Cast Out, But Not Forgotten

Indian Camp Plantation House

The Indian Camp Plantation, built in the 1850s, and the surrounding lands were purchased by the state of Louisiana, and it became the Louisiana Leper Home and then the National Leprosarium. When the first patients arrived in 1894, the main house was in ruins and patients were housed in slave quarters. The home was later renovated and served as the administration building. USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La. hide caption

itoggle caption USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La.
Patients at the leprosy hospital in Carville.

In this 1950s photo, these two patients turned away from the camera to hide their identities and spare themselves and their families from retribution and discrimination — a testiment to the stigma of leprosy. USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La. hide caption

itoggle caption USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La.
Cottages for married couples.

Men and women initially weren't allowed to live together even if they were married. So couples found a solution by building their own cottages on the grounds, often by salvaging materials from sheds or chicken coops. USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La. hide caption

itoggle caption USDHHS-HRSA-BPHC-NHDP National Hansen's Disease Museum, Carville, La.

Seventy-three years ago, my father-in-law came home from school in New York and found that his father was gone. He never saw him again. It turns out his father had leprosy. And in the 1930s, such patients were taken to an isolated federal hospital in Carville, La. Most patients were quarantined there for life.

During a recent reporting trip to Louisiana, I was joined briefly by my husband, Matt, to pursue our own story with a visit to where his grandfather had died.

Elizabeth Schexnyder is curator of the National Hansen's Disease Museum at Carville. Hansen's disease is the medical name for leprosy. She shows us a crumbling ledger in which patient's valuables were recorded.

We see an entry for Matt's grandfather showing that he had $15 on him when he came here in 1935. Besides relinquishing his cash and freedom, he also relinquished his identity. Most patients at the Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center used aliases to protect their families from the stigma of leprosy. Matt's grandfather, who was blind, couldn't even sign his make-believe name.

"Your grandfather actually made those X's there, in pencil there, right?" I say to Matt. He says yes, and that the mark is "about the only thing we have of him."

We now know that leprosy is hardly contagious at all, and very treatable. But the scars of the disease remain. A museum display tells how patients listened with excitement to a radio broadcast of the 1937 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees. And it tells how they were jolted when the announcer said: "The umpire is the leper of the game — everybody despises him, but nobody touches him."

"My grandfather was a big Yankees fan," Matt says, "so he would undoubtedly have been listening to that."

Schexsnyder notes that even today, the word "leper" is often used to mean "outcast."

Matt and I visit his grandfather's gravesite in nearby Baton Rouge. He's buried in a distant corner of a tiny Jewish cemetery. The tombstone is hidden behind an overgrown bush. Trash is scattered nearby.

"It's pretty sad," I say.

Matt sighs and says, "I had no idea it would get into this kind of disrepair ... should come back with a hacksaw."

It sometimes seems that there's no end to the ways people can be forgotten.

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