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The Penikese Connection

Little Stories from a Small Town
by Mabel Hoyle Knipe


A poignant series of events affected the sensibilities of Fairhaven people during the year of 1905. In July of that year, the state of Massachusetts purchased the island of Penikese in Buzzards Bay with the purpose of establishing there a leprosarium – or a colony for Massachusetts people afflicted with the dreaded disease of leprosy. The same fear of the illness which humans had known throughout the ages since biblical times and before – terrorized the inhabitants of the concerned region when news of this development was published.

Horace S. Crowell of Boston had evinced great interest in developing the cape islands, and in 1885, had bought West Island outright – about 1,000 acres – with purpose of establishing a summer colony there, and connecting it to the mainland by a bridge. Mr. Crowell was outraged at the state plan for the leper sanctuary, declaring that “everyone, having prop-erty interests on Buzzards Bay, however small, should make every effort to avert the establishment of such an objectionable feature in that section.”

Petitions of protest were circulated in all the towns along Buzzards Bay, and town officers were urged to collect negative signatures. The towns of Marion and Mattapoisett became very uneasy, and demanded further public hearings on the state plan – but Fairhaven remained unconcerned, officials stating that Penikese was too far distant from West Island to present a danger. Then, as people became used to the idea, negative feeling and comment gradually died throughout the region.

Thus, in November of 1905, five Massachusetts victims of leprosy prepared to leave behind forever their relatives, homes and normal lives
and take up a lonely existence on Penikese Island where living quarters had been provided to accommodate them.

The awed inhabitants of the town of Fairhaven were now to see at first hand the ultimate misery of these afflicted people, for it was planned that they should embark from Fairhaven wharves. The town became, then, for the lepers, the final heart-breaking link with a former familiar existence.

The luckless five arrived in town by special railroad car from Tremont by way of the Fairhaven Branch Railroad. They were to take the short sail to the island from Fairhaven shores by means of the “Keepsake.” a sloop purchased from Allen H. Wordell of New Bedford. The vessel would become the property of the colony and would be kept on the island.

While waiting for preparations to be completed for the initial sail – the lepers sat in the baggage car of their special train which stood on the Fairhaven wharf. They were Goon S. Dub, Jose Rogeriquez, and Yee Toy from Boston; Frank Pena from Harwich, and Mrs. Mary Barros from Wareham.

The men seemed casual in their plight – some of them almost unconcerned – but it was obvious that the one lonely woman was desperately unhappy. Showing no signs of the disease, she sat in a chair with her chin on her hand in deep despair. It is appalling to consider what her thoughts must have been during that awful waiting.
Dr. Louis Edmunds of Harwich was to take charge of the leper colony and left that day knowing he would not again see New Bedford until the following March. Mr. John Holland of the Wareham Board of Health also accompanied the party.

It was planned that the lepers should live in commodious homes pre-viously erected, and the four men would be divided two to a house with separate beds. Mrs. Barros would have her own private quarters.

The leper colony embraced over sixty acres on the island. It was arranged that the men would chop wood and do suitable chores. They would all be engaged in gardening during the summer months. Few provisions for any organized study or recreation seemed to have been scheduled. Yet, the island store-houses were well stocked with supplies and all necessities for a long period of time. Indeed, the state of Massachusetts obviously endeavored to act compassionately in the whole affair. For the first fourteen months it cost $49,043 to sustain the colony, but most of these costs were initial ones, and it was estimated that an annual incre-ment of $5,000 would sustain the project thereafter.

Dr. J.F. Lewis, state superintendent of the adult poor, said at this time:
“All the world pities – but shuns the leper.” Indeed, the compassion of the entire region, but particularly of the citizens in the small town of Fairhaven, was keenly sensitized by such close identification with fellow humans suffering this acute misfortune.
As years passed, there were repeats of the first painful episode. In 1907 Miss Lucy Peterson, a servant girl from Brookline, sailed from Fairhaven on that last fearful journey, and in 1909 a seventeen-year-old boy from Upton accompanied by a dedicated mother, who refused to leave him, crossed from Fairhaven to the shores of Penikese. A new medical director, Dr. Frank H. Parker, was persuaded to leave a lucrative practice; and with sparse help, he gave himself for thirteen years to his hopeless patients, in a tremendous act of selflessness.

Throughout the existence of the leper colony – Catholic clerics from Fairhaven gave heroic service, crossing often to the island, and bringing spiritual comfort to the lepers. Father Stanislaus went about among them fearlessly, and Father Superior Bernard and his priests of the order of the Sacred Heart situated in this town held Mass once a month on the island in a unique office of comfort and support.

In September of 1906, it was announced that Mrs. Barros, who had suffered from leprosy for over two years – was completely cured, and would later be released! Father Bernard, who had seen her before and after her removal to Penikese, reported that her illness was not the “real leprosy.” He had talked with Bishop Boeynaems, who had had thirty-five years of experience with lepers in the Hawaiian Islands, and stated that there was an affliction known as “nervous leprosy.” In his opinion, Mrs. Barros was thus afflicted. This abnormality would automatically heal itself, but there was no cure for the real thing.

In 1921, other arrangements were made to accommodate the needs of the state’s lepers, and the project on Penikese was closed down. The buildings were allowed to decay; the sad little cemetery was forsaken; and kind, hard-working Dr. Frank H. Parker, who had served the colony for thirteen years – was vainly trying to collect from a reluctant Massachusetts legislature – the pension he had been promised!

Sketch by Clement Daley

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These pages and their contents are the property of the Millicent Library,
Fairhaven, Massachusetts U. S.A.
Created by Carolyn Longworth, Library Director
Monday November 11, 1996

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