From the Spinner Archives

Today’s selection comes from “The Exiles of Penikese Island: Politics, Prejudice and the Public Health originally written by Paul Cyr for Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume III  (now available to download through iBooks).


The Exiles of Penikese Island:
Politics, Prejudice and the Public Health
by Paul Cyr

Part 1 of 4

During the last quarter of the 19th century Hansen’s disease began to be seen in the U.S. as a modern problem and not just as a literary metaphor. Father Damien de Veuster died in Hawaii on the island of Molokai on April 15, 1889 as a victim of the disease. His fame had spread world wide and a year later Robert Louis Stevenson defended his reputation in “Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Doctor Hyde of Honolulu.” The Hawaiian Island were annexed by the United States in 1898 and with the islands were annexed 1,100 cases of Hansen’s disease. Some American soldiers, returning from the Spanish-American War, were reported to be exhibiting symptoms of the disease. In an article entitled “Fighting Leprosy in the Philippines,” Dr. Victor Heiser used the fight against the disease to help justify the annexation of the Philippines:

It will, therefore, interest the people of the United States to learn that their government has been one of the first to deal with the problem of its treatment and eradication on a large scale, and that these efforts have been more successful than any which have heretofore been made. If our annexation of the Philippines leads to the cure of leprosy, certainly that will justify us.

In the continental United States about 160 cases of Hansen’s disease had been brought to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa by immigrants from Norway and Sweden, where the disease was prevalent. Statistics were collected in the Midwest in 1888 by Dr. Gerhard Hansen, the Norwegian scientist who in 1873 had discovered the bacillus, mycobacterium leprae, which causes the disease. The modern term, Hansen’s disease, commemorates his discovery. The disease was also found in Louisiana, where the Indian Camp Plantation in Carville was purchased by the state in 1894 for use as the Louisiana State Leprosarium.

The foundations and remains of former hospital buildings cut lifelessly through the island terrain, home for thousands of nesting gulls. Photo by Joseph D. Thomas

With the increase in immigration to Massachusetts during the latter part of the 19th century some cases of Hansen’s disease began to be reported. The first known case in Massachusetts was reported by the Boston Board of Health in 1875. The afflicted man was sent to the quarantine hospital on Gallup’s Island in Boston Harbor, where he died. From that time until 1904 seven other cases were discovered. On April 22, 1904 the Town of Harwich informed the State Board of Charity that a case of Hansen’s disease had been discovered in the town by Dr. Louis Edmonds. The patient was a stevedore who had come to this country in 1891 through the port of New Bedford. He had a wife and eight children, but was living isolated from them. The Harwich authorities appeared before the State Board of Charity on May 6th and asked them to take the case off their hands.

The State Board of Charity asked the Attorney General for an opinion about its power to remove the patient from Harwich to the State Infirmary in Tewksbury, across the territory of other towns. The Attorney General replied that the State Board might “meet valid objection to transporting such a case over town boundaries.” On May 23 an act was passed by the legislature giving the State Board that power. On June 7th another case was reported in Boston and the state decided that both persons should be placed in the State Infirmary.

On June 29th the board met with the trustees of the State Infirmary, who voiced their objection to the plan. The board presented letters from prominent physicians saying that Hansen’s disease patients could be safely cared for in a large institution like the State Infirmary. The matter dragged on until October 11th, when the trustees of the State Infirmary sent a letter to the Board of Charity stating that:

We feel we should be neglectful of our duty should we consent to such transfers, thereby exposing 1,500 to 1,800 inmates, more or less, to that much-dreaded disease. We also feel confident that the action we have taken will be sustained and approved by the public.

Had the State Infirmary consented to accept the patients, the cost of support for each patient would have been less than $3.50 per week; as it turned out, the cost of support was about $48.00 per patient per week. Had the State Infirmary accepted them, it would have been easy for their families and friends to visit them; as it turned out they were sent into exile.

After yet another case turned up in October 1904, the Board decided that it would try another solution to the problem. On December 30, 1904, the state bought the Bassett Farm in Brewster, near the Harwich boundary and the train line. However the people of Cape Cod would hear nothing of a “leper colony” on the Cape. A petition against the plan arrived in Boston bearing 351 names and a public hearing was arranged for January 6, 1905 at the State House, one of the most heavily attended hearings in the history of the state. The general feeling of those in attendance was expressed by a summer resident of the Cape, who said of the patients: “I am full of sympathy for them. My heart is warm for them, but I, for one, do not want to see them on Cape Cod.” Atain the State Board of Charity backed down before a vigorous protest.

Another strategy was used by the Massachusetts Legislature, which passed a resolution on February 28, 1905, asking that a federal hospital be established for the treatment of persons with Hansen’s disease. This was not the first time that such a suggestion had been made. A Senate report of 1902 on “The Origin and Prevalence of Leprosy in the United States” had suggested Yellowstone National Park as the site for such a facility, since it was completely under federal control and had no inhabitants. In a message to the legislature of Massachusetts on April 17, 1905, Governor Douglas asked that Nashawena Island be purchased by the state as a site for a prison and a hospital, but this plan was rejected.

Meanwhile, the Board of Charity had taken some advice from the public hearing and had begun to look for an island as a possible site. A number of islands were offered, at very inflated prices. In early July the state sold the Bassett Farm to the town of Brewster and on July 18, 1905 bought Penikese Island from George and Frederick Homer of New Bedford. As Dr. Parker described the situation in retrospect in his 1915 report:

Though the good people of the Cape had successfully defended their cranberries and their summer patrons against the Brewster settlement, they were not beset from the sea, and that, too, in apparent pursuance of their own argument favoring an island site. Nevertheless, they protested as a group to such damage to their vested interests. But the Board had temporized and conceded enough – its duty now lay clear. It refused to grant a hearing, and the Governor remaining firm against all new appeals, the protestants did not prevail.

The New Bedford Evening Standard of July 10, 1905 ran a three-column article, entitled “CUTTYHUNKERS PROTEST,” which gave their arguments against the state’s plans and their suggestion that the hospital be located on the island of Nomansland on the other side of Martha’s Vineyard. One of the selectmen said of Penikese Island:

It’s no place for a leper colony. The island is too valuable to be used for such a purpose. The time is coming when Penikese will be a valuable summer resort. It should not be turned into a station for the reception of the filth and disease of the state.

But the people so characterized had to be placed somewhere and, despite such opposition, the state held firm this time and Penikese Island became the site of the Massachusetts State Leprosarium.

By November 18, 1905 Penikese Island was ready to receive its new inhabitants and they were assembled in Fairhaven. They left for the island on the sloop “Keepsake,” which had been purchased for the use of the island hospital. The five patients consisted of two Chinese men, who were assigned to one cottage, two Cape Verdean men, who were assigned to another, and a Cape Verdean woman, who had a cottage to herself. One of the attendants took up lodging in the remaining cottage. Dr. Louis Edmonds was placed in charge of the hospital. He had been a general practitioner in Harwich and was the doctor who had reported the case of Hansen’s disease there. Edmonds, a native of Lancashire, had graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1893 at the age of 47. Edmonds stayed at the hospital for two years. In caring for the patients he stressed the value of fresh air, good food and exercise. The male patients who were able to work were employed to help in building the various structures needed on the island. Besides being economical it was good for the morale of the patients. Farming operations were begun to provide some self-sufficiency for the hospital and again patients were used as workers. Five new patients were admitted in 1907: three from Russia, one from New Orleans and one from Trinidad. Two new cottages were built to house them. A good start had been made but conditions were very trying, especially the feeling of isolation out on the island, and Dr. Edmonds left his position at the end of 1907.

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