Sometimes I come across things in books that coincidentally link to something I've read in another book. This time, however, it was not a coincidence that I read two books that talked about the leprosy colony at Carville, Louisiana. Last fall I read Elise Blackwell's "The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish" which talked about the colony. I was shocked--I had no idea that there had ever been leprosy in the United States, let alone that it had survived into the last century. So when I was given the opportunity to review "In The Sanctuary of Outcasts," by Neil White, which dealt with a man who was imprisoned in the federal prison that was attached to the colony, I jumped at the chance to learn more.
Blackwell had this to say about Carville:
"Lepers entering the colony at Carville in the early decades of the twentieth century were encouraged, if not coerced, to change their names. It was thought that both the lepers and their families were better off parting ways for good."
"Many a carefully drawn family tree had a stunted limb, a truncation bearing only the first name of an aunt or uncle or cousin who - though everyone had known where he or she had been taken - had disappeared as if forever into the mysterious word Carville."
White tells us this about the start of the colony at Carville:
"The plantation sat in disrepair, unoccupied for thirty years, before the State of Louisiana leased the land in 1894. The 360-acre plot, along with a decaying manor house and slave quarters, was then designated as the Louisiana Leper Home. After that, all lepers in Louisiana were sent to the remote colony. The geography was perfect for outcasts. The plantation was virtually impossible to reach by land...In the early days, doctors and nurses were reluctant to come to the home. There was no running water, little sanitation, and no budget for improvement. The first residents shared the buildings with snakes and bats."
According to White, the severity of leprosy depends on a person's natural immunity. Those with higher immunity may only notice a lighter patch of skin on their legs. In the most severe cases, the disease (which is a bacteria) can actually eat away flesh. There is, to this day, no vaccine against leprosy but there are treatments. There are approximately 6500 case of leprosy in the U.S., 3300 are active but these days, victims are able to continue with their lives as they receive treatment.
As you can see from the above shot, all of the buildings are connected with covered hallways.
Patients no longer live at Carville. It is now the National Hansen's Disease Museum. I found out more about the disease at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.