"God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform..." William Cowper

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Penikese Island

Writers have the amazing privilege to live temporarily in a fictitious world. Characters and circumstances are created, resulting in what we hope will be an enthralling story. Over the past several months, I've acquainted myself with the inhabitants of Penikese Island in the early 20th century. A small island off the coast of Massachusetts, it was set up as a leprosy hospital in 1905. Lepers--or more respectfully, Hansen's Disease patients--were cast off for life on this insignificant island, and paid for by the state.

My main character, who is purely fictitious, finds herself exiled here in 1916. I couldn't wait to see the island.

There's something special about visiting a place you've researched and written about. For a brief time, the fictitious melds with the actual. On July 29th, my oldest son and I left Woods Hole, MA and rode on a boat for an hour in order to dock at Penikese Island, now home to a school for troubled boys. The island is about 75 acres--a great place to visit for a day. Would I want to spend every hour of the rest of my life exiled there? Um...no.

Come take a quick tour with me. Forgive my lack of skill with a camera!

This picture shows the rocky terrain of the island. The buildings are part of the Penikese Island School. During the time of the hospital, there was an administration building in this same place. No patients were allowed to cross to this side, but rather made their home on the less hospitable western side of the island.

View from Penikese Island School.

These are original columns near the administration building. There was a bell on them at the time. The patients would ring the bell if they needed the doctor's attention. Again, they were not permitted to cross this barrier for fear of contaminating the side of the island housing most of the staff.

An old cistern used to collect rainwater.

This may be a bit hard to see, but on the left horizon, there is a smudge of land. This is New Bedford, the closest part of the mainland to the island. (14 miles) One patient did manage an escape to this town on one of the island's boats.

This is the last of the standing colony. The patients' clothing was considered highly contagious, and so they needed to do their own laundry on "their side." This is the remains of the laundry building on the hospital side of the island.

This is the cemetery where the patients who died on the island were buried. A monument was erected (bottom right) in 1981 to honor Dr. and Mrs. Parker, who cared for the patients for fifteen years. When the island was closed in 1921, Dr. Parker was not granted a pension, and was unable to resume his practice for lack of clients--no one wished to be treated by a doctor who had had such prolonged, close contact with leprosy patients.

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 had a healthy baby boy five months later. He was taken from her also. She died ten years later.

If any of you read my excerpt on the Novel Journey (now Novel Rocket) website, I featured this man in the prologue. He was the only patient to successfully escape the island (although he was later apprehended).

James and I found this secluded spot tucked in the middle of the island. It was my favorite place, and home of one of the few trees on the island.

Heading home!


  1. A very sad place, Heidi. I think the Parkers must have been incredible people to lay so much on the line to help others.

  2. Incredible and devastating history — thank you for taking us on a tour alongside you! This is amazing and I can't wait to see how this all comes to play in your writing.

  3. oh, Heidi, the story of Isabelle broke my heart. Are you going to write her story? I can't imagine what she suffered. Thank for opening my eyes to these lives, friend. Can't wait to read your books one day!