Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Typhoid Mary

Germ Woman

Ever since she was incarcerated against her will, "Typhoid Mary" became the focus of a growing controversy. Many people were of the opinion that keeping her a prisoner, although she had committed no crime, was a violation of American civil rights, and the New York press echoed this sentiment. One letter writer to the Times wrote, "If one unfortunate woman must be labeled Typhoid Mary...start a colony on some unpleasant island, call it 'Uncle Sam's suspects' there collect Measles Sammy, Tonsillitis Joseph, Scarlet Fever Sally, Mumps Matilda and Meningitis Matthew" (Leavitt 83).

"Typhoid" Mary Mallon

By 1910, public sentiment favored Mary's release and the courts were weakening in their resolve to keep her prisoner. "She has been shut up long enough to learn the precautions she ought to take," said Health Commissioner Lederle in February that year. "As long as she observes them, I have little fear that she will be a danger to her neighbors" (February 21, 1910, Times). Over time, even Dr. Soper himself recognized the legal issues in the case. "She was held without being given a hearing," he said. "She was apparently under life sentence; it was contrary to the Constitution of the United States to hold her under the circumstances" (Leavitt 82).  But again, Mary refused to acknowledge that she was a carrier. "I never had typhoid in my life," she later said, "and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?"

Responding to public pressure and fearful of being the target of a lawsuit, the Health Department cut a deal with Mary. She could leave the island and return to a normal life if she would not hire out as a cook and report to the Health Department for periodic examinations. Mary agreed and on February 20, 1910, she was released. The Health Department Commissioner told reporters that "the chief points she must observe are personal cleanliness and the keeping away from the preparation of other person's food" (February 21, 1910, Times).

   Mary was taken by ferry to the Bronx mainland, where she walked off the boat a free woman for the first time in nearly three years. Though she was no longer a prisoner, Mary had very few options open to her. She had no money, few friends and could no longer work in her chosen profession. Her outlook was bleak. In December of 1911, Mary filed a lawsuit against New York City and its Health Department. She claimed she had been unlawfully imprisoned without a trial and against her will and demanded $50,000 in damages. Her attorney, George Francis O'Neill, told reporters, "If the Board of Health is going to send every cook to jail who happens to come under their designation of 'germ carrier,' it won't be long before we have no cooks left!" (December 3, 1911, Times).

The lawsuit was eventually dropped, and within a few months, Mary had disappeared, melding into the lower echelons of Manhattan existence. She  reported to the Health Department only on several occasions and then never came in for examination again. By 1915, "Typhoid Mary" was mostly forgotten except for a few instances when newspapers reported on the subject of typhoid fever. Author Bourdain writes, "she'd been publicly reviled, nicknamed with an unforgettable moniker, locked up, poked, prodded, examined, interviewed, depicted in photos and illustrations, gossiped about, teased and now as back at the bottom" (Bourdain). Exactly where she went during those few years is unknown though she was suspected of living in New Jersey and Connecticut. Attempts were made to locate her, but those efforts failed. Mary could not find work to support herself, and ultimately, she was forced to return to the only profession she knew: cooking.


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