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FATAL FEVER:
Tracking Down Typhoid Mary

Where could she hide? Mary headed for the back door. Frantically, she scanned the snow-covered yard for a hiding place, but she saw nothing. Policemen were looking for her inside the house and out on the street. She was trapped.

A high wooden fence separated the backyard from the house next door. If she could just get over that fence and into the neighbor’s yard...

A wooden chair pushed up against the fence would do the trick.

Thank Almighty God she had friends who would help. Would say that they had no idea where she’d gone. Would point out a small outside closet under the neighbor’s front steps. Would pile some ashcans against its closed door after she climbed in.

Mary shut the door behind her and crouched down.

She didn’t know it, but she wasn’t alone in that cramped, cold closet. Deep inside her body, billions of deadly microorganisms were hiding, too.

(Excerpt from FATAL FEVER)

FECES, FINGERS, FOOD, FLIES

In 1900, typhoid fever killed 35,000 people in the United States. It was one of America’s top five deadly infectious diseases. Typhoid was so common that one in ten Americans could expect to get it during his or her lifetime.

Typhoid symptoms include a high temperature, fatigue, abdominal pain, and red spots on the chest and abdomen. In severe cases, patients become delirious, develop diarrhea, and bleed profusely from the intestines. They grow weaker until they die, often in agonizing pain.

Only humans catch typhoid fever. Only humans pass it to others. The typhoid bacterium spreads from person to person when human waste (feces and urine) gets mixed with food and water. Doctors referred to typhoid as the disease caused by the four Fs: feces, fingers, food, and flies.

GERM DETECTIVE

During the early twentieth century, many Americans pulled their drinking water from streams and rivers contaminated by leaky outhouses and city sewage. Sanitation engineer Dr. George Soper helped communities remove human waste from their water supply. He was known as an expert in tracking down the source of typhoid epidemics.

In the fall of 1906, a wealthy Long Island homeowner hired Soper to find out why a typhoid fever outbreak had occurred at his house that summer. Soper’s investigation put him on the trail of the household’s former cook, Mary Mallon. Tracing her steps back ten years, Soper discovered that she had infected at least 24 people in families for whom she cooked. One person had died.

When Soper finally tracked down Mallon in early 1907, she was cooking for a well-to-do family in New York City. He alerted the NYC Health Department. The Department sent medical inspector Dr. S. Josephine Baker to test the woman for typhoid.

Insulted and outraged, Mallon refused to cooperate. She insisted that she had never had typhoid and had never made anyone sick. Baker returned the next day with policemen. At the sight of them, Mallon bolted. But within hours, Baker and the officers found her and forcibly took her to a hospital.

A LIVING TYPHOID FACTORY

Although Mallon was healthy and had no typhoid fever symptoms, tests showed that her feces were teeming with typhoid bacteria. The cook had been passing on the germs as she prepared meals, evidently with unwashed hands.

Afraid that Mallon might sicken more people, the Health Department confined her to its quarantine island in the East River. She tried and failed to have a judge release her. The newspapers covering her 1909 court hearing called her “Typhoid Mary,” an unwelcome nickname that has stuck for more than a century.

BUT MARY'S STORY WASN'T OVER...

FIND OUT MORE!

Online

Books

  • Baker, S. Josephine. Fighting for Life. New York: New York Review of Books, 2013. (Baker’s autobiography)

  • Bourdain, Anthony. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001.

  • Leavitt, Judith Walzer. Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

  • Keane, Mary Beth. Fever. New York: Scribner, 2013. (adult fiction)

  • Chibbaro, Julie. Deadly. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011. (YA fiction)



   

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