HistoryBuff.com January 2010 Newsletter
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Does History Repeat Itself?

Today, the H1N1 virus is in the news all over America. The common theme is the value of washing our hands after using the restroom as the single-most effective method of preventing the disease. There is at least one other disease that is spread primarily by unwashed hands.

Going back over one-hundred years, in the early 1900s, there was an epidemic of typhoid, mostly in the New York City area. However, this case was different. At the time, typhoid was mostly contracted by the poor due to their unsanitary living conditions. This epidemic was different in that most of the people that came down with it came from the upper-class. City health officials were puzzled and it took lots of detective work to find the common thread. Enter Mary Mallon.

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She was a cook in a house in Mamaroneck, New York, for less than two weeks in 1900 when the family came down with Typhoid. She moved to employment in Manhattan, and members of that family developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. Next, she went to work for a lawyer, and seven of the eight household members developed typhoid. Mary spent months helping to care for the people she made sick, but of course the contact made them worse. As it turned out, Mary was a carrier of the disease, but never was ill with Typhoid herself.

In 1904, she took another position on Long Island. Within two weeks, four of the ten family members were hospitalized with typhoid. She changed employment three more times and all three households were infected.

In 1906, the outbreak of cases of typhoid in New York attracted the suspicion of Dr. George Soper. He discovered that the common element was an unmarried, heavyset Irish cook, about forty years old. No one knew her whereabouts. After each case she left and gave no forwarding address. Dr Soper traced her to an active outbreak in a Park Avenue penthouse. Two servants were hospitalized and the daughter of the family died.

Soper interviewed Mary, and suggested there might be a connection between the dishes she served and the outbreaks of Typhoid. She cursed at him. He requested a stool sample, and she threatened him with a meat cleaver. Finally, police and the New York health commissioner arrested her. She went kicking and screaming.

Authorities labeled her public health enemy number one and confined her to a cottage in the Bronx, where she lived and ate alone. She was effectively imprisoned without trial. She worked at Riverside Hospital as a laundress, swearing that she was the victim of a government conspiracy.

In 1910, promising to remain a laundress and never return to cooking, Mary was released. She changed her name to Mary Brown and got a job as a cook. For the next five years, she went through a series of kitchens, spreading illness and death, keeping one step ahead of the frustrated Dr. Soper.

In 1915, a serious epidemic of typhoid erupted among the staff of New York's Sloan Hospital for Women, with twenty five cases and two deaths. City health authorities investigated, learning that a portly Irish-American woman had suddenly disappeared from the kitchen help. The police tracked her to an estate on Long Island. This time she went meekly.

Mary was quarantined for life on North Brother Island. She became something of a celebrity, and was interviewed by journalists. She died in 1938 of pneumonia. The autopsy revealed that her gallbladder was still actively shedding typhoid bacilli. She was buried by the Department of Health at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. But her reputation lives on.

History has given Mary Mallon the name Typhoid Mary.

Paradoxes in History

Bathing and Swmming

In the Victorian era, the medical community advised that people should not take baths any more than once a month, and then very quickly. The belief was that sitting in a tub of water for long periods of time would cause the organs to become waterlogged and damaged.

On the other hand, the same doctors recommended swimming as an excellent method of exercising and improving one's health. Go figure.

Indoor Plumbing and Kitchens

With the invention of indoor "out houses," it took generations before the majority of the households had them. This was partly due to the cost, but another strong factor was the concern over whether it was sanitary or not to have toilets inside the home. When households brought the "out house" indoors, where did they put the bathroom? Even today, many toilets are located just off the kitchen.

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December Contest

CONTEST ONE QUESTION: There are at least two different versions of the origination of the term "Black Friday" to mean shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. Give ONE of these versions and NOT BOTH.

ANSWERS: Black Friday refers to the day that merchants make enough money to turn their yearly financial status from loss (red) to black (gain).

The term, Black Friday originated in Philadelphia. It was used in reference to the heavy traffic on that day. The earliest use of this term was in 1965.

CONTEST TWO QUESTION: Who was the first person to give Santa's reindeer names?

ANSWER: Clement Moore in his poem A Visit From Saint Nick.

One-twenty-nine people entered. Fifty-seven people had errors in their entry. Most of the errors had either the incorrect subject heading or failure to pick a prize if they won. All prizes were awarded.

The December Contest Winners Were:
  • James Mintzes - New York
  • Jimmy Tucker - Pennsylvania
  • David Vice - Kentucky
  • Billie Jean Fogle - Florida
  • T. Sherman - Iowa
  • Owen Lorion - New Mexixo

This Issue's Questions:

To enter Contest One, answer the question: One United States president was a King before becoming president. Who was he?

To enter Contest Two, answer the question: One state in the United States was a kingdom with a monarchy before statehood. Which state is it?

Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Tuesday, January 19, 2010. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 48 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • To enter Contest One or Contest Two, email your answer to curator at historybuff.com

  • To enter Contest One, use "Contest One Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest One question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • To enter Contest Two, use "Contest Two Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest Two question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but only win one prize.

  • If entering both contests, entries must be sent in separate emails.

  • Each entry MUST select ONE prize from the appropriate prize list.

  • If answering the Contest Two question, select your prize from the Contest Two prize list.

  • From subscribers entering the contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE contest prize they want to win, NINE will be selected to win ONE of the contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.
January Contest One Prize

4-DVD Movies

Set of Four Fantasy Movies
The Curse of King Tut's Tomb
The Poseidon Adventure (original version)
Merlin's Apprentice

January Contest Two Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)


Gorillias From the Heart of Darkness
National Geographic Documentary


The Beverly Hillbillies
Classic Episodes of the 1960s TV Series

Original Historic Newspapers

Original New-England Galaxy historic newspaper from 1826

Manchester American & Messenger (New Hampshire) historic newspaper from 1853

Original Coldwater Republican historic newspaper from 1876
That's it for this issue.

Rick Brown

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