Typhoid Mary came to Maine
Soon, I shall get back to Who’s Who at Mountain View, but having given them a little rest, there are many more who deserves to be written about. Meanwhile, perhaps only a few people know the following true story:
One of the most contagious communicable diseases is Typhoid Fever, it kills. At the turn of the last century, many people died from it. Statistics showed us that in 1906, about 25,000 died in this country from the dreaded disease. Some symptoms were a very high fever, nausea, diarrhea, nosebleeds and a rose colored rash.
Young Mary Mallon was an attractive Irish woman who was an excellent cook. She obtained cooking jobs for some very wealthy families, with no trouble at all. What no one became aware of for a long time was that she was a Typhoid carrier. The deadly bacilli found a happy home environment in her body. Billions of germs hatched daily in her gall bladder and she was the first identified carrier of the disease in America.
The search for the carrier began Aug. 27, 1906, when the daughter of New York banker Charles Warren became very ill at the family’s summer home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. At first, they were not alarmed, but when she began to have all the symptoms of Typhoid Fever the young girl was rushed to a hospital, where she died shortly after admission. Five more people in the same household became ill and one other died.
Experts always believed that Typhoid was a disease of dirt. It probably resulted from eating shellfish from polluted waters, drinking contaminated milk or water and/or perhaps even from spoiled food. Every possibility was checked out and the illness in that home became an unsolved mystery.
The owner of the home was compelled to determine the cause, as others might not want to rent the house. He hired an investigator, Mr. Soper, who was a sanitary engineer, in the Department of Health in New York City. Soper eliminated all the possible sources. A German bacteriologist named Koch had recently developed a new theory that a person could be immune to the germs and yet have them present in their own body, thus spreading the dread disease. Mr. Soper began to investigate that approach.
The history of each person in the house seemed to be quite usual, but the cook had disappeared without telling anyone and soon after the sickness began in the Warren household. Unfortunately, she was a walking killer. As Soper’s search went on, he found seven homes in a 10 year period where 28 people had Typhoid and Mary had been there. Then she started an epidemic in Ithaca, N.Y., where she cooked for another banker. The total in that city was 1,300 victims.
Mr. Soper got lucky one day in 1907. He heard about a Park Avenue mansion, where many people were ill from Typhoid. He rushed there and asked to see Mary Mallon. No one was there by that name, but the cook fit her description: about 40 years old, light hair, blue eyes, a sharp nose and buxom figure. He tried to reason with her, and told her that they needed a sample of her blood and urine. She was frightened and grabbed a large carving knife, so he left. He ordered his men to follow her, because the only way he could prove it was to take her to a hospital and test her. The desperate woman clawed and bit those who came near, but finally lost the battle. Tests were taken that proved she was the carrier.
It was strongly suggested that May have her gall bladder removed, as that would end the problem. She felt perhaps that they were going to murder her, so refused to have the operation. She was kept under constant guard and was not allowed to handle any food.
The State Department later formed a new policy on carriers that there be no more isolation. Before Mallon was set free, Mr. Soper told her that she could not cook again and was not to handle any food, except her own. She promised, but in 1914 Typhoid broke out in a sanitarium where Mary worked; she skipped out again. In 1915, about47 cases were reported in Sloan Hospital (mostly doctors and nurses) and they had a cook named Mary Brown, who fit Mary Mallon’s description.
They were on Mallon’s trail again in New Jersey, then Maine, Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y. One night they caught her, although she was wearing a heavy veil while carrying food to a sick friend. She was carried away to North Brother Island and placed in isolation. She still refused the gall bladder operation, admitting no guilt.
Eight years later the city gave Mallon a cottage, where she cooked her own food and was allowed guests. She was an intelligent woman, but never seemed to understand what had happened to her. She had a stroke, but lived six more years until Nov. 11, 1938. Nine unidentified mourners came to her funeral.
Now we get to her Maine connection. The History of Islesboro, Maine 1893-1983” reports:
“On the East Shore, Mr. Frank Bond built Indian Head. Mr. Bond’s home held too many sad memories. His little girl died there with Typhoid Fever. Their cook was a carrier, “Typhoid Mary,” who came here with the J. Coleman Draytons, who lived in the Alphus Pendleton house and was eventually caught by health officers.”
After my conversation with Mary Rolerson Grinnell, founder and past president of the Islesboro Historical Society, I learned more about the sad story. Mary Grinnell’s mother told her the story of the Drayton family coming to the Island with Mary Mallon, their cook. In the attic was the help’s quarters and had a large water tank. It was said that “Typhoid Mary” dipped her cup in the water tank whenever she wanted a drink and probably the carrier’s germs were spread in that way, as well as by handling the food as a cook.
My thanks for some information in this article, goes to Mary Rolerson Grinnell and also to Jenny Grew of the British Broadcasting Corporation in London, England, who called me to find the Maine connection of “Typhoid Mary.”
Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian.