Stories of Quarantine – Typhoid Mary

Quarantine is derived from the Latin word “quadraginta” which translates to forty. This was the standard amount of time ships or people would be isolated before being able to enter a country.

The earliest record of quarantine is found in the Old Testament, via Leviticus chapter 13, in 1513 B.C.  It speaks of anyone with wounds that look of leprosy, to seek out a priest and be “shut up” for consecutive weeks. The priest will then either deem you clean or un-clean.

The next mention of quarantine was in A.D. 549, as the world was just recovering from the bubonic plague. The Byzantine emperor Justinian was just coming into power and was enacting many laws to help his country recover from numerous problems. One of these laws was to hinder or isolate people arriving from plague-infested areas.

I researched many references to quarantines, but the one I found most interesting was about Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon. She was born in Cookstown, Ireland, in 1869 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1884. She worked many domestic position type jobs, but settled on cooking as her calling. She worked for many wealthy families in the Manhattan area.

In 1906, Mary started working for Charles Henry Warren and his family, in a summer rental from George Thompson in Oyster Bay, Rhode Island. Shortly after her arrival, one of the Warren’s small children got ill, and then six of the eleven in the household fell ill days later. Thompson hired a Sanitarian by the name of George Soper to look into the situation. He thought it may be the soft-shelled clams in the area, but some of the infected did not eat them. Soper began to suspect the cook, Mary. He was able to obtain her work records and that from seven of her past jobs, twenty-two people had been infected with Typhoid.

In March 1907 Soper, with the aide of NYC Department of Health, was able to have Mary tested for Typhoid Fever, and she was positive, but without symptoms, a carrier. Health officials based their power to quarantine Mary based on sections 1169 & 1170 of the Greater N Y Charter.  She was quarantined at the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island for the next two years. In 1909, she unsuccessfully tried to sue the health department, as she was detained without a trial, but won the hearts of many sympathetic people. In 1910, a new health commissioner was entering office, and offered Mary a break. She entered into an agreement that she will NOT work in the food industry, keep her address current, and continue to be tested.

Mary had no intention of honoring the agreement, as she “felt fine” and had no symptoms. For the next five years, Mary continued to work as a cook. Then in 1915, there was a Typhoid Fever outbreak at the Sloane Maturity Hospital in Manhattan – twenty-five ill and two deaths. The recently hired cook, Mary “Brown” was the source.

The public no longer sympathized with Mary, as she was now perceived as being malicious in her intent. Mary was placed back on North Brother Island for the rest of her life, in 1938. Mary had been isolated for a total of 26 years.

© Ilex Farrell ~ Midwestern Plant Girl

3 thoughts on “Stories of Quarantine – Typhoid Mary

  1. Pingback: Bark Borer Galleries | Midwestern Plants

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