Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Typhoid Mary


For the next three years, Mary Mallon, made famous by the tabloids as "Typhoid Mary," remained on the island, living like an outcast and never having been charged with any crime. "When I first came here," she wrote in a letter, "I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch and the left eyelid became paralyzed and would not move" (NOVA). Some civil libertarians thought that her imprisonment without due process was an affront to the laws of the land. Others, especially those in the medical profession, applauded the move. Leavitt writes in "Typhoid Mary," "many scientists believed that Mary Mallon's apprehension in 1907 was a momentous event, one in which the new science of bacteriology played a heroic role" (30). In 1909, Mallon's attorney filed a suit in city court demanding that she be released. He said that her incarceration was a violation of her constitutional rights. But the New York City Health Department contended Mary was a carrier of typhoid and a danger to public health. One doctor called her "the most dangerous person in New York!" (Wolf and Mader 171). But Mary herself proclaimed her innocence every chance she got. "I have worked in scores of places where there has been no typhoid," she told a reporter, "and even now, I mingle with the doctors and cook for them. Besides, I play with the children in the various wards and they are none the worse for it" (July 20, 1909, Life).

Newspaper spread on Typhoid Mary
Newspaper spread on Typhoid Mary

The court rejected her appeal and decided Mary must remain on the island. The New York Times reported, "the court ... did not care to assume the responsibility of releasing her" (July 17, 1909). However, the court left the door open for the future and said that if she could be cured, there would be no reason to hold her. "While the court deeply sympathizes with this unfortunate woman," wrote Justice Mitchell Erlanger, "it must protect the community against a recurrence of spreading the disease. Every opportunity should ... be afforded her to establish that she has been fully cured and she may ... renew the application" (Times 3).

Mary's specimen chart
Mary's specimen chart

Mary resigned herself to a barren existence on North Brother Island. Every night she would go to sleep with the tantalizing vision of the Manhattan skyline in her thoughts. From her cottage, she could easily see the tall buildings and the night-lights of America's largest city just a stone's throw away from her door. She saw herself as a prisoner who had committed no crime, a martyr to a tenuous and doubtful science. "I have been a peep show for everybody," she wrote in a letter in 1910. "Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. They would say 'There she is, the kidnapped woman!" (NOVA).


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