Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part One

The Inadvertent Killer

Book cover: Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public Health
Book cover: Typhoid
Mary: Captive to the
Public Health

Mary Mallon didn't want to kill anyone, but she couldn't help herself. Even when she knew what she was doing, she didn't want to stop. She arrived in America from Ireland in 1883 with the hope of making her life better. She acquired a position as a cook with a wealthy banker, and that family rented a house on Long Island for the summer.

Mary went there to cook, and six people who stayed there came down with a case of typhoid fever, which can be spread through water or food. It can also be fatal.

Investigators on Long Island were unable to find any contaminated source, so a sanitary engineer, George Soper, went in to evaluate the house. He thought the source might be soft clams, but eventually changed his mind and focused on the cook, Mary Mallon. She appeared to be healthy, but that did not eliminate her as a carrier. According to Judith Walzer Leavitt in Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public Health, Mary became the center of a badly handled investigation.

She had already taken another position, but Soper found her and told her that she was spreading this potentially deadly disease. He demanded urine and blood samples. She refused.

Soper then took an indirect route by researching her employment history, which went through eight separate families. Seven of them had experienced outbreaks of typhoid fever and one person had died. That meant that Mary was a public health hazard and Soper could turn her in, which he did.

New York City's health inspector was informed about the situation in 1907, so he grabbed Mary and forced her to be tested. It turned out that she did have the typhoid baccilli in her system. She was sent to live in a cottage on North Brother Island in the East River, where she stayed in isolation for three years and gained the moniker, "Typhoid Mary." The whole time she protested that she was perfectly healthy and ought not to be treated so badly.

Typhoid Mary in hospital bed (CORBIS)
Typhoid Mary in hospital bed (CORBIS)

Eventually she was released on the proviso that she refrain from working with food. She agreed to that condition for a while, but then changed her name and returned to cooking, since she could earn better money. However, she chose to work at a hospital, and she soon spread typhoid to more than 20 doctors, nurses, and staff members. Two people died. Mary was officially a serial killer, though she'd never lifted a hand against anyone.

The health department grabbed her again and this time they isolated her for the rest of her life — 23 more years. Yet even from there, she continued in the food industry, as she baked and sold cakes.

What Mary did was more from ignorance than viciousness, though three people died as a result. Still, it's a far cry from the woman whose aggressive drive ended up in a double murder that got her the electric chair.

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