(WOMENSENEWS)–At the end of August 1906, in the very comfortable Long Island summer home rented by the family of New York banker Charles Henry Warren, a girl was sick with fever and cramps.
Warren’s daughter’s illness was quickly diagnosed as typhoid. Although germ theory was known, most people considered the source of typhoid fever to be the filthy conditions in which poor people lived. The disease was unusual in a rich, clean home. The Warren girl survived, but the rapid spread of the disease to six other people in the house raised alarm. Suspicion eventually fell on the cook.
Mary Mallon was among the thousands–many of them young single women–driven to America in the 1880s by the devastating famine in Ireland. She found work in domestic service, not only surviving on her own, but also becoming a well-paid cook for “good” families. The authorities came after her within months of the summerhouse events, having unearthed a trail of typhoid cases among her previous employers.
In March 1907, a robust, assertive Mary Mallon, in her late 30s, heartily resisted an investigator’s accusation that she had been making people sick and his demand for samples of her urine, blood and feces.
She was carted away to an isolated cottage on a hospital island in New York’s East River, where laboratory tests confirmed that she “carried” typhoid, although she was not sick herself. Mallon didn’t believe it. Nor did she go quietly.
Described as “walking like a man” and having “a masculine mind,” she fought back, eventually suing city officials for “kidnapping” her. Although she lost the lawsuit, she won release in 1910, promising not to handle food again.
But handle it she did, perhaps because she disbelieved that she was carrier or was desperate for work. Five years later, a typhoid outbreak at a Manhattan maternity hospital led to “Mrs. Brown,” the cook, who was Mary Mallon. That was the end of her. Although she had been proven the cause of just three deaths in total–and other male “carriers” had caused more–she would always be known as “Typhoid Mary.” After 23 more years of isolation, she died on the hospital island of a stroke in 1938.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.