A Slow Fever: The Nearly True Story of Typhoid Mary

In Issue 65 by Catherine Hammond

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Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

Chapter 1

October 1906

Another family with kids. What I wouldn’t have given to work for an old maid with no children. Just me and her and a bright, clean kitchen. But I was happy. I was cooking.

Portia, who had recently turned six, darted into the kitchen and ran around the oak table. Tristan rushed in behind her.

“Give it back.” His voice was high and whiny.

“It’s the last one.” She held a crumpled scone over her head.

“Stop that,” I said.

They peered up at me. I was a big woman, and I could scare little kids. Portia’s hand fell to her side.

“My second day here and already you’re running through my kitchen.” I whisked the pastry from her hand and threw it in the bin.

“You.” I pointed at Tristan. “Go fetch ten apples from the basket outside, and I’ll teach you to slice them. We need a pie for tonight.”

His smile showed all his tiny white teeth. “Yes, Miss Mallon.” He dashed out.

“And you.”

“What?” Portia frowned as if life owed her some entertainment.

“You whip this cream and fold in the peaches.”

“What about the vanilla?”

“I already added it.” Impressed she knew something about making ice cream, I handed her a spatula.

As Portia chatted about taking the subway to Times Square with her parents, the housekeeper sauntered in and dropped a dustpan on the table.

“Putting the child to work?”

“She’s got skill.” I tsked and moved the dustpan to the floor. The last thing I needed was dirt in my food.

“This is nicer than the other place,” the housekeeper said. She was referring to the Long Island family we had both worked for in ‘04.

“How long have you been here?” I twirled a knife around a peach.

“Came here right after that. Going on two years.”

“I hope to be here that long.”

“I heard you move around. Why not stay in one place?”

“Oh, you know, the kids get uppity.”

Portia glanced over, and I winked at her. The truth was my last few families were fine until the typhoid came to their doorstep. Sometimes I stayed to help out, but mostly I slipped away. With no husband to back me up financially, I had to keep healthy.

***

When the phone rang, Dr. Soper’s face was buried in a well-used pillow. He rolled from his bed and scrambled in his stocking feet to the little table in the hallway.

“Soper here.” He coughed up some phlegm.

“Is this Dr. Soper, the disease inspector?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Charles Warren here. I’m in a desperate situation. Back in August, we had a typhoid outbreak at our summer house in Oyster Bay. I hired a man to run some tests on the estate, but he couldn’t find the source.”

“Oh, dear,” Soper said.

“Listen, Doctor, if we don’t solve this typhoid thing, my family won’t be able to use the beach house next summer.”

“I’ll need the address,” Soper said.

“Right. I’ll have Mr. Rose, the man who did the tests, meet you out there.”

Two days later, Dr. Soper boarded the train to Long Island. He found an empty seat, placed his satchel on the seat next to him, and lowered the window. With all these passengers in their musty coats – just out of the closet for the cold season – even the first-class car stunk.

A lady in a fur hat paused in the aisle. “Is this seat taken?” she asked.

“Yes.” He stretched his hand over his satchel.

When she moved on, Soper pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it over his nose. Best not to breathe this rancid air.

As the train rattled through the tenements where old men sat on stoops and children played stickball in the street, Soper’s brow sweated. These people were oblivious to the garbage and the rats mingling in the sewers, to the river of human waste and horse manure rushing from one neighborhood to the next.

His father had died after drinking contaminated water. A tragic two months fighting for his life, and it was over. As a result, Soper had gotten his doctorate not in medicine but in sanitation engineering. For twenty years, he had redirected water routes and installed sand filtration systems. Inspecting typhoid cases was only one of his many projects.

The speaker ticked to life. “Oyster Bay, next stop.” Thank God, Soper thought. He couldn’t get out of this germ-carrying box fast enough.

At the station, a Warren family chauffeur ushered him to a Model A Ford. As the man drove along, Soper couldn’t help but ask him to click the windshield wipers a few unnecessary times.

“Neat, huh?” The chauffeur beamed.

Soper smiled. A few more cream-puff jobs like this one, and he’d have Mr. Ford’s newest model himself.

They pulled up to the Warren’s summer home with its broad veranda. A buggy stood in the drive, and a fat man with a red face adjusted the horse’s harness.

Soper straightened his bushy mustache all the way down to its curly tips and introduced himself.

“Soper, eh?” Mr. Rose crossed his thick arms over his round belly.

“It’s Dr. Soper.” Soper had led the investigations of the typhoid outbreaks in Ithaca and Watertown. Surely this drunk knew of him.

“All right. Warren asked me to be here, so I’m here. What’s your part in this?”

“May I see the reports”? Soper said.

“I wasn’t told you would need the reports.”

“Well, I’m here, so let’s see what you have.”

The man led him to the dining room and lifted a crate onto the table. “That’s everything. I’ll be in the shed gathering my equipment.”

Soper spread the freshly typed results across the table. Since it was the off-season and there were no servants, much less a warm fire, he pulled his coat tight and read quickly.

There was no typhoid in the pipes, faucets, well, or privy. Nothing percolating in the cesspool, manure pits, or rubbish bins. No miasma drifting in the air from rotted organic matter. Not at the house in question, not in any of the neighboring houses, not in the entire village.

He kept reading. The milk from the three nearest dispensaries was perfect. So was every fruit and vegetable stall for two miles around. He even skimmed a report on the clams sold by an Indian lady who lived in a tent on the beach. There was no typhoid anywhere.

Soper found Rose lifting a wheelbarrow into the rear of his buggy.

“I don’t see a report on the barn,” Soper said.

“So, you’re in charge now?”

“Why, yes.”

“Good for you.” Rose wiped his hands on his trousers and headed around to the front of the buggy.

“I still have questions.” Soper followed him like a scolding mother.

“Why don’t you just burn it all down?” Rose laughed as he climbed up to his seat, swung the reins, and drove away.

Soper scowled. So, the man had heard of him.

Years ago, convinced typhoid was caught in the walls of an aging Adirondacks home, Soper had advised the owners to torch it. Now, he knew how uneducated that was. Typhoid could spread in so many ways.

He huffed all the way back to the dining room. He had saved a lot of lives since then. An awful lot, dammit.

Chapter 2

November 1906

Dr. Soper stood in the narrow hallway in his apartment and called Mr. Warren.

“I’ve found nothing, sir,” he said.

Warren, the esteemed president of Lincoln Bank and Trust, swore with gusto.

“The next step is to interview everyone,” Soper said.

“Whatever for, man?”

“It’s the germs. They live in feces and urine and cling to your hands. You pass them to other people, especially by touching their food.”

“You think my family is wiping shit on each other?”

“No, sir. I need to know who went to a restaurant or ate at a friend’s house, what each person consumed, and who prepared it.”

“Who’s going to remember all that?”

“Just think, sir, if we can prove a human is responsible, the house will no longer be in question. You’ll be able to use it.”

“Fine. Come by my place in Manhattan tomorrow.”

Soper cracked his knuckles. As that Sherlock Holmes fellow liked to say, the game was afoot.

***

Mrs. Warren set up the good doctor in the top-floor study and went to find the laundress since she was the first person who had fallen ill last summer.

While Soper waited, he gazed out the window at the tiny, far-away people shuffling through the slush. It took all his effort not to reach out and place them where he wanted them.

By dusk, he had interviewed all three family members and seven servants but was no closer to solving the puzzle. He jammed his notes in his sleek leather case and found Mrs. Warren in the parlor, primly perched on an exquisitely upholstered chair.

“I’ve finished the interviews, ma’am.”

“And?” She set her Ladies’ Home Journal on a side table.

“I’ll have a full report tomorrow.”

“I’ll walk you out.” As she rose, a smile crossed her face. No doubt she was thinking about shopping for a new beach house.

“Sir?” The butler held up the doctor’s overcoat.

Mrs. Warren’s son and his friend ran up.

“Aren’t you staying, Doctor?” the son said. “Cook says dinner’s ready.”

“Your old cook was better,” his friend said, and the boys trailed away.

“Old cook?” Soper’s frock fell from his shoulders. Fortunately, the butler caught it before it hit the floor.

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Warren sighed. “Miss Mallon. She made a wonderful peach ice cream.”

“When did she work for you?”

“She started about three weeks before we got sick, but she skipped out right away.”

“And you hired her – ”

“Through Sally’s Service Agency, of course.”

“Perhaps this cook brought the disease to your summer home?”

“No. She was completely healthy.”

“Completely?”

“Positively?”

Soper yanked his coat from the butler’s hands and dashed out.

For the next hour, the doctor strode through the cold, thinking and thinking.

The previous cook had stayed with the family for three weeks. Three weeks! That was how long it took typhoid to move from person to person. She must be the culprit.

Better yet, she was healthy.

Recently, a baker’s wife in Germany had exhibited no symptoms of typhoid but had infected dozens. Her doctor had called her the first healthy carrier in the world.

And now he, Dr. George A. Soper of 29 Broadway, had found the first healthy carrier in America. The rest of the walk home, he planned his bio for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The next evening, Soper walked past the Gilsey Hotel with its magnificent cast-iron columns and opened the door to a fancy office on 28th Street. Since it was after hours, the desks were empty. A man in a dapper blue serge suit wound his way to the front.

“May I help you?” the man said.

“It’s urgent that I speak with Mrs. Sally.”

“Is it now?”

“Yes.”

“Well, go on, tell ol’ Sally your business.”

Soper glanced around.

The man chuckled. “I’m Mrs. Sally. Or Mr. Sally, of course. Please forgive the deception. We can’t let the splendid ladies of New York City think a man is choosing their servants.”

Soper blinked.

“So, how may I help you?” Sally straightened a file on a random desk.

Soper cleared his throat. “My family needs a cook, and the Warren family has recommended Miss Mallon.”

“Oh, yes, Miss Mary Mallon. She left the Warren’s when they fell sick last summer.”

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes she finds positions without me. The talented ones are smart that way.”

“How disappointing.” Soper frowned.

Sally lowered his voice. “Sir, you wouldn’t be interested in another lass, one a little younger, more your size?”

“No!” Soper grimaced. He should have gone with the truth, not that this bloke would understand a lick of science.

“One minute, sir.” Sally disappeared into a rear office and returned with a black book. “I can help you contact Miss Mallon’s previous employers. Maybe their servants will know where she’s gone.”

“I’d be happy to pay for your time.”

“Certainly.” Sally sat at an empty desk and copied some phone numbers on a sheet of paper, all the while calculating in his head how much a lovelorn fool would be willing to pay.

Chapter 3

January 1907

Three months after meeting Mr. Sally, Dr. Soper scooted back from his home desk and laid his pen down to dry.

What a winter. He had visited eight of Mallon’s former families. Not only had seven suffered a typhoid outbreak, but in each case, the first victim had shown symptoms mere weeks after the cook’s arrival. She was clearly the cause.

He blew on the wet ink. If only he could find her. Then he could test her fluids and verify she was a healthy carrier. He’d be famous.

***

While Portia sat at the oak table making her momma a birthday present, I rolled the dough for some oyster patties.

“Miss Mallon, did you hear what Momma’s friends said at Pinochle yesterday?” Portia snipped some red calico into a heart shape.

“What’s that, dear?”

“They said you make the best lamb sauce in the whole city.”

I flushed. The last four months had been so pleasant. The Bowen’s were a decent family.

“Will you teach me your secret sauce?”

“But you hate lamb, sweetie.”

“Did you know the chambermaid is sick? She’s been in bed all morning.”

My chest tightened.

“Should we make her some soup?” Portia reached for another scrap of calico.

“Good idea, dear.”

An hour later, I carried a bowl of chicken broth upstairs. Although I often snuck off to my boyfriend’s place, the chambermaid and I shared a small bedroom with two skinny beds and a rag rug in between.

Sitting on my bed, I whispered to her, but she was too sick to talk. She had the chills, which I already knew my soup would do nothing to resolve. It never had.

Too choked up to think straight, I stumbled back to the kitchen with the bowl still full of soup. My hand shook, and soup slid over the edge.

I did not want to leave this job.

The next day, the chambermaid was still in bed.

Then the fever came, the slow one that increased a degree each day until her forehead was afire. Finally, Mr. Bowen took her to the Presbyterian Hospital, leaving the whole house to wonder if she would live.

That was the problem with typhoid. You never knew when it would strike or how bad it would get. The apprehension was dreadful, but the moment someone caught it was worse.

And then there was the guilt. Being relieved it was the chambermaid and not me and feeling mean about that.

The morning after the chambermaid was admitted to the hospital, the housekeeper stopped by the kitchen and tore into a loaf of hot banana bread.

“How’s the chambermaid?” I slid the bread away.

“She’ll be all right. Have you heard about Portia?”

“What?”

“She’s in bed. Diarrhea.”

“Is Mrs. Bowen with her?”

“She’s in bed, too. Stomach pains.”

I hurried upstairs, where I found Portia curled up like a kitten, her sweaty sheets tangled around her. I sat on the edge of the bed.

“Where’s Momma?” Her voice was hoarse.

“She’s taking a nap.”

“Can you tell me a story?”

I took her hand and whispered the story from The Jungle Book. As the tale went on, her grip weakened. It was all I could do not to cuddle up next to her.

Much later that night, while lying next to my snoring boyfriend, Bert, my mind raced through every meal I had prepared for the Bowen’s over the last month. Every sprinkle of parsley. Every cup of sugar.

All the ingredients had come from reputable sources. Anything buggy I had thrown out. The typhoid hadn’t come from my kitchen.

I bumped Bert to stop him snoring.

This illness was relentless. That poor Mr. Drayton from a few years back. His whole family and all his servants had caught it the same week. Luckily, he and I had been healthy enough to nurse them. He even tipped me an extra month’s wages.

Still, I couldn't risk it again. Tears came to my eyes. In a few days, Mr. Bowen would hand me my monthly sum, and as he was returning his silk pouch to his safe, I would be sneaking out the back door.

***

Soper and his pal, Dr. B. Raymond Hoobler, stood on a tree-lined street staring at a handsome Park Avenue brownstone.

“I’ll go in first.” Soper rubbed his gloved hands together. “When she’s ready, I’ll stick my bean out the door and wave at you.”

“I’m coming in now. It’s freezing out here.”

“No, two strangers might scare her.”

“I should have brought my flask.” Hoobler scanned left and right as if a liquor store might be hiding in the rows of houses.

“Wait here. I’ll come back for you in a minute.”

Soper slipped through the tall iron gate, descended the icy stairs, and stopped at a heavy wooden door. He knocked and got no response, which was perfectly fine, as it allowed him to open the door and follow a long hallway into a basement kitchen. As he paused in the entryway, a woman who was carrying a broom narrowed her eyes at him.

“Who are you?” she said.

She must have expected him to be a boy rushing in to deliver a jug of milk or a sack of potatoes.

A woman wearing a cook’s apron and slicing a hot roast turned and glared at him.

Ah, this cook was exactly as the families had described Miss Mallon. Solid, manly, her face raw, her apron tight across the belly.

“Are you Miss Mallon?” Soper asked her.

“Yes.”

“We need to talk.”

“Talk then,” Mallon said.

He coughed into his hand. This was not the way he had foreseen this, with the housekeeper standing right there, listening to it all, and the cook busy with her business.

“Miss Mallon, you need to listen,” he gushed. “You have typhoid. The germs are in your stool, or in your urine. When you relieve yourself and don’t wash your hands after, the germs get on the food, and other people eat it and get sick.”

“What?” The cook dropped a slice of meat from her carving fork, and hot juice splattered on the silver tray.

“We need to determine how sick you are. I’ve brought a friend to draw some blood.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve never had the fever.”

“You must have. Maybe you were young. Maybe it was a low fever. Just for a day. That’s all it would take.”

She pointed the big fork at him. “You’re some kind of crackpot, busting in here like this.”

“Think of all the families you’ve infected, the people you may infect next. Is anyone in this house sick?”

The women glanced at each other.

He knew it!

“I bet you gave it to them!” he said.

“You get out of here!” Mallon came toward him, fork first.

“But – ”

“Get out!” She whipped the fork through the air.

He dashed out the door and pounded up the steps with cuss words bouncing off his back.

“Goodness!” Hoobler yelped.

“Let’s go!” Soper’s mind whirled. He knew he should feel sorry for this family, but all he felt was glee. This cook was a healthy germ machine, and he had found her.

***

I woke up and glanced at Bert’s clock. I would barely have time to walk to the Bowen’s and check on Portia before preparing breakfast for the family.

Weary from thinking all night, I searched for my shoes under Bert’s narrow bed. That pushy little wisenheimer could not possibly be a real doctor. He would have shown some credentials. He would have sat me down calmly. It was odd he even knew me. Maybe that pouty housekeeper, still angry about having to clean the oven, had given my name to some authority.

I cinched up my skirt and tied it tight, hoping the extra squeeze would clear my thoughts. How could anyone think I had my elevens up? I washed my knives and wiped my tabletops, and I never used food that had fallen on the floor. I had seen true filth – chefs who fed stray cats off the family’s fancy plates, chefs who left slimy vegetables rotting in the cupboard. Nobody could call me dirty.

A second opinion was what I needed. I woke Bert up, handed him a hot coffee, and told him everything.

“You never know. The man might be right.” He took a sip.

“So, you’re on his side?”

“Just give him some blood. Get it over with.”

“Never!”

“Why not?”

“He has no right,” I said.

“What?”

“Like that Susan Anthony lady used to say, women have rights.”

“Don’t quote her. She lost.”

“She’s dead, dummy.”

“She still lost.”

I slammed out, not sure I’d ever come back.

As soon as I got to work, I rushed straight to Portia’s room.

The housekeeper was at the foot of the bed stuffing bedclothes in a wicker basket.

“How is she?” I laid my hand on her forehead.

“She’s not waking up.”

“Oh, God. Is she in a coma?”

“Could be. The doctor’s on his way.”

I ran my hand through Portia’s greasy hair. I should have come in early and washed her.

“Come on. Everyone’s hungry.” The housekeeper walked out with her basket.

We left the girl alone in her bed.

When I arrived in the kitchen, Tristan was at the table fiddling with his dad’s old Brownie camera.

“Momma told me to help make breakfast.”

“That’s right. I need a strong young man to chop some potatoes.”

His face brightened, less than usual, at the chance to use a knife. He was having a rough go of it. With his sister and his mother in bed, he had been walking to school alone and doing poorly with his studies.

Stop feeling so sorry for him, I told myself. I had problems of my own. In a few days, I’d be on the street without a job.

***

Dr. Herman Biggs, Chief Medical Officer of the NYC Health Department, sat in his office pouring over an expense report.

“Sir?”

Biggs looked up. It was that doctor who was not a doctor.

“Soper. What brings you by?”

Soper slipped around a crate of lab coats, planted himself in the chair across the desk, and told a long story about seven families that had hired the same cook and later fallen ill with typhoid.

“So, it’s definitely this cook?” Biggs chewed on the wet end of an unlit cigar.

“No doubt in my mind.”

“Are there more healthy carriers, as you call them?”

“Possibly. But this one is belligerent. A poor Irish wench, swears like a sailor, fleas like a dog.”

“Really?”

“She told me flat out she doesn’t see the point in washing her hands. They’ll just get dirty again. And she’ll never stop cooking. It’s all she knows how to do.”

Biggs dug a box of matches from a desk drawer and lit his cigar.

Most typhoid outbreaks were in the tenements among the immigrants, or near the university where the kids lived in bundles. Individual cases in wealthy neighborhoods were rare. The concept of a healthy carrier spreading the disease in a rich part of town made sense.

“A living culture tube,” Biggs said.

“A menace to society.”

The chief puffed on his cigar. He was tired of tuberculosis, the disease he’d been battling for years. He had already banned pigs from the city and mandated the reporting of cases. Until a vaccine was created, there was nothing more he could do. But typhoid, that was something he could dig his fingers into.

“We just need to prove it.” Soper wasn’t even attempting to hide his excitement.

“Prove what?”

“We’ll test her blood for the Widel reaction to be sure she’s had the disease. Then we’ll test her stool and urine for the typhoid bacilli to confirm she’s still spreading it. But she’s not cooperating.”

“So, you want us to bring her in?” Biggs said.

“Yes, but be careful.”

“You think we’ll need to use force?”

“Without question.”

“Hm.” Detaining this cook would give Biggs a steady supply of stool samples, enough to prove typhoid spread through bacteria – not dirt or stale air like this fool thought. With such proof to support the bacterial theory, the government may finally appropriate the funds to grow his bacterial program.

“Sir?” Soper said.

“All right. We’ll send an inspector to pick her up. Anything else?”

“Tell him to take a bear trap.”

***

Dr. S. Josephine Baker, the newest Health and Hygiene Inspector at the New York Health Department, nearly danced out of Biggs’s office. He had just meted out her first assignment – to bring in a healthy typhoid carrier.

Thank God she had already had the disease.

“Will you need backup?” the office secretary asked her.

“No. I’ll be fine. Could you please ask Parker Hospital to prepare an isolation room?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll have her there within the hour.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Of course, Baker wanted to make the arrest alone and get the credit, but it was more than that. When she was a child, her father had come down with typhoid. Suddenly, her friends weren’t allowed to visit, and she wasn’t welcome at their homes. Her father had apologized so often she believed he died more from embarrassment than a deadly illness.

There was no reason to harass this hapless cook. Baker would use some quiet persuasion, and the lady would come in.

Inspector Baker arrived at the brownstone, descended the icy stairs to the kitchen entrance, and knocked politely. A young boy led her to the kitchen.

“That’s Miss Mallon.” He sat down in front of a cutting board and pointed at the cook. She was stirring some cake batter.

“Miss Mallon.” Baker tipped her official hat.

“What do you want?”

“I’m from the Health Department. I understand you may have typhoid.”

“Not again!”

“I’d like to take you in for a blood test.” She held out her identification.

“What’s wrong with you people?” The cook jerked her spatula through the air, and bits of batter flung from it.

“I’m sorry about this. We’ll bring you straight back. Are you prepared to come peacefully?”

“There’s nothing peaceful about this!”

Baker hesitated. This was harder than she had anticipated. “The problem is by sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, you’ve been deemed a public health threat.”

The cook inched up close. A wisp of hair dangled from her bun. “You need to leave before I count to three. One. Two – ” With each number, she tapped her spatula on Baker’s immaculate blue coat.

Baker backed up.

“Miss Mallon?” the boy said.

“Oh, Tristan. Let’s go check on Portia.” The chef tossed the spatula in the sink and hurried him toward the stairs.

The surprised inspector wiped the batter from her jacket and saw herself out.

The next morning, Inspector Baker organized five policemen to meet her at the house.

While two of New York’s finest stood on the sidewalk watching the heavily engraved front door, three accompanied her into the kitchen, where they caught a glimpse of Mallon’s backside rushing up the inner stairs.

Baker and the officers charged up behind her, burst into a foyer, and almost knocked over a man in green slippers.

“Who are you?” the man said.

“I’m Inspector Baker with the Health Department. I’m here to arrest your cook.”

“But why?”

“Sir, I must ask you to step aside.” A burly officer jiggled his handcuffs.

“You can’t be serious!”

“Please let us do our job,” Baker said.

“You’ll be hearing from my attorney.” The master of the house stomped away, his exit much less dramatic than he must have hoped since he was wearing his slippers.

Baker and the five officers began their search. After two hours, frustrated because the perpetrator was not in the house or in any neighbor’s house, the search party regrouped in the back garden. Frosty bits of leaves crackled under their feet.

“Should we call it a day?” The burly officer rubbed his forehead. He needed a drink.

“No way.” A thin officer trembled in the cold. “The guys will bust our chops for weeks.”

The men stared at their boots, but Baker searched the sky as if a clue might drop on their heads.

“What’s that?” She pointed through the wooden fence.

The group peered between the slats. A storage shed sat at the back of the neighbor’s garden. Piles of ash cans blocked the shed door, and on the latch, a bit of blue calico fluttered in the breeze.

“We got her!” the burly officer said.

With a nod from the inspector, the officers bashed through the fence and raced across the yard. In their hurry, each man seized an ash can and tossed it aside. Black ash shot into the air, covering the men from their caps to their boots. They coughed and spit.

When the air settled, Inspector Baker threw open the shed door. Mallon hunched in the corner, her eyes gleaming like a wildcat.

“Get up!”

“Buzz off!”

Baker backed out and nodded at the men. “Go ahead, then.”

Batons drawn, all five ash-covered officers piled into the shed. Despite their eagerness, it took them ten minutes to tug the woman out and another ten to secure the handcuffs. By the time they dragged her to the street, they were covered in bruises, but none as much as the guilty party.

Stuffing the hefty woman into the ambulance was worse. While they grappled with her arms and legs, she kicked their shins and bit their hands. With all her screaming and her billowing skirt, the horses thrashed in their harnesses, and the carriage rattled.

“Calm your horses!” Baker yelled.

“Stop yelling!” The driver got down from his seat and petted his horses.

And so it went until – with two angry officers holding Mallon down and Baker sitting on top of her – the horses started off.

***

I lay like a lump on the ambulance floor. What were they going to do next? Throw me in a cell? Force me to poop and pee and try to collect it? As if I’d let that happen.

By the time the horses stopped, the lamplighters were moving down the street. I was so hungry from hiding in the shed all day I could hardly think.

“Let’s go.” An officer climbed down.

“Hold her tight,” the lady inspector said.

The cop reached for me, and I headbutted him.

“Oof!” He bent over.

I tumbled out of the wagon and fled past the livery into a garden, where two huge men in white lab coats tackled me.

“Let me go!”

“Calm yourself.”

They gripped my ankles and pulled me through the snow. My skirt rode up my thighs, and I had to crane my neck to keep my head from banging on the ground.

“Get your meat hooks off me!”

“Stop kicking us.”

They pulled me into the Willard Parker Hospital, past a delicate young nurse with bulging eyes, and into a room with steel bars on the window. As the East River bubbled by outside, a needle punctured my skin, and I passed out.

Hours must have passed before I woke up on my back on a cold metal table. I couldn’t sit up. My wrists and ankles were tied down. I bucked and kicked, but the straps held me tight. My throat was so parched my screams made hardly any noise. With haze on my brain, I fell back asleep.

When I woke up again, I was sitting on a metal chair. A rope snaked around my body, pinning me in place.

I struggled so much I thought the chair would tip over, but it was bolted to the floor. Soon, I was exhausted.

I refused to cry. What had I done to deserve this?

A lady in a white outfit came in and shoved a spoon toward my mouth. It was some mush no one would eat in real life. I let her guide the spoon into my mouth and spit the mush in her face.

She wiped her cheek stiffly and walked out.

“You’re the psycho!” I screamed at the closed door. “Someone should be tying you down!”

Hours later, she came back. I stared icicles at her but let her feed me. When the food was gone, she left. Twenty minutes later, she was back with a bucket.

“Crap in this,” she said.

“No way.”

She stood there waiting.

My insides twisted. I needed to go. They must have put a laxative in that food.

“Fine,” I said.

“If I untie you, will you behave?”

“Yes.” I was desperate.

She untied me and positioned the bucket, and I pulled my filthy skirt out of the way.

“You’re going to watch?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I crapped in the bucket. Afterwards, I scooped some up with my fingers and flicked it at her. It landed on her perfect white skirt.

“Ya like that?” I screeched and laughed.

“Shame,” she said calmly and left.

Minutes later, the two huge men came in and gave me another shot. The next time I woke, I was in a straitjacket.

They left it on me for days on end, sitting me up only to feed me the mush and collect my poop and pee. Eventually, I stopped misbehaving.

Chapter 4

March 1907

Dr. William H. Park, manager of the tiny NYC bacterial lab, tapped his fingers on his maple desk.

“Coffee?” Mary Bee, his lab assistant, set a cup in front of him. Steam curled above the cup.

“Thank you.”

“Anything else I can do?”

He appreciated the playful tone in her voice, but he was preoccupied. “Tell me I’m not horrible for being so happy.”

“It’s not your fault Miss Mallon’s coming here. When does she arrive?”

“This afternoon.”

Biggs, the boss, had arranged for Mallon to be transferred to Park’s care. The official reason was that at 160 pounds, she was too large for her current placement, but everyone knew there was more to it. With her living down the hall from the lab, they would obtain better quality samples and more of them.

“I made her room up nice.” Mary Bee flattened her skirt.

“Still, she’ll be locked up.”

“Why, yes. She’s dangerous.”

Park’s fingers tapped. Perhaps Miss Mallon wouldn’t be violent if they weren’t treating her like a criminal. Perhaps they had taken advantage of her low pedigree and lack of family support to cage her like a dog.

“Don’t be so glum, Doctor. Having her here is a great opportunity.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Anyhow, it gives me a reason to drop by more often.” Mary Bee gave him her best smile, the one that reminded him of the supply room.

He grinned back. He could use a little supply room right now.

***

For the hundredth time, Soper sat in his den and proofread his article for the American Medical Association. Although his writing was brilliant, more information would make it superb. Rubbing the cramps from his fingers, he made his way to his hallway phone and called Dr. Park.

“Dr. Soper here. I’d like to visit Mallon.”

“Why?”

“I need some details to round out my research.”

“All right,” Park sighed.

Soper smashed the phone in its cradle. He had opened an important door in American epidemiology. He deserved more respect.

The next morning, Soper was first to board the ferry for North Brother Island, twenty overgrown acres in the East River and the home of the sprawling Riverside Hospital. After he checked in, an orderly guided him through several unused wings to a closed door.

“Will I be safe?” the doctor asked. He had heard rumors.

“Yes,” the orderly smirked. “Knock when you want out.”

Soper entered. The room was stark white. The bed was white, the blanket was white, and the woman was dressed in a white robe.

“Hello,” he said.

She was sitting on a white chair, gazing out a filmy window at a row of rubbish cans. It was spring but the trees were still bare.

“You might remember me,” he said. “I’m the one who found you. I’ve come to ask some questions.”

She ignored him.

Uncomfortable speaking to her back, he moved to the side so he could see her profile.

“First, how did you catch typhoid?”

Nothing.

“Maybe your parents had it when you were young. Is that how they died? Is that why you got sent here from Ireland?”

She didn’t move.

“Look, your history could help us understand how the disease spreads. You could help a lot of people.”

She stood up, pulled her robe tight, and faced him.

“We can help you,” he said. “Medicine to dislodge the disease. Surgery to remove the gallbladder. That’s where the germs gather.”

She shuddered.

“I could write a book about your case. I’d hide your identity, and you could have all the profit. Every last jitney. I just want to tell your story.”

She squinted at him.

“Miss Mallon, if you answer my questions, I’ll do everything I can to get you out of here. Really, I want what’s best.”

She walked past him into her private toilet and shut the door.

He approached the toilet door. “So that’s it? After I spent two hours getting here?”

Silence.

“You know,” the good doctor whispered, “twenty-three people got sick because of you. And that little Portia girl died, and it’s all your fault.”

He imagined he heard a sob. Good. She was a killer. He shouted at the orderly to let him out.

***

When that devil man was gone, I went back to watching the birds pick through the trash. They were so full of life. So hungry.

I thought about the day Portia and I leafed through the Sears Roebuck catalog and picked out the prettiest hats. Then she counted the ostrich feathers. She got to seventy-seven styles and stopped. Losing her made my heart ache.

Little Tristan wouldn’t mind my departure. His momma would let him eat those Corn Flakes ‘round the clock until she found a new chef.

I hated that devil man. He didn’t want to help me. Nobody did. They wanted to take me apart like a watch and assort me into my various cogs and bits, study me like a rat and write books about it. Who would read such a book?

***

The orderly opened the door again. “Dr. Park is waiting for you.”

Obediently, I followed the boy to a well-lit exam room.

“Nice to see you, Miss Mallon,” the doctor smiled.

I sniffed. I hated them all no matter how much they smiled.

“As you know,” he said, “you’re contagious. So, here’s what I propose. We’ll give you some Urotropin to disinfect you. If it works, you’ll be able to go home.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“We try Brewer’s yeast. Or Hexamethylenamin. And if those don’t work, there are many others. Agreed?”

So, I was their rat. The thought made me flinch.

“Perfect,” he said. “In that case, we’ll be moving you to the private bungalow where the Superintendent of Nurses used to live. You’ll still be in quarantine, but you’ll have more freedom to move around.”

I concentrated on the cracks in the concrete floor.

“We’ll have an orderly bring you food and supplies, but you must not cook for anybody else. Understood?”

That’s when it hit me. I was done for. No more smacking Bert for complaining about the Trolley Dodgers. No more cooking for wealthy families with iceboxes and Victrolas. Still, I didn’t cry. I had given these people my shit and my freedom, but I would not give them my tears.

Chapter 5

March 1908

Dr. Park tapped his fingers on his desk. That sexy lab assistant, Mary Bee, had been gone for a year, but Mary Mallon was still around. It was wrong. Just plain wrong. He put his head down like a naughty schoolboy.

The lab had grown so big they now had a protocol for studying bacteria. They had also made an important discovery. In Miss Mallon’s case, sometimes her stool tested positive and sometimes negative. It could switch by the day or by the month, which explained why she passed typhoid to some people but not others. The idea of an intermittent carrier was ghastly and exhilarating.

Park’s boss, Biggs, was elated because he had brought the NYC Health Department to the height of its power. With more lab equipment than ever, the staff was engrossed in bacteria theory, and the rush was on to inform the public.

Parks sat up. Poor Miss Mallon. She had no idea how much clout her stool had given the man who kept her imprisoned. Worse, she didn’t know how much her samples had added to science. Lives were certainly being saved.

But at what cost? The Board of Health had clapped a woman in jail on the word of a sanitary engineer. Would it have been any better on the word of a medical man? How had a group of health nuts claimed such a broad legal right, anyway? Could any chump now be thrown in jail for washing his hands incorrectly? Honestly, who scrubs under his nails?

Park had lost his breath when he saw the article in the AMA calling her Typhoid Mary. Did the medical world have no compassion? They had used her up. There was no more benefit to be had. Just shame. It was time to let her go.

Chapter 6

July 1908

Mr. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York American, Sunday circulation 800,000, should have been happy. It was summer, and people bought more newspapers in the summer.

But he was not happy. He was in a meeting room with a dozen of his best journalists, all of whom were studying the pleats in their pants.

“Come on, fellas!” His voice boomed. “We need a story! Something that makes our readers jump out of their chairs!”

A junior writer fidgeted.

“Out with it, man!”

“Have you heard about the cook who was pinched by the cops right out of the Bowen’s house?”

“Charles Bowen, the steel guy?”

“Yes. She had infected twenty-three people with typhoid.”

“Old topic, young chap,” Mr. Dick, a senior writer, snickered. “People are sick of reading about typhoid.”

The other journalists laughed.

Hearst snapped his fingers. “Let the boy speak.”

The junior writer straightened his waistcoat. “She’s a healthy spreader. She’s not sick, but she spreads it.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Dick scoffed.

“It’s true,” the kid said. The Health Department has been detaining her on North Brother Island for a year.”

“Voluntarily?” Hearst asked.

“Under lock and key.”

The room grew quiet.

Hearst leaned forward. This story might gain him the customers he needed to outpace Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. “How do you know all this?”

“My cousin delivers her food.”

“Well, get him in here!” The newspaper magnate stood, and the senior writers hustled out of the room. “See that, young man? They’re already calling their contacts. Let’s go to my office.”

By the time Hearst and the young writer finished brainstorming, the next day’s headline was written: “Cook Mary in the Pokey for Spreading Typhoid.” The first sidebar summed up bacteria theory, and the second warned, “Any cook, helper or dishwasher in a dairy, hotel, restaurant, steamship or dining car – or even your own cook – may be a carrier. You might be a spreader yourself, soon to be arrested and locked up for life!”

Sales of the New York American skyrocketed. Still, within a week, the story petered out.

Hearst paced around his newsroom. This story needed wheels. A lying doctor. A court case – yes, that was it – a court case. Hapless servant versus the NYC Health Department. His writers could keep a story like that spinning for months. He summoned the company lawyer.

“Do you still have that son-in-law who’s a lawyer?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s his name?”

“George O'Neill.”

“Get him in here.”

***

After an hour together, Hearst and O'Neill shook hands, and the young lawyer hurried home. That crazy newspaper man had offered him an outrageous fee to take on an easy case. What luck!

O’Neill found his wife kneeling on their cramped balcony, stuffing fresh marigolds into a pot. She was so pretty. One day, he was going to buy her a big house with a big garden. He told her about Miss Mallon.

She pushed her hair back, and dirt tumbled down her cheek. “I read about her in the news. It’s terrible what they’re doing to her. Jailed for being sick.”

“I’m supposed to start a lawsuit for her.” He lit a cigarette.

“To get her free?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then why?”

“To create news.”

“Can’t you do both?

“Not really. While she’s locked up, she’s news. If she gets out, she’s not.”

“So, you’re supposed to lose?”

The way her floppy hat fell over her face reminded him of their college days, back when his ideals were so clear. The cigarette made his stomach turn. He resisted the urge to stub it out on the porch and went inside for a drink.

Chapter 7

September 1908

O’Neill and Mallon sat on rusty chairs outside her isolation cottage. A lawn of ugly weeds surrounded them, but a heavy elm tree offered marvelous shade.

From what O’Neill could see, the green and white cottage was a single room with a long table in the center, surrounded by cane-back chairs. Two old rocking chairs stood near the fireplace, and a bed was pushed up against the far wall. Considering Mallon lived here in isolation, he found the number of seats interesting.

This was his fourth visit. While she simmered on about the long reach of an unfair government, he toyed with his damp shirt cuffs.

Despite her diatribes, he liked her. She was smart and determined. What she lacked was common sense. All she had to do was agree to stop cooking, and they’d let her go. Instead, she made it clear she did not have typhoid.

“Look at all the stool samples that come back negative,” she would say, or if they came back positive, she did not believe in the science to begin with.

Although O'Neill knew she was a carrier, he listened to her prattle. He was being paid to keep this relationship going. Then, for the first time, she asked what he thought.

“Miss Mallon, the question isn’t whether the cops broke the law bringing you in or whether you have typhoid. It’s how to get you off this ridiculous island.”

“Alright. Let’s talk about the court case.” She delved into a speech about being deprived of her liberty.

“That’s a useless argument,” he interrupted.

“What?”

“You already know this. The Health Department can detain anyone who poses a health threat.”

“Okay. What about precedent? The TB patients are voluntary.” She waved her hand at the rest of the island.

“It won’t work in court.”

“Hmph.”

“You asked for my opinion,” he said.

“So, what’s your plan?”

“I’m going to focus on the process. When they arrested you, they didn’t have any proof you were spreading germs.”

“Just that puny engineer.”

“And they held you without a hearing. They didn’t give you a chance to defend yourself.”

“I defended myself alright.”

O'Neill rubbed his temple. She was going to make a terrible witness.

He was going to lose. The guys at the newspaper would be pleased. A big loss would give them weeks of incredible press – a pity interview with her and a dozen how-unfair interviews with doctors from NYC to Chicago. It would go on and on.

That brought him to a new thought. He could lose in court but win in the public’s mind. The newspaper could haze the Health Department so ruthlessly for victimizing an unfortunate cook that the bureaucrats would be forced to let her go. He jumped up.

“What is it?”

“I need to catch the next ferry.” He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away.

Chapter 8

July 1909

O’Neill picked at his shirt collar. The courtroom was fuller than he expected on such a hot day.

The Honorable Mitchell L. Erlanger of the NY Supreme Court dipped his chin so he could glare over his spectacles.

“Miss Mallon,” the judge said, “it is this court’s duty to protect the community. Therefore, you remain remanded to the Board of Health.” The man banged his gavel, and in a record sixteen minutes, Miss Mallon’s case was closed.

O’Neill did not complain that the honorable judge had grossly misunderstood the court’s duty. He did not lean over and apologize to his unfortunate client. Instead, because they had a few hours before she had to be back on the island, he took her to the Rorer, an upscale restaurant on Broadway and 55th.

The waiter flapped their linen napkins exuberantly before laying them on their laps.

While Mary ordered more food than six people could eat, O’Neill stuck to coffee. Although he’d had typhoid as a child, with her at the table, caution was in order.

“How are you feeling?” he said.

“I’m fine. They can’t keep me locked up forever.” She stuffed a fried soft-shell crab in her mouth.

“You shouldn’t have sworn at the judge.”

“People love it when that trampy Alice Roosevelt curses. She wears those sleeveless blouses, and she parties ‘til midnight, and it’s all over the news. Why can she get away with all that, and I can’t?”

Because you’re no Alice Roosevelt, O’Neill wanted to say, but he was tired of hearing how some government machine was protecting the rich and abusing the poor. The way the cops had captured her may have been a class thing, and keeping her may have been taking advantage, but the goal wasn’t to benefit the wealthy; it was to benefit them all.

She crammed another forkful in her mouth.

“There’s another option, Mary.”

“What?”

“Admit you’re contagious and promise to stop cooking for people.”

She snorted.

***

The lawyer dropped me off at the ferry, and I made my way back to my cottage. The sun was too sharp to sit outside so I rocked in my rocking chairs, first the one with the cracked armrest, then the one with the creaky noise. Something about being able to switch chairs gave me comfort.

A few friends came by and called my name, but they just wanted to hear about the courtroom. I ignored them.

I should have known I was a lost cause. All the water in the world wouldn’t have cleared me. That nasty Dr. Biggs, climbing up on the stand and claiming I was a danger to society. I had never hurt a soul. And Dr. Park stopping me on my way back to my cottage. “Did you poop while you were gone, Miss Mallon? What color was it? We’re learning an awful lot from you.”

I almost kicked him in the shin. He liked this damn disease so much that people should have been calling him Typhoid Park.

***

The day after the trial, O'Neill woke up early, tossed on his boater hat and hurried to the nearest newsstand. He stopped ten feet away. His loss was in capital letters on the front page of every paper. Given how much the New York American had paid him to rev up new readers, he thought he wouldn’t mind the loss, but the headlines were so bold.

His hands shaking, he bought one of each paper, took them home and stacked them on the nightstand. While he lay on top of the covers staring at the ceiling, his pretty wife, who now had a huge house and a huge garden, leaned against the headboard, and studied every article.

“Your name’s in this one, too.” She sipped some imported guava juice.

“How many is that?”

“Five so far.”

He sat up. “I have to get over to Hearst’s office.”

“Why?”

“He offered me tickets for the boxing match tonight. I’m taking my brother.”

“What a guy.”

Chapter 9

August 1909

When Dr. Eugene Porter took over as the Commissioner of the NY Health Department, Hearst treated himself to a vintage wine and crafted several new headlines.

“Will the New Commissioner Punish Miss Mary for Life?”

“Sources say Porter Will Let the Innocent Cook Rot in Jail.”

Readership went up until every adult in the city had an opinion about the pitiful cook.

Soon enough, Hearst’s phone rang. He stopped clacking away at his typewriter and answered.

“Hearst here.”

“This is Commissioner Porter. You need to stop printing this crap.”

“Excuse me?”

“My phone’s been ringing off the hook. I’m thinking of jumping out this window!”

“What floor are you on?”

“The third.”

“That would make a good story.”

Chapter 10

January 1910

The Commissioner called O’Neill on a Saturday afternoon and invited him to his social club, where they stood in a dark room and watched two elderly men play billiards. One was masterful, and the other was average.

Sucker, O’Neill thought to himself.

The Commissioner stuck his hand in a bowl of dried fruit. “We need to end this thing with the cook,” he said while he chewed.

“Yes, sir.”

“I mean, Christ, you can’t lock people up for being sick.” Bits of fruit flew from his mouth.

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell her she is not to take a job as a cook, and she must report to my office once a month. If not, she’s back on the island for life. Deal?”

“Will you continue collecting her stool samples?” Surely 165 were enough.

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Will you help her find a job?”

“I hear she’s been a laundress on the island. I’ll arrange something similar.”

“At the same wages as a cook?” Laundresses made twenty bucks a month. Cooks made fifty.

“No.”

“So, you’ll give her a stipend to pay for an apartment?”

“No.”

“Money for food?”

“Lad, we’ve paid for her food and housing for three years.” Porter pulled on his watch chain and glanced at the gleaming face.

O’Neill stuck out his hand. It was time to agree.

This time around, the newspapers were split. Hearst’s paper asked why the Health Department wasn’t offering the unlucky servant more financial support. Other papers complained more citizens would get sick. Nobody mentioned how Miss Mallon’s stool had helped the Health Department secure funding for a new lab. That was not news.

Chapter 11

February 1910

Two years and eleven months after they hauled me away in that ambulance, I stood by Bert’s bed. Everything felt off. He was older and fatter. The room was stuffier. But I was free.

“What will you do now?” Bert sipped his Rheingold.

“They got me a job as a laundress.”

“That’s bull. You’ll make next to nothing.”

I dragged a crate of old dresses from under his bed. “I gotta fix these. They’ll be too big on me now.”

“Ah, so there’s an upside.”

“You’re such an eejit.”

While I stitched, I decided to take the laundry job. I’d get paid every month, and the place was nearby. When all the attention died down, I could get back to cooking.

The laundry job lasted three weeks. The last day was the worst. I was bending down to lift some sweaty clothes off the floor in the boys’ bedroom when my new mistress dropped a pile of sticky sheets in my face.

“You forgot these.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“I want them back on my bed by tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I went to the basement with its damp concrete walls and dumped everything on the floor, including the clothes I had already washed and run through the wringer, and I squatted over the pile. It was like peeing for the nurses, only this time it was for me.

That’s when I started calling myself Mary Breshof, as if I had married Bert, and working in places that didn’t check references. A hotel in Southampton. A restaurant on upper Broadway.

I even had a job at the Automat in Times Square where we sold quick lunches for five cents. The day we opened we made 8,639 nickels. Although that was a terrific racket, I didn’t stay long. The typhoid chased me away. That stupid malady was always on my heels.

Then Bert had chest pains and died, and I had nowhere to sleep. It was a new low. When a sanatorium in Newfoundland offered me a room for cleaning piss buckets, I took it. After a while, the sanatorium’s chef left and I became the new chef, but everyone still treated me like the piss girl.

Chapter 12

July 1914

I bumped into O'Neill on a downtown street. Since the sidewalk was packed, we ducked into the entryway of the Motion Picture House on Broadway and 2nd. When I heard the families laughing on the other side of the door, it struck me I missed being part of a family.

“What have you been up to?” he asked.

“Crappy jobs. Has the Health Department ever asked about me?”

“Never.”

“So, I’m in the clear.”

“I’d lie low. They hated you,” he said.

“Nah, they needed me. I was the experiment.”

“Please tell me you’re not cooking again, Miss Mallon.” He glanced around as though the crowd was listening.

“Take care of yourself, young man.” I walked off.

The encounter gave me the courage to search for a new family. I found one in Connecticut that adored my food, and I spent a fabulous month cooking for them until their snooty cousin from Boston told everyone I looked like that Typhoid Mary in the newspaper. As usual, I took off in the middle of the night, running like always.

Then I cut my hand and it got infected, and I couldn’t work at all. Before I knew it, I was scarfing down squirrel stew with a gang of homeless people in Central Park. Worse than that was the stomach pain. Ever since the island, I’d been vomiting on and off. Now it was so bad I was ready to die.

“I don’t get you.” Cara, a woman who slept nearby, stood by my bench and picked at a scab on her wrist.

“What?” I laid my head on a rolled-up coat and held my belly. It was late, and I was tired.

“You could be a real cook. Make yourself some scratch.”

“Come on, Cara, let’s get some shut-eye.”

“Why don’t you work for a doctor? He’d fix up your stomach.”

“Humph.” I turned away from her.

“You’d have free food,” she said as she walked to her bench.

“Goodnight, Cara.”

“Night.”

A lovely fricandeau of veal did sound delicious. I stretched out my legs and told myself to fall asleep. I hadn’t cried yet, and I wasn’t going to start now.

The next day, I plucked a newspaper from a trash bin, and there it was – Head Chef Wanted at Sloane Hospital for Expecting Women. It took me longer to tidy up at the YMCA and walk to the hospital on West 59th Street than it did to get the job.

Chapter 13

January 1915

In my new life as Chef Mary Brown, I had a huge kitchen, an assistant chef, and the freedom to create my own menus. My first day, I made baked whitefish au gratin with crispy snap peas.

There were other perks. Another chef invited me to share her apartment, and the first month, I won Employee of the Month. Best of all was the nurse who fixed up my raw hand and aching belly.

Just as I was feeling like the old me – the gal who had a sense of humor and a couple of friends – one of the nurses caught typhoid. It made me wonder. If I was the cause, why hadn’t anyone else caught it? I had been cooking for everyone. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it wasn’t me. When my boss asked everyone for stool samples, I was first in line.

A few days later, another nurse called in sick. And then another. It was all anybody could talk about.

“Funny, you have blue eyes like Typhoid Mary,” my assistant chef said one day.

“Get that chicken before it burns.” I shoved her toward the oven.

What if it was me? Was I going to live on a park bench again? Maybe I should just get caught. After all, I’d have a cottage and food and a big shade tree. Steam rose from the pot I was stirring, and I wiped my face.

Chapter 14

March 1915

Every winter, Senior Inspector Josephine Baker attended the Health Department picnic at the Pavilion of Fun in Steeplechase Park. Although she hated amusement rides, she got dressed up and shook the right hands.

As she passed a food tent filled with long tables and loud people, a server in a black apron offered her an iced tea. It was her first time trying it, and the sweet nip surprised her.

Some men were playing horseshoes. She stood nearby, thinking she might enjoy a round, if only women were allowed to play.

“Have you heard about Sloane Hospital?” one man said as he threw.

“Yeah. Jesus.” His buddy lined up his throw.

“It’s twenty-five sick, two dead.”

“Those poor mothers.”

“That’s the strange bit. The patients are doing well. It’s all nurses.”

“Who could spread that much disease? A custodian?”

“More likely a cook.”

“Right, chap. Your turn.”

Baker coughed on her iced tea.

“Ma’am?” The men glanced at her.

She shook them off and jostled through the crowd in search of the newest State Health Commissioner, Dr. Herman Biggs, the very man who had ordered her to arrest Mary Mallon all those years ago. She found him near the Human Roulette Wheel drinking beer with a crowd of men.

“The lovely Inspector Baker. What a beautiful spring dress.” He raised his stein to her.

She ground her teeth. She had worked harder than every man in this department, including him. She was nobody’s spring dress.

“May I have a moment, sir?”

“Of course, my dear.”

While she explained her suspicions, she let him grasp her arm, and that was all it took.

The next morning, Inspector Baker entered the meticulous office of the director of Sloane Hospital. Dozens of certificates lined the walls.

The haggard administrator straightened his tie. “I assure you, ma’am, our kitchen is impeccable.”

“This isn’t an inspection. I just need a few minutes with the staff.”

“Thank God.”

As they entered the kitchen, a few workers gave her the evil eye. People hated inspectors.

She breathed in deep. It didn’t matter what they thought of her. She had hardly exhaled when she saw a familiar figure flipping bacon.

“Miss Mallon?”

The old barge whipped around.

“Oh, my God.” Baker gazed at her. “Have you been cooking all these years?”

“Who are you?” Mallon wiped her hands on a towel.

“You need to come with me. You’re under arrest.” Baker bustled toward her.

Mallon grabbed the pan of bacon and flipped it upside down. Grease landed on the open burner, and flames flew up. Fire slid across the slimy counter. Orange wisps climbed the walls.

“Fire!” The sneaky coot yelled as she bolted for the door.

The kitchen staff screamed and ran. Inspector Baker pushed the director out of the way. She needed to catch this felon. She raced to the exit and checked left and right, but the old bat was gone.

***

O’Neill sat on a wicker chair in his living room and stared past the pigeons in his yard. He had just read about the new typhoid epidemic.

“Two Maternity Nurses Die of Typhoid.”

“Murdering Cook Escapes Capture.”

He’d always known this would happen. He snatched a bottle of whiskey off the cocktail table and took a long swig.

A week later, he was back in the living room with another bottle of whiskey. Mallon’s stool had tested positive, and the police had caught her on Long Island delivering hot soup to a sick friend. They had to climb a ladder and sneak through a window to nab her.

Although The New York American insisted she was “guilty of no crime,” nearly every other paper called her a witch who brewed her own poison. What a way to put it.

O’Neill raised the bottle for another slug, and his wife appeared.

“You’re loaded.” As she grabbed the bottle, she noticed the headlines. “Are you going to set her free again?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s over.” With so many strikes against her, Hearst would not pay him to drag the story on.

She snapped up the pile of newspapers and tucked them under her arm. “You need to get back to work. All this sitting around, you’re making yourself sick.”

“Yes, love.”

She gave him a doubtful look and stormed out.

He leaned his head against the wicker chair. It cut into his scalp, but he didn’t care. Miss Mary Mallon was scum. Infecting nurses. Endangering mommas and their newborns. For that matter, as the man who had freed her, he was scum, too.

Chapter 15

October 1918

O’Neill stood in line at Macy’s on 34th and Broadway. As he admired the sequined shawl he planned to buy for his wife, he recognized Mallon in front of him. He had heard that the island doctor often let her visit the city, but he had not expected to see her.

In her stylish black dress with black stockings and heels, she could have been any lady out for a glorious day of shopping.

“Here we are.” She set some black leather gloves on the counter.

“An excellent choice.” The saleslady rolled them in crinkly paper.

“It’s my first pair.”

“I remember my first pair of leather gloves.”

Mallon stiffened, and O’Neill understood. It wasn’t her first pair of leather gloves. It was her first pair of gloves ever.

His head pounded. How had he come to know this woman so intimately? He dropped the sequined shawl on a rack and slipped out to the street. As the crowd bumped past him, he gripped a light pole to keep from fainting.

He wasn't going to wait for her. What would he say? It’s your fault I slap my wife? It’s your fault I can’t enjoy a simple sunrise?

No. He would not say those things. Instead, he stepped away from the pole and disappeared into the stream of people.

About the Author

Catherine Hammond

Catherine Hammond has a BA in writing from Northwestern University and an MA in Education from Wayne State. As a school principal and the mother of four young adults, she spends her days motivating people to understand and nurture themselves, others, and the world. Her favorite words are "travel," "listen," "taste," "believe," and "gone fishin’." Her publications include "The Knowing" with Dreamers Creative Writing (online and in hard copy) and "A Different Kind of Smart" with Friday Flash Fiction (online).