Veteran magazine editor Tayman debuts with a cold-eyed account of the Hawaiian government’s century-long forced quarantine and effective imprisonment of lepers.
Leprosy, called by the Hawaiian people “the sickness that is a crime” because it leads to gross disfigurement, probably arrived with the whaling ships to the islands by the early 1800s. It was believed to be incurable and wildly infectious; in fact, it is caused by a bacteria and communicable only to persons with a genetic susceptibility. After the islands’ decimation by a smallpox epidemic in 1853, King Kamehameha V pledged to preserve the health of his subjects, and the Board of Health, prodded by the alarms sounded by Dr. William Hillebrand, moved to criminalize those showing symptoms of leprosy. Beginning in 1866,victims were arrested, isolated and exiled to the rocky, barren island of Molokai. The first dozen were deposited in a deserted village with no medical facilities and inadequate food; as incurables, they were expected to die. Many did indeed perish as the population swelled: Patients split into factions, fought for food and rebelled against the beleaguered superintendent. During the colony’s most populous era, in the late 1880s, Molokai was home to 1,144 inmates and had 432 buildings; it became habitable, even comfortable, according to Robert Louis Stevenson and other famous observers. Tayman offers numerous fascinating personal stories of people arrested and exiled to Molokai, sometimes with mistaken leprosy diagnoses. He profiles the tireless Flemish priest Father Damien, who caught the disease himself and died in 1889, and gives chilling details about medical experiments performed to isolate the leprosy bacilli. The author does not neglect the political ramifications of a leper colony growing in size at a time when America had its eye on annexing Hawaii and turning it into a vacation paradise. He hauntingly depicts the devastation of an ill-understood disease and helps demystify its victims, too often viewed as “sinful, shameful, and unclean.”
Rigorous, tenacious research uncovers a grim story of human suffering.