Manuel Souza's escape to RI


On April 19, 1927 an alarm went out in Carnille, Louisiana. A 21-year-old native of Portugal, Manuel Souza, had escaped from the Louisiana Leper Home.

The medical facility was a colony enclosed within a barbed-wire fence, where those afflicted with the contagious disease known as leprosy were quarantined for life.

Caused by bacteria spread through coughing and sneezing, leprosy infection affects the skin, eyes and nerves, causing disfiguring sores and bulges upon the body.

The first case of leprosy seen in America was in Louisiana during the 1700s. As more victims came to light, the governor tried to corral and confine them to the outskirts of the jurisdiction. But people were outraged by the idea of banishment, so the plan for separation of healthy and sick was abandoned.

In 1894, the first residential medical facility in America, for those with leprosy, opened in Carnille, Louisiana. As the incidence of leprosy grew in number during the 1920s, reaching an all-time high in Louisiana, there would eventually be close to 400 inmates secured within the colony’s barbed wire. Twelve out of every 100,000 people in the state had leprosy.

Despite captured escapees of the Carnille Home facing jail time, Manuel Souza decided to take his chances. Not even a week had passed when the health authorities in Rhode Island were alerted that Souza had possibly come here.

On the night of April 24, Warwick Police sighted Sousa working in the garden of Joseph Perry on Oak Street where he had been staying. After apprehension, he was transported to the local hospital, where he was put in isolation.

Doctors noticed a scar on Souza’s knee, left over from a lesion that had healed five years earlier, successfully responding to the Carnille Home’s use of chaulmoogra oil as a treatment for the effects of leprosy.

Chaulmoogra oil, which was extracted from the seeds of the tree, was found to be effective in treating lesions in 1874. In its treatment of leprosy, it was injected into the body via needle.

The Carnille Home was informed of Souza’s capture and plans were made to transport him back to Louisiana. Rhode Island health authorities now had the responsibility of calming public fear. As Souza appeared to have only a mild case of leprosy, and had not left the Perry property at all during his stay, people were encouraged to stop worrying.

Souza was returned to Carnille. Thirteen years later, he was still there. He may very well have lived out his life and died at the facility, which closed down in 1999.

Today, leprosy is very uncommon and highly curable.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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