Explore History ›

Typhoid Mary: A Lingering Reputation of Malice

Getty Images / Fotosearch

Typhoid Mary: A Lingering Reputation of Malice

Mary Mallon was blamed for spreading typhoid to dozens of people in the wealthy New York homes where she worked as a cook in the early 20th century. But the Irish immigrant known as “Typhoid Mary” never came down with the disease herself, and had to be forcibly quarantined to stop from spreading it further.

Typhoid broke out in household after household in the wealthy communities where Mallon worked –– from Mamaroneck to Manhattan and Oyster Bay on Long Island. Despite her fearsome reputation, only three typhoid deaths and 50 infections are directly attributed to her.

Mallon died 75 years ago today, but interest in her story is very much alive. Several new books have been published in recent years and in 2004 PBS aired Typhoid Mary: Villain or Victim?

A key part of the story of Typhoid Mary is the Department of Sanitation engineer who finally traced the cases of typhoid fever to Mallon. That engineer, George A. Soper, also happened to be my paternal great-grandfather.

Soper, who was hired by one of the families Mallon worked for, determined that “an Irish woman about 40 years of age, tall, heavy, single” –– and apparently in perfect health –– was the common thread in the households where typhoid outbreaks had occurred. When he tracked Mallon down, she was working on Park Avenue, where two servants were ill and a daughter of the homeowners had died.

Mallon refused to cooperate with investigators by providing urine and stool samples and denied any role in spreading typhoid. According to some reports, she chased Soper out of the house wielding a carving fork. Eventually, however, she was forced into quarantine on North Brother Island in the Bronx. When she was released on condition that she not return to cooking, she did so anyway under assumed names. When still more outbreaks were traced to her –– the last in a Manhattan maternity hospital –– she was returned to North Brother Island where she lived until her death on Nov. 11, 1938. An autopsy revealed typhus germs in her gallbladder.

Authors telling her story have taken a variety of perspectives.

Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain takes a detective’s approach in and out of New York City turn-of-the-century kitchens to show the cat-and-mouse pursuit through Mallon’s experiences.

You Wouldn't Want to Meet Typhoid Mary! A Deadly Cook You'd Rather Not Know by Jacqueline Morley (2013) tells Mallon’s tale for younger readers, combining humor and history.

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health by Judith Leavitt (1997) suggests there was some prejudice involved in Mallon’s treatment because she was Irish and a woman –– not to mention being a servant with a temper.

Typhoid Mary: The Story of Mary Mallon by Caitlind L. Alexander (2011) is an e-book that takes the position that Mallon was not the malicious person she was made out to be.

Relentless: The Search for Typhoid Mary by Joan Meijer (2011) details Mallon’s battle with Soper for her freedom and the medical breakthroughs that made her diagnosis possible.

Fever: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane (2013) mixes historical fact and a fictional narrative to tell Mallon’s story. Keane also includes the story of Mallon’s relationship with an alcoholic immigrant Irishman who ultimately did not stand by her.


Originally published Nov. 10, 2013. Written by Susan Soper, author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life and journalist who has written for Newsday and CNN, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.” Find her on Google+.