typhoid blog 1.jpg

The year 1906 marked a turning point in American medicine. It was the year when the new science of bacteriology gained public attention when it was used in the investigation of a typhoid outbreak in New York City. The outbreak was a mysterious one to the doctors of the time because it led the authorities to a healthy woman who was unknowingly spreading the disease. As these same authorities struggled to convince her that she was infecting the people she worked for, they eventually quarantined her for 26 years, starting on March 27, 1915.

The story of “Typhoid Mary” has had a lingering effect on American history. Her name alone has become a metaphor for fear of contamination from contagious disease and her plight now symbolizes the need to balance the civil liberties of disease-carrying individuals when the population at large is at risk. Her story has had other lingering effects as well, namely on the place of her confinement, a now-abandoned hospital on New York’s North Brother Island. Is one of the ghosts that still walks the hallways of the hospital that of Typhoid Mary? Perhaps, for hers was a strange history…

The tale of Typhoid Mary began in the summer of 1906, when New York banker Charles Henry Warren rented a summer home for his family in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The house was rented from George Thompson and a large staff was hired, including an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon, who was employed as a cook.

On August 27, one of the Warren’s daughters became ill with typhoid fever. Soon after, Mrs. Warren and two maids also became stricken with the same symptoms of high fever, diarrhea, vomiting, chills and a rash. Days later, another daughter became sick, as did the Warrens’ gardener. In all, six of the 11 people in the household came down with typhoid.

Mary Mallon, who became known as “Typhoid Mary”

Mary Mallon, who became known as “Typhoid Mary”

Since the most common way that typhoid was spread was through food and water sources, the owners of the house feared that they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The Thompsons first hired investigators to look into the situation, but they were unsuccessful in finding the cause. Then, they hired George Soper, a civil engineer who had experience with typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed that the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause of the sickness. Mallon left the Warrens about three weeks after the outbreak and went to work for another wealthy family. Soper began researching her employment history, looking for clues.

Mary Mallon had been born on September 23, 1869 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland. According to what she told friends, Mary came to America at the age of 15. Like many Irish immigrant women, she found work as a domestic servant. She became a cook, which paid better than most domestic service positions.

Soper traced Mary’s employment history back to 1900 and found that typhoid outbreaks had followed her from job to job. From 1900 to 1907, Soper found that Mary had worked at seven jobs in which 22 people had become ill, including one young girl who died from typhoid shortly after Mary came to work for her family.

Soper was convinced that this was not a coincidence, and yet he needed stool and blood samples from Mary to prove that she was a carrier. The idea that someone could be healthy and still carry a disease – and spread it to others – was a concept that had been announced by Robert Koch but had not yet been proven in any individual. Mary, Soper knew, might be the first such person discovered by science.

In March 1907, Soper found Mary working as a cook in the home of Walter Bowen and his family. Soper needed samples from Mary and he confronted her at her place of work. She was shocked, as anyone would have been. As far as she knew, she was quite healthy and now she was being approached by a stranger who not only told her that she was spreading some sort of disease that was killing people, but wanted her to give him samples of her blood and her feces. Mary not only refused, she became quite angry.

Soper later wrote:

I had my first talk with Mary in the kitchen of this house. . . . I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood. It did not take Mary long to react to this suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction. I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall, through the tall iron gate . . . and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.

But Soper was relentless in his pursuit. He followed Mary to her home and tried to approach her again. This time, he brought an assistant, Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler, for support. Again, Mary was enraged and made it clear that they were unwelcome. She cursed at them as they made a quick retreat. Soper, now realizing that it was going to take more persuasiveness than he was able to offer, handed his research and theories over to Hermann Biggs at the New York City Health Department. Biggs agreed with Soper’s theories and sent Dr. S. Josephine Baker to talk to Mary.

After Soper’s clumsy attempts to obtain blood and stool samples from her, Mary was now extremely suspicious of doctors and health officials. She refused to listen to Baker and sent her away. Baker returned a short time later, this time with five police officers and an ambulance. When they arrived at the house, Mary met them at the door with a long kitchen fork in her hand (likely the same one she had chased away Soper with) and lunged at Dr. Baker with it. As Baker stepped back, colliding with police officers behind her and knocking them down the steps, Mary slammed the door shut and made a run for it. By the time they got the door open and followed in pursuit, Mary had disappeared. Baker and the policemen searched the house but found nothing. Eventually, footprints were discovered leading from the house to a chair placed next to a fence. Mary had apparently escaped into a neighbor’s yard – or so they thought at first.

They searched both properties for the next five hours until, finally, they found what Dr. Baker later described as “a tiny scrap of blue calico caught in the door of the areaway closet under the high outside stairway leading to the front door.”

Mary was dragged from the closet “fighting and swearing” and even though Dr. Baker spoke to her calmly about the specimens that she needed, Mary refused to listen. Dr. Baker wrote, “By that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her, when she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had never had typhoid fever; she was maniacal in her integrity. There was nothing I could do but take her with us. The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”

Mary was taken to Willard Parker Hospital and there, the specimens were finally taken. Laboratory results showed that Mary indeed had typhoid bacilli in her stool – she was a carrier of typhoid fever. As the first healthy typhoid carrier in New York City, Mary was made an example of by public health officials and was punished for her resistance to their tests. She was promptly detained and was quarantined on North Brother Island, located in the East River near the Bronx, which housed hundreds of individuals infected with highly contagious tuberculosis and other conditions. The otherwise healthy Mary Mallon was confined in a cottage on the island, making newspaper headlines and creating her infamous nickname of “Typhoid Mary.”

Mary had been taken by force and was being held against her will without a trial. She had not broken any laws but, because of the fact that she was a lowly Irish immigrant with no money or political clout and also because she was infected with an illness that people dreaded at the time, she found few to rally to her cause. Mary believed that she was being unfairly persecuted. She could not understand how she could have spread disease and caused a death when she, herself, seemed healthy. She wrote, “I never had typhoid in my life, and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?”

Public officials felt they had every right to lock up Mary indefinitely, basing their power on sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, which read:

The board of health shall use all reasonable means for ascertaining the existence and cause of disease or peril to life or health, and for averting the same, throughout the city. [Section 1169]

Said board may remove or cause to be removed to [a] proper place to be by it designated, any person sick with any contagious, pestilential or infectious disease; shall have exclusive charge and control of the hospitals for the treatment of such cases. [Section 1170]

The charter was written before anyone knew that “healthy carriers” – people who seemed healthy but carried a contagious form of disease that could infect others – could even exist. But the health officials of the early 1900s believed that healthy carriers were even more dangerous than those that were sick with a disease because there was no way to visibly identify a healthy carrier so that they could be avoided or quarantined. For this reason, they had no issues with locking Mary away for as long as they deemed necessary. 

Mary was initially confined for two years on North Brother Island, during which time she wrote letters and filed a legal suit pleading for her freedom and release from the island.

During the time of her confinement, health officials had taken and analyzed her stool samples about once a week. The samples mostly came back positive with typhoid, but not always. For nearly a year, Mary also sent samples to a private lab, which tested all of her samples negative for typhoid. Feeling healthy and with her own lab results in hand, Mary believed that she was being unfairly held.

But in truth, Mary did not understand much about typhoid fever and, unfortunately, no one tried to explain it to her. Not all people have a strong bout of typhoid fever; some people have such a weak case that they only experience flu-like symptoms. Because of this, Mary could have had typhoid fever without knowing it. Though it was commonly known at the time that typhoid could be spread by water or food products, people who are infected by the typhoid bacillus could also pass on the disease by not washing their hands after using the bathroom. For this reason, infected cooks (like Mary) or food handlers had the most likelihood of spreading the disease.

In 1909, Mary argued to the Supreme Court that she was never sick and was never given due process before her confinement. The court ruled against Mary, setting the precedent for the courts to rule in favor of public health officials when individual liberties were at stake. Mary was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York and went back to her isolated cottage on North Brother Island with little hope of ever being released.

In 1910, however, the new health commissioner of New York decided to release Mary as long as she agreed to regularly report to the health department and to promise that she would never work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mary accepted the conditions. On February 19, she was let free.

Mary vanished into obscurity after her release – but not for long.

In January 1915, the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered a typhoid fever outbreak in which two people died and 23 others became sick. During the investigation, evidence pointed to a recently hired cook, Mrs. Brown – who was actually Mary Mallon using a false name.

Some believe that Mary never had any intention of following the conditions of her release, but most likely she found that not working as a cook forced her into domestic positions that did not pay as well. Feeling healthy, Mary still did not believe that she could spread typhoid. Mary first worked as a laundress and at a few other jobs, but for some reason that has never been documented, Mary eventually went back to working as a cook.

Mary Mallon’s cottage on North Brother Island

Mary Mallon’s cottage on North Brother Island

If the public had shown Mary any sympathy during her first period of quarantine because she was an unknowing typhoid carrier, it disappeared after she was locked up again. This time, Typhoid Mary knew of her carrier status – even if she didn’t believe it – and so she willingly and knowingly caused suffering and death to her victims. The fact that she had been using a false name made her look even more guilty.

On March 27, 1915, Mary was sent back to her cottage on North Brother Island and she remained there, imprisoned on the island, for the next 23 years. The exact life that she led on the island is unclear but it is known that she helped around the island’s Riverside Hospital, earning the title of nurse in 1922. In 1925, she began helping in the hospital’s lab.

In December 1932, she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed. She was then transferred from her cottage to a bed in the hospital’s children’s ward, where she stayed until her death six years later on November 11, 1938.

In the years that followed her death, the term “Typhoid Mary” stopped referring to Mary Mallon and became a term for anyone who has a contagious illness. People who change jobs frequently are also sometimes joking referred to as a “Typhoid Mary.” Mary Mallon changed jobs frequently. Some believed that it was because she knew she was guilty, but it was likely because domestic jobs at the time usually didn’t last long.

But how did Mary become such a legend? Yes, she was the first healthy carrier to be found, but she was not the only once discovered at the time. An estimated 3,000 to 4,500 cases of typhoid fever were reported in New York City alone and it was estimated that about three percent of those who had typhoid fever became carriers, creating more than 90 new carriers a year.

Mary was also not the most deadly. There were 47 cases of typhoid connected to Mary, while Tony Labella (another healthy carrier) caused 122 people to become sick and five deaths. Labella was only isolated for two weeks and then was released.

Mary was also not the only healthy carrier who broke the health officials’ rules after being told of her contagious status. Alphonse Cotlis, a restaurant and bakery owner, was told not to prepare food for other people. When health officials found him back at work, they agreed to let him go free when he promised to conduct his business over the phone.

So, why was Mary singled out? Why was she the only carrier isolated for life? These questions are impossible to answer. Some historians believe that it was prejudice that contributed to her extreme treatment by health officials. She was Irish; she was a woman, uneducated, a domestic servant, had no family and was basically a “nobody.” She didn’t have the money or the position to fight back and when she did, she was dismissed by the courts for all of the same reasons. Despite Mary’s temperament and her violation of the conditions of her release, one has to wonder if the “crime” really deserved the punishment she was given.

 The question remains unanswered today, which is perhaps the reason why her spirit is still said to linger at the abandoned hospital where she spent her final days.

The ruins of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island

The ruins of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island

North Brother Island is a place of ghosts.

It lies on 13 acres just southwest of Hunts Point in the East River. It is a remnant of a long-forgotten era in New York history. The island has been abandoned since 1963, when the city closed down Riverside Hospital, which had opened in 1886 to treat and isolate victims of contagious diseases. It gained its notoriety during the tenure of Mary Mallon and remains a mysterious place today, off limits to the public because it is the nesting place of a species of rare black-crowned herons.

It is, without question, a spooky place – and some say a haunted one. Time seems to have bypassed North Brother Island’s gaslight-lined streets, brownstone hospital buildings, crumbling doctor’s houses and sandy beaches littered with cookware and heavy glass tonic bottles.

Tragedy first bloodied the island’s history in June 1905 when the General Slocum disaster took the lives of 1,141 people, most of them German immigrants from the Lower East Side. They were on their way to a Sunday picnic on Long Island when the overcrowded steamer was accidentally set ablaze. The ship ran aground on North Brother Island and doctors and patients from the hospital ran to try and save the hundreds of passengers who had jumped from the burning ship. For hours after the tragedy, bodies continued to wash up on the island’s shore and the beaches were strewn with victims.

For decades after, island residents spoke of seeing the ghosts of these victims as they wandered the grounds, weeping for their lives and those of loved ones lost in the disaster.

Perhaps these spirits do not walk alone…

Riverside Hospital was closed as a quarantine hospital in 1942. It was abandoned for a short time before briefly being used as housing for World War II veterans who were studying at New York colleges. It was serviced by two ferries that regularly stopped at the western slip, but this proved inefficient and expensive, and when cheaper housing was found for these men, the island was abandoned again.

In 1952, it opened again, this time as an experimental juvenile drug treatment facility that was offered as an alternative to going to jail. The tuberculosis pavilion of the hospital (which was built in 1942 and never actually used to house tuberculosis patients) became a dormitory and then a main residence and treatment building for the program. The doors to many of the rooms were retrofitted into seclusion rooms with sheet metal reinforcement and heavy deadbolts that could be used for withdrawal management.

The experimental plan would take a patient, newly arrived and addicted to heroin, and place him in one of these rooms with no conveniences except for a bare mattress and a mess bucket. They would be forced to undergo withdrawal in the seclusion room without any kind of medicine. After several days, when withdrawal was complete, the patient would be introduced into the general population. It was believed that this harsh return to reality, followed up by a stay of no less than 90 days on the island, and bolstered by athletics and education, would provide the best chance against relapse.

All of the buildings on the island were renovated. The services building became the school, the nurses’ residence became the girls’ dormitory, and the tuberculosis pavilion became the admissions hospital and boys’ residence. The building next to the tuberculosis pavilion – originally the hospital’s children’s ward, where Mary Mallon spent her final days – was turned into a library and annex to the school.

The grand experiment was a failure. Recidivism rates were extremely high, and even at the isolated island hospital, patients still found means of obtaining and using drugs. There are accounts of boyfriends making the trip to the island in order to visit in the middle of the night; accounts of orderlies getting paid in cigarettes to smuggle heroin on the ferries; and accounts of physical and sexual abuse on and by patients. The hospital was shuttered and the island was abandoned in 1963 for the final time. 

The lost souls of this era certainly left an indelible mark on the island but the most famous troubled spirit that may linger is that of Typhoid Mary herself. Mary was first quarantined on the island in 1907 after causing a number of outbreaks of typhoid fever. She was set free in 1910 but returned to the island five years later after an investigation into an outbreak of typhoid at a Manhattan hospital revealed that she was once again working as a cook, under an assumed name. She was send back to her cottage on the island, this time for good.

Mary never understood that she was a carrier of a possible deadly disease. Instead, she felt she was a victim of persecution at the hands of officials who could neither prove that she was the source of these outbreaks nor explain to her why she felt so healthy and why she seemed free of any of the typical symptoms of typhoid. In 1938, she died on the island due to complications from a stroke she had suffered six years earlier.

Mary’s cottage was demolished after her death – officials felt that it was unsafe for habitation – but she spent much of her time working, and later dying, at Riverside Hospital, where her ghost is still believed to walk.

Over the years, visitors to the island – those who brave the river and the warnings against trespassers – have reported the spirit of a woman who wanders the corridors of the crumbling old hospital. She has been seen a number of times by a wide variety of people, including staff members at the hospital during the era when the drug treatment program was in place. One account details an orderly who followed the woman down a corridor, only to see her walk into one of the rooms. Thinking that one of the inmates had gotten out of her room, the orderly hurried down the hall and entered the exam room – only to find there was no one there!

Was this woman one of the many tragic spirits of North Brother Island, or could it have been the ghost of Mary Mallon, unable to rest after nearly three decades of punishment that she never felt she deserved?

No one will likely ever know for sure.

From the Book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse