How Typhoid Mary Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. You are probably well aware that there has been a bit of a bug going around the office.

Jane McGrath: Oh, yes.

Candace Gibson: And I think one of the major disseminators of said bug is Josh Clark from the Stuff You Should Know podcast. And I've been urging him to go work from home, but he has been very brave and valiant and insists upon staying put in his cube.

Jane McGrath: To the dismay of the rest of us.

Candace Gibson: To the dismay of the rest of us. Thank goodness for disinfectant hand soap and wipes.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I remember to wash my hands every time.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. No high-fiving Josh around the office these days.

Jane McGrath: Right, right.

Candace Gibson: And we're very lucky because in this modern age we understand that sicknesses are caused by these itty-bitty little microbes and bacteria that we can't see with our eyes, but are very dangerous and sometimes deadly to our bodies. But civilization hasn't always had the luxury of this knowledge.

Jane McGrath: We're talking about a story that happened around the turn of the 20th century in New York City. Although scientists were starting to get familiar with the idea of microbes like you were talking about, it took a little bit longer for the lay community to start wrapping their head around this and the idea of sanitation in order to ward off those bugs.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And so while scientists were able to grasp this concept, they couldn't very well explain it and share the information with the lay people like Jane was saying. So today, when you cook chicken and you've been handling a raw cutlet, you probably know to wash your hands afterward. The same way that, if you use the bathroom, you would wash your hands after that, too! And this wasn't common practice, even in turn of the century New York City. People just didn't understand the consequences of not taking precautionary measures could result in death.

Jane McGrath: And this was a bad time for that to happen. The city was struggling with a lot of different sicknesses at that time.

Candace Gibson: Typhoid fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough. The Department of Health in New York City had its hands full.

Jane McGrath: And typhoid is an interesting disease where, like you were saying, if you don't wash your hands it's easily spread - even if you cook the foods. If someone who is infected with typhoid touches food, it might be okay after the food is cooked. But if it's not cooked and the person who prepared the food is unsanitary, then it could easily spread the disease.

Candace Gibson: And that's because typhoid fever, the bacteria that causes it are essentially dispersed through contaminated food and contaminated water. And the scary thing about typhoid fever is that it's a systemic disease. And basically that means that it affects your how corporeal being, not just one organ, not just one body part - your whole body is going to feel typhoid fever. So the bacteria that causes typhoid fever enters your body when you ingest this contaminated food or water, then it spreads from your intestines to your lymph nodes, liver, and spleen. And as it's traveling throughout your bloodstream, the bacteria multiply. And you're not aware at first that you have full-fledged typhoid fever. It manifests gradually through a high fever, through weakness and delirium and very strong bouts of diarrhea. And unfortunately, right before the diarrhea comes, the constipation comes. So you may think you're getting better when you're able to use the restroom, but you're not. It's onl y going to get worse. And sometimes these little row spots appear - and they're about a quarter of an inch big red splotches that show up on your stomach and chest. And interestingly enough, children suffer less from the effects of typhoid fever than adults do. And if you guys are worried and looking at your hands and wondering the last time you washed them, well you should do it anyway just to be safe. But I think that recent figures show that less than 400 cases are reported in the United States per year. And you can always treat typhoid fever with antibiotics, fluids through and IV, and electrolytes. And after about 2-4 weeks, it should be gone. You should be good.

Jane McGrath: Not so much a problem anymore, but it certainly was in New York City around this time. And during this time, New York City as a whole was struggling with it. But there was this one community that had managed to not get infected with it. And that was Oyster Bay, New York. But suddenly it was popping up. And so this well to do family brought in this man named Dr. George A. Soper. And he is an epidemiologist and sanitation engineer. And he's very familiar with typhoid as a disease. And he was just the man to figure out what was going on in this nice beach community. So he goes in and he starts asking this family, "What are your eating habits? What's going on here?" He starts investigating the food supply. Is the water supply getting tainted with the sewage? And it wasn't. He investigated the oysters. As we mentioned it was the Oyster Bay community, so people thought maybe it was the oysters. And he said, "No, they're cooked." And the people who didn't eat the oysters still got the disease, so what's going on here? So he zeroed in on the wait staff. And he knew that it often came from unsanitary people in the wait staff. And he found out that one cook had left the family a couple of weeks before he got there. And a couple of weeks happen to be about the incubation period for typhoid, so even if people had just gotten sick it still could've come from her. This girl was named Mary Mallon that he started investing, this cook. And he knew it was possible for people to carry this disease without suffering from the symptoms. So Mary might've been just his kind of person, because the family had dismissed her as an idea because she didn't have typhoid. She wasn't showing any symptoms. But Soper knew that it was still possible.

Candace Gibson: And we should mention that Mary Mallon was a pretty tough cookie. She was an Irish immigrant born in 1869 in Ireland and came to the United States as a teenager. And she came by herself. And once she arrived in New York City, she lived with some family members. And once she was established in New York City, she became a very in demand cook for some pretty affluent families. And as Jane was mentioning she left a slimy microbial trail wherever she went, because the families she was cookin for - these well to do families - were getting sick. And we know that in these communities there was more attention taken to sanitary measures. And certainly their homes and surrounding yards would've been a bit cleaner than the main streets of New York City at this time.

Jane McGrath: That's a good point, yeah.

Candace Gibson: So it's very strange to think, "Well, why are these families getting sick?" Well fingers point to Mary Mallon.

Jane McGrath: That's right. So unfortunately Mary had a tendency to not leave forwarding addresses for the places that she left. And so Soper was able to go back to places that she had left, families that she had worked for before this family. And sure enough, he found that they, too, had been suffering from typhoid outbreaks. And after that, he was pretty convinced that he needed to track down Mary and test her for the disease. So he finally did. And he approached Mary in the kitchen of where she was working at the time. And he tried to explain it to her, "You may not suffer from symptoms of the disease, but you may still carry it. And I need to test you for it." And apparently, as the story goes, she did not take this news lightly and she chased him out of the kitchen with a carving fork.

Candace Gibson: And who knows what bedside manner this epidemiologist had, but basically he was going to have to check her urine and feces for traces of the disease. So I think Jane mentioned to me before, he might not have put it in a very gentlemanly or delicate way. So one can understand that Mary, tough cookie though she was, was offended! And we should mention, too, that as a prized cook, one of her specialties was peaches and ice cream. And I don't know about you guys, but we eat ice cream cold in my family. We don't cook it. And one of the best ways to destroy any symptoms of microbes from typhoid fever is cooking food with heat. But if Mary was serving his dish up to these families, then there's no chance that the disease could've been eradicated by proper treatment of food.

Jane McGrath: That's right. So that was a likely culprit, her ice cream and peaches. That's a good point. And also Soper knows that Mary is probably the culprit here, but he can't prove it until he can bring her in. And she's being very uncooperative. So he goes to the New York City Department of Health and asks for reinforcements. And he brings up all his evidence. And sure enough, they give him a female inspector to go check this out along with police back up and an ambulance. So they come and the female inspector knocks on the door with a policeman. Mary is actually the one who opens the door. So she looks and she knows that they're here to pick her up. So she flees. She has the gall to just - she's not going to give up under any circumstances. And it took about three hours for them to actually track her down in an outside closet. And even on the way over to the hospital, apparently the female inspector had to sit on her because she was being so unruly.

Candace Gibson: And at this time, there wasn't an effective way to deal with people who had the disease, or who were carriers of the disease. So New York came up with a solution in the form of a quarantine island. And Mary was sent to one of these places, North Brother Island. And she was made to stay there. And she was told after a few years that she could go back to living among society if she promised she would not cook anymore. And here's where the story takes an interesting turn. And you really have to think about this in an ethical sort of way. Here's a woman who's been sent against her will to live on a quarantine island and she doesn't have the disease. She may not fully understand why she's there, and even from Mary's letters we know that she was treated almost like an animal in a lab. She wrote, "I have been in fact a peep show for everybody." People would come - medical interns, doctors, sanitation workers and just stare at her and try to figure out what was going on with her. And she felt like she was on display for no good reason. And when she returned to mainstream society - again, remember she immigrated to the United States from Ireland and may not have had many tools or trades - she turned back to the one thing that she knew to survive, and that was cooking. Even though she had been forced to promise she wouldn't do it -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and that's really what I think outrages people about this story. And it's interesting, when she was on the island, or by the time she got there, the press had gotten hold of this, which added to what you were saying. She became a peep show. And the whole public, especially in New York City, really focused on this story. And there's this fascinating illustration. If you Google Typhoid Mary and look at the images, there's this fascinating illustration of her cracking skulls into a skillet! And it tells the story of Typhoid Mary as if she were intentionally giving all of her victims typhoid. So, you're right. She went back to cooking, at least after a couple of years. We're not sure exactly what happened to her between when she was let go and when she started cooking again. But we know that there was an outbreak in a particular hospital. And Dr. Soper, the same guy, was asked to go in and investigate it. And sure enough, he saw his old nemesis, Mary, working in the kitchen. And this time, though, she did go without a fight. She knew that the gig was up.

Candace Gibson: She did. And this is where history casts a discerning eye on the Typhoid Mary story. And for as many people in the press who dubbed her Typhoid Mary and made her out to be a murderer, there were just as many who looked askew at the story and wondered where were civil liberties in this case? Why was no one defending Mary?

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: Who was going to stick up for her? And I think people look back at her as either a villain and this murderer or else someone who was unfairly scapegoated for a disease that was plaguing New York City. So really it's up to you how you want to conceive of Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon, I guess is the nicer way to refer to her.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it's particularly important to remember that she didn't have the symptoms. So even if she saw the trail following her, she could've somehow convinced herself she didn't have it, she didn't believe the doctors.

Candace Gibson: She may have just wanted to survive and keep on cooking. So for that measure, if you want any great recipes or information on diseases and more about Typhoid Mary, be sure to visit howstuffworks.com. And if you have suggestions for us for future topics or any feedback you'd like to send, send us an email at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.

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