During the early 1900s, not one person knew the truth about cook Mary Mallon, not even Mary herself. So, when she served her famous dessert of peaches and ice cream to her wealthy employers, they dug in. But what followed was a deadly mystery that took investigators years to solve.
All they knew was that every victim had one thing in common: They had hired Mary as their household cook. Typhoid Mary, as the press liked to call her, turned out to be one of America’s biggest outcasts, and to think that it all started because of a bowl of ice cream. So, let’s take a journey back in time to see how this mystery unravels.
Like most Americans in the early 1900s, Mary Mallon was an immigrant. She arrived at Ellis Island in New York in 1883 after leaving her parents in Ireland. After moving in with her aunt and uncle and working as a maid, Mary decided that she wanted to work as a cook. She was hired by affluent families all around New York as their household cook.
It didn’t take long before everyone began noticing a worrying trend. Every time she began cooking for a new family, they all were struck with concerning symptoms: throbbing headaches, high fevers, and terrible digestive problems that left them weak and exhausted. Strangely enough, Mary never showed any symptoms. Was she to blame?
Mary certainly didn’t think so, and neither did her employers. Every time a family got sick, she would pack her bags and move on to the next. She hopped house to house until she eventually began working for the Warren family in the summer of 1906. Charles Warren, a wealthy New York banker, decided to take his family to Oyster Bay on Long Island.
Of course, Mary traveled with the family so she could make them her famous peaches and ice cream dessert. But days after the Warrens ate Mary’s food, they all fell extremely ill. This time, however, Mary’s employer didn’t blame the unknown disease on fate. Charles knew that something, or someone, had caused his family to get sick.
The three doctors in Oyster Bay called the disease “unusual.” They had never seen anything like it. The landlord of the rented house knew that it would be impossible to rent out a house with a reputation for getting people sick. So, he decided to hire independent experts to take samples from the pipes, toilets, and cesspool.
However, none of the tests showed anything out of the ordinary. Mary, who was all too familiar with this pattern of infections, decided to leave the Warren family. However, by January 1907, the maid in Mary’s new family fell ill. Soon after, Charles Warren’s only daughter died of typhoid fever. Then everything began to click in place for investigator George Soper, who had been following the disease’s destructive path.
Charles Warren hired Soper to figure out why his family had fallen sick with typhoid fever. He was especially curious because typhoid fever was an illness that generally resulted from unsanitary environments. Warren’s house, however, was far from unsanitary. Or so he thought.
Soon after Soper began his investigation, he noticed that all of the family had one thing in common: an Irish cook. But there was just one problem. As it turns out, this mysterious Irish cook had a habit of skipping town. As soon as the typhoid fever broke out, she would always leave town, conveniently forgetting to leave a forwarding address.
Warren’s daughter’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Soper finally located Mary, who was working for a new family. He confronted her about her role in possibly spreading the disease. But things didn’t go quite to plan. Soper reportedly acted “as diplomatic as possible,” but nevertheless, the confrontation infuriated Mary so much so that she threatened the investigator with a carving fork.
At the time, Soper didn’t have any proof that Mary was a carrier. After all, she didn’t have any typhoid fever symptoms. So, the investigator asked the cook to provide him with samples, but she refused, thereby forcing Soper to try a different approach. He started looking back at her employment records from the past five years.
Soper was taken aback by what he found. Seven of the eight families that Mary had worked for as a cook had come down with typhoid fever. He thought that this was enough evidence to convince Mary to hand over some samples. But when the investigator confronted Mary again, she refused to cooperate.
She told him that the outbreaks had come from contaminated food and water, and not from a person who didn’t have any symptoms. At the time, the concept of healthy carriers was completely unknown, even to health care workers. Soper contacted the New York City Health Department to tell them about his hunch: Mary Mellon was somehow spreading typhoid fever all around the city. As it turns out, Soper was right.
Mary is known as the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the United States, and it wasn’t very difficult to figure out how she spread the deadly disease to countless people. Typhoid usually spreads because the person infected doesn’t follow basic hygienic rules, such as washing their hands after going to the bathroom.
So, when a household cook, who touches everyone’s food, doesn’t wash her hands, it’s a recipe for disaster. Well, that’s exactly what happened in Mary’s case. Whether it was intentional or not, investigators believed that Mary didn’t wash her hands before making and serving food to her employers. But was all of Mary’s food infected with this deadly disease?
Soper understood that Mary’s employers and their families most likely did not contract typhoid fever from the hot meals she prepared and served, because heat kills most bacteria. That’s when he identified the real source of the problem: Mary’s ice cream and peaches dessert. When the police showed up at Mary’s door she was shoved into an ambulance and, at one point, restrained.
Mary was sent to Willard Parker Hospital, where she stayed for four days until she finally agreed to give samples. Doctors found massive amounts of typhoid bacteria, and when they questioned Mary, she admitted to almost never washing her hands. This may sound repulsive now, but remember this was back when people didn’t understand how germs work.
In March 1907, Mary was sent into quarantine on North Brother Island. Doctors believed that the disease originated from her gallbladder, and they wanted to remove it, but Mary refused. Surgery at the time was very dangerous, and many people had died from getting their gallbladders removed. How had Mary become infected? After lengthy questioning, doctors discovered that Mary’s mother had contracted the illness when she was pregnant with her.
Although it was never officially confirmed, doctors believed that Mary was, in fact, born with the bacteria. Since she had no symptoms, Mary had unknowingly infected countless people her entire life. Seeing as Mary made a decent living as a cook, she refused to give up her job if and when she returned to the city.
The press had a field day with Mary’s situation, giving her the nickname “Typhoid Mary.” Everyone in town knew that the Irish cook was infected with typhoid, and they were happy to have her quarantined on North Brother Island. Well, not everyone. Some doctors disagreed with the isolation, calling it an overly strict punishment.
They believed that Mary just needed to learn how to live with her situation, instead of being locked up away from society. But the problem was that Mary was uncooperative and unwilling to change her ways. Soon, the cook suffered a nervous breakdown and complained that the doctors were treating her like a “guinea pig.” After two years and 11 months in quarantine, the New York Commissioner of Health made a decision.
Mary was allowed to leave the island on the condition that she would never work as a cook again. Mary signed an affidavit promising that she would find a new profession. She returned to New York City, where everyone seemed to forget about her. Well, that is, until a few years later, when a number of hospital staff suddenly fell ill.
It turns out that several restaurants, hotels, and spas had reported typhoid outbreaks. Again, investigators found a common theme: Each workplace had an Irish cook named Mary Brown or Mary Breshof, who always took off at the start of an outbreak. Then, in 1915, the Sloane Hospital for Women became the center of an outbreak. Over 25 people were diagnosed with typhoid, and two died.
It didn’t take investigators long to realize that Mary was responsible for the outbreak. Police arrested the Irish cook and dragged her back to North Brother Island. But this time, it was for an extended stay. Mary was confined to North Brother Island until she died, 23 years later. However, by the time she died in 1938, a great deal had been learned about the disease and its transmission.
Doctors learned more about asymptomatic carriers, and several others were identified. People still debate the ethics surrounding her case, even today. It’s safe to say that Typhoid Mary never quite understood how dangerous she was to the public. But the same can’t be said for con artist Julia Lyons, who used the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic to her advantage.
Most people didn’t know that Julia Lyons, a woman draped in diamonds and furs, wasn’t who she claimed to be. But in September 1918, Julia’s conning scheme went bust after she was arrested for posing as a Department of Justice representative in order to cash stolen checks in Chicago. Julia, however, was smarter than the authorities thought she was. When they weren’t looking, she escaped from custody and disappeared.
Julia knew that she needed a way to blend into the crowd, and she found the perfect way to do so. As she walked around Chicago, she noticed that everyone was panicked about the flu. Julia realized that this was her chance to scam more people out of money.
The way she saw it, everyone was so desperate for nurses that no one would notice if she, say, stole a nurse’s uniform and pretended to work in the field. That’s exactly what she did. Julia Lyons became Nurse Julia. She worked under several other aliases, as well, including Ruth Hicks, Marie Walker, and Mrs. H.J. Behrens. She began working as a private nurse in people’s homes.
If caring for sick patients without any kind of medical training wasn’t enough, Julia decided to use this opportunity to scam people out of money. Whenever she picked up prescriptions for her patients, Julia would lie about how much the medicine cost. But Julia didn’t just increase the cost by a few bucks.
Once, she charged one of her patients $63 for oxygen, when it actually only cost about $5. So, how was Julia able to pull this off? Her plan went a little something like this: She would go into the homes of sick people and gain their trust.
Then she would overcharge them for their prescriptions, and, if they started getting suspicious, Julia would flee in the middle of the night with as many stolen valuables she could carry. All the while, her sick patients had no idea that their lives were in the hands of a con artist. Since the entire country was in such a panic, it was easy for Julia to avoid being caught.
There are several accounts of Julia acting callously towards her dying patients. In one incident, a 9-year-old begged the “nurse” to care for his brother, who was gravely ill. “Oh, let him rave,” Julia reportedly said. “He’s used to raving.” The con artist did not care about human life and the boy ended up dying. In another incident, an older patient began to grow suspicious of his nurse.
But when he raised his concerns, she turned on her charm. She reportedly asked the dying man, “Don’t you remember me? Why, when I was a little girl, I used to hitch on your wagons!” Julia’s lie came at a great time, well, for her, that is.
After a string of robberies and scams, detectives were already on Julia’s trail. But when they came to question her current patient, he vouched for her. After all, he had known her since she was a child, right? But as soon as the detective left, Julia disappeared into the night with the man’s expensive watch as well as other valuables. The man was stunned.
“By golly, I guess I was wrong,” he told The Chicago Tribune. It seemed as though Julia would go on scheming the sick forever. But no criminal can outrun the law forever. After doing a little digging, detectives were able to link Julia to two other women from the criminal world: Eva Jacobs and “Suicide Bess” Davis.
Eva and Suicide Bess shared an apartment, and police knew that if they tapped the women’s phone, maybe they could find out where Julia was hiding out. As it turns out, the police were right. They soon learned that Julia was engaged to marry a Chicago restauranteur named Charlie the Greek, and they planned to arrest the con woman at her own wedding.
Before the happy couple had exchanged their vows, Julia was already in handcuffs. As she was being dragged away by the police, she yelled out, “The wedding’s all bust up!” Charlie stood at the altar, confused as to why the woman he was marrying after only ten days was being arrested. “I thought I knew her,” he said.
Just because Julia was in police custody, it didn’t mean that her days of scheming were behind her. Even the police knew that Julia was as slippery as a fish in the water. Deputy Sheriff John Hickey was in charge of transporting the con woman to court, where 50 victims were waiting to testify against her. “Oh, she won’t get away from me,” he reportedly told his fellow detectives.
At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. The Sheriff successfully transported Julia to court, but in the ride home, he ran into some trouble. Julia, he claimed, escaped from his moving vehicle into a getaway car. It became pretty obvious that the Sheriff was lying about how Julia got away.
The Sheriff was eventually suspended for taking a bribe from Julia, but that didn’t make up for the fact that Julia Lyons was once again at large. Police began searching though pages of nurses’ registries until they came across a possible lead. They found a Mrs. James working as a nurse on Fullerton Boulevard, but something about her story seemed awfully suspicious.
Her start date at the household was right around the same time that Julia had escaped from police custody. Police also found that Mrs. James’ physical description was very similar to Julia’s. Afraid they might lose her again, the police immediately drove to the flu-ridden household.
Sure enough, they found Julia posing as a nurse. Police arrested her, and, this time, she had no one to help her escape. The con woman, however, didn’t go down without a fight. Throughout her lengthy trail, Julia claimed that she was forced into the criminal life by a “band of thieves.” When that excuse didn’t work, she pleaded insanity. By now, everyone knew that Julia was not to be trusted. The court found her guilty of larceny, and she served ten years for her crimes.
It’s a shame that criminals take advantage of others during a pandemic. But did you know that the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and COVID-19 are two of the many pandemics that took the world by surprise?