From the Spinner Archives

Part 2 of a 4 part series 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). To read the story from the beginning check our post from July 26.


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

Part 2 of 4

In 1907, a few days after Christmas, Dr. Frank Parker and his wife, Marion, left Malden, Massachusetts for his new assignment as the head of a Massachusetts state hospital. The Parkers had discussed the move at length and Marion had insisted on accompanying him. Years later Dr. Parker admitted that he had used his friendship with several members of the State Board of Charities in securing this appointment. However, since it is very possible that no one else in Massachusetts wanted the job, we may forgive him for using his personal influence.

The southeastern tip of Penikese Island, a state-protected, wildlife sanctuary for birds, shows the weeded terrain and a fresh water pond. On the horizon, Nashawena Island can be seen. Photo by Joseph D. Thomas

This hospital, which had cost the state about $50,000 when it was established two years earlier, had five salaried employees and a total of eight patients. It was located on Penikese Island, an island of less than 100 acres, about a mile and a half from Cuttyhunk Island in Buzzards Bay. There was no source of fresh water on the island and despite the fact that it was only fourteen miles from New Bedford, it was frequently inaccessible during the winter months when ice and treacherous currents prevented boats from coming to its shallow harbor with supplies from the mainland. A more illogical place for a hospital cannot be imagined, but it was not logic but fear and prejudice that had placed it there. Because the eight patients were afflicted with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, they had been exiled from the mainland and hidden on this barren island in Buzzards Bay.

When asked by the Boston American about his motivation in accepting the position, Parker replied that he had been studying Hansen’s disease for some years and was glad to have an opportunity to study it at first hand. He even spoke of attempting later on to obtain a post in Hawaii to study the disease there. Frank Parker was born in Portland, Maine in 1855 and, after graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, he set up a practice in Malden, Mass., where he worked for 22 years before leaving there for Penikese.

Dr. Parker had few illusions about the situation of the patients, as is evident in his first annual report:

The nature of the institution and the peculiar relation which its inmates sustain to the commu8nity at large – prisoners in effect, but not criminals – call for the exercise of more than ordinary wisdom in its management. Its isolation is also to be noted, and the practical impossibility at certain seasons of the year of making connections with the mainland.

The fact that they were prisoners but not criminals led to problems in enforcing the rules of this hospital:

The inmates have a feeling that they are entitled to a freedom of action and to privileges which the inmates of no other state institution enjoy, and this feeling has been encouraged by the publishing of indiscreet newspaper articles and the writing of letter to the patients by well-meaning but injudicious friends. It is incumbent on the management to pursue a course of tact and good will, with a relative laxity of discipline, in unimportant matters, while holding the inmates to rigid obedience and regularity in essentials.

If this seems strict, Parker’s manner was less so in practice. In 1944, when the last surviving Penikese Island patient was interviewed by the Star in Louisiana, he said: “I don’t think the word ‘no’ was in Doctor Parker’s vocabulary. Even when the patients’ ‘wants’ were difficult to fulfill he would say, ‘I’ll see about it’ and he usually did.”

In 1909 Archie Thomas arrived with his widowed mother, who was given a job at the hospital so that she could live with her only child. Archie had been a student in a technical high school in a Boston suburb when he was diagnosed as having Hansen’s disease. The story of Archie and his mother became widely known, and Rev. Frank Phalen of the Unitarian Memorial Church in Fairhaven preached a sermon inspired by this story, which was published in the Fairhaven Star on April 10, 1909. This sermon contrasted Mrs. Thomas and her self-sacrifice in following her son to a barren island to other parents who “let their children run wild like savages.” The title of the article in the Star, “Braves Living Death for Love of Son,” is, unfortunately, typical of the sensationalism of the newspaper articles covering the hospital. Phalen’s sermon is an interesting blend of insight and cliché. He asserts that: “Because we are stronger than they are, we have taken them from their and their freedom, and shut them up there on the island of Penikese. We do this arbitrary act to protect society.” Phalen then goes on to make the trite analogy between “physical leprosy” and what he alls “moral or spiritual leprosy,” against which society does not protect itself. Although he argues against the idea that leprosy is a punishment for sin, he could not resist this convenient metaphor and tied the disease and sin together, at least symbolically. The sermon even stoops to polemics when Phalen challenges the Christian Scientists to cure the Penikese Island patients. From the days of Biblical “leprosy” to the days of Hansen and Damien and beyond, this disease more than any other has been seen as a punishment from God for sin. Perhaps it is psychologically comforting to believe that our virtues or our God will protect us from this mysterious disease. In blaming the victim we comfort ourselves.

While in high school Archie Thomas had become very interested in short wave radio and when he came to Penikese he brought this interest with him. He was presented with a wireless radio by the New Bedford Women’s Club, and he became an honorary member of the Amateur Wireless Association of New Bedford. Archie soon became a friend to other radio operators on the islands and on ships traveling toward New Bedford or New York. His radio played a very important role in the lives of the patients, for not only was he allowed to copy the world and national news from the Marconi News Service, but, perhaps more importantly, by means of Archie’s radio the exiles on Penikese were able to vicariously participate in the lives of ordinary people. By keeping themselves posted on the everyday joys and concerns of Archie’s friends, they were able to feel a little less isolated on their island prison.

The news of Archie’s death in 1915 was slow in reaching the mainland because no one else knew how to operate the radio. His obituary was carried in the New York Times and the London Times, a tribute to the number of people he had befriended from his place of exile. His funeral took place in the assembly room of the hospital, where the Rev. Nathan Bailey read from the 91st Psalm, Archie’s favorite: “Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and the noisome pestilence…” A few days after the death of her only child Emma Thomas announced that she would stay at Penikese Island and continue her duties as before. But after six weeks she found the island too lonely without her son and left the day before Easter. In the midst of this gloom the Easter services had to be cancelled because bad weather prevented Rev. Bailey and his choir from making the trip to the island.

On January 13, 1912, during a stiff northeast gale, fire broke out in the Parkers’ home. The fire spread quickly in the strong wind. Archie Thomas sent an appeal for assistance on the wireless radio and the revenue cutter, Acushnet, stationed in New Bedford, was underway for the island within fifteen minutes of receiving it. A reporter, stationed on the roof of the Evening Standard building in New Bedford, watched the progress of the fire with binoculars. Fortunately, the strong wind blew the flames away from the other buildings, but by the time help arrived from the Acushnet and the lifesaving station on Cuttyhunk, the Parkers were homeless. Dr. Parker reported to Lieutenant Gray of the Acushnet.

The patients are all right, they are not harmed in any way. My house is gone, my library destroyed and about everything I owned in there in ashes. But we’ve got plenty of provisions and blankets and coal and I do not think we shall be in need of anything before the next batch of supplies comes through the regular channels from the state board.

Parker also said that: “the Acushnet’s response…gave him a feeling of security down on his lonesome island that took the edge off the solitude.”

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