Weird History The True Story Of Typhoid Mary Is Way Sadder Than You Think  

Colleen Conroy
262.6k views 11 items

Typhoid Mary didn't intend to serially infect the families of the New York elite with typhoid, but that's exactly what she did. In the early 1900s, germ theory was a relatively new idea, and many did not know how diseases spread. Bacterial diseases like typhoid and dysentery still had the ability to wipe out an entire family.

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook for affluent families in New York. She unknowingly left behind a wake of typhoid fever, earning her the name "Typhoid Mary." At the time, doctors knew the disease was most commonly spread through feces, and they were able to trace outbreaks by locating the start of an epidemic and following its spread. 

By the time of her first quarantine in 1907, it was determined Mallon had infected 22 people and caused the death of a little girl. When she was permanently quarantined in 1915, it is estimated she ultimately infected over 51 people, killing at least three. Since no healthy carriers had yet been identified, Mallon refused to believe that she - a healthy, middle-aged woman - could possibly be spreading the disease.

Eventually, public health officials in New York traced the outbreaks to the outwardly healthy Mallon, who landed herself in quarantine for life on North Brother Island after numerous fights and flat-out refusals. In an almost decade-long battle that struck fear into many city-dwellers' hearts, the legendary lady played a game of disease-riddled cat and mouse with New York's Public Health division. 

She Once Chased A Doctor With ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The True Story Of Typhoid Mary Is Way Sadder Than You Think
Photo: Lupo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

She Once Chased A Doctor With A Meat Cleaver

When Dr. George Soper - the sanitary engineer who identified Mallon as the typhoid culprit - came to take samples in 1907, Malloon outright refused. Allegedly, the cook grabbed a meat cleaver (or rolling pin or meat fork, as the stories vary) and chased him out of her house. 

It took a few more tries before authorities were able to pin down Mallon. The last attempt ended in a three hour chase.

She Was Forced Into Her First ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The True Story Of Typhoid Mary Is Way Sadder Than You Think
Photo:  Ideru/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

She Was Forced Into Her First Quarantine At North Brother Island In 1907

After quite the fight, Mallon was finally taken into custody for stool, urine, and tissue samples. It was then confirmed she was indeed ripe with the typhoid bacteria, despite the fact she showed zero symptoms herself and remained the epitome of good health.

Public health officials deemed her a threat to society and decided she must be quarantined. Against her will, Mallon was placed in a single-occupancy cottage at the Riverside Hospital for Communicable Diseases on North Brother Island. Mallon stated to reporters she felt she was being grossly mistreated - like a "leper" - and continuously insisted there was no way she had typhoid.

Mallon Had Over 160 Samples Ta... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The True Story Of Typhoid Mary Is Way Sadder Than You Think
Photo:  Julie McCoy/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Mallon Had Over 160 Samples Taken Without Her Consent And Was Treated Like A Freak

By 1915, the now-infamous Typhoid Mary had been recaptured and placed under a lifelong quarantine back at North Brother Island. Perhaps it was her intransigence or the fact doctors truly didn't know how to handle a case like hers, but the health authorities treated Mallon in an inhumane manner. 

When she was first tested, doctors discovered her gallbladder was riddled with the salmonella bacteria, and they wanted to remove it. She refused the procedure during her first quarantine, but by the time they had Mallon in her second custody, they went ahead and tried again. She managed to stop them from the surgery, but she couldn't stop them from taking over 160 samples from her body during her remaining years there. 

She also suffered neglect at the quarantine facility. Mallon was shown off to interns and journalists like some sort of special specimen. They limited her interactions greatly, only allowing her to wash bottles in the laboratory.

She Changed Her Name Every Time She Started Working For A New Family

Throughout the ordeal, Mallon repeatedly denied she was the carrier of typhoid in all of the outbreaks that followed her career. However, she left quietly after each family's disease outbreak, and she always changed her name slightly for each new cooking job. 

Of course, nobody would want to be associated with what the press was saying, nor would anyone in their right mind want to remain in a typhoid-stricken household. However, Mallon's strange behavior makes some critics wonder if she did in fact understand she was somehow a carrier of the disease.