At face value, Mary Mallon seemed like an unassuming and hard-working Irish immigrant.
She came to New York City as a teenager in the 1880s and worked her way up to a cook for wealthy families. In August of 1906, everything went to hell and her life would never be the same.
She spent the summer working for the Warren family while they vacationed in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Shortly after she left, three family members, two maids, and a gardener all came down with typhoid fever. The owner of the property hired George Soper, a sanitation engineer, to find the root cause. Soper hypothesized that it was Mallon, after learning that all of the families she had worked for had had outbreaks at some point. He asked to test her stool and urine but she refused, as she felt perfectly healthy (asymptomatic carriers were unheard of at the time). Soper continued to plead with her, even offering to pay her royalties from a book he wanted to write about her. Mallon just wanted to be left alone and told him that she had been tested privately and the results were normal.
Soper was undettered and had the health department and police force intervene. They tested her stool and found typhoid bacteria. She managed to flee for a brief period but was apprehended in 1907 and sent to the ominous North Brother Island, a quarantine base off the coast of the Bronx. She was held there in isolation for three years, eventually being paroled in 1910 with the stipulation that she would no longer work as a cook. Mallon just gave them lip service, as she still refused to believe that anything was wrong with her.
She worked as a maid for a time, but as the pay was not lucrative, she felt obligated to return to cooking. In 1915, 25 people at the Sloane Hospital for Women came down with the disease. The health department found her working there under the alias ‘Mary Brown’ and immediately sent her back to her island prison. There was no chance of her ever being freed again and on November 11, 1938, she succumbed to pneumonia, dying on the floor alone in her room.
Mary Mallon felt that she was persecuted simply for being an immigrant, a claim that was not unfounded. At the time, the stereotype of the immigrant being a harbinger of disease was widely believed, especially with the squalid conditions of the city’s tenements. Nowadays, she has become a source of contention in the battle to preserve public health: how can the government protect citizens’ well-being while retaining the rights of individuals?
Mary (in the foreground) at North Brother Island’s Riverside Hospital in 1907
PAY YOUR RESPECTS
NORTH BROTHER ISLAND
'Typhoid' Mary Mallon, was incarcerated on North Brother for over twenty years until she died in 1938.
TYPHOID MARY'S TOMBSTONE, ST. RAYMOND'S CEMETERY
Mary Mallon's final resting place: her headstone is inscribed with the words “Jesus Mercy.”
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