Author recalls fond memories at Carville 

By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Anne Harmon Brett’s favorite childhood memories include “stolen moments” when her parents crawled through a hole under a fence at the National Leprosarium in Carville, where they were patients, to meet Anne and her brother, J.C., for Sunday picnics by the Mississippi River levee.  

carville 2.tif

Johnny Harmon in his photography lab at the former National Leprosarium at Carville, now a museum. Photo provided by Johnny Harmon family 

 

Brett’s parents, Johnny and Anne Harmon, defied conventional boundaries and refused to let the leprosy rule their lives. Patients at Carville, where the Harmons had met and fell in love, were not allowed to marry.  

The Harmons secretly married outside of the leprosarium with the assistance and blessings of the Daughters of Charity, who took care of the patients physically and spiritually when most everyone else abandoned them.  

Johnny Harmon, who refused to call himself a leper, wrote about his journey from Texas to Carville, his romance with Anne and his determination to overcome adversities and live a full life while living at Carville in his memoire “King of the Microbes.” Brett included her own reflections in her book, “THE DISEASE: One Man’s Journey through a Life with Leprosy.”  

Five members of Brett’s maternal side and two on her paternal side were patients at Carville. She was particularly touched by her father’s heartbreaking story concerning Anne’s arrival at Carville and how hysteria about leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, impacted her family. In 1932 Brett’s maternal grandmother, Louise Triche, who lived on a sugar plantation in Vacherie with her husband Jack and children, went to a local health unit for a checkup and was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease. She was immediately taken to Carville.  

When she didn’t return home that evening, Jack asked the local sheriff if he knew where she might be and was told she was taken to Carville. Because there was no public transportation to the hospital Jack hitchhiked 40 miles to Carville.  

Brett’s mother was one of three siblings that were patients at Carville. When Anne and her brother Andre arrived at the hospital in 1934, they laughed as they held the mother superior’s hand and ran when they saw Triche, who was sitting in a wheelchair, and collapsed in her arms. Anne’s mother cried because she knew her children’s fate.  

Learning that the Triche children were at Carville, Vacherie residents panicked and authorities burned down the Triche home because people feared they would contract the disease. Jack lost his job at the plantation and then went to work at his brother’s plantation in Napoleonville. However, because his brother’s wife was fearful of the disease, he was not allowed to enter into the home and ate his meals in a shed.  

Before Brett’s father’s arrival Carville, he watched the progression of Hansen’s on his brother Elmo, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1925 at the age of 16 when his father took him to a dermatologist in 1925. To spare his family from embarrassment, in 1934 Elmo took a train to the Carville leprosarium, where the disease ravaged him before he died.  

Johnny Harmon, who had worked for the Texas Highway Department and was working toward a college degree in engineering, thought about Elmo daily, and he and his dad visited Elmo as often as possible.  

When Johnny Harmon was diagnosed himself in 1935 at 24, because of his position with the highway department, it made the front page of the Beaumont newspaper.  

Harmon left for the Carville leprosarium, determined to make the most of his life there. He had his own photography lab and was a cartoonist, a painter and taught in the one-room schoolhouse at Carville, which was “the first integrated school in Louisiana,” according to Brett. 

There was “the hole” about a quarter of a mile from the front gate, which people would crawl out to get “to the outside.” Those who left AWOL and were caught spent time in a jail called “the white house.”  

The Carville community was a “world of its own” with a movie theater, ballroom, canteen, tennis courts and two golf courses – one for employees and one for patients – who came from around the world, including spy Josefina “Joey” Guerrero, a Pilipino who spied for the United States in Japanese-occupied Philippines during World War II.   

Celebrations also were common, and it was at a 1936 Mardi Gras Ball that Johnny met Anne, who “captured his heart.”  

In 1938 Johnny was cleared of Hansen’s disease symptoms and released. Johnny attempted to resume his life in Texas, but the stigma followed him, thwarting career plans such as causing him to fail his draft notice exam for World War II. 

The Hansen’s symptoms returned, and Johnny returned to Carville. Eventually, Anne and Johnny rekindled their romance and after receiving a pass, were married at St. Roch’s Catholic Church in New Orleans. 

Patients at Carville were discouraged from having children. After Brett and her brother were born, they were placed with the Becnel family in Vacherie, who spoke only Cajun French. The Becnels brought the children for the secret picnic rendezvous.  

Johnny Harmon was eventually symptom free of Hansen’s but insisted on remaining at the Carville hospital because his wife was a patient there. Later he was “expelled” by doctors, but he remained in Vacherie to be near his wife. When she was released, the two made their home in Vacherie, where Johnny had a thriving photography business and the couple became members of Our Lady of Peace.  

They would regularly visit Brett and her siblings.  

Brett said she has fond memories of visiting Carville and noted the international community that was formed there. 

“My godmother was from Spain and her brother’s godmother was from China,” said Brett. 

She said while she saw people in various stages of the diseases, she never focused on their outward appearance because they had a “beauty within” who brought their life experiences with them. 

The presence of the nuns also kept a vibrant faith alive. 

And her parents never lost their faith either, as quoted from her father in the book. 

“I feel like I have had a richer and fuller life than most people. At Carville, I met people from all over the world. It was a mini-United Nations. I created lifelong friendships,” wrote Harmon. “God gives us all a cross to bear. Some are bigger than others, but we all experience some sorrow in our life. I never felt like a leper, not in the Biblical sense of the word.” 

To order Brett’s book, email bayoubrett@gmail.com.