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The Leper

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


When I first turned my attention to the condition of lepers my idea was to go and work for them in India; but to do that it was necessary that I should have help and experience. With the view of getting help I obtained an introduction to her Majesty, the Queen, and I thank God for it, as it has given me the entre to foreign courts, and without that my efforts would have been fruitless.

With the view of getting experience as to how lepers are treated, I decided to visit some leper settlement. I had first seen lepers during the Russo-Turkish war when I was on hospital duty. I have seen them in the Holy Land and at Constantinople. While at Constantinople I accidentally heard of an herb which was said to be a cure for leprosy, and I also heard that it grew only in Siberia. Had it been Kamtchatka or the North Pole I would have tried to reach it. In the Caucasus I again heard of the herb and again in St. Petersburg, but was told by very high authorities, and even by the Empress herself that there were no lepers in Siberia. I, however, felt that I must find the herb, and persevered; by the help of many friends I was able to start on a journey of fourteen thousand miles, there and back. It is hardly necessary to speak of the start from Moscow except to say that I remember with gratitude the kind friends who evinced interest in my project by making me presents. One lady knowing I was very fond of plum pudding sent me forty pounds; another sent me tins of insect powder, and, said the lady who sent the little gift, “the more use you make of it the better for you.” With regard to food one of the principal articles was soup frozen in blocks, which were hung outside the sledge. On arrival at a post station bits were chipped off and thawed as required. From Zlataonet part of the journey was accomplished by sledge, some varieties being about equal to a plow cart void of springs and other conveniences, while others were still less comfortable. The roads were very bad and very much resembled the waves of the sea, owing to the large amount of heavy traffic which was passing over them on its way to the annual Siberian Fair. On account of the extreme cold I was so enveloped in furs that I could scarcely move. I wore three pairs of fur boots reaching over the knees and several fur coats; only a few inches of my face were visible. Getting into my sledge was not an easy matter with all these incumbrances. Indeed, I generally tumbled in full length, and had to be arranged, poked here and there, until I fitted into some nook among the luggage. At first, every night we stopped at a post station. These are very tiny, very dirty houses, the rooms heated beyond endurance, and often crowded beyond endurance also. Every possible chance of air entering is prevented by stuffing windows with paper. For a bed you take a fur coat, throw it on the floor and yourself upon it. Sleep comes if you can only manage to forget that the walls of the room are almost covered with very suspicious-looking dark objects. In the morning you wake with a dreadful headache, half suffocated by the heat. After trying this sort of resting for some nights, you find it is preferable to sleep in your sledge, traveling all the time. On my way through Siberia I stopped at intervals to visit some of the prisons, and used often to meet gangs of prisoners walking through the snow, their leg chains clanking dismally as they moved slowly along. Friends had provided me with testaments to give these poor people when I should meet them, but I remembered that our Lord fed the hungry and then taught them, and so with the testament I always gave a little brisk tea and a few pieces of sugar, and if I could possibly get any, some soup.

My friend, Miss Field, who had accompanied me from Moscow, was obliged to turn back on account of ill health, and I went on alone to Irkutsk. Here I again heard of the herb, and also learned for the first time that there were lepers in Siberia. At Irkutsk I formed a committee from which I obtained assistance and information. This committee consisted of His Excellency, the Governor General, His Grace, the Archbishop of Irkutsk, His Eminence, the Bishop, the Cathedral Priest Vuangradoff, His Excellency, the State Councillor Sievers, the Inspector of Medicine, the Aide-de-Camp of the Commander of Troops, Captain Luoff, the Mayor and myself. I found that the lepers were living in the forests in the northeastern part of the province of Yakutsk; that for sixty-four years they had been pleading for help, but owing to want of funds no sustained help had been given. I heard that I should have still a very long journey before I could reach and visit these poor lepers, but I also heard that the lepers were living in the utmost misery and I determined to reach them and help them. The journey from Irkutsk to Yakutsk was made principally by water. I traveled by cargo boat on the river Lena, one of the largest rivers of Northern Siberia. On this boat quarters were rather cramped, and I slept in a space that was cleared for me of about five feet three inches, and as I happened to be longer than that, I was not very comfortable. At length the friends of the cargo came out — black beetles and other crawling things. I am afraid I used to feel rather a cruel satisfaction when I lay down at night and realized that I was probably crushing with the weight of my body a good many of the black beetles that would otherwise have crawled over me while I slept. I found that dinner was more enjoyable if you didn’t attempt to see how it was cooked; the tea was not strong, generally about three tea spoons full for a dozen people, but still we had enough to eat, and after all this only lasted three weeks and then we arrived at Yakutsk.

There was some little difficulty at Yakutsk in convincing the officials that I had really traveled so far, overcome so many difficulties, and was prepared to overcome many more, simply to find an herb and to help those who were in misery. They thought I must have some political object in view, and Yakutsk is the country of political exile. At length, however, I was able to form a committee in Yakutsk as I had done in Irkutsk and Moscow, and to obtain assistance and advice as to the best way of reaching the lepers. These poor outcasts were living in the depths of the densest forests, sometimes alone, sometimes in large numbers herded together in one small hut. Each community looked after its own lepers and met once a year to examine any member who was suspected of being afflicted with leprosy. This disease is so dreaded by the Yakout (a devil and a leper are synonymous terms in their language), that it sometimes happens that a man who is not a leper, but is afflicted with some skin disease, is turned out to live in the forests. The lepers live on food of the coarsest description, rotten fish and the bark of trees. This is taken once or twice a week to within a certain distance of the hut, and the leper has to walk or crawl, according to his condition, to get it. When he becomes too weak to get the food, he dies of starvation. If there are many lepers in a community, men, women, and children are herded together in one hut. This happens in a country where there is a short summer of three months of tropical heat and nine months of winter, when the thermometer goes down to sixty and seventy degrees below zero, and the lepers, therefore, do not stir out for days together.

As I learned more and more of their misery, I felt that God had given these poor outcast lepers into my hand; that I must go to them. God had guided me thus far, and would guide me rightly to the end. In order to find them in the forest I learned that I must ride long distances on horseback through a very difficult country. Thirty brave Yakout men volunteered to accompany me, and at last I was able to leave Yakutsk for my long ride. I had with me some Roman Catholics, some belonging to the Greek Church, and I am a Protestant, but we had not a single discussion, and although I was entirely in the hands of these thirty men for two months, I was always treated with the greatest respect and consideration. I had never been on horseback before except for a few minutes, and as there was nothing obtainable but the native wooden saddle, there was nothing for it but riding like a man. I had great difficulty in keeping on, but managed it with a great deal of bumping up and down. We traveled first in the day time, but owing to the heat of the summer in this part of Siberia, and the worrying of mosquitoes and other insects, we were obliged to travel at night at last. We soon left post houses behind, but I carried a tent with me, and when we stopped it was put up and I rested as well as I could, but it was not very comfortable, for inside the tent we were obliged to have a fire to keep off the mosquitoes and I dared not undress for fear of being dangerously stung. Although I slept in gloves and boots the mosquitoes somehow stung me so that sleep was almost impossible. After a few days’ riding in the native wooden saddle I became so sore all over that I could not get on or off my pony without assistance, and I was in such pain from stings and bruises that it was not easy to rest. Part of the way lay through dreary marshes and part through dense forests. We were sometimes caught in heavy thunder storms, and when we came to a place where it was possible to stop a fire was made, I was lifted off my horse, laid before the fire, and turned first on one side and then on the other and gradually dried.

Our food was cooked in an iron pot, and when it was ready we all sat on the ground round it, each man dipping in his spoon in turn, but I made it a rule never to look at the man who was dipping in his spoon in turn, and then I managed very well. We had taken provisions with us from Yakutsk, brown and black bread in fish-skin bags, tinned and preserved meats, etc., but everything that was capable of breaking was broken with the constant bumping. Our food consisted for the most part of bread reduced to a powder, of which we made a sort of paste, well flavored from the fish-skin bag, tea, and sometimes a wild duck. We had great difficulty in obtaining water, and had often to squeeze it out of the marshes, and were once even obliged to take water from a lake in which lepers had bathed. There were many bears in some of the forests through which we passed, but we were never attacked. One night we had to pass through some miles of burning earth. The earth is mostly peat, and during the heat of summer, from some unexplained cause, combustion takes place and spreads for miles. Only one little baggage horse, frightened by the flames, broke loose from the rest and galloped away, disappearing in the smoke. We did not see him any more, only heard for a time the thumping of the packages he was carrying, which had fallen both on one side and, knocking together, frightened the poor little horse still more. Through the providence of God we passed through all these dangers unharmed.

It is in this inhospitable country that I have been describing that the poor lepers lived, and it was in some of these dense forests that I found at last the lepers I had come so far to help. I forgot the difficulties of the journey and the comparatively little injury I had undergone when I saw their misery. I found one woman living alone, and I shall never forget seeing the look of hopelessness in the woman’s eyes change to one of gratitude when I touched her and told her I had come to befriend her in Christ’s name. I found another woman, who had been living with a mad leper, compelled to do so because they both belonged to the same community. I found mothers separated from their children, husbands from their wives. In some cases the leper huts were crowded, and in this crowded condition they had had small-pox among them, and only filthy sheepskins, the cast-off sheepskins of the Yakout, for clothing. The ground in this northeastern part of Yakutsk is perpetually frozen, and only thaws during the summer to a depth of three feet. During this time, by the help of fires, the lepers have to make a number of graves sufficient for those whom they think will die during the winter, and outside the leper hut you see the big crosses that mark the graves, or holes prepared for graves. Where a Yakout dies the body has, by law, to remain unburied for three days, so when a leper dies in these crowded huts the body has to remain for three days among the living. I saw altogether seventy-three lepers, but the official report records about two hundred. I returned to the town of Yakutsk after a trip of two thousand miles, not having undressed or washed for two months. I had found the herb, but it is not a cure for leprosy, it only alleviates the suffering. On my return to St. Petersburg I was graciously permitted to have another interview with Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress. I appealed in Christ’s name for help, and five devoted Russian Sisters from the hospital of the Princess Shahovsky, in Moscow, have already gone to Yakutsk. I asked that a collection might be made once a year in the churches for the help of lepers on the Sunday when the Gospel of the healing of the leper is read, and this has been granted, and by that means the village to be erected will be maintained. I believe that improper food and bad sanitary surroundings greatly predispose the people to leprosy, and by improving these I believe it would be possible to stamp out the disease. I wish to establish a settlement of ten small houses, a couple of hospital wards, a school and a church. The lepers cannot come here to plead for themselves, and I come as their substitute to plead for them; to ask you to help me to build this colony, and to help me to return to them, to dress their wounds and teach them proper sanitary conditions.

In my book On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers you will find official documents that vouch for the truth of all I have told you as to the misery and helplessness of these poor outcast lepers. Before concluding I wish to give Mrs. Eagle my heartfelt thanks for her unfailing help to me during my stay at the Exposition in Chicago.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 213-216.