In 1931, something happened that had never happened before in room 552 at New York’s Herald Square Hotel: The door opened. Out popped a frizzy, white-haired head, which quickly turned to the nearby maid and shrieked, “My sister is sick. Get a doctor.” The old woman who called for help had been holed up inside her suite for 24 years, and when she finally told her life story, people didn’t know whether she was eccentric, pathological, or both.
If Mary hadn’t died before Ida, there’s a chance the world never would have heard the strange, fantastical story of Ida Mayfield Wood. But she did die, and Ida, left alone in her hotel room surrounded by strangers, couldn’t contain her stranger-than-fiction life story any longer.
Before investigators could search through Ida’s hotel room, they had to figure out why Ida became a recluse in the first place. Hotel records didn’t tell them much, just that Ida, Mary, and Ida’s daughter Emma, had moved into the suite in 1907 and locked the door behind them.
Emma passed away in 1928, leaving just Ida and Mary alone in the suite. Brief interactions with the sisters convinced the bellhops and maids of one thing: They were odd, all right. For the sisters, money and hygiene weren’t exactly priorities.
According to one maid, only twice had the sisters allowed her to wash their sheets and towels. Ida routinely told a bellhop that her 10 cent tip was the only money she had in the world…and then she’d promptly pay her hotel bills with stacks of cash.
And now that Mary was dead, all the strange rumors swirling around the sisters focused on Ida. The investigators were desperate for answers…which Ida was ready to give. As suddenly as she’d holed herself up 24 years before, Ida started talking.
It all started with a fortune teller from Ida’s youth. “You are going to marry a rich man, and get everything you want out of this life,” the fortune teller predicted. Ida held onto that prediction throughout her childhood, which she spent in New Orleans.
Ida was no ordinary girl, either. She told the investigators that back in New Orleans, she was the daughter of prominent sugar planter Henry Mayfield. Despite having a luxurious upbringing, Ida was determined to reinvent herself in New York, where she moved at just 19 years old.
Of course, she didn’t move there without first securing a marriage prospect. Back in New Orleans, she’d listened to gossip long enough to learn about Benjamin Wood, a NY politician and newspaper owner. There was just one problem: He was already married.
But what the rest of us would see as an issue, Ida only saw as a temporary obstacle. She brazenly wrote to Benjamin Wood and offered herself up as a mistress. Ten years of “covert” meetings later, the couple had a baby, Emma, and got married — in that order.
But Ida’s marriage was no picnic. Glitz and glamour aside, her days usually ended the same way: By picking her husband up after a night of gambling, never knowing whether they were broke or thousands of dollars richer. As time passed, Benjamin’s gambling only escalated.
Ida realized that if she wanted to live out the destiny predicted for her, she’d have to take matters into her own hands. So, she demanded that Benjamin give her half of his winnings every time he gambled…and unlike him, she was a meticulous saver.
When Benjamin died in 1900, everything he had left — property, savings, stocks — was in Ida’s name. But seven years later, Ida started to sell most of her possessions. At the height of the financial panic of the early 1900s, Ida strolled into her bank with a baffling demand.
According to an officer at the bank, Ida, clutching a netted bag, demanded that the bank give her the balance of her savings account in cash — $1 million — which she stuffed into her bag. She then said she was “tired of everything” and booked a room at the Herald Square Hotel.
After 93-year-old Ida finished telling her story, the investigators weren’t sure what to do next, or even if she was telling the truth. Her age plus her living conditions made her story hard to believe, and the investigators started to think she was simply a crazy old lady.
So, she was declared incompetent and moved to a different suite against her will. When the investigators searched her old hotel room, what they found officially debunked Ida’s claims that all she had was 10 cents to her name.
They found $247,200 in an old shoebox, and discovered $500,000 in a bag Ida had hidden inside the dress she was wearing. In her 54 trunks were some of the finest fabrics and lace in the world, as well as gowns, jewelry, tiaras, and gems.
When Ida wasn’t trying (and failing) to escape her new suite, she would dreamily tell anyone who would listen about her luxurious upbringing. The people monitoring her had stopped doubting her claims — after all, she really was rich, as they’d discovered. But then, her health started to fail.
When Ida died on March 12, 1932, the fantasy she’d built over 93 years finally collapsed. Sure, the money she’d had was hers, fair and square — but everything else she’d told the lawyers and investigators had been a fantasy.
As it turned out, Ida Mayfield Wood wasn’t actually a Mayfield — no one was, actually, since she’d made the name up. Her father wasn’t Henry Mayfield, successful Southern sugar planter, but Thomas Walsh, a poor Irish immigrant.
And Ida hadn’t been a Southern Belle at all, since she was actually born and raised in Massachusetts. As it turns out, “Ida” wasn’t even her real name; it was Ellen Walsh. Even her sister and daughter were part of the lie.
Mary wasn’t a Mayfield either, obviously, and Emma, the woman Ida claimed to be her daughter, was actually her sister. Ida really had been married to Benjamin Wood, who never told a soul about her real parentage and unglamorous childhood.
Sure, Ida had lied in order to raise her station. But Ida’s rise from poor working girl to respected socialite to eccentric recluse is the kind of rags to riches story that makes places like New York so dynamic, and Ida wasn’t the only New Yorker keeping secrets at the time.
Like most New Yorkers in the early 1900s, Mary Mallon was an immigrant. She arrived in New York from Ireland in 1883, and she sought work doing the one thing she enjoyed: cooking. It wasn’t long, though, before she started to notice a worrying trend.
Weeks into every cooking job, the family she worked for would be struck by concerning symptoms: high fevers, splitting headaches, and terrible digestive woes that left them weak and exhausted. But Mary, curiously, never got sick.
She hopped from house to house, which is how she started working for the Warren family. Days after they ate Mary’s ice cream with peaches, it happened again: Each member of the family got sick. This time, however, Mary’s employer didn’t chalk it up to fate.
Instead, Mr. Warren hired an investigator to find out why his family was suddenly suffering from typhoid, an uncommon disease for their part of Oyster Bay, Long Island. George Soper, the investigator, slowly tracked the illness’ path.
In each household affected by typhoid, there was a common thread: an Irish cook. The problem was, as Soper searched for the cook, he learned something alarming about her history. This mysterious Irish cook, it turned out, had a habit of skipping town.
Mary Mallon always left her employment as soon as a case of typhoid fever broke out, often conveniently forgetting to leave a forwarding address. By the time Soper found her working in the household of another family, he realized something terrible about Mary.
Soper didn’t yet have proof, but time would prove his hunch right: Mary Mallon was the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid to be identified in the United States, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out how she spread it to countless people.
Typhoid usually spreads because the carrier didn’t take the right hygienic precautions, such as washing their hands after going to the bathroom. When a cook, who touches the food of every household member, neglects to wash their hands, the results are messy…
And that’s exactly what happened with Mary. Whether it was because of her own exhaustion as an overworked cook or plain carelessness, it’s likely that Mary didn’t wash her hands before making meals for her employers — a fatefully bad decision.
Soper deduced that Mary’s employers couldn’t have contracted typhoid from her hot meals, because the high cooking temperatures would’ve killed the deadly bacteria. That’s when they identified the real source: Mary’s famous ice cream served with peaches.
Soper gave Mary the cold, hard facts. All seven families she’d worked for had contracted typhoid fever, and one little girl died. Even with this knowledge, Mary refused to be tested for typhoid … until the police showed up at her door.
The cook was shoved into an ambulance and taken to Willard Parker Hospital. For the next four days, a restrained Mary was forced to provide urine and stool samples, which yielded scary results: She was filled with typhoid bacteria.
While in the hospital, the dirty truth about Mary’s typhoid was finally pieced together. She was probably born with typhoid and had unknowingly transmitted it to countless people throughout her life. There was no telling how many more people she’d infect…
Unless the doctors were able to cut it off at the pass, that is. When Mary admitted that she hardly ever washed her hands, the authorities sentenced Mary to a short quarantine on North Brother Island.
While in quarantine, Mary refused to have her gallbladder removed, even though it was probably the source of her typhoid. She also refused to stop working as a cook if and when she returned to the mainland. With that, Mary earned herself a very unflattering nickname.
To the public, she became known as “Typhoid Mary.” Everyone was content to have her safely quarantined on North Brother Island, but Mary herself was miserable. She suffered from a nervous breakdown and complained that the doctors treated her like a “guinea pig.”
All the while, Mary never believed that she was the reason all those people got sick. Despite this stubbornness, after two years on North Brother Island, the New York Commissioner of Health told Mary she could return to society on one condition.
He forced Mary to sign an affidavit promising that she would never work as a cook again. She agreed and returned to New York City, where she successfully faded into the crowd…until, a few years later, a group of hospital workers suddenly fell ill.
Various restaurants, hotels, and spas also reported outbreaks of typhoid. It didn’t take long for Soper to notice a common thread with each outbreak: an Irish cook, sometimes named Mary Brown or Mary Breshof, always left a string of illness in her wake.
In 1915, Soper found Mary cooking for Sloane Hospital for Women, where 25 people were infected and 2 died of typhoid. With that, Mary was taken into custody and forced back to North Brother Island. This time, though, it was an extended stay.
This extended stay ended up lasting Mary for the rest of her life. For 23 years, she lived alone in a cottage on North Brother Island, where she could cook all she wanted without hurting others. By the time she died in 1938, there were big changes on the mainland.
By then, other asymptomatic typhoid carriers had been identified, making Mary’s forced confinement the subject of controversy to this day. Some estimate that Mary may have caused — whether intentionally or not — 50 deaths. Despite her nickname, “Typhoid Mary” never really grasped how dangerous she was to the public.