Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Woman Who Carried Death

New York. In the summer of 1906, the Warren family decided to go on a vacation. As a banker, Charles Henry Warren was a wealthy man and spared no expense for his family, renting a summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, from Warren's good friend, George Townsend, the U.S. representative from New York. Oyster Bay is and was a historical town, first occupied in 1650 by new settlers, but originally occupied by Matinecock Indians over a thousand years ago. Many pivotal moments in the history of the colonies and the United States occurred in this town.

Mary Mallon, 1910
Source: Wikipedia
As they were planning on staying all summer, the Warren family also hired a cook: an immigrant from Cookstown, Ireland named Mary Mallon.

With eleven people living in the house, Mallon worked tirelessly and cooked for everyone. Then things began to take a strange turn. Between August 27 and September 3, six of the people living in the house came down with typhoid fever, even though the disease was not prevalent in Oyster Bay. Typhoid fever is caused by the Salmonella bacteria. It lives inside a carrier, is deposited in food or water by the carrier, and is then spread like wildfire. Washing hands before handling food, washing utensils with soap, and eating fully cooked foods helps to control the disease. It wasn’t discovered until 1880 and before 1940, one in ten victims died of the disease. By the 1920s, there were 35,000 known cases of typhoid fever in the United States. It was a feared disease, as it could be spread by simply touching something that had the disease on it, such as fruit. Those infected suffered from fevers as high as 105 degrees, massive headaches, numbing nausea, coughs, hoarseness, inflamed skin, and rashes. 

George Townsend feared for the future of renting the home and contacted George Soper, a sanitation engineer (and later managing director of the American Cancer Society) to come and investigate. As an expert in typhoid fever, he knew the disease spread through food and water contact. He suspected cook Mary Mallon, but she had departed the home soon after the outbreak.

Soper discovered that typhoid outbreaks followed Mallon wherever she went. From 1900 to 1907, 22 people became infected, all connected to the seven jobs Mallon had held during this time. In 1900 she started work as a cook in Mamaroneck, New York. Within 14 days of her starting there, residents began to come down with the disease. She moved on to work for a family in Manhattan in 1901, but members of that family began to come down with typhoid symptoms. It got so bad that even the laundress died.  Her next job was with a lawyer, until all but one member of his household developed the disease. This pattern followed her wherever she went: hired, worked, cooked, death.

Soper eventually found Mallon and approached her about spreading typhoid. She went crazy. Refusing to give urine and stool samples, fighting, screaming, yelling that she wasn’t sick. But what Mallon didn’t know, was that she was a carrier. In fact, she was the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever: she had the disease, was not infected by it, but spread it around like the air she exhaled from her lungs. After the confrontation, she disappeared.

Soper found Mallon again in March of 1907, working for another family. He tried to get her to provide stool samples. She refused and attacked him with a knife. Then, the New York State Health Department attempted to apprehend her with the aid of five police officers. Again, Mallon attacked and managed to get away. She was caught a short time later, hiding in a closet.

Once in custody, Mallon was sent to Willard Parker Hospital in New York. Tests revealed that her gallbladder was crawling with typhoid salmonella. She was sent to an isolated cottage, which was part of Riverside Hospital, on North Brother Island, near the Bronx. After two years of isolation, she sued for her freedom and lost. It wasn't until 1910 that she was released, on the promise to never work as a cook again. Mallon agreed to the stipulation, as well as agreeing to follow other hygienic procedures to protect others from the disease she carried and left the island. To protect her identity, she was given the name Mary Brown and given a new job as a laundress.

For five years, the woman known around the world as Typhoid Mary, disappeared. 

Then, in 1915, a new typhoid epidemic rushed through New York's Sloane Hospital for Women, infecting twenty-five people. Authorities investigated and found that one of the cook staff was an Irish woman named Mary Brown, and she was now missing. Mallon/Brown was found a short time later on Long Island. She was instantly sent back to the cottage on North Brother Island.

She stayed isolated on the island for the next 23 years. Eventually she suffered a stroke and died in 1938 at the age of 69.

The exact number of people she infected, and the resulting deaths associated with those infections, is still up for debate.

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