Salt Lake City Had its Typhoid Mary

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, April 1996

Salt Lake City was a hotbed for typhoid, as were many other US cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People would hunt, camp, picnic, and pollute near the seven mountains streams that provided the city with most of its water. Sheep and cattle would graze near the watershed, barnyards were built near water sources, and flies had easy access to the open privies and manure piles.

Typhoid was also easily passed by finger contamination when an ill person or even a recovered victim handled food and did not wash his or her hands carefully after using the restroom. In 1923 a Salt Lake City woman working in a delicatessen was ill with what was later diagnosed as “walking typhoid.” She had diarrhea and was getting weaker but did not want to leave her boss shorthanded; besides, she needed the money. So she stayed on the job, serving food in between her frequent trips to the lavatory and her less frequent or thorough handwashings. One day four adults and two young people came into town from their westside farm to see a double feature at a movie theater. Afterwards they visited the delicatessen and bought some food to take home for their evening meal. The young people left on dates, while the adults shared the deli food. The four adults came down with typhoid and two died.

Some 188 cases of typhoid (13 deaths) were traced to the woman carrier, but no one knows for sure how many people contracted the disease, took it home, possibly to another state, and spread it even farther. The problem was compounded by the fact that a drugstore near Salt Lake’s tourist section bought food from the delicatessen and served it to uncounted numbers of people. Eventually the deli was tracked down as the source of the outbreak and quarantined. The number of reported cases of typhoid soon subsided.

Prior to 1900 doctors saw more typhoid fever than any other disease. They treated it in various ways. Some felt it was best to starve the patient; others felt hot water was the cure. Salt Lake City Cemetery records from 1850 to 1894 record 924 deaths due to typhoid, but the actual number was probably higher. Many deaths among typhoid-prone adolescents and young adults, who died in the summer and fall when typhoid is most common, were attributed to “diarrhea” or “fever.” Many people realized the connection between typhoid and contaminated food and drink, but little action was taken until health boards were established. Even then, it was difficult to educate the public to take a few simple precautions.

When the housefly was implicated as a typhoid carrier in the late 19th century, Dr. Theodore B. Beatty, state health commissioner, began a crusade against the pest. He distributed literature, gave talks and demonstrations at schools, and helped make “Swat the Fly” a common greeting. A contest offered prizes to whoever killed the most flies. The winner brought in 707 quarts of dead flies, an estimated 9.5 million, and received the $1,000 prize donated by a Salt Lake City businessman. In one year Utahns captured 3,715 quarts of flies. The fly menace was lessened, but real progress was made when attention gradually turned to the eradication of breeding places.

Following the example of some eastern cities, Salt Lake City instituted a water chlorination program in 1915 and gradually added to it until 1927 when daily testing of chlorinated water was done at all city water intake points. Reactions to chlorination varied. Mothers worried when they could not taste the chlorine that the water they gave their children was not safe. Others said that chlorine made the water unpalatable and that it killed their goldfish. During the prohibition era some complained that it ruined the taste of their home brew and bathtub gin.

Gradually, with increasing use of sanitary methods—improved sewer systems, purer water, and laws regulating the handling and dispensing of foods—plus use of a vaccine discovered by Almoth Wright of London in 1906–7, typhoid was controlled.

Source: Ward B. Studt, Jerold G. Sorensen, and Beverly Burge, Medicine in the Intermountain West (Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Co., 1976).