Created | Updated Aug 5, 2007
This is the story, sad but true, of a simple Irish gal detained without trial, not once but twice. Poor Mary was not a victim of the British justice system, but of the American system. Of course, such a thing could never happen today.
Just Plain Mary Mallon
Mary Mallon was born on 23 September, 1869 in Cookstown, in County Tyrone, Ireland1. At the tender age of 15, she took the boat, with friends, to find a better life in the US. At that time, the US was seen as the land of plenty or, at the very least, the land of plenty of opportunities. Like many other immigrants, she took a job in domestic service upon her arrival in New York.
Mary was feisty, but not at all work-shy. She showed great ability in the kitchens of those she served, and soon she was finding gainful employment as a cook for the wealthy city-dwellers. Being a cook was a very respectable job, and as such she was paid more for her services than the other domestic employees. Mary did well in her chosen profession and maintained regular employment.
There's Something About Mary
Mary was employed in the summer of 1906 by banker George Warren and his family. They were summering on Long Island, and Mary came highly recommended. In late August, one of George's daughters became ill with typhoid fever. Soon the family members were dropping like flies. Next Mrs Warren fell ill, then two maids, followed by the gardener, and finally another daughter. In total, six of the 11 household members had contracted typhoid fever.
Since typhoid was most commonly carried through water or food, the owners of the summer house were concerned that its letting potential had been irreparably damaged. They did what any landlord would do and called for an investigation. Initially, the investigator found nothing of note, but unable to let the matter rest the Thompsons contacted a civil engineer, George Soper, who had some experience of typhoid outbreaks.
George Soper was to become Mary Mallon's nemesis. George took a good long look at her employment history and came up with the statistics that made Mary Mallon the number one suspect in relation to the Warren's unfortunate outbreak. George discovered that in the seven jobs she had held since 1900, 22 people had become ill with typhoid and, indeed, one young girl had lost her life to it.
The body of evidence was piling up against Mary, but in order to confirm she was the cause of the outbreaks George needed stool and blood samples from her. To this end, he tracked her down to her position in the kitchen of the Bowen household. It has to be said that George lacked certain social skills, and his approach to Mary would seem rather cack-handed today. George, rather foolishly, just walked up to Mary who was working in the kitchen, stated his suspicions that she was behind the typhoid outbreaks, and asked if he could take the necessary samples to prove this.
Mary was shocked to say the least – she'd never been sick in her life. Not in the least bit timid, she did what came naturally and lifted the nearest sharp object. With a carving fork, she advanced on the retreating George. Having recognised that discretion may well be the better part of valour, George made good his escape and took time to reconsider his approach.
George regained his composure, took stock of the situation and returned, this time in the company of the local constabulary. The pair were met by a totally enraged and out of control Mary. They beat a hasty retreat faced with the hissing, spitting, expletive-screeching Mary and again they considered their options.
George realised at this juncture that he had bitten off slightly more than he could chew. Since he had burned his bridges in his initial visits, and had the wit to realise that Mary would never co-operate with him, he handed his research over to the authorities at the New York City Health Department. Here, Hermann Biggs agreed with George Soper's findings, and despatched a Dr Josephine Baker to attempt to negotiate with Mary Mallon, who was now officially the first identified healthy carrier of the disease.
Mary by this stage was extremely wary of the authorities, and gave Dr Baker short shrift. Indeed, the carving fork came into use yet again. The good doctor, however, was not so easily dissuaded from her mission. She later returned with reinforcements: five police officers and an ambulance.
Mary was nowhere to be found. Following a search of the house, the group began tracking her across the garden and through a neighbouring property. Some five hours later, the group spotted a fragment of Mary's dress peeping from a closet in the neighbouring house, and the quarry was trapped. Mary, as expected, came out fighting, hissing and swearing like a trooper. Despite Dr Baker's best efforts to soothe and cajole her into parting with her samples peaceably, Mary was having none of it. Thus, a most persecuted and aggrieved Mary was manhandled into the ambulance and sat upon by Dr Baker on the journey to Willard Parker Hospital.
Mary, with no further options, provided the necessary samples that returned the result that she was indeed carrying the typhoid bacilli in her stools, and therefore her gut. She was despatched without further ado to Brother Island on the East River, effectively imprisoned, albeit in a hospital, against her will and without trial.
Mary, as can be seen, was not one to quietly go away and contemplate her fate. She was healthy, had never been ill, and therefore felt she was being unjustly persecuted by the authorities. In a nutshell, she couldn't understand how someone as healthy as she was could be a carrier of such a deadly disease. She began a campaign for her release and after gaining some support sued the US Government in 1909.
During her internment, Mary had provided weekly stool samples for the hospital and for the year prior to the trial she had also provided samples for her own defence, which were analysed at a private laboratory. The samples provided for the hospital showed the bacteria intermittently in her faeces; those samples provided for her own private tests, however, never showed the bacteria present.
Mary lost her case in the courts, and she was returned to Brother Island, remanded in the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York. There she languished, until the following year when a new Health Commissioner was appointed. The new man felt that Mary could be released provided that she signed an affidavit to the effect that she would no longer work as a cook. This was too good an opportunity for Mary to miss. She had been held for some three years with only a dog for company, so she gladly completed the paperwork and hopped on the boat back to New York.
Mary quickly returned to work in New York households, but losing her status as cook was a heavy blow, and not just to her pocket. Her pride was bruised having to do menial jobs when she was, quite obviously, a fit and healthy specimen. Having promised to report to the health authorities every 90 days, Mary felt put upon, so took the next logical step for her own peace of mind: she disappeared.
For five years, Mary worked as a cook at various venues around the City and became known as Mrs Brown. Unfortunately for her, this brought her right back to the authorities in 1915. She had been working in the kitchen of a maternity hospital, of all places. Her stint there cost the health of 25 nurses and patients, and resulted in the deaths of two.
Public sympathy for Typhoid Mary was quick to wane when it became apparent that she wilfully ignored the health authorities and purposefully endangered life. She was returned to her cottage on Brother Island where she was to spend the next 23 years of her life.
It is unclear if Mary would have behaved differently if the status of a healthy carrier had been explained more fully to her. She was an obstinate woman, but maybe if she had known that not all typhus sufferers were badly affected she might have recalled a flu-like illness in her past. She was never really given the opportunity and to the end she maintained her innocence.
What is clear, however, is that she was just one of some 200 healthy carriers working in and around the kitchens of New York at that time. Mary was, however, the only one to be interned for life. There are reports of other carriers being traced and re-trained for other more suitable work, but Mary was never afforded this service.
Whether Mary acted maliciously or not is still debatable, but she didn't just dream her days away on Brother Island. She helped around the hospital and was given the title 'nurse' in 1922. Later, she became a 'lab technician' and generally worked well for the site until her health deteriorated in 1932. Following a stroke, she was moved to the Children's Hospital on the island and remained there until her death in 1938. She was buried, following a Mass at St Luke's Catholic Church, at St Raymond's Cemetery, the Bronx.
Mary was responsible for 53 cases of typhoid fever, and three deaths: Tony Labella, another healthy carrier, was responsible for 122 cases and five deaths. Tony was never incarcerated, but re-trained that prompts the question: what was the big deal with Mary?