Barry Hannah visits a Louisiana leper colony in “Old Terror, New Hearts,” republished this week in Oxford Americans; the piece originally ran in the October/November 1995 issue of the magazine. Opening paragraphs:
It was a massive Federalist plantation, lazy and handsome among two-century oaks and palm trees. You could imagine FDR had just visited to cut a ribbon last week. I had heard throughout my life the curious rumor of a leper “colony” down in south Louisiana. This news reached me when I was a boy in Clinton, Mississippi, and one did not know quite what to do with it. Colony evoked folks lost in an exotic fastness. Leper of course was as bad as it got, poor devils. I had a sense of these creatures execrated and driven onto some isle in a vicious swamp. In that, my young imagination was not far wrong. Louisiana was alarming and peculiar anyway. There were plenty of Catholics, many seemed touched by at least mild cases of voodoo, and adults went public with their gaudiest dreams.
Nothing at the time was more peculiar to me than the armored mammal of Louisiana, the armadillo, which I had seen dead on the road as I traveled to relatives in Baton Rouge. It was a thing aggressively obsolete in animal history but still mucking its way along, its stupid ranks torn to flat bits by modern autos on pavement laid down through the bogs. I could not know how closely related these creatures were to the poor lepers themselves. Among animals, only armadillos have leprosy. Among mankind, nobody has suffered opprobrium for six thousand years like the leper. At Carville, where I finally got over forty years of mildly curious ignorance, I saw the doubloons from last year’s Mardi Gras at Carville were imprinted on one side with an armadillo. On the other was the Federalist infirmary building: Gillis W.Long Hansen’s Disease Center1921. Hansen was the Norwegian doctor who first isolated the leprosy bacillus in the late nineteenth century. In 1921 the state leprosarium was taken over by the Public Health Service.
Now it is the Service’s last remaining hospital. In that state of advanced idiocy that has made me a living so far and may be the birthright of a Mississippi writer, I asked a therapist working with two Asian-American patients after their hand surgery if he was a flight surgeon, his uniform so naval and all. He explained, as further did Captain Jim Birke, most formidable pedorthist, that the Public Health Service originated after the Revolutionary War as a naval medical branch. Thus the costume of the Surgeon General, which has baffled others too tactful to ask.