Posts Tagged ‘Typhoid Mary’

North Brother Island’s tragic past

July 8, 2009

North Brother Island is a 13-acre spit of land in the East River, between the Bronx and Riker’s Island. Unlike bigger Roosevelt Island nearby, it’s never been developed.

RiversidehospitalnobrotherBut it has been inhabited by people—sick people. Acquired by the city in 1885, officials built Riverside Hospital (at right) there, a place to quarantine New Yorkers who suffered from potentially deadly and easily communicable diseases such as typhus and smallpox. It also housed drug addicts until the 1960s.

North Brother’s most famous resident? Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. The Irish immigrant cook, a carrier of typhus, was committed there in 1908 and died 30 years later. 

The island has another connection to a tragic New York event: the General Slocum disaster. After this steamship caught fire near the island in 1904, hundreds of passengers—mostly German immigrant women and children enjoying an annual church boat trip—jumped into the East River to escape the flames.


The General Slocum finally beached on North Brother, and many passenger bodies washed up on its shore. All told, an estimated 1,021 people perished—the greatest loss of life in New York City until the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Today North Brother is inhabited mainly by birds; it’s a protected bird sanctuary. The latest episode of the web-only PBS show The City Concealed can take you there.

What New York did about Typhoid Mary

September 5, 2008

Mary Mallon was born in Irelend in 1869 and came to America at 16, working as a cook for wealthy families in Boston and New York. In the early 1900s, several family members came down with typhoid—a potentially deadly bacterial infection spread through food when a carrier doesn’t wash his or her hands after using the bathroom.

Eventually a New York City typhoid researcher identified Mary as the source of all the infections. She denied having typhoid, but tests proved otherwise, and city health officials forced her into quarantine in a city hospital at North Brother Island in the East River.

A New York newspaper illustrates her plight in 1909. 

After leaving quarantine and promising not to handle food, she went back to work as a cook, promptly infecting more people. Eventually she was brought back to the island, where she lived out her life. Mary died in 1938, a celebrity for being a healthy carrier of a lethal bacteria.