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In Her Own Words


Most Dangerous Woman homepage

Few instances of the thoughts and handwriting of Mary Mallon, aka "Typhoid Mary," have come down to us. The longest surviving letter, and the one most telling of her plight and state of mind in the height of her quarantine, is a six-page, hand-scrawled diatribe she wrote in late June 1909. By this time, she had been quarantined against her will for over two years on an island in New York City's East River. Below, read the letter and get inside the mind of a woman tragically caught between a rock and a hard place: her discovery and labeling as a healthy carrier of typhoid who by this time had already infected numerous people through her cooking—and the city's obligation to protect the public's health. Reading between the lines, one gets a sense of just how frustrated, upset, and spiteful this 39-year-old Irish immigrant has become at her situation, a situation from which she ultimately never escaped.—Peter Tyson

Note: Mallon's letter (below) has been edited for clarity, spelling, and punctuation as well as broken into paragraphs for more manageable reading. As you read it, click on highlighted words for more information. To peruse the original handwritten letter, click on image below right.

George Francis O'Neill

To the Editor of the American

In reply to Dr. Park of the Board of Health I will state that I am not segregated with the typhoid patients. There is nobody on this island that has typhoid. There was never any effort by the Board authority to do anything for me excepting to cast me on the island and keep me a prisoner without being sick nor needing medical treatment. When I first came here they took two blood cultures, and feces went down three times per week, say Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, respectively, until the latter part of June. After that they only got the feces once a week, which was on Wednesday. Now they have given me a record for nearly a year for three times a week.

When I first came here I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch, and the left eyelid became paralyzed and would not move. It remained in that condition for six months. There was an eye specialist [who] visited the island three and four times a week. He was never asked to visit me. I did not even get a cover for my eye. I had to hold my hand on it whilst going about and at night tie a bandage on it.

In December when Dr. Wilson took charge, he came to me and I told him about it. He said that was news to him and that he would send me his electric battery, but he never sent [it]. However, my eye got better thanks to the Almighty God and no thanks in spite of the medical staff. Dr. Wilson ordered me urotropin. I got that on and off for a year. Sometimes they had it, and sometimes they did not. I took the urotropin for about three months all told during the whole year. If I should have continued [it], it would certainly have killed me for it was very severe. Everyone knows who is acquainted in any kind of medicine that it's used for kidney trouble.

When in January [1908] they were about to discharge me, when the resident physician came to me and asked me where was I going when I got out of here, naturally I said to N.Y., so there was a stop put to my getting out of here. Then the supervising nurse told me I was a hopeless case, and if I'd write to Dr. Darlington and tell him I'd go to my sisters in Connecticut. Now I have no sister in that state or any other in the U.S. Then in April a friend of mine went to Dr. Darlington and asked him when I was to get away. He replied "That woman is all right now, and she is a very expensive woman, but I cannot let her go myself. The Board has to sit. Come around Saturday." When he did, Dr. Darlington told this man "I've nothing more to do with this woman. Go to Dr. Studdiford."

He went to that doctor, and he said "I cannot let that woman go, and all the people that she gave the typhoid to and so many deaths occurred in the families she was with." Dr. Studdiford said to this man "Go and ask Mary Mallon and enveigle her to have an operation performed to have her gallbladder removed. I'll have the best surgeon in town to do the cutting." I said "No. No knife will be put on me. I've nothing the matter with my gallbladder." Dr. Wilson asked me the very same question. I also told him no. Then he replied "It might not do you any good." Also the supervising nurse asked me to have an operation performed. I also told her no, and she made the remark "Would it not be better for you to have it done than remain here?" I told her no.

There is a visiting doctor who came here in October. He did take quite an interest in me. He really thought I liked it here, that I did not care for my freedom. He asked me if I'd take some medicine if he brought it to me. I said I would, so he brought me some Anti Autotox and some pills then. Dr. Wilson had already ordered me brewer's yeast. At first I would not take it, for I'm a little afraid of the people, and I have a good right for when I came to the Department they said they were in my [intestinal] tract. Later another said they were in the muscles of my bowels. And latterly they thought of the gallbladder.

I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say "There she is, the kidnapped woman." Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.

Mallon signature image



Epilogue

In mid-July 1909, Judge Mitchell Erlanger of the New York Supreme Court, believing Mallon remained a danger to society, dismissed her petition for release and ordered her back to North Brother Island. But seven months later, Ernst J. Lederle, the city's new health commissioner, took pity on Mallon and released her on the promise that she never again work as a cook. Lederle, however, did not help her train for another profession that would have provided her with the standard of living to which she had become accustomed. This oversight would have serious consequences.

Initially the Department of Health kept tabs on Mallon, but eventually they lost touch with her. Then, in 1915, health officials traced an outbreak of typhoid fever at Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan to the facility's cook, a "Mrs. Brown." This turned out to be Mary Mallon. She was immediately sent back to North Brother Island, where she was forced to remain for the rest of her life. She died there on November 11, 1938, having lived a total of 26 years on the island.

All told, Mary Mallon is thought to have given typhoid to 47 people, three of whom died.

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Mary in hospital

Not at all happy with her situation, Mary Mallon lies in a hospital bed after being apprehended by the authorities in 1907 for being a carrier of typhoid fever.

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Letter icon

To read through Mallon's letter in the original is to get a visceral sense of her frustrations. To see all six pages of the original, click on the image above.

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The Most Dangerous Woman in America
In Her Own Words

In Her Own Words
Read an impassioned letter Mary Mallon wrote in 1909.

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Typhoid Mary:
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An historian says health officials should share blame for Mallon's behavior.

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History of Quarantine
Follow an illustrated chronology, from Roman times to the present.

Disease Detective

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Trace the outbreak of a mysterious illness, "dizzy fever," to its source.



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