spreading
typhoid to at least 50 people, and three of them died. She’s even been named as the Patient Zero
who likely started a typhoid outbreak in 1907, one that ultimately escalated to around 3,000
cases. Even though she’s the one most infamous when
it comes to healthy people who have had the potential to spread a deadly disease, she
was far from the only one. By the time she died, more than 400 others
had been identified in New York alone. In fact, somewhere between one and six percent
of those infected with the type of salmonella that causes typhoid become healthy carriers,
and it’s a huge problem the medical world hasn’t known too much about until recently. It wasn’t until 2013 that studies done by
Stanford University School of Medicine researcher Denise Monack yielded some insight into demonstrating
the mechanisms by which bacteria might infect a person without making them ill. Figuring out the mechanics of just how it
all works could lead to the development of a treatment that would block typhoid’s ability
to hitch a ride in a seemingly healthy host, just as it did to Mallon. Today, there are a lot like her out there. Typhoid impacts around 16 million people a
year across the globe, and even on the low end, that’s 160,000 people capable of spreading
infection just like Mallon did. Typhoid Mary died alone. Soper wrote about her death after he was fairly
certain he had tracked down her sister, though he could never conclusively prove their relation. On Christmas morning in 1932, she was discovered
on the floor of her cottage, paralyzed from a stroke. She was moved to the hospital, where she lived
until her death on November 11, 1938. Afterwards, there were advertisements taken
out in several newspapers for the span of a month, appealing for relatives to come forward
to claim the little money she left behind. No one ever did. Only nine people attended her funeral, and
no one followed her to witness her burial at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. There’s a bit of rumor surrounding her death
as well. An autopsy was said to have turned up a high
concentration of bacteria in her gallbladder. If she had agreed to the operation to remove
it, would she have been cured? It’s entirely possible, the rumor implies,
but it’s not that clear-cut a case of regret. Some researchers — including Soper — say
there never was an autopsy, and the tale is retold to help justify her imprisonment. Which is true? It’s impossible to say.

100 Replies to “Typhoid Mary: The Bringer of Disease and Death”

  1. Typhoid Mary was unclean in the kitchen. She refused to wash her hands. She believed hand washing was a waste of time. It was also rumored that she had a nasty habit of scratching her ass with her fingernails. That in unison with not washing hands. Who knows if Typhoid is the only thing she infected people with.

  2. Simon, you've got some great channels. You should put more into spreading the word. I just took a chance on "Biographics" because I watched a "Geographics" video a little earlier, and I am a big fan of "Today I Found Out". I can understand that the channels are descriptive of there content, but, honestly, Today I Found out About Tunguska on "Geographic". See that little word play, there?

    You're producing some really good stuff. Keep up the good work.

  3. This was a very good presentation. Mary Mallon was treated in a very cruel way by the society she lived in. The worst aspect of it is how the name of a disease was used by the media to rename her, effectively destroying her career. Medical staff objectified her, content that they had found the "guilty party" and failed to provide her with education on how to improve sanitation when she cooked. There was no program provided to prepare her for a replacement career either. At least she was allowed to run laboratory tests and go into town during her residence at the sanatorium. It was important to protect the public from the disease she carried, but it was totally unnecessary to objectify her and treat as if her humanity had been forfeited simply because she carried typhoid.

  4. I watch your channel ALL THE TIME and Simon had mentioned that only 10% of the viewers were women. I would love love more stories on historical women please and thank you!

  5. I have heard of her. I remember seeing something about her on PBS or something that was interesting. It’s hard to imagine what she was going through because she could have stopped cooking and been able to live a normal life. However, because of her socioeconomic status that was probably very difficult.

  6. You feel bad for her until she learned that she did have it.. All she had to do was look and she refused too.. That's when you lose sympathy…

  7. My great grandmother and great great grandmother died from typhoid in 1924. Grandpa would talk about his mother and get upset because of how badly she suffered when she passed away.

  8. You know if they had just provided her a nice little place to live in the country. With a country doctor & sheriff to watch over her. Plus a little stipend to spend on necessities and a bit more. She'd have probably just stayed there. But if not. Then she'd need to be locked up. Period.

  9. Yes .. This is about typhoid. But One can't miss the irony of similar anti-immigrant sentiment then replayed today + How it had an impact on medical care

  10. She has the mind of a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones. She latches on to partial truths and then doggedly sticks to them.

  11. Had a situation in Bangladesh… when the lady who was cooking for me asked me about her symptoms (I'm a healthcare professional). I had her take some blood tests and voila: Typhoid. Thank goodness I had been vaccinated and didn't develop the illness. She was much better a month later, but I had to dismiss her from cooking…

  12. Sounds like history repeating itself. Now it's the Mexicans and other immigrants on the receiving end of American xenophobia.

  13. I've always found this a very sad story. I think you have given us more of Mary as a real human being rather than just a scary person leaving death in her wake. Thank you for the vid.

  14. She was told that she was killing people and went back to cooking anyway. No sympathy for her from me. 🤷🏾‍♀️

  15. Can't help but feel bad for her, but I'm diagnosed as a carrier for chicken pox, so I kind of get it. To a very tiny degree.

  16. Typhoid fever scarlet fever smallpox tuberculosis, and more was given me my family by the US Army because we are Cherokee. Now every generation of us is a carrier for all of those. I learned this when I was in the US Army after a lot of testing and failed shots. The version we have has no cure. I also am a carrier of swine flu due to Accidental infection while in the army when I had walking pneumonia. I figure it's just Karma. The plus side is my kids are immune to all most every thing with out any shots, yet the people taking their shots are susceptible to my children and me. Welcome to the land that can belong to no man, for it is here for all or none. Isn't history fun.

  17. I immediately stopped feeling bad when they told her she was sick and that cooking would infect others and yet she continued to do so, which means she KNOWINGLY infected those people.

    Nowadays, we would call this manslaughter

  18. If everyone around you gets sick, you should really start asking questions. Willful ignorance is no excuse. In my opinion she is partly responsible for deaths. Especially after she had been told to stop cooking.

  19. I know most people didn’t understand diseases in those days. But if I went from house to house and each time, it’s the same disease killing the people she worked for, you’d think at some point she’d catch on herself!? Did she really think “wow what a coincidence!”

  20. Were gloves not created yet? Couldn’t she have worn something like gloves to help decrease the spread? I know it would’ve been horrible to cook with but if the doctors told her not to cook because she had typhoid on her hands would’ve it been helpful if she wore gloves and like a form of a mask to help decrease the spread? I know it wouldn’t really have helped but yeah.

  21. I'm just pairing up some catchy disease names now. Bubonic Plague Barbara. Smallpox Sarah. TB Todd. Hepatitis Harry. It's a fun game.

  22. There were not that many jobs that paid women well at the time. Cook wat the one thing that paid well. Not saying what she did was right but they didn't give her any other way to support her self after she left the hospital.

  23. I truly think Mary did not believe she had Typhoid whatsoever. She seemed so insistent that she did not have it, and the person who tested her before the health facility stepped in did not diagnose her, and she wanted to believe him because she was in denial of it.
    The fact she went back to cooking after being diagnosed is not a smart decision on her behalf, but she might not have been convinced that she had the disease. Medical professionals could not understand Mary’s case, so why would someone who has no medical education understand?
    I think she was a victim in denial, and the denial sunk into her head so she did not believe any evidence saying she had it.

  24. Not sure what creeps me out the most about videos like this…. the fact that a normal, healthy-looking person could spread death and disease so easily OR that all of them caught it by eating food mixed with feces. That's like finding out you got food poisoning from your favorite Taco Bell, but they were made with rat meat.

  25. Even if you don't understand microscopic germs you know what dirty hand look like… Who wants black finger nails? Even people 100+ years ago knew dirt under you nails equaled bad hygiene.

  26. Mary was a woman who was given a bad break in life. Despite her just wanting to make an honest living and live a quiet and simple life, her bad luck was so astronomical that she was forced into a life where she was constantly being shunned and vilified. I think her being quarantined was the best option. Though it is not her fault that she was a carrier of a dreadful disease, it was for the greater good.

  27. I have always felt sorry for Mary. She did nothing purposefully wrong that would get anyone else imprisoned. She had no understanding of her threat to others. Poor thing!

  28. Did she deserve to be vilified? Yes yes and yes. Now, if she had willingly gone and didn't fight then no, but, she knew she had typhoid and continued to cook for people. If she had stopped then she wouldn't have diserved the treatment. Just because someone is ignorant DOES NOT MEAN THEY'RE INNOCENT. If a mom didn't vaccinate her kid and the kid died of a totally preventable disease it was 100% the mother's fault for refusing the vaccination (unless of course, the kid had a compromised immune system that prevented the ability to get vaccines, I'm talking about anti-vaxers though) I hope she felt horrible because those people 100% died because of her. And she had to have known unless she was an idiot, I mean she even changed her name! She had to know something was up.

  29. This is the first time i have seen anything about her that took the time to try to see things from her perspective and not vilify her. I appreciate that.

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