Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Typhoid Mary

Life and Death on the Island

As time passed, Mary became accustomed to her fate. Though she was supposed to be kept in isolation, she eventually came into contact daily with nurses and doctors from Riverside Hospital. After a few years, she was allowed to work as a lab assistant at the hospital, though she was carefully monitored. But she knew virtually nothing about lab work or the health profession. Mostly she prepared paperwork for the physicians and performed office maintenance. But her legal status was still unclear. She was perceived as a criminal but never convicted of a crime. Though she tried to bring her case into a court of law, it never happened.

Life on the island was a mixture of serenity and isolation. Though it was located just hundreds of yards from the coast of the Bronx, it had a certain country feel to it. "This is heaven," one visitor remarked when she first set foot on the island. "It's delightful, other-worldly, unlike New York City" (Bourdain). For Mary though, the experience was different. "A few more years of this kind of life and I shall go insane," she once told reporters from Life magazine. "I have committed no crime, but am innocent. I am doomed to be a prisoner for life!" (July 20, 1909).

For the next twenty-three years, she lived in isolation on North Brother Island in the same cottage where she was imprisoned years before. To her detriment, Mary never understood typhoid fever. She never believed that she had the disease because she was never ill. She could not accept the fact that some people can contract a mild case of typhoid, which could resemble a bout with the flu, and continue to spread the disease even after a complete recovery.

It is difficult to assess the damage caused by Mary's refusal to acknowledge her sickness. At least three deaths were attributed to her and possibly hundreds of cases of typhoid as well. Some researchers blame the start of the famous Ithaca epidemic of 1903 on her though there is no hard evidence this is true (Gibbons). Nor was she the only healthy carrier during that period. Health officials know that between two and three percent of all typhoid cases can develop into carriers. Because New York City experienced at least 4,000 cases of typhoid in 1910, that would indicate approximately 90 new carriers in that year alone.

In December 1932, Mallon suffered a severe stroke, which left her partially paralyzed. When she was found lying on the floor of her cottage, doctors were repelled by what they saw. "The stench that came out of that doorway," one friend later remarked, "...grimy, filthy-looking on the outside. I called and there was no answer. I could barely get the door open because there was so much junk ... I almost slid into the place because it was so filthy. The odor was overwhelming" (Bourdain).

Mary Mallon (right) poses with Emma Sherman while at Riverside hospital.
Mary Mallon (right) poses with Emma Sherman while at Riverside hospital.

But she continued to work in Riverside Hospital for the next six years. She had few visitors, and those that came were careful not to stay past dinnertime. Her personal hygiene never improved and her slovenly appearance shocked many. "I walked into that building (the hospital)," said one visitor, "...and a huge woman in there who kind of terrified me with her hair unkempt pulled back in a tight knot and a huge lab coat which enfolded her despite her size at least double to the floor filthy as hell with all kinds of stuff on it. And they told me this was Mary Mallon" (Bourdain).

St. Luke's Church, Bronx, NY
St. Luke's Church, Bronx, NY

In 1938, she died as result of the effects of the earlier stroke. Only nine people attended her funeral mass in St. Luke's Church in the Bronx (November 13, 1938, Times). She was buried in nearby St. Raymond's Cemetery. Her tombstone reads Mary Mallon Died Nov 11 1938 and, on the bottom of the stone, the words Jesus Mercy appear. But she will always be known as "Typhoid Mary."

Mary Mallon's headstone
Mary Mallon's headstone

 

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