BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana author Anne Harmon Brett wrote a 2019 book about her father’s diagnosis of Hansen’s disease, once called leprosy, and his life inside the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.
But her story also highlights her mother’s diagnosis with the same disease and how she and her brother, raised by another couple, saw their parents in secret visits.
Her favorite childhood memories include “stolen moments” when her parents crawled through a hole under a fence at the National Leprosarium, where they were patients, to meet Anne and her brother, J.C., for Sunday picnics by the Mississippi River levee.
Brett’s parents, Johnny and Anne Harmon, defied conventional boundaries and refused to let the disease rule their lives. The couple, patients at the now-closed Carville home along the Mississippi River, met there and fell in love but were not allowed to marry.
They secretly married outside the facility 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 book: “King of the Microbes.” Brett included her own reflections about this in: “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.
Brett was particularly touched by her father’s heartbreaking story concerning her mother’s arrival at Carville and how hysteria about leprosy 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 clinic for a checkup and was diagnosed with the disease. She was immediately taken to Carville.
Two years later, Brett’s mother and uncle also were sent to the same facility.
Before Brett’s father’s arrival Carville, he watched the effects of Hansen’s on his brother Elmo, diagnosed with the disease in 1925 at age 16. 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 with the disease in 1935 at 24, it made the front page of the Beaumont newspaper because of his position with the highway department.
Harmon went to the 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 the facility which he dubbed “the first integrated school in Louisiana.”
The Carville community had a movie theater, ballroom, cafeteria, tennis courts and two golf courses — one for employees and one for patients — who came from around the world.
Celebrations also were common, and it was at a 1936 Mardi Gras Ball that Johnny, then 24, 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 and 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 to the secret picnic gatherings with their parents.
Johnny Harmon was eventually symptom free of Hansen’s but insisted on remaining at the Carville hospital because his wife was a patient there. Eventually he was “expelled” by doctors, but he remained nearby to be near his wife. When she was eventually 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 Parish.
Brett said she has fond memories of visiting Carville and noted the international community that was formed there. She said while she saw people in various stages of the diseases, but she never focused on their outward appearance because they had a “beauty within.”
The presence of the religious sisters also kept a vibrant faith alive.
Her dad wrote about his own faith saying: “God gives us all a cross to bear. Some are bigger than others, but we all experience some sorrow in our life.”
And of his diagnosis with Hansen’s he said: “I never felt like a leper, not in the biblical sense of the word.”