Fat Tuesday is only a few days away and the residents of New Orleans are convulsing with anticipatory excitement and glee at the weekend parades, balls and crawfish boils leading to the grand finale. Mardi Gras is one of the finest celebrations in the world and what makes it particularly unique is the egalitarian nature that lies at its very heart – everyone is welcome to come witness and participate in Carnival. And for those very few who are not, Mardi Gras comes to them.
In 1894, on an abandoned sugar plantation located just outside of Baton Rouge in the small community of Carville, Louisiana, the doors to a new facility dedicated to the quarantine of leprosy were opened. Ostracized by their family and communities, men and women were shipped in barges from New Orleans along the Mississippi River to the Louisiana Leper Home where they were housed in former slave quarters (1). Some were handcuffed on the barges, forcibly exiled from their homes and families and their very lives to be imprisoned and shunned by society (2). The leprosarium would operate for over a century and serve as the last hospital in the industrialized world completely dedicated to the “treatment” of leprosy. Catholic nuns associated with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul would serve as their caretakers.
Just as residents of Louisiana don masks and costumes to watch and revel in the sights of the parades, so too would the quarantined residents of the leprosarium. Concealing their identity and disfigurements, the leprosarium’s residents could have their own day to celebrate Mardi Gras, liberated socially and psychologically from their disfiguring disease.
Miniature floats rode in their Krewe of Carville parade, constructed from bicycles, wheelchairs and carts scavenged throughout the facility. The King and Queen of Mardi Gras were elected yearly and announced at the carnival ball. In 1995, an observer of the Carville festivities wrote that the doubloons – collectible aluminium coins specific to each Krewe - were imprinted with the outline of an armadillo, the animal now known as the natural reservoir of Mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that causes leprosy (1).
In her wonderful essay on Mardi Gras at the leprosarium, Marcia Gaudet writes,
Mardi Gras for the Krewe of Carville follows the general structure of urban Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana, with costumes and masks, a parade with music, food and drink, favors or tokens being thrown or begged for, general revelry, role reversal, and symbolic inversion. It is unique, however, in that the participants are residents or staff members of the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center.
To act carnivalesque is to be allowed to be ‘abnormal’ for a while. paradoxically, to celebrate Mardi Gras, like any other masquerade holidays, is normative – it is not only allowable but even expected that one will participate in the seasonal customs. Thus, for people who are already stigmatized as ‘abnormal’ in society, the masks and the occasion allow an opportunity to engage in normative behavior, to act “‘normal.’ (1)
In 1999, the facility closed its doors to receiving resident patients, though a few long-term patients remain on the site out of comfort and security after the many decades of quarantine on the site. The facility now serves as a museum and a research center for leprosy, its masques, balls and floats no more than echoes in the past.
A heartbreaking article from the New York Times, “Both Home and Prison, Leprosy Site May Shut” on the closure of the facility.
The website for the National Hnsen’s Disease Museum currently operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services. I went to the museum a few years ago and loved it!
Note: A big thank you to Rosemarie Robertson at the Louisiana Office of Public Health for the Mardi Gras picture of parading drummers!
Louisiana Office of Public Health (July-August 2003) Carville: The Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center. Louisiana Morbidity Report. 14(4): 3
(1) M Gaudet. (1998) The world downside up: Mardi Gras at Carville. J American Folklore. 111(439): 23-38
(2) S Jauhar (June 23, 1998) Both Home and Prison, Leprosy Site May Shut. The New York Times [Online]. Accessed on February 8, 2013 here.
Gaudet, M. (1998). The World Downside Up: Mardi Gras at Carville The Journal of American Folklore, 111 (439) DOI: 10.2307/541318