Annie Wilkinson

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Annie Wilkinson is an an award-winning former associate editor of the Long Island Press. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have run her features and cover stories.

Typhoid Mary: The Infamous Cook’s Deadly Gold Coast Legacy

Mary Mallon (foreground) in a hospital bed during her first quarantine.

Mary Mallon had spent most of her life living in squalid housing in the Lower East Side, but on August 4, 1906, she was escaping from all that, seated in a Long Island Rail Road car bound for Oyster Bay. The train pulled into the elegant new station that featured oyster shells in the exterior cement. She was looking forward to clean, cool, bay breezes.

She had been hired as a cook by Charles Henry Warren, the president of Lincoln Bank in Manhattan and banker to the Vanderbilts. Warren had rented a large yellow house with a wraparound porch at the corner of McCouns Lane and East Main Street. The mansion had well-manicured grounds at the edge of town sloping down to the bay, near President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer White House.

Mallon had come far since landing on American soil in 1883 as a 15-year-old from Ireland. The only people she knew were her aunt and uncle in New York City. They took her in but died shortly after. Mallon—also known as Mary Malone—had to fend for herself, a teenager with no family or friends, forging her way in a foreign land that was not entirely welcoming.

Earlier in the century in the mid-1800s, Americans had accused Irish immigrants of being rapists, carrying disease, practicing an un-American religion, and taking jobs away from American citizens—not unlike the anti-immigrant arguments of today. But by the late 19th century, those suspicions had lessened. Like many other immigrants, Mallon found work as a trusted domestic. She was a tall, blond, hard-working young woman who craved independence. She learned about cooking and became known as a good, plain cook, working for well-to-do Manhattan families. By 1900, the 37-year-old was preparing meals for prominent families, earning $45 per month, considered good wages. But she kept to herself and was seen as unsociable by the other servants.

Her specialty was dessert, so one night she made home-churned ice cream with fresh-cut peaches for the Warren household. Just weeks later, more than half the people served came down with typhoid fever. Between August 27 and September 3, six people fell ill. Three weeks after the outbreak, Mallon left abruptly, giving no notice.

An illustration of Typhoid Mary that appeared in the June 20, 1909 issue of The New York American.

Distrust and Denial

Typhoid attacked its victims with high fevers, aching muscles, stomach pains, exhaustion, and constipation or diarrhea. Untreated, the highly contagious infection could kill one in five people; in 1900, it killed 35,000 Americans. There was no cure, antibiotics didn’t exist, and a vaccine was not yet available.

Medical practitioners supported the “filth theory” of contagion, which held that typhoid was spread by unsanitary surroundings and people with poor hygiene and toilet habits. Immigrants, assumed to live in disease-ridden crowded housing, became scapegoats.

But what about the upper-class Warrens? None of them had associated with infected people.

Previously, medical disease theory of the 1850s embraced the “miasma theory,” blaming vapors (foul air) and environmental causes such as contaminated water and poor hygiene. In the late 1800s, doctors found that the typhoid toxin was transmitted through excrement and that water contaminated by human feces was responsible.

In 1900, researchers proved the germ theory: Tiny organisms invisible to the naked eye—like the typhoid-causing Salmonella typhi—could inhabit people and cause disease. This discovery revolutionized medicine.

But people remained suspicious of the invisibility theory. They couldn’t believe that things that couldn’t be seen could sicken humans—even in the best of homes.

When The New York Times covered the Oyster Bay outbreak, the home’s owner George Thompson panicked. As a member of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club at Oyster Bay, he had to protect his reputation. Fearing the home would be condemned and burned down by the health department, in the winter of 1906, Thompson hired epidemic expert Dr. George A. Soper.

The New York City Health Department sanitation engineer at first blamed soft clams for the outbreak. But after nearly a year, Dr. Soper switched theories. He had learned that Mallon had started working in Oyster Bay on August 4—about three weeks before the outbreak. Dr. Soper was the first to suggest the “healthy carrier” theory of an asymptomatic person—one who is healthy but transmits disease.

Physicians of that era discovered many facts about disease, but much was still unknown. Also unknown was that Mallon had survived a mild case of typhoid fever as a child.

The George Thompson Oyster Bay house, site of a Typhoid outbreak attributed to Mary Mallon. (Oyster Bay Historical Society)

Give Me Your Urine

In 1907, 3,000 New Yorkers had Salmonella typhi. Dr. Soper found that during the previous 10 years, seven of the eight households Mallon worked in had come down with typhoid cases; 22 people were infected, and several died. In 1904, when she was the cook at Henry Gilsey’s Sands Point summer estate, four servants became infected. People would become ill within weeks of her arrival, and she would vanish soon after.

Dr. Soper suspected that Mallon’s body was a typhoid breeding ground. We now know that 5 percent of infected people become chronic carriers, excreting typhoid bacteria in their feces for a year or more. Doctors posited that Mallon didn’t wash her hands thoroughly so she transmitted germs when handling food—as when cutting up raw peaches for ice cream desserts.

Dr. Soper had to test specimens to prove his theory. While investigating an outbreak at a Park Avenue brownstone in March 1907, he met the cook: It was Mallon. He recalled in 1939, “I told her she was spreading death and disease through her cooking.” With a less-than-compassionate bedside manner, he insisted on taking samples of feces, urine, and blood for tests. Her reaction? “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction.” He quickly fled.

But he continued to zealously stalk Mallon where she worked and at her home. The health department, backed up by police, apprehended Mallon in 1907 after chasing her for hours, and forced her to give samples. Her stool tested positive for typhoid.

Typhoid Mary

Up the River

With no trial, against her will, Mallon was physically restrained and taken to North Brother Island near Rikers Island. She was placed in involuntary confinement in a bungalow.

During the typhoid epidemic, people panicked, distrustful of each other and the authorities, and carriers were attacked by mobs. As Anthony Bourdain writes in Typhoid Mary, “It was not unheard of for those thought to be infected to be run out of town on a rail or set adrift in the Long Island Sound.”

During two years in confinement, most of her stool samples tested positive for typhoid. But no one tried to explain to Mallon why being a carrier was dangerous. After being hounded by Dr. Soper, she complained that the City of New York was persecuting her, insisting she had done no wrong. In 1908, the Journal of the American Medical Association dubbed her “Typhoid Mary.” Public sentiment was against her: She was a single, headstrong Irishwoman with no family or children, said to be the source of hundreds of typhoid infections.

A new health commissioner freed her in 1910. She promised to work as a domestic and not cook. But the department never trained her for a job that would pay well. Her laundress’ pay was inadequate so she resumed cooking, under assumed names. She fled her position at Sloane Maternity in Manhattan after 25 people fell ill—and two died—in three months. While working as a cook on a Long Island estate in 1915, she was apprehended, and again confined.

She protested by writing letters, saying she had “always been healthy,” and asking, “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement?” Doctors tried convincing her that while she seemed healthy, she spread bacteria. She didn’t believe them. They told her to wash her hands more often, more carefully. She didn’t listen.

Dr. Soper had described Mallon’s violent temper. Others said she had trouble making or keeping friends. She was seen as extremely determined and painfully isolated, even before being pursued.

But what if her suspicions (especially after being captured) resulted from her childhood typhoid? The Mayo Clinic states, “Untreated typhoid can cause permanent psychiatric problems such as delirium, hallucinations, and paranoia over the long term,” defining paranoia as “a symptom of a psychotic disorder in which patients become suspicious of others and feel that the world is out to get them.”

After 26 years of captivity, Mallon died in 1938. Historians say she contaminated at least 122 people and killed five. That same year, some 400 healthy carriers were identified and observed by the health department—but they were not confined. Mallon had broken no laws, but was exiled. Some say she was judged for being an Irish immigrant, for not staying out of the kitchen, and for being a noncompliant single woman.

After Mallon’s death, Dr. Soper wrote, “There was no autopsy.” Others reported that an autopsy was performed and showed that she shed Salmonella typhi bacteria from her gallstones. The National Institutes of Medicine calls the latter “another urban legend, whispered by the Health Center of Oyster Bay, in order to calm ethical reactions.”

Great Neck Comic Andy Kaufman Was The Ultimate Put-on Artist

Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man character became the basis for Latka Gravas on the long-running comedy Taxi.

The shabbily dressed, wild-eyed man was sitting quietly at a Chock full o’Nuts counter when he suddenly started banging his cup and screaming. Other customers glanced quickly at him and looked away, savvy New Yorkers knowing to avoid eye contact. A few decided it was time to get moving. No big deal. This was 1981 Manhattan. Wackos were an everyday thing.

The wacko in this case was Andy Kaufman, a once shy, Jewish kid from Long Island who was then at the top of his stardom, mesmerizing audiences with the oddball characters they loved and the jerks they despised.

Kaufman later described the coffee shop scene to an interviewer, but did it really happen? Or was it just another fantasy from his make-believe world, one more put-on from the master of performance art? The man, as the Los Angeles Times put it, who “may have been the greatest con artist in modern entertainment history.”

(Or not. As David Letterman once said, “Sometimes, when you look Andy in the eyes, you get a feeling somebody else is driving.”)

Either way, audiences remain fascinated by Kaufman’s story, even though it ended abruptly, in 1984, when the comic was 35. Netflix, in fact, has just acquired the rights to Jim & Andy, a new documentary based on the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman in a performance Carrey called a “psychotic” experience.

Andy’s Mad Funhouse

Kaufman’s inspirations sprang from what appeared to be a normal, middle-class childhood. Born in New York City in 1949, Kaufman was raised in affluent Great Neck, just another a suburban kid addicted to 1950s television. Cartoons and puppet shows were nourishing fodder for the future performer, who started out “producing” children’s shows from his room and by age 9 was performing at children’s birthday parties with a portable record player and puppets, props that would become part of his grown-up act.

Because he spent so many hours a day alone and staring out the window, or in his room working on his productions, his concerned parents sought psychiatric help for their son.

As he got older, Kaufman continued to soak up material. At Saddle Rock Elementary School, a visit from Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji provided the impetus for Kaufman to learn to play the conga drums. His grandmother took him to Times Square, where he was captivated by the freak show at Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus, and to Madison Square Garden professional wrestling matches, which inspired him to stage his own in his parents’ basement.

He completed his first novel, The Hollering Mangoo, when he was 16.

At Great Neck North, he was a poor student but a prolific writer of poetry and stories who carried around a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and hung out in Greenwich Village. After graduating from high school in 1967, he drove delivery trucks and drank heavily for a year. In 1968, he went to Boston to major in TV and radio production at Grahm Junior College, where he created and starred in Uncle Andy’s Funhouse on a closed-circuit campus TV station and performed at coffee houses. After graduating from college in 1971, he landed gigs at local New York clubs and restaurants, where he was spotted by Budd Friedman, owner of the Improvisation Comedy Club, the famed Improv.

“I am not a comic”

The irreverent comedians of the early 1970s – Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld – startled audiences with bold, often manic routines. But Kaufman was the antithesis of the joke-tellers who delivered the punch line then waited a beat for the laughter.

Affecting an English accent, he read aloud from The Great Gatsby until the audience booed and left, or simply napped in a sleeping bag. Creating material he would later become famous for, Kaufman played a phonograph record of the Mighty Mouse theme song, staring silently with bulging eyes until the chorus, when he would raise his hand and confidently lip-sync, “Here I Come to Save the Day.”

And then there was the gibberish-speaking “Foreign Man,” who would babble indecipherably in an excited, high-pitched voice that he was from the imaginary island of Caspiar, and then do impersonations.

That bit got Kaufman onstage at the Improv and on the 1975 Saturday Night Live debut. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels described Kaufman’s act as “midway between stand-up comedy in the Ed Sullivan Show sense, and performance art, which was just beginning to emerge in the world below Houston Street.”

Legendary writer-comedian Carl Reiner likened Kaufman to “Christo wrapping a mountain” – a character doing the worst possible act ever. Reiner told Rolling Stone that Kaufman was thinking, “The game we’re playing is to see how long you can take it before you bomb me.”

Kaufman, of course, enjoyed the game more than anyone. And if the audience didn’t get it, well, no matter. He wasn’t in it to make people laugh.

Testing reality

His perfect idea for television: A talk show in which the guests argue and start fighting, with one getting sent to a hospital and dying. No one would really get hurt, Kaufman said, but “people would always wonder, ‘What’s real? What’s not?’

“That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.”

They didn’t always deal with it well. As Kaufman baited the crowds, some turned hostile, with the comic eventually hiring off-duty cops to break up the fights during shows.

Kaufman’s boorish new character, the chauvinistic, swaggering, washed-up lounge singer Tony Clifton, especially enraged crowds, who pelted him with eggs and fruit, leading the comic to don riot gear and used a protective net.

He created a furor after challenging women to wrestle with him or “go back to the kitchen where you belong,” offering $1,000 to any woman who beat him. He was booted from Saturday Night Live after thousands of angry letters.

This was Kaufman at his peak, with appearances on major networks and series, even a live show at Carnegie Hall, after which he hired buses to take the audience – nearly 3,000 people – out for milk and cookies.

The cast: Foreign Man, a crazed conga drummer, his scarily dead-on Elvis, Tony Clifton, a professional wrestler and a clean-cut, born-again Christian engaged to a gospel singer.

When Taxi ended its five-year run in June 1983, Kaufman was still very much a star, performing for David Letterman, in specials and in films. But by Thanksgiving he was coughing frequently and, shortly thereafter, diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer. He died in May 1984. After the funeral in Great Neck, he was buried at Elmont’s Beth David Cemetery.

It is a tribute to Kaufman’s performance art that many people continue to insist he faked his death and that he’s out there, somewhere, alive and well.

That would, indeed, be the ultimate Kaufman act.