It’s March 27th, 1915 in a residential neighborhood of Long Island, New York.
Investigator and health expert George Soper pulls his car to a stop and cuts the engine. He turns to the small band of local policemen in the car with him and gives them a nod: now they wait.
The men sit without speaking, patiently hoping that today will be the day George’s long hunt comes to an end.
For years, George has been on the trail of a local cook who he believes is spreading typhoid to the people of New York. But finding and capturing her has been an infuriating endeavor because she’s proven to be a slippery suspect—and potentially violent. George and the other officers will have to be careful.
But right now might be the moment. Approaching the car from the gloom of the dark winter night, a silhouette appears down the block, carrying something. George can’t quite make out what, or see the face clearly, so he pulls out his binoculars.
It’s a woman, with a basket. George strains to see more, trying to make sure this is his target. And that’s when he catches the loaf of bread, peeking out from the basket’s cover.
George cranks the car’s engine and races forward down the block. He must stop this woman before she can deliver her basket of food—and potentially spread typhoid to yet another victim.
George steps out of the car and watches as the officers surround the woman and order her to put her hands in the air. As she drops her basket and complies, George crosses the street and confirms that this is indeed the person he’s been hunting. After years of tireless searching, George has finally found the elusive Mary Mallon, more infamously known as ‘Typhoid Mary.’
In 1907, an outbreak of typhoid in Long Island’s Oyster Bay puzzled health experts. No one understood why a bacterial infection associated with poor sanitation was suddenly spreading among the summer homes of wealthy New Yorkers. Until epidemiologist George Soper investigated and found the source: the families’ shared cook, Mary Mallon. Mary proved to be a carrier for the often lethal disease. But she herself showed no symptoms of typhoid.
For the next eight years, George faced an uphill battle trying to convince Mary, and the medical community, that asymptomatic carriers exist, and that Mary’s one of them. As George worked tirelessly to prove his hypothesis and get the cook away from the public, Mary fought to elude his grasp and maintain her freedom. For years, the two engage in a protracted cat-and-mouse chase, until George tracked the cook down for a final time and the authorities arrested Typhoid Mary in the name of public health on this day, March 27th, 1915.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 27th, 1915: The Arrest of Typhoid Mary.
Act One: A Release and a Promise
It’s February 19th, 1910 on North Brother Island in New York City’s East River, five years before the final capture of Mary Mallon.
Health expert George Soper follows a nurse down the long corridors of Riverside Hospital. He feels chills run through his body as the nurse stops, pulls out a key, and opens the door to the confined quarters of the infamous ‘Typhoid Mary.’
George first learned of Mary three years ago after he was approached to investigate a typhoid outbreak among Long Island’s wealthier families. As he investigated, a pattern soon emerged: each family had employed Irish cook Mary Mallon. After George tracked Mary down, he managed to obtain samples that proved she carried typhoid. And with the help of the police, he arrested Mary who was then forcibly quarantined at Riverside Hospital.
Located between Rikers Island and mainland Bronx, Riverside serves as a center for the control of contagious diseases, where patients are completely confined to their rooms. And since Mary has been at Riverside, she’s tested positive for typhoid multiple times. But she displays no outward symptoms of the disease and remains adamant that she is not infected.
George Soper believes she is. And to prove his asymptomatic carrier theory, George has been here many times to conduct interviews and research. But his previous encounters with Mary have been far from civilized. Her brash, aggressive nature has made his investigation, and treating her, a difficult experience. But today, George brings what he assumes will be welcome news: Mary is being released. The New York State Health Commissioner has declared that disease carriers shall no longer be kept in isolation. George doesn’t agree with this decision and still thinks Mary poses a risk to public health. But orders are orders. And George has no choice but to do as he’s told.
So George steps into Mary’s room to give her the news. He nods and smiles but Mary only gives a cold look back before turning away in disgust. So, George instead clears his throat and gets right to the point. He tells her that the powers that be have decided that she will no longer be forced to remain in isolation; she is free to leave the quarantine of North Brother Island.
George does not tell her what might be waiting for Mary once she’s released.
Ever since news of Mary’s capture broke three years ago, many people in New York and the media have been unkind to her. There have been scathing articles written about ‘Typhoid Mary,’ portraying the cook as the woman who selfishly spread disease to the people of New York. No pictures of Mary have ever been published. The public does not know who she is or what she looks like. And after her release, it’s likely only a matter of time before people realize that Mary Mallon is Typhoid Mary they so despise.
But unlike the public, George feels sorry for the woman sitting in front of him. It is not her fault that she carries typhoid. She was likely infected through her mother while she was still in the womb. And with medicine still lacking, the only way doctors believe they can cure her is by removing her gallbladder — an operation Mary has refused.
But George also worries about the harm Mary might do to the public if she continues spreading typhoid. Though Mary can’t easily rid herself of the disease, she can limit the number of people she spreads it to. And already, George has a plan to mitigate the damage and keep Mary close even after she leaves the hospital.
George grabs a chair and takes a seat in front of Mary. Then, he slowly and sternly lays out the conditions of her release. First, she must give up her vocation as a cook - a job that enables the rapid spread of her disease. Second, she must take every precaution to wash her hands and keep her distance from others. And lastly, Mary is to report back to George and the health department every three months. George explains that if she does not take these precautions, it’s possible she could cause another outbreak.
Mary again looks away from George and lets out a small and rueful laugh. For a moment, George wonders if Mary is about to lose her temper and lash out. But instead, she takes a breath and then looks back at George. She smiles and says she will do whatever he asks. George thanks Mary for her cooperation, before rising and going on his way.
But the release of Mary Mallon will prove to be a huge misstep by the New York Health Department. Not long after, Mary will disregard her instructions and resume working as a cook, infecting many more people. Eventually, George will be called in to investigate once again. And this time, George’s search will turn into a far lengthier affair that will eventually land Mary back into quarantine - this time for good.
Act Two: An Outbreak and a Search
It’s early 1915, five years after Mary Mallon’s release from Riverside Hospital.
Inside his home study, George Soper tries to focus on his work. But his thoughts are consumed by what he considers his biggest piece of unfinished business.
In the years since Mary Mallon left North Brother Island, George hasn’t seen or heard from her. Mary has failed to keep her promise of reporting back to him and the health authorities every three months. In fact, George has not seen Mary even once since she was released, even though he has searched for her near and far.
But her disappearance isn’t surprising. The asymptomatic Mary has long maintained that she’s not a carrier of typhoid, despite tests proving otherwise. And before she was released from the hospital, she made it clear that she felt her confinement was both unjust and unnecessary.
George disagrees. He’s positive Mary is still a risk to public health and that, wherever she is now, she’s more than likely spreading disease. But the medical community at large has failed to take his concerns seriously as George’s asymptomatic carrier theory has yet to gain traction in medical circles. George fears now that it will take an outbreak even more devastating than the last one to prove his case. But he’s confident that if he can connect at least one more typhoid case to Mary Mallon, he will have enough evidence to substantiate his theory, and convince authorities of Mary's threat.
But George is surprised to learn that the evidence he’s looking for will come so soon: a telephone call interrupts his work, and when George picks up, he hears the worried voice of Dr. Edward B. Craigen, calling from one of New York City’s women’s hospitals. In a panicked voice, the doctor tells George that there’s been a serious outbreak of typhoid at the hospital, counting over 20 cases so far.
Immediately, George suspects Mary. So he drops what he’s doing and heads for the hospital.
There, he begins his investigation by speaking with nurses assigned to the ward where the outbreak first occurred. One of them speculates that the culprit behind the outbreak is a cook who works at the hospital. George’s ears perk up and he quickly asks for the cook’s name. The nurse explains that everyone jokingly calls her Typhoid Mary, after the mysterious woman who allegedly spread the disease nearly ten years ago. But the cook’s real name is Mary Brown.
George presses the nurse for more information and learns that Mary Brown is around five feet and six inches in height, with blonde hair, steely blue eyes, and an Irish accent. George is stunned. She perfectly fits the description of Mary Mallon. But no one knows where this so-called Mary Brown is now. A few weeks ago, just after the outbreak began, Mary stopped showing up to work.
This news makes George even more confident that Mary Brown is indeed Mary Mallon. In the past, it has been Mary’s MO to flee whenever she sparks an outbreak, likely attempting to evade capture and further investigation. But before he follows this lead, George wants one more piece of evidence.
He heads to Dr. Craigen’s office and asks for a copy of any document with the cook’s handwriting on it. George knows what Mary’s penmanship looks like. And if she has been working at this hospital and pretending to be someone else, a piece of paper with her handwriting on it would provide proof. Dr. Craigen manages to find one of her letters and hands it to George. The moment George looks at it, he recognizes the writing as Mary Mallon’s.
A grim smile crosses George’s face. This is enough to link Mary to yet another outbreak. Medical experts will have a hard time arguing that the disease constantly following in Mary’s wake is but a coincidence.
As George leaves the hospital, he eagerly launches a new search for Mary. Not long into it, he receives a tip from a witness who claims to have seen a woman matching Mary’s description. They say she routinely delivers food to the home of a sick, elderly man on an estate in Long Island, usually at the dead of night. And so, with the help of the local police, George patiently waits and then intercepts Mary.
But the Mary George captures is not the defiant, fiery woman he first met back in 1907. After five years, Mary is tired and broken, beaten and battered by life on the run. So when George and the police close in on her at Long Island, she is far more accepting of her fate. There is no struggle or chase. And on March 27th, 1915, Mary Mallon is sent back to North Brother Island for the final time.
The arrest of the mythical Typhoid Mary will quickly make headlines. Her tie to the outbreak at the women’s hospital will also be enough for George’s theory of asymptomatic carriers to finally gain some credibility. But the acceptance of his peers will not feel like a victory. That feat will come with a heavy understanding of the lives unnecessarily lost because of Mary’s infection, and the harsh reality that Mary will have no choice but to spend the rest of her life as a pariah.
Act Three: An Eternity and an End
It’s July 1925 on North Brother Island, over ten years after the recapture of Mary Mallon.
Dr. Alexandra Plavska walks down one of the island’s cobbled paths to a cottage that is now the residence of the infamous ‘Typhoid Mary.’
Given Mary’s behavior before her recapture, the authorities made it clear that she would still have to remain isolated on the island for the rest of her life. But, after returning to the secluded rooms of Riverside Hospital, Mary was offered this alternative living arrangement to provide her some modicum of freedom. In her cottage, Mary has spent the last decade living, eating, and sleeping alone. But Dr. Plavska is here to present her with a new opportunity, one to break up the monotony of Mary’s days.
As she nears Mary’s front door, Dr. Plavska feels a sense of trepidation. She’s new to the island and has heard rumors about the Irish woman’s temperament. But, she feels sympathetic toward Mary and what must be a lonely life of struggle. So, Dr. Plavska forges ahead and knocks on the door. For a moment there is no response. Then she hears the squeak of chair and slow lumbering footsteps. The latch clicks, and the door creaks open to reveal the now 55-year-old Mary Mallon.
Dr. Plavska introduces herself and explains that she has a proposition. Mary’s still steely blue eyes assess the doctor for a few moments. Then, without a word, she pulls the door open and retreats back inside. Dr. Plavska follows her and takes a seat across from Mary, explaining that she’s setting up a laboratory on the island, and she wants Mary to come work as a paid lab assistant.
For the last seven years, Mary has been able to work as a domestic servant at the hospital, earning just $20 a month, about $350 today. Dr. Plavska explains though that she will be paid more as a lab assistant plus the work will be less menial, and she will personally train Mary.
Mary responds with a single nod and a wry half-smile. For all the vilification she has faced, this seems like an odd kindness, especially from someone new to the island who would only know the media’s negative portrayal of her. But Mary relishes the prospect of doing something more with her life, something she thought she would never again be able to achieve.
So the next day, Mary starts her new job as a lab assistant. And for the next seven years, it’s a rare reprieve from a life of forced solitude. Then, in 1932, Mary suffers a stroke that leaves her incapacitated and confined to the island’s hospital. Six years later, Mary passes away from pneumonia at the age of 69.
Only nine people will attend her funeral. But Mary’s legacy will endure. The case of Mary Mallon, the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, will become a turning point in medical history. Her story will lead to fresh questions regarding an individual’s responsibility for the health of their wider society. Academics will devote new energy to studying asymptomatic carriers. And as understanding of the concept grows, the public’s perception of Mary will shift and grow more sympathetic, igniting new debates over the ethics of her arrest and isolation. In the years that follow, a handful of other asymptomatic typhoid carriers will be found, but none will be sent into such severe quarantine as Mary Mallon was after her final arrest on March 27th, 1915.
Next on History Daily. March 28th,1979. The worst nuclear accident in American history begins when the Three Mile Island power plant experiences a partial meltdown.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Luke Lonergan.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.