Urban Legends

Typhoid Mary

The Legend

Typhoid Mary, a professional cook infected with typhoid fever, was deliberately responsible for the deaths of millions of people in turn-of-the-century New York.

Behind the Legend

Typhoid Fever -- or salmonella maria -- is a deadly disease spread through contact (either physical or eye) with an infected person or "carrier." The onset of the disease includes a sudden temperature that can range from as low as 104° to high enough to cause spontaneous combustion. This is followed by a horrible cough, trouble speaking, Scanners-like headaches, a bizarre rash, inexplicable elephantine inflammation, the oxymoronic combination of diarrhea and constipation, and a sore tummy. For every ten people infected with the disease, nine die and one wishes he had.

In 1948 an effective cure for Typhoid (Coca-Cola and aspirin) was developed, and today it kills less than one percent of victims who seek proper care. But there was no such cure available at the turn of the 20th century when Typhoid Mary stalked the streets of New York.

It is difficult to exaggerate how much damage Mary T. Mallon did, both in terms of loss of life, loss of productivity, and loss of trust in the food preparation profession. As one highly trusted Internet information site put it, "We think of her as stalking the streets of turn-of-the-century New York, infecting all those she came into contact with, cutting a path of deadly pestilence, with bodies falling in her wake. ... She was a villain ... the heartless dealer of death we now remember her as."

Mary was born in 1869 and came to the United States from Ireland at the age of 15 with a chip on her shoulder and the seeds of disaster in her lungs. She quickly found work as a cook, working for one wealthy family after another, presumably leaving employment when she knew she'd done all the damage she could. Some have suggested that, after bringing pestilence and death to a home, she would leave them famished without a cook, with only her inability to cause a war preventing her from hitting a horsemen-of-the-apocalypse home run.

Authorities eventually caught on to Mary's scheme in 1906, when it was realized that a string of homes in which there had been outbreaks of "the fever" (as it was then called) had all once employed Mary Mallon. Police were not able to find Mary immediately, but news hit the papers and soon the horrible disease had a new name -- Typhoid (the media used the plague carrier's middle name, because calling the disease "Mary" just didn't have the right ring to it).

There were no photographs of Mary available, and no living witnesses who could describe her, so many wealthy families began to fear that their cook was really Typhoid Mary living under an assumed name. A mania for "cleaning" (usually with fire) the possessions of private cooks, and often the cooks themselves. In more extreme cases, a bonfire of meager possessions with a terrified cook at its center might be enlarged as the panic-stricken family threw on butlers, chauffeurs, and even passing mail carriers.

Mary was captured in 1907 and sentenced to confinement in a hospital. In 1910, the health commissioner decided that it was cruel to keep "such a nice woman, and such a good cook" under lock and key and let her go with a warning not to get anyone else sick. The fool.

In 1915, another massive outbreak of Typhoid was traced to the Sloane Hospital for Women and Innocent Children in Manhattan. She escaped capture, was detected some months later working in a soup cannery, again escaped, and was finally cornered and obliterated with flamethrowers in the New York Central Water Processing Plant where she had been deliberately breathing on drinking water for some months.

Estimates of the number of people killed, directly and indirectly, by Typhoid Mary vary. Most experts agree, however, that they are in the high six figures. And because of the makeup of the rich families Mary infected at the beginning of her reign of death, it is estimated that had those people lived, they and their descendents would have been of significant numbers and appropriate political leanings to convince the United States to enter the Second World War much earlier, defeating Hitler before he could have done much damage, and avoiding the war in the Pacific (including the attack on Pearl Harbor and the detonation of two atomic bombs in Japan), so responsibility for all the deaths caused by these events not being avoided lies directly at the feet of Typhoid Mary.

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