"The Plague Spot of America"
July 4, 1889
July 4, 1889
THE Prince of Wales, it is said, is at the head of a movement to honor the memory of Father Damien, the hero priest of Molokai, by erecting a hospital for lepers in London. There are reported to be about twenty lepers in England; and it is for their comfort and seclusion that the house is to be built as well as for the opportunity it will afford to physicians for the scientific study of leprosy.
Father Damien’s life and death were appreciated as highly in this country as in any other. There is among us no lack of keen sympathy for any kind of suffering nor of money to relieve it. As we all know, there is no disease, no form of want, no condition of misery (but one) for which the kindly wealthy Christian folk of our cities have not supplied relief in asylums, hospitals or some other form of active charity.
The one exception is that of leprosy.
It is high time that this most terrible of all human calamities should be brought under the control of Christian charity and scientific skill. The difficulty so far has been that the country is so vast and the cases so scattered that very few persons know to what an extent it actually prevails among us. Now and then vague statements are made in the newspapers of its increase among the Scandinavian settlements in the Western States. The fact is that leprosy has existed in Norway for nearly a century. It is an hereditary disease and breaks out among the children of the settlers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. There is no attempt made to cure the wretched victims nor to isolate them. They are, as a rule, carefully and humanely treated; but they are allowed to go about scattering the germs of the disease until God in mercy suffers them to creep into the grave.
Leprosy also exists to a large degree in New Brunswick, near the Bay of Chaleur. It was reported in 1844, by a commission of scientific men appointed by the Canadian Parliament, to be “the true lepra grœrorum, or Asiatic leprosy, known in Europe during the middle ages. It is both hereditary and highly contagious. No person contracting it in these districts has ever been cured.”
The lepers in New Brunswick were isolated in a huge inclosure at Tracadie; their food, it is said, was thrown to them as to wild beasts. Vague rumors come to us of the horrors of that pen, of the filth, the sickening odors, the awful loneliness and the mad passions that raged within it. It was, I think, about fifteen years ago, that five sisters of some merciful order in the Roman Church in Montreal, looked their last on the outside world and voluntarily went into this place of living death. They have brought cleanliness and order and peace into it, and hope, too—for another world.
It is to the leprosy in Louisiana, however, that I wish to call the attention of my readers. The facts concerning it were mainly given to me by Dr. Joseph Jones, of New Orleans, formerly President of the State Board of Health.
As early as 1718 the Negroes imported into Louisiana from Guinea brought with them three kindred diseases—the African yaws, the elephantiasis, and the genuine leprosy of the Bible. So rapid was the spread of the last disease and so great the terror which it inspired, that Ulloa made an ineffectual effort to herd the victims together. In 1785 Governor Miro founded a hospital for them near the Bayou St. John. They were confined to a ridge of land surrounding it called La Terre des Lepreux. In consequence of this insulation, according to Gayarré, leprosy almost died out in Louisiana, the hospital was deserted, and the land now is a densely populated quarter of the city.
In 1870 the leprosy appeared again in Vermillion parish. A woman named Ourblanc, from the South of France, in whose family it had been hereditary, suddenly developed in her old age the terrible, unmistakable symptoms. Her husband and seven children all fled and left her to the care of a young girl of the neighborhood, who took pity on her extremity and tenderly nursed her to the end. After her death the disease appeared in this heroic girl and in six of the old woman’s children. They all died. Other cases in which the contagion was clearly traced to the Ourblanc family appeared. Lepers now became frequent patients in the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The most pathetic case among them was that of Father Boglioli, a Catholic priest, a powerful, muscular man of noble presence, from the Appenine mountains, who for fourteen years had ministered to the patients in the hospital. He was called upon to administer the last rites of his Church to some of the dying lepers, but was warned of the danger of contact. He quietly proceeded with his duty, nursing the lepers, giving them extreme unction and laying them in the grave. He was at once infected with the disease and died about two years ago.
The chief seat of leprosy in Louisiana, however, has always been on the bayou Lafourche, below Harang’s Canal. In 1880 the legislature was roused to action on this subject, and Dr. Joseph Jones, of the Board of Health, with his son, volunteered to examine into the condition of the infected district.
He found the cabins of the inhabitants standing in low marshes—usually rice-fields—irrigated up to the very doors; their diet consisted hugely of fish and rice. They were constantly subject to low, malarial atmosphere. The leprosy, inherited in some of these families from distant ancestors in Africa or Southern Europe, was spread by contagion and nursed by the low, poverty-stricken malarious conditions of their life.
The lepers fled on his arrival or were hidden by their families, as it was feared they were to be carried off to some isolated island in the sea, like that of Molokai.
Dr. Jones, however, discovered whole families in which Asiatic leprosy had existed for generations. Some of the victims with their leonine faces and hands turned to stone were living alone in huts thatched with palmettos, among the swamps, feeding themselves on such rice and roots as they could find, abandoned by man, and, it must have seemed to them, by God himself.
Dr. Jones on his return vehemently urged the legislature of Louisiana to do something for the relief of this most wretched community. Nothing was done then and nothing has since been done.
It is rumored that leprosy is still on the increase in this region. As far as I know, not even the devoted Roman priest has penetrated into its shades of death.
Why should not we too do something in memory of Father Damien? Catholics, Protestants and infidels alike were stirred to the heart by his death; there were tributes of praise in every church and paper through the Union.
But what shall we do for these our own lepers? They are there in the malarious swamps dying by inches and spreading their mortal ailment to their healthy neighbors.
A practical movement to relieve, isolate, and nurse them would be a more fitting tribute to Father Damien that any words or tears.
1. Saint Damien of Molokaʻi, born Jozef de Veuster (1840-1889) in Belgium, was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary to Hawaii. ↩
2. The fifth largest Hawaiian island, Moloka’i was home to a leper colony in Kalaupapa on the Makanalua Peninsula from 1866-1969. ↩
3. Antonio de Ulloa, Spanish governor of Louisiana in the 18th century. ↩
4. Esteban Rodríguez Miró y Sabater (1744-1795), Spanish governor of Louisiana and Florida. ↩
5. Louisiana historian, author, and playwright, Charles Étienne Arthur Gayarré (1805-1895). ↩
University of Connecticut