Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon photo from Wikipedia.

Typhoid Mary is a generic term that describes someone who brings harm on others, with no concern for the consequences of their behavior. Believe it or not, she was very real and her life is as sadly perplexing as her legacy. Typhoid Mary is more than a legend or an adjective. She was a real carrier of typhoid.

Mary Mallon (1869-1938) emigrated from Ireland to America around 1884. To the rest of the world, she was just another person who had bills to pay. She appeared perfectly normal outwardly and showed no symptoms of any ailment.

She began work as a cook for affluent New Yorkers. Her first family became infected with typhoid after two weeks of employment. There were fatalities, but no one suspected Mary. When the remainder of the family returned to health, she went to work at the next home. Unfortunately, 7 out of the 8 household members became infected shortly after. She cared for the ill, but it only resulted in a further spread of the disease

Mary moved on to a third family in another part of the city. Another 6 out of 11 household members were hospitalized with typhoid within a few weeks. The disease seemed to follow her. She changed employers several times, but only succeeded in infecting 3 more households with typhoid.

The people who knew her were catching on. Mary refused to do anything about it. We can only guess today what her reasons were. Perhaps she believed that if she had the disease, she would have the symptoms. She eventually consented to a typhoid test. It was carried out by a noted chemist. Everyone was shocked when it returned negative because the people around her continued to become ill and she remained healthy.

Mary is one of the first documented disease carriers. She admitted her mother suffered from typhoid while pregnant, but little else. She became known for the intentional and willful denial of an obvious problem. As far as is recorded, 53 people were infected by Mary and 3 died from being around her. Many historians believe she actually infected well over 100 during her career. This is far from the claim that she killed thousands, as is stated in her urban legend.

The state quarantined Mary when she was 39 years of age because of her carrier status and she was held for 3 years. Authorities believed she could normally function in society. The only rule was choosing employment that had little to no interaction with others. Typhoid is transmitted through contaminated food or water, which meant Mary could no longer legally work as a cook.

Unfortunately, a laundress position paid even less than that of a cook. Mary was soon tempted to regain her pay grade. She changed her name to Mary Brown and returned to cooking. She infected another 25, 1 fatally, before it became clear who Mary Brown really was.

Mary was again quarantined, this time in the hospital on North Brother Island. This incarceration would be for the rest of her life. She died in this same place. Her own adamant refusal to work with the authorities led to her imprisonment, but today we question such drastic measures against her.

Mary was not alone as a carrier. As time passed, it became clear that there were several typhoid carriers. Published findings were enough to make the Board of Health shudder and give great pause considering their treatment of Mary Mallon. It was believed that 2 of every 5 people infected with typhoid would become lifelong carriers.

Here are a few well known carriers:

  •  Typhoid John- A guide who worked in the Adirondack Mountains. His numbers are believed to be 36 infected and 2 dead.
  •  Tony Lebella- This Italian immigrant was the culprit in more than 100 cases of infection and 5 fatalities.
  •  Alphonse Cotlis- This person could likely make Typhoid Mary’s reign seem pale. He not only worked with food, he was a restaurant and bakery owner. Cotlis’s court hearing in 1924 came from his refusal to comply with regulations

We wonder today why none of these carriers was dealt the same punishment, even when their fatality counts surpassed her own. The reason for this inequity remains unknown. Most were simply educated on the proper management of their situation and remained free. Perhaps Mary’s own obstinate nature caused her to be isolated for the rest of her life.




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