Around the turn of the 20th century, a terrifying new kind of immigrant arrived in Massachusetts: the sufferer of Hansen’s disease. A person who had it was stigmatized as a leper and cast out of society.
Doctors knew little about the disease. Obviously it caused ugly sores and scales, disfigured the face and sometimes led to blindness and deafness. But many doctors thought, incorrectly, that leprosy resulted from living in filth or in sin or in both. They also thought, incorrectly, that it was extremely contagious and invariably fatal.
Under Biblical law, priests declared people with leprous sores ‘unclean,’ and exiled them. In the Middle Ages, they had to wear a bell and a clapper to keep others away. In 20th century Massachusetts, they were forced to live out the rest of their lives on a remote island in Buzzard’s Bay, denied almost all that life held dear.
“The strength of this stigma is almost unique in the history of Western medicine,” wrote Ron Amundsen, who equated the word ‘leper’ with racial epithets.
In 20th century Massachusetts, no one wanted to care for the outcasts. Except for a successful and socially prominent Malden couple, Dr. Frank and Marian Parker.
Leprosy, a bacterial infection, attacks the skin and the nerves in the victim’s hands, feet, nose and eyes. According to the Boston Public Health Commission, about 95 percent of all adults have an immunity to it. It doesn’t spread easily, either. It requires prolonged contact with bodily fluids, usually through coughing or sneezing.
People can, in rare cases, get leprosy from armadillos, the only other animal known to be susceptible to the disease.
Leprosy develops slowly and takes two to ten years to manifest itself. It can cause nerve damage that leads to injuries the sufferer doesn’t notice. And, until the development of antibiotics in the 1950s, it eventually killed the sufferer.
Leprosy didn’t exist in Massachusetts until the late 19th century, when it began to arrive on a wave of immigration and military conquest. People knew the disease from the Bible and from the contemporary controversy over Father Damien.
Damien, a Roman Catholic priest, ministered to sufferers of Hansen’s disease on Molokai, Hawaii, until he died of it himself in the spring of 1889. However, he had his critics who condemned him as coarse and ignorant. (The Roman Catholic Church has since sainted him.)
Robert Louis Stevenson, visiting Hawaii later in 1889, ferociously attacked one of Father Damien’s critics in a letter.
“You make us sorry for the lepers, who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father,” Stevenson wrote. “But you, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them with the lights of culture?”
Stevenson paid to publish and distribute the letter, which added to Father Damien’s fame – and to the awareness of leprosy.
In 1895, Boston health officials diagnosed an East Boston sailor with Hansen’s disease. For many years the sailor had sailed on a ship that “carried lepers from various islands of the Hawaiian group to Molokai.” They quarantined him on Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor, where he died two years later.
The Price of Conquest
The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898 after setting out on a course of military expansion throughout the globe. The only people in Massachusetts who contracted Hansen’s disease were immigrants and people who had traveled in places – like Hawaii, China and the Caribbean — where the disease had spread.
Over the next six years, Massachusetts doctors diagnosed a half dozen or so cases of Hansen’s disease. A gardener in Salem who’d spent time in Hawaii ended up dying in the poor house. A Swedish woman discovered on entry into the port of Boston was sent back home. A British West Indian was confine to Gallop’s Island – and escaped.
Then in April 1904, Dr. Louis Edmonds reported another case of Hansen’s disease in the town of Harwich.
Sympathy for the Leper
Edmonds diagnosed a 38-year-old stevedore named Frank Pina who had lived in New Bedford’s Cape Verdean community. He had an advanced case of the disease. Pina lived apart from his wife and eight children, and Harwich officials asked the state Board of Charity to do something with him. Dr. Edmonds quarantined him in Harwich as officials wrangled over his fate. The neighbors threatened to drive Pina from town.
The state Board of Charity argued the patients should go to the state infirmary in Tewksbury. At least there the nearness to friends and relatives would soften the rigors of their disease.
The infirmary trustees said no — adamantly.
Then the commonwealth decided to build a leprosy hospital. Massachusetts bought a farm for it in the Cape Cod town of Brewster. So many panicked Cape Codders flocked to the Statehouse to object that the railroad had to add a special train.
“I am full of sympathy for them [the lepers],” a Rhode Island judge told lawmakers. “My heart is warm for them, but I, for one, do not want to see them on Cape Cod.”
Finally, Massachusetts settled the matter by buying Penikese Island, 74 acres of rock and grass 12 miles off Cape Cod. Harvard University had used the island as a natural history summer camp. Adding some cottages made it a leprosy hospital — only the second leprosy hospital, after Louisiana, in the country.
The treatment resembled that for tuberculosis in the age before antibiotics would cure both diseases. Penikese’s doctors believed in bathing, light clothing, ointments and tonics, fresh air and a nourishing diet.
Penikese Island Leper Hospital
Dr.Edmonds supervised the first five patients, including his own, Frank Pina. Of the rest, two were Cape Verdians — Jose Rogeriquez and Isabella Barros — and two Chinese – Yee Toy and Goon S. Dub. Later exiles to the island came from Italy, Portugal, China, Japan, Greece, Russia, Latvia and Barbados. Few spoke much English.
Isabella Barros was a pregnant 26-year-old Cape Verdean woman taken from her husband and three children in Wareham. She had dark olive skin, and “her eyes are large and darkly eloquent and her teeth beautifully even and white,” reported the San Francisco Call in a story headlined “New England’s Leper Island.” Recent pictures “show her with a melancholy, despondent expression,” the newspaper reported.
Isabella Barros gave birth to a healthy baby on Penikese Island. Twenty days later, officials sent the infant to the Boston Poor Department, along with her other children.
That sent her husband, Napoleon Barros, to an insane asylum. After his release, he no longer had any interest in her or their family.
In 1906, a rumor spread that Isabella Barros had been cured. Suddenly people feared the hospital would send her back to what was left of her home. But the disease had only gone into remission, and she died after 10 years of exile on the island.
Frank and Marian Parker
After two years, Dr. Louis Edmonds left the island, unable to stand the isolation. Dr. Frank Parker took his place, and his wife Marian came along and helped with the patients. He abandoned a lucrative 22-year practice, and she left her prominent social circle.
Both Parkers tended to the patients. The hospital averaged 14 patients over the years. Parker earned $2,000 a year, organized a farm and did carpentry and electrical work. The Parkers paid for food and medical supplies with their own money. In the 13 years they lived on the island, they only took three weeks’ vacation.
Staff turned over frequently. As Parker explained, “The task for those who must bathe the patients, bind up their wounds and care for their quarters is sufficiently distasteful to explain their reluctance to remain long.”
Plus, he said, the isolation got on the nerves of even healthy people. But for his patients, “some insight is readily gained into the broodings of the leper, ill as he is, racked often with rheumatic pain and burning with leprous fever, — a person without hope, committed against his will to this no-man’s land.”
The island had few visitors, but a Catholic priest came to say Mass once a month. In 1914, Dr. Parker pleaded with a group of Protestant ministers in New Bedford, asking them to lead services on the island. He told them:
Last summer, a West Indian leper died at Penikese. He was a Catholic and we were unable to get Father Bernard until night…Picture then this burial by lantern in the dead of night. We went to the western end of the island, where the burials are made. There are no gravestones there, because the lepers do not like to see these reminders of what they are coming to. It was the month of August, when flowers were many, and each one had his little bunch of flowers. You have never seen a more striking scene.
Solitude and injustice made the patients ornery, Parker reported to the Board of Charity in 1915. “Weak though he be he will wage such war as he may,” Parker wrote.
The patients threw away food or they opened a faucet and let water run all night, knowing of its scarcity. Since the Parkers would fulfill any reasonable request, the patients asked them to furnish all sorts of delicacies they discarded, pets they neglected and gardens they forgot.
Louisiana Leper Hospital
Meanwhile, the federal government made plans to build a leprosy hospital in Carville, La. World War I delayed those plans, but by 1921 the government was building the Louisiana facility.
Massachusetts Gov. Channing Cox then decided to close the Penikese Island Leper Hospital. He wanted to send the 13 patients to the unfinished facility in Louisiana, far from their friends and families. Parker publicly criticized him for closing the island.
On Thursday afternoon on March 10, 1921, a harbor tugboat arrived at a New Bedford coal wharf. The patients disembarked as a crowd of gawkers and newspaper reporters looked on. Then they boarded the hospital train.
Sorry, Very Much
Dr. Parker wept as he said goodbye to his patients on the wharf, and they, too, had tears in their eyes. The doctor shared a letter from a patient with a newspaper reporter.
“My dear Mr. Parker,
I am here now 15 months with you, and now I go away from her I am sorry, very much, because I can’t repay that help you did for me. I thank you very much for your benefit you do to me and my sister. We never forget your noble feeling for us unhappy people.
I wish the God to help you and all your people as you desire, and I wish to meet you again outside some day. I say again I thank you very much. Excuse me because I can’t write very well to write you a few line words pleasant to you.
Farewell, Dr. Parker. Good-bye.
Without a Rudder or a Job
Frank Parker said he felt like a ship without a rudder now that the patients left the island. He turned down a job with the Louisiana hospital, not wanting to move south or work in a large institution. But he couldn’t restart his practice because people feared he’d contracted Hansen’s disease after 14 years on the island. Hospitals wouldn’t employ him for the same reason.
Governor Cox stripped him of his pension in retaliation for his criticism. So Frank and Marian Parker moved to Montana to live with their son. Frank Parker died five years later, a victim of another, more contagious disease: whooping cough.
The state couldn’t find a buyer for the island, so it burned and then dynamited the hospital.
Today, a combination of antibiotics will cure Hansen’s disease. Patients can go to outpatient clinics for treatment.
In 1996, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts honored Frank and Marian Parker with a plaque in Nurses Hall at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Images: Nurses Hall By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1410477; Armadillo By http://www.birdphotos.com – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4325104.
With thanks to Ron Amundsen, A Wholesome Horror: The Stigmas of Leprosy in 19th Century Hawaii, in Disability Studies Quarterly, and to Paul Cyr, author of The Exiles of Pekinese Island for the New Bedford Historical Society. This story was updated in 2022.