Saturday, January 2, 2021

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A true Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

As I write I am at my parents dining room table with the window open behind me.  It is a balmy 68 degrees.  This Evenfall Tis Snowing, is playing. Aside from the obvious that it is not snowing here, the sound of acapella harmony goes perfectly with the calm here.

I wrote this post while staying with my parents in Florida.  It's so nice to watch the sunset over the water every evening.

Here's my dad at White Point, a beach on the other side of Choctaw Bay from Destin.  Not bad looking for an 84 year old, eh?

"Typhoid Mary" was the nomenclature yellow journalism, compliments of William Randolph Hearst and other contemporary newspapers, gave Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant.

She worked as a cook in several well to do families, earning a very good living. Then one summer the family she was currently working for had an outbreak of typhoid. This was in 1907.

The family and servants who came down with typhoid survived then enjoyed a natural immunity and that might have been the end of it, except the couple that leased the house to them wanted an investigation. Houses known to carry typhoid were often razed to the ground, and since no other renters had suffered before or after this particular family, it seemed more likely that an individual was responsible for the outbreak.

Thus arrives George Soper a health investigator. By this time, it was known that typhoid was caused by Salmonella Tyhpi (not to be confused with Salmonella: food poisoning caused by eating raw chicken or handling turtles). Salmonelle Typhi is a microorganism that is carried by individuals, often people who show no symptoms themselves. These people are called "healthy carriers".

After eliminating all other possibilities and following the trail of typhoid victims from one house to another he arrived at the common denominator: the cook. Who was the cook? Mary Mallon.

Mary Mallon was a healthy carrier and, being a volatile, belligerent person to boot, she was not persuaded nor cooperative with Soper when he arrived at the kitchen of her current employment. How could she be responsible for making people ill, when she wasn't ill herself?

All Soper asked for was a stool and urine sample, but she refused. And then she chased him down the street with a carving fork.

Eventually Mary was arrested and forced to give samples and then was quarantined on North Brother's Island between Queens and the Bronx, which was then used as a hospital.

The author then ponders the question: where does a private individual's rights end and where does the public welfare begin? A rather pertinent question today as well in view of all that's come down the pike in our present situation.

Are draconian measures sometimes warranted? It's rather hard to prove one way or the other and I'm not sure exactly where I stand. Here in Texas we have more freedom than other places. I wear a mask, going inside stores and work, but otherwise my life is unchanged. However the quarantine seems to have increased the number of bankruptcy and mental health issues with the suicide rate increasing. Where is the balance? I'm not sure.

It's easy to feel sorry for Mary Mallon because of the rather draconian way she was handled. It is also interesting to note that other typhoid carriers who were also responsible for deaths were not arrested, but allowed to be free as long as they promised not to work in the food business in any way. (Some kept their promise, some did not).

On the other hand, no one wanted to arrest her or force her to give samples. Her belligerent and combative nature probably encouraged officials to be less than easy on her. The newspapers did not help in that they made every effort to sensationalize her story, even exaggerating how many people were struck with typhoid at her hands.

Still, even though she was stuck on an island, she had her own house, food was provided, they even gave her a little dog. She also became close friends with many of the nursing staff.

After five years she was released on probation and a promise that she would not cook nor serve food professionally.

Being a single, middle aged woman, her only employment was as a cleaning lady, which earned only a fraction of what she earned as a cook.

Then Mary Mallon disappeared.

In 1915, an outbreak of typhoid struck a children's hospital. Soper and the New York City healthy officials investigated and discovered that a "Mary Brown" was working there as cook. It did not take long to uncover Mary Brown as Mary Mallon. Mary was taken to trial and sent back to North Brother's Island. After a total of twenty-six years in quarantine, she eventually died alone, but found consolation in her Catholic faith.

I thought the author, Susan Campbell Bartoletti covered her topic well and was fairly objective, other than blaming Mary's attitude on a lack of faith in science. "If she only believed in science..." was a mantra repeated often.

At one point Bartoletti exclaims, "the THEORY of transmitting typhoid through healthy carriers PROVED..."

I capitalized the subject and verb of the above sentence for emphasis.

Excuse me, but a theory does not prove anything. It proposes something. If something is proven, it is no longer a theory, it becomes a fact or a law of nature.

It seems to me that Bartoletti's own understanding of science is not as grounded as it should be. Maybe she should be more scientific in looking critically at theories until they do become facts.

Not to start anything, but that is why it is still the Theory of Evolution, not the Law of Evolution.

Things don't become facts just because we want them to.

That quibble aside, I'm glad to finally know the story about a woman who has gone down in history, perhaps justifiably so, indeed tragically so, as infamous.

White Point, Florida on New Year's Eve.  There are worse ways to spend the last day of 2020.

Prayers for you all that 2021 end this pandemic and that you all enjoy good health and love with your families.


Carol said...

You're Dad looks great, Sharon! I've wanted to read about Typhoid Mary so I might see if the book is available here. So she carried the disease permanently?? The personal freedom thing is a hard one. We've just been told that we have to wear masks in enclosed areas but you can still go to a restaurant and take off your mask to eat.
I've been reading Long Walk to freedom by Nelson Mandela and the many ways the Apartheid regime restricted people's freedom. It's quite frightening that a government could have that sort of power over groups of people they considered racially inferior.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I had more or less just heard the name Typhoid Mary. I knew nothing of her real life circumstances. The story sounds so Interesting.

I agree that there ate serious considerations as to how much authority a government should exert in times of public health crises. Too bad in our present crises the rhetoric and debate from both sides has been so bad.

Your dad looks great.

Happy 2021!

R.T. said...

Such a thorough, well written review .... bravo .... we live in perilous times, and many people are looking for Mary to scapegoat .... well, the human race has survived thus far, so COVID-19 ought not destroy us .... the suicidal government, on the other hand, might destroy us all ....

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

WOW! Interestingly, this is very close to home. That is, there is a bill right now in NY that would give power to the unelected health officer to remove individuals or groups deemed contagious and detain them in "medical facilities" for quarantine, treatment, or vaccination. It is AB416 (Perry)

In California, our legislators made this LAW in 2019, after eliminating all exemptions from vaccinations. So again, the health officer may remove you, your children, etc. at their discretion, if they have reason to believe you are infections (of any disease) and detain you for as long as necessary, until they have treated you, vaccinated you, and proclaim you safe. No talk of an island, but you will need to get your own lawyer to get your freedom back.

So sad.

And the irony...none of this is based on SCIENCE, or reason, or commonsense, or truth.

Sandi said...

This makes me wonder if typhoid spreads like this today. I had to get a vaccination before travelling to ... I think it was Morocco. This was in the 1990's. I thought it came from mosquitos.

mudpuddle said...

your father looks like he's done a lot of work in his life... i respect that a lot... i've heard of this sort of thing but haven't researched it at all... the governments role probably varies with the country but ideally limiting death should be a priority i would think... at least in sane countries...

i hope and trust you and yours will have a great 2021!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol,

It certainly is a quandary. On the one hand I understand trying to prevent another Spanish Flu. On the other hand, I think there are some government leaders, like in California and Michigan that have taken advantage of the situation to flex their dreams of wanting to be a dictator.

Also, is the risk of this particular flu more deadly than the mental healthy risk it has incurred on our society?

Thanks for the compliment. I hope I look half as good as my dad when and if I reach that age.

Happy 2021!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian!

It is certainly hard to know where to place our trust. I've heard terrible things all over.

Hope you're healthy and safe in 2021!

Sharon Wilfong said...


I understand your concern. We think, "Oh, that'll never happen in the US." But when one reads the history of other countries that took authoritarian governments for the "good of the majority", we see horrible death and suffering.

However, those countries already had a history of oppression by the hands of their leaders. Will we and Europe be the first free countries to throw down our freedoms for the sake of an unproven ideology (state run societies)?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Ruth!

I know what you mean. On the one hand, yes, it'd be great to quarantine the flu right out of existence. On the other hand, it seems human nature turns some people so easily into despots.

California sounds like it has gone off the deep end.

Remember, there's always room for you all here in Texas.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi mudpuddle

I have the greatest respect for my dad. I should write a story about him. He grew up dirt poor and joined the Air Force; paid for both he and my mother's college education and always made it clear to my sisters and me that we were not only getting college educations, but at least getting Master's Educations.

We all did!

I hope that you and your family are doing very well and prayers for an end to the insanity and illness!

Debbie Nolan said...

Sharon wow what a story. So appropriate for where we are in the midst of today. Yes your dad does look good for eighty four. Yes not a bad place to spend the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. Hugs!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Debbie!

My sister and I saw the sunrise together too after my mom passed. It hit me how we celebrate Christ's birth during the dead of winter and his death occurred during the spring when the world's life is being born. Nature reveals a spiritual truth.