The Real Life History Behind the Penikese Island Leper Colony

by | Jun 28, 2022 | Heidi's Updates

I first became fascinated with the history behind Penikese Island when I stumbled upon a book, Island of Hope, by I. Thomas Buckley in 2010. When I learned the island had been home to The Penikese Island Leper Colony in the early 20th century, I was bewildered. Leprosy? In my home state of Massachusetts? In the 20th century? Wasn’t leprosy a thing of biblical stories?

These questions were enough to send me on a research frenzy. I read everything I could, not only about leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) but about the island and the patients. Leaving my toddlers at home with their dad, I ventured up to Boston (a place I had only been to on eighth-grade field trips) to Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine to read the correspondence to and from the island concerning matters of the patients. I also took a trip to the island with my six-year-old son. A story began brewing in my mind–a story that has not let go of me for more than a decade.

As I learned more about the patients cast off to Penikese for the remainder of their lives, and those who ministered to them, my compassion grew. I wanted to tell their story. While my two main characters (Atta Schaeffer and Dr. Harry Mayhew), are fictional, many of the other characters in the novel are true-to-life people.

I was captivated by Dr. Frank Parker, and his wife, Marion, who ministered to the patients on the island from 1907 until the island’s closing in 1921. At that time, Dr. Parker could not find patients (no one wished to be treated by a man who’d doctored lepers for the last 14 years) and at the age of 66, was refused a pension. I was captivated by the upbeat spirit of the island’s longest resident, Goon Lee Dip (Willie Goon) who remained content despite his hopeless state. My heart broke over the story of Isabelle Barros, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy who was taken from her after only 20 days. I was inspired by Reverend Nathan Bailey, who had been assigned by the New Bedford Ministerial Union to represent all religions as he ministered to the patients. Reverend Bailey became a good friend and confidant of the patients, was not paid for his work, and continued on as the island’s chaplain until the hospital closed in 1921.

This is one of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction–bringing the past to life. Putting my readers (and myself!) in the shoes of those who lived these stories.

In 1973, the Penikese Island School was established as a private rehabilitation school for troubled boys. I was drawn to the fact that this island, in so much of its history, was intended for outcasts. Again, my compassion stirred. I wanted to bring light and hope into these stories. What better way, than a dual timeline novel about loving the unloveable, forgiving the unforgivable, and finding hope in the midst of the impossible?

Below are some pictures I took during my 2011 trip to Penikese.

View from inside The Penikese Island School. This was also the site of the administration building when the island served as a Leprosarium.
Penikese Island School Kitchen
Original columns near the school (what was the administration building). There used to be a bell mounted to one of the columns. The patients would ring it if they needed the doctor’s attention, as they were not allowed to cross to this side of the island for fear of contaminating the side that housed most of the staff.
The last of the standing colony, a laundry building on the hospital side of the island. The patients’ clothing was considered highly contagious, so they needed to do their own laundry on “their side” of the island.
Island Cemetery. The monument on the bottom right was erected in 1981 to honor Dr. Frank and Marion Parker.
Isabelle Barros was 27 and the only female patient to arrive on the island when it first opened. She was torn away from her husband and two small children, who were placed in a foster home and became wards of the state. She arrived pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby boy five months later. He was also taken from her. She died 10 years later.
The only patient to successfully escape the island by rowing thirteen miles to the mainland (he was later apprehended).
An old cistern used to collect rainwater.
My then-6-year-old (who is now 17 and towering over me!) standing under one of the few trees on the island.
Heading home!

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To learn more about my new novel, Hope Beyond the Waves (releasing in just a few days!), visit here.

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