Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: Mary, Mary

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Unfortunately, it was what they didn’t know about Mallon that mattered most: she was a carrier of typhoid bacilli.
Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, Ireland and migrated to New York City when she was fourteen years old. Like so many Irish immigrant women, she took work as a cook in the homes of wealthy Americans. Somewhere along the line, she became one of those rare people who carried the bacilli that caused typhoid fever (salmonella typhi) but was herself immune to it.
Mallon’s trouble began three weeks after starting work for the Warrens when six people were stricken with typhoid fever. Everyone recovered, but the owner of the house feared he might not be able to rent it again if he didn’t discover the source of the outbreak. So he hired George Soper, a sanitation engineer and natural-born detective to investigate.
When Soper found nothing wrong with the water system, he honed in on the new cook hired just weeks before the outbreak. But by then Mary Mallon had disappeared.
For the next six months Soper searched for the elusive cook. He also researched recent outbreaks of typhoid and discovered that seven families that had employed Mallon had suffered outbreaks soon after she was hired. Finally, he located her at a posh Park Avenue home where an outbreak of typhoid had just been reported. A woman doctor for the Department of Health was sent to obtain a blood sample, but Mallon slammed the door in her face. The following day the doctor returned with a police officer. Again Mallon tried to slam the door but the officer forced his way in. After a lengthy search, Mallon was found hiding in a closet next door. When she refused to let the doctor get a blood sample, she was transported to a hospital.
Soper’s subsequent tests indicated that Mallon was, “a living culture.”
She was kept at the hospital for the next three years while doctors tried every known remedy to rid her body of the typhoid. By then she was infamous. The press dubbed her “Typhoid Mary” and little children ran about the streets shouting “Mary, Mary, what do you carry.”
Mary Mallon, an anonymous Irish woman, had suddenly become a vivid symbol of the growing national fear of immigrants as subversive and dangerous.
She finally convinced officials to release her on the condition that she never again work as a cook and that she check in regularly with Board of Health officials. Instead she disappeared to ply the only trade she knew under varied assumed names. Five years later, in February 1915, she was arrested while working at a maternity hospital where typhoid fever had just broken out. This time public health officials sent her back to the North Brother Island hospital for good. Embittered and lonely, Mary Mallon would spend the next 23 years living as a “special guest” in a small cottage on the island. To the end she refused to believe that she was a carrier or that she had infected anyone.
In all Mallon infected at least 51 people (three of whom died), and possibly as many as 1,400. She was not the only carrier discovered, nor was she necessarily the worst. But she was, without a doubt, the most infamous.
Sources: Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1997). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

Hibernian History Week
August 3, 1916: Convicted of treason for his role in plotting the Easter Rising, Roger Casement is hanged.
August 5, 1899: Henry Sullivan becomes the first American to swim the English Channel.
August 6, 1855: A Know-Nothing riot in Louisville, KY leaves 25 Irish dead and several churches burned.

Hibernians Birthdays
August 3, 1823: Irish revolutionary, Union Army general, and Governor of the Montana Territory, Thomas Francis Meagher, is born in Waterford.
August 6, 1775: Irish patriot and MP, Daniel O’Connell, is born near Cahersiveen, County Kerry.
August 7, 1890: Radical labor leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, is born in Concord, NH.

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