New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Lazaretto for Lepers in Tracadie, 1862

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The Lazaretto for Lepers in Tracadie, 1862

This description of the hospital for lepers in Tracadie was written in 1862, and is from Lieut. Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon’s book, Wilderness Journeys in New Brunswick. Gordon had just completed a hiking and canoeing trip and was meeting with local officials before returning to Fredericton.

Gordon was appalled by what he found at Tracadie, and did not spare critical language in describing it. Gordon’s attitudes were of the 19th century, and there will be ample opportunity in reading his remarks to raise objections. He was an educated and right-thinking person for his day, however, and we may decide to set aside those objections and accept his observations as a reminder that the good-old-days were not always so good. His commentary remains painful to read.

New Brunswick established a leper colony on Sheldrake Island near Chatham, and this was moved to Tracadie in 1849. Gordon was writing in 1862, six years before the Hospitallers of Saint Joseph arrived to manage the facility. The lazaretto was transferred to federal jurisdiction in 1880, and the last patient died there in 1964.

Lazaretto at Tracadie

The Lazaretto at Tracadie

Musée Historique de Tracadie, Inc.

Following is Gordon’s description. This is not a history, but more of a commentary:


I do not propose to introduce into this paper any notice of the remainder of my tour through the counties of Gloucester, Kent, and Westmorland, I think that one establishment which I visited in its course deserves some mention, and will excite some interest.

There is an obscure and doubtful story that, some eighty or a hundred years ago, a French ship was wrecked on the shore of the county of Gloucester or Northumberland, and that some of those who escaped from the crew were sailors of Marseille, who had caught in the Levant the true eastern leprosy the Elephantiasis Gracorum. However this may be, there is no doubt that for many years past a portion of the French population of these counties has been afflicted with this fearful malady, or one closely allied to it—probably that form of leprosy which is known to prevail upon the coast of Norway. About twenty years ago the disease seemed to be on the increase, and so great an alarm was created by this fact, and by the allegation, (the truth or falsehood of which I have never been able satisfactorily to ascertain), that settlers of English descent had caught and died of the disease, that a very stringent law was passed, directing the seclusion of the lepers, and authorizing any member of a local Board of Health constituted by the Act, to commit to the Lazaretto [a quarantine hospital] any person afflicted with the disorder. After being for a time established at Sheldrake Island, in the Miramichi River, the hospital was removed to Tracadie in the county of Gloucester, where it continues to remain.

The situation of the Lazaretto is dreary in the extreme, and the view which it commands embraces no object calculated to please, or indeed to arrest, the eye. On the one side is a shallow turbid sea, which at the time of my visit was unenlivened by a single sail; on the other lies a monotonous stretch of bare, cleared land, only relieved by the ugly church and mean wooden houses of a North American village.

The outer enclosure of the Lazaretto consists of a grass field, containing some three or four acres of land. Within these limits the lepers are now allowed to roam at will. Until lately, however, they were confined to the much narrower bounds of a smaller enclosure in the centre of the large one, and containing the buildings of the hospital itself.

Into these dismal precincts I entered, accompanied by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Chatham, the Secretary to the Board of Health, the Resident Physician, and the Roman Catholic priest of the village, who acts as Chaplain to the hospital.

Within the inner enclosure are several small wooden buildings detached from each other, and comprising the kitchen, laundry, &c. of the establishment; one of these edifices, but newly completed, is furnished with a bath—a great addition to the comfort of the unhappy inmates. The hospital itself is a building composed of two large rooms, the one devoted to the male, and the other to the female patients. In the centre of each room is a stove and table, with a few benches and stools, whilst the beds of the patients are ranged along the walls. These rooms are sufficiently light and well ventilated, and at the time of my visit were perfectly clean and neat. In the rear of these rooms is a small chapel, so arranged that a window obliquely traversing the wall on each side of the partition which divides the two rooms enables the patients of either sex to witness the celebration of Mass without meeting. Through the same apertures confessions are received, and the Holy Communion administered, I may here remark how curious an illustration is thus afforded to architectural students of the object of those low skew windows often found in the chancels of ancient churches, In a remote corner of North America, in a rude wooden building of modern date, erected by men who never saw a mediæval church, or possess the least acquaintance with Gothic architecture, convenience has suggested an arrangement precisely similar to one which has long puzzled the antiquaries and architects of Europe.

At the time of my visit there were twenty-three patients in the Lazaretto, thirteen males and ten females, all of whom were French Roman Catholics, belonging to families of the lowest class. These were of all ages, and suffering from every stage of the disease. One old man, whose features were so disfigured as to be barely human, and who appeared in the extremity of dotage, could hardly be roused from his apathy sufficiently to receive the Bishop’s blessing, which was eagerly sought on their knees by the others. But there were also young men, whoso arms seemed as strong, and their powers of work and of enjoyment as unimpaired, as they over had been; and—saddest sight of all—there wore young children condemned to pass here a life of hopeless misery.

I was especially touched by the appearance of three poor boys between the ages of fifteen and eleven years. To the ordinary observer they were like other lads—bright eyed and intelligent enough; but the fatal marks which sufficed to separate them from the outer world were upon them, and they were now shut up forever within the walls of the Lazaretto.

An impression similar in kind, though feebler in degree, is produced by the sight of all the younger patients. There is something appalling in the thought that from the time of his arrival until his death, a period of perhaps many long years, a man, though endowed with the capacities, the passions, and the desires of other men, is condemned to pass from youth to middle life, and from middle life to old age with no society but that of his fellow sufferers, with no employment, no amusement, no resource; with nothing to mark his hours but the arrival of some fresh victim; with nothing to do except to watch his companions slowly dying round him. Hardly any of the patients could read, and those who could, had no books. No provision seemed to be made to furnish them with any occupation, either bodily or mental, and under these circumstances I was not surprised to learn that, in the later stages of the disease, the mind generally became enfeebled.

The majority of the patients did not appear to me to suffer any great amount of pain, and I was informed that one of the characteristics of the disease was the insensibility of the flesh to injury. One individual was pointed out to me whose hand and arm had been allowed to rest on a nearly red-hot stove, and who had never discovered the fact until attention was arrested by the strong smell of the burning limb, which was terribly injured.


Written by johnwood1946

August 6, 2014 at 9:35 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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