There was a time in our history when leprosy was believed to be a highly contagious disease—so contagious that patients were moved into forced isolation from the general population. About 450 of them lived in a facility in Carville, Louisiana. Residents referred to themselves as the “secret people.” Durham-based podcast Criminal’s latest episode features the story of the "secret people," and the short period in which they shared their home with 500 white collar criminals.
Host Phoebe Judge traveled to Louisiana to visit with some of the people who called Carville home. There, she met a man named Mr. Pete who had lived in Carville for more than 60 years.
“He was diagnosed with leprosy when he was six years old living in the Virgin Islands," Judge said. “It was a time when people didn’t know much about the disease and so people were so terrified of it that they would just put little children away and separate them from their parents.”
Judge said Mr. Pete is now 87 years old, and is missing most of his fingers and part of his ear from the disease. Mr. Pete recalled to Judge when they brought him to Carville as a child. He said even his mother couldn’t touch him when she came to visit.
"It was confusing. She's on the outside (of the fence) and I'm in the inside. I didn’t know what was going on,” Mr. Pete said.
For almost 100 years, Carville was home to people like Mr. Pete. Judge said people were brought there around the turn of the century, sometimes against their will. The patients of Carville were eventually offered release. However, some people, including Mr. Pete, decided to stay.
“Someone made the point to me that it’s like a prisoner. We hear these stories about people who have been in prison for so long that when they get out they don’t know what to do. So they immediately commit a crime so they go back in,” Judge said.
“Many of these patients had been there for decades, some of them entering their 7th or 8th decade at Carville. The disease had such remarkable effects on physical appearance, it was easier to stay in a place that they had known.”
Judge said Mr. Pete told her at Carville no one asked him questions about his leprosy. The facility provided a place for him to somewhat live in peace.
But, just this past year, the residents of Carville were forced to move to a nursing facility. Nevertheless, Mr. Pete plans to be buried at the place he called home for so long.
To find out more, visit thisiscriminal.com. Also, you can hear an episode of Criminal every Sunday evening at 5:40 p.m. on WUNC.