The century-old story of a woman who refused to quarantine during a 1919 typhoid outbreak still resonates as Chicago hits the one year mark in its battle with the coronavirus pandemic.
When Jennie Barmore became notorious for going out during a pandemic, the city was facing many of the same challenges and controversies, including stay at home orders, closed businesses and contact tracing.
Her story addresses a question officials still wrestle with today: What private freedoms are governments allowed to curb in the name of public health?
In November 1919, Chicago’s health commissioner John Dill Robertson discovered through contract tracing that five cases of typhoid had originated at the same address — the Barmores’ boarding house at 100 W. 113th Place in Roseland. Robertson moved to shut the house down and told the boarders to move out.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, typhoid was a frequent problem in Chicago and other cities because of poor sanitation — and it was deadly. The city had just gone through the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic that killed 8,500 people in Chicago, and health officials understandably wanted to contain any contagious disease.
But Barmore said she wouldn’t stop keeping boarders in the house because it was her family’s only source of income after her husband had been disabled in an accident.
Then, on Dec. 15, an armed health official and three police officers showed up at the Barmores’ door and hauled Jennie off to the county hospital. She tested negative for typhoid and was released. But the health department said she was a carrier — that she was spreading the disease to others without showing symptoms.
Officials posted a big red sign on the front door announcing that there was typhoid within. Nobody could go in or out without permission of the health commission, and even the milkman shouldn’t pick up empty milk bottles from this property.
Barmore was strictly quarantined in her house, and barred from shopping, using public toilets and cooking food for anyone but herself and her husband — she wasn’t even supposed to cook for her adult children if they came to the house.
Barmore sued the city, and the case became a nationwide sensation. The controversy came only a few years after the infamy of Typhoid Mary, a cook in New York who was the first person recognized by medical experts as an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. The overall outbreak in New York was about 3,000 cases.
Barmore’s suit claimed the health commissioner didn’t have the right to shut down her business because she wasn’t sick but was only a carrier. She got support from the American Medical Liberty League, a Chicago-based group that opposed vaccinations, and her case was handled by the eminent Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow.
In a sympathetic news article that ran across the country, science was cast as the villain. “Science,” the article said, had taken on “the triple role of judge, jury and jailer. … Some physicians hold there’s no such thing as a typhoid carrier.”
And Barmore is quoted saying: “I reared two children. Neither contracted typhoid, nor did my husband. Yet here I am a prisoner in my own house.”
Barmore’s case worked its way through the courts until April 1922, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that “preservation of public health is part of the police power of the state.” Barmore, the courts held, was a menace to the health of Chicago and could be quarantined as long as health officials felt it was necessary.
Sometime after the court cases, Barmore and her husband moved to Oklahoma from their Chicago home, which is still standing. Barmore died in 1940.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin. Mary Hall produced the web version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye.