Nov 15, 2011

The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation

In 1906, a rich family vacationing in Oyster Bay, NY started to get sick. Very sick. It turns out they'd come down with typhoid, a disease forever associated with one woman: Typhoid Mary. You think you know this story, and we thought we knew this story too. But as producer Sean Cole explains, the details reveal a troubling, very human story behind the anecdote. Mary Mallon was the first documented "healthy carrier" (someone who, despite being infected, shows no outward signs of being sick) in North America. It's an idea that seems so familiar, even obvious, to us today, that's it hard to imagine how unreal it must have felt to Mary--who was taken from her home by the police, and quarantined on North Brother Island in a tiny cottage separated from Manhattan by the East River. Sean and producer Lynn Levy pay a visit to the hospital where Mary spent her final days, and historians Judith Walzer Leavitt and David Rosner help us relive her story.

Read more:

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health

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Lynn: Have we said where we are on tape yet?

Jad: Starting us off today, our producer is Lynn Levy and Sean Cole.

Sean: Very pretty day to be on an abandoned island where victims of contagious disease were quarantined. One in particular who lived here died here never believing that she was in fact sick and dangerous.

Robert: This is a story that begins when?

Jad: Actually, it starts in 1906 and it doesn't start on the island. It starts in Oyster Bay.

Robert: Ooh, nice neighborhood.

Jad: Very nice. There was this one rich family on vacation there.

Judy: Their daughter gets sick. She gets sick first.

Jad: This is Judy Leavitt.

Judy: I am Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin.

Jad: She wrote a book about this story. Basically the girl, the daughter,, has a fever. Then her sister comes down with it and then her mom and the maid.

Judy: About six out of 11 in the family get sick.

Sean: With this disease, the fever is just the first part of it.

Judy: Both diarrhea or constipation are reported. It can go either way, I guess.

Robert: What is it?

Sean: Typhoid.

Judy: They couldn't figure out what had caused the disease. They called in this sanitary engineer named George Soper.

Sean: With the Public Health Department he was a go-to guy for outbreaks like this. Back then the Department of Public Health was thinking would you get sick because of something dirty near you.

Robert: In the well or in the pipes?

Sean: Yes. He looks into all of that.

Judy: Did a whole test on the house and the water and everything. He couldn't find anything and so-

Sean: He starts talking to the family.

Judy: He started quizzing them all and they remember [crosstalk] summer.

Sean: Eventually he builds up this whole picture of several outbreaks going back years.

David: 1900, Mamaroneck, a New York family had a house for the summer. Dark Harbor, Maine, 1904, 7 cases, Sands Point, New York. Autumn, 1906. Winter, 1907, New York City. All these cases and they all had one thing in common.

Robert: What?

Sean: Each of these families had employed the same cook.

Robert: Really?

Sean: Which is funny because when you cook food you kill the bacteria in the food.

Robert: So couldn't be the cook then.

Sean: This cook-

Judy: Her most famous dish was Peach Melba, which is ice cream and fresh peaches.

Sean: Fresh Peaches, raw fruit.

Judy: It was a perfect medium.

Sean: The cook's name was Mary Mallon.

Robert: Mary Mallon.

Jad: Wait a second, Sean Cole.

Robert: Typhoid-

Jad: Typhoid Mary is who we're talking about?

Robert: We know this story.

Sean: No, you don't know this story.

Robert: What do you mean?

Sean: Everybody thinks they know this story. I thought I knew this story and then when I looked into it, I realized, I didn't know the first thing about it. When you look into the details, they tell us some very difficult things about who we were and who we still are in a lot of ways. It's all in the details. All of the juice and problem like the-

Robert: The peach juice.

Jad: Yes, just like the peach juice still dealing with it.

Robert: Wait, I'm Robert Krulwich. [laughter] Go ahead, go ahead, do your part.

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: This is Radiolab. In this hour-

Jad: A series of stories that all hue to that delicious story archetype we call-

Robert: Patient zero. The first cause.

Jad: We'll try to trace ideas and trends and massive social traumas like pandemics back to that one person.

Robert: One critter. The other way you can call it is called the, but for. If you didn't have this thing, but for this thing, you wouldn't have the rest of the story.

Jad: I like the but four.

Robert: The but for.

Jad: Meanwhile.

Robert: Back to the peaches.

Sean: George Soper's like, "I've got to find this woman," and when he finds her-

Lulu: She's in New York City working for another family.

David: The laundress had recently been taken to the Presbyterian Hospital with typhoid fever.

Jad: This is from an article Soper wrote called The Curious Case of Typhoid Mary.

Sean: The only child of the family, a lovely daughter, was dying of it.

Jad: He goes to the house, walks into the kitchen, sees this woman, five foot six, blonde hair, blue eyes.

David: Had a good figure. Might have been called athletic had she not been a little too heavy.

Sean: Irish immigrant, 36 years old.

David: Not particularly clean.

Lulu: He says, "Mary Mallon, I think you are causing disease in people and I want samples of your urine, feces, and blood."

[laughter]

Sean: Good afternoon. She says-

David: What are you accusing me of being sick?

Jad: Playing the role of Mary is Columbia Public Health Professor, David Rosner.

David: How dare you? I'm not a sick person.

Jad: What does she do?

David: She chases him out of the building.

Lulu: With a fork in her hand.

Sean: A serving fork.

Jad: A serving fork?

Sean: Yes.

David: I felt rather lucky to escape.

Jad: Did she have typhoid?

Sean: Did she outwardly have typhoid?

David: That's the thing. She never had any symptoms. She felt perfectly healthy.

Sean: She was actually the first documented case in North America of a healthy carrier, which is to say someone who has the disease and is contagious, but never actually feels the-

Robert: The symptoms?

Sean: The symptoms. In one weird way, Soper's thrilled. He's only read about this, and then here she is in front of him. Think of how all of this must-have sounded to Mary. Some guy from outer space comes into your kitchen and says, "You're diseased and you're hurting people."

David: She must have though, "What? I feel fine. I'm living a moral life. I'm not a vagrant. I'm employed. I'm a good, solid citizen." You would be crazed too. Wouldn't you? Even today?

Jad: You'd probably grab your knife. Yes.

David: You'd grab your knife.

Robert: Does he have any evidence though that she is spreading the disease?

Sean: Not yet. That's why he needs her poop. He goes back, finds her at a rooming house. She kicks him out, swears at him.

Judy: She apparently had quite a temper.

Robert: Then the health department sends in this female doctor.

Judy: By the name of S. Josephine Baker. Maybe she could ask for blood, feces and urine a little more gently.

Jad: I just don't know how you ask for that gently. She tries. When it doesn't work, she comes back a little bit later with cops.

Judy: They come to the house and Mary Mallon, when she realizes what's happening, disappears.

Jad: What do you mean disappears? She just vanishes?

Judy: Just completely vanishes. They end up searching the entire place and they can't find her. Finally, I think they're about to leave when one of them spots-

David: Her skirt at coming outside of a door.

Judy: It's a little piece of calico stuck in a doorway.

David: They open the door and there she is.

Judy: They drag her out and she comes out kicking and screaming and-

David: Screaming and kicking.

Judy: It takes all of them to drag her out.

David: Protesting.

Judy: They get her in the ambulance and Josephine Baker sits on her, according to her. Sits on her.

Sean: Baker later said-

Judy: Something like it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.

Sean: They take her down to the hospital.

Judy: They tested her feces and urine and they found that, yes, she was in fact a carrier of live typhoid bacilli.

David: It's a weird island, man. I spent a while on here.

Judy: They isolate her and they ultimately move her from Manhattan to North Brother Island.

Lynn: Let's have a bit of a haunted vibe.

David: There she is.

Sean: Thanks, man.

David: There's no need.

Sean: We went there just to try to get our heads around what she must have thought.

Lynn: What do you think?

Jad: What was the island like?

Sean: Man, everything is completely overgrown. It was really creepy.

Robert: Creepy, because it was in such disillusion?

Sean: Yes. Be careful where you step. On one end there are all of these former medical buildings, including a giant hospital where they isolated tuberculosis patients. Big brick stately building. On the other side of the island, there's smaller wooden buildings that are crushed. This may be where her cottage is, where her cottage would be if it was still standing, but it's not standing anymore.

Judy: It was one room, it had a kitchen, it had, I guess, a sleeping area and a sitting area. It probably wasn't so bad if you didn't have to stay there. Any places that you're not free to leave becomes like a prison.

Sean: We're marching around and then Lynn says to me, "Hey, look at the view," and holy moly.

Lynn: Take a look at that.

Sean: It's right there. That's when it really hit me. If this is where her cabin was, then one window of it looked exactly onto Manhattan.

Judy: She could have seen where she used to live.

Sean: You can see that traffic on the streets. This was like the most horrible seaside vacation.

Judy: Almost the whole time they had her incarcerated they took feces three times a week, which it's not pleasant to have to do that. Sometimes she was negative and sometimes she was positive.

Jad: Wait, what?

Sean: That's another thing that they were figuring out at the time. She was probably an intermittent carrier.

Jad: What does that mean?

Sean: The disease is always in her but sometimes she excretes it, and sometimes she doesn't.

Jad: That must have been confusing for her.

Judy: When I first came here I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch.

Sean: This is from a letter that Mary wrote from the island.

Judy: I have, in fact, been a peep show for everybody.

Sean: If you keep reading it, and in fact it's addressed to a lawyer, it's clear that she was fighting this. She had been sending her own feces samples herself to a private lab in Manhattan and each one of those was negative.

Robert: Really?

Judy: The tuberculosis men would say, "There she is, the kidnapped woman."

Sean: That is poison ivy. She sues the city and loses. Still, there are all these questions as to whether any of this is legal. Even George Soper, the guy who hunted her down, said it was contrary to the Constitution of the United States to hold her under the circumstance.

Jad: How long was she on this island?

Sean: Three years?

Jad: Wow.

Sean: Then what changed was a new health commissioner took over.

Judy: He says, "It's just not right that we keep a healthy woman locked up like this." She was not dangerous to anybody if she didn't cook.

Sean: He lets her go.

Robert: He lets her go?

Sean: Yes.

Jad: Back to Manhattan?

Sean: But he makes her promise.

Judy: She did promise, she signed an affidavit.

Sean: Saying she'll never cook again, and she was released. They set her up with a job as a laundress and they went, "Here you go Mary," then they kept track of her for a while, and then at a certain point they stopped keeping track of her.

[laughter]

Jad: What happened?

Robert: How many years will go by?

Sean: Five.

Robert: Five.

Jad: What happens next?

Sean: There's an outbreak of typhoid.

[laughter]

Jad: Where?

Sean: At a maternity hospital.

Robert: You’re kidding.

Jad: Wow.

Sean: Josephine Baker, who sat on her in the ambulance before, she says that she goes and pays a visit and walks into the kitchen and she says the first person that she encountered was Typhoid Mary Mallon. George Soper did some legwork on where Mary had been and it turned out she had worked at a restaurant, two hotels, and in and a sanatorium as well as the hospital.

Robert: Wow.

Sean: At least according to his account, two of the people that she made sick during those couple years were children.

David: She was now a woman who could not claim innocence. She was known willfully and deliberately to have taken desperate chances with human life, she had abused her privilege, she had broken her parole.

Judy: Then they put her back on North Brother Island back in her bungalow and there she sits.

David: She was a dangerous character and must be treated accordingly.

Robert: Absolutely. She's broke her promise.

Jad: Yes, I totally agree.

Robert: She made a deal and she didn't keep the deal.

Sean: The thing is that at the time she was sent back to the island, there were hundreds of other healthy carriers identified all over New York and some of them were cooks.

Jad: What?

Robert: Really?

Sean: Mostly men, by the way.

Jad: They were cooking?

Sean: Well, they were barred from cooking but not all of them always listened, and yet Mary was the only one who they isolated in this way.

Robert: Why? Why only her?

Sean: I think it was more about making people feel safe than actually making them safe. Look out for this stair, it's all crumbled. She was what we needed at the time. We’re in the hospital where the tuberculosis patients were quarantined. This was towards the end of Lynn and my visit to the island.

Sean: These must be the wards.

Lynn: Definitely. When was she here?

Sean: This is where they brought her after she had a stroke and this is where she was for the last six years of her life.

Lynn: Did she die in here?

Sean: Yes.

[pause]

 

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