Father Damien and Dr. Hyde: Part I

Robert Louis Stevenson was a defender of the underdog, to whom justice was more important than money and fair play more important than fame.

“That’s what I am, just another Don Quixote,” Stevenson burst out one afternoon when the family was gathered around the fireplace at Baker’s in Saranac Lake, sitting out a winter storm. He was re-reading this classic of Western literature when he slammed the book down on a table and announced this sudden self-realization. His stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, was an eyewitness and said of that performance that “I think this was the most illuminating thing he ever said about himself. It was the realization that his high-flown ideals, his super-sensitive honor, his vehement resentment of wrong and injustice were perhaps hopelessly at discord with the world he lived in.”

By the time this invalid author from Scotland came to Saranac Lake for the winter of 1887-88, he had achieved a considerable degree of fame and fortune, largely due to the universal success of the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Would he ever be willing to give it all up for the sake of defending the honor of an individual whom he had never met who, moreover, was already dead? His scorching letter to the Rev. Dr. C.M. Hyde, appearing in newspapers, indicates that he would do so and with his family’s blessings.

The setting for this story is the Kalawao peninsula on the north side of the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. Barren and desolate, Molokai is the least attractive island of the group. That seemed to fit with the plans of the Hawaiian government, still a monarchy, when in 1863, they chose Kalawao to be the new home until death, of Hawaii’s population of citizens afflicted with Hansen’s disease, commonly called leprosy. This disease has a long history of being misunderstood, therefore, stigmatized. In the Hawaiian Islands it was barely known or not recognized before 1850. It began to spike thereafter and coincidental with the first wave of Chinese and Japanese immigrants going there to work the plantations. By 1860, an epidemic of oriental leprosy infected the Islands along with small pox. The native Hawaiians blamed it on the Chinese, calling it “maipake.”

By 1863, the disease was having a noticeable effect on Hawaiian society and politics, much of it coming from foreign criticism which could adversely affect the economy. The time had come for government intervention, so King Kamehameha V ordered the rounding up of all his afflicted people to be forcibly shipped to the new isolation station on Kalawao, in fact a prison, with the ocean and steep rugged cliffs between 2,400 feet and 3,600 feet high, for prison bars. The King’s police were apparently overzealous by resorting to methods not used since the Middle Ages. No one should have been surprised when things went horribly wrong with this scheme to put fellow humans in dehumanizing conditions.

When this relocation was actualized it was state-sanctioned cruelty from the start. One eyewitness described a hospital scene with doctors pointing out the chosen ones to the new leper police force: “What a sight. The sick were accompanied by parents who clutched them in their arms, covered them with ceaseless kisses, mingled with tears. When the sick were torn from their arms, the cries of despair and screams of pain were enough to tear your heart apart!”

All the King’s men were probably not surprised when people ran away from them so bloodhounds were brought in to track them down. The rugged, forested terrain of the islands made for good cover to countless fugitives from the law, living day to day like animals. One of the Catholics, a Father Montiton, wrote: “You meet them everywhere in caves, by the sea, in the middle of the forest, in huts in deserted places. They run and hide at the sight of a stranger.”

Brother Poirier saw them, too: “They all hide themselves in the rocky cliffs of Hawaii where it’s going to be very hard to find them. I know at least twenty, several of them Catholics.” Some of the outcasts fought back, even formed gangs so they could do things like massacre Dr. Smith and several of his agents from the Board of Health. That was on the Island of Kuai. Policemen were randomly shot anywhere but Dr. N.B. Emerson, first official doctor for the new Kalawao prison, was singled out.

If things were bad on the outside of the colony, they went a step beyond within, something post-apocalyptic-like. The inmates had been promised “all possible care” by the King’s official decree but that was a royal lie. Instead, the situation steadily deteriorated into anarchy and people who were experiencing abandonment sank to the levels of brutes and proceeded to live life for the moment and extract whatever pleasures they could regardless of what the Bible might say. Eyewitness accounts describe scenes right out of Lord of the Flies. For example, a sign at the entrance warned that “In this place there is no law!” Another beholder said it was “like Main Street in Sodom in there.” They knew how to make their own booze too, from “ki” roots, and called it okolehao.

All those eyewitnesses did enough talking to shame the government into action by appointing an official superintendent to straighten things out. The second one, a retired British Army officer named Walsh was the stabilizing factor; but there was still a big metaphorical hole to fill which the government declined to touch–the humanitarian issue.

A call went out. A writer by profession, a Mr. Walter Gibson, who would soon become his majesty’s prime minister, acted on his own idea when he placed an add in the newspapers which read: “If a noble Christian priest, preacher or sister should be inspired to go and sacrifice a life to console those poor wretches, that would be a royal soul to shine forever on a throne reared by human love.”

The Catholics were already well established in Hawaii by May 4, 1873, the day they threw a consecration party for a new church in the village of Wailuku on the island of Maui. Missionaries of Fathers of the Sacred Hearts from neighboring districts were among the guests including a Father Damien from Kohala. Responding to Gibson’s challenge in the paper, the chief bishop on hand announced that the church was looking for four volunteer priests to serve the congregation on Molokai in rotating shifts of three months each. They got their volunteers but Damien had insisted from the start that he wanted to stay there and be their full-time priest. There was some administrative pushback but Damien was persistent and finally got his way; May 10, 1873, was the day Father Damien moved into his last home on the Kalawao peninsula.

Father Damien’s self-sacrifice had made him a star. The newspapers loved the story and he was called the “Hero of Molokai.” Damien’s superiors didn’t like the publicity but it wasn’t his fault. There was another group that was jealous of Damien’s popularity, meaning the Protestants and Dr. Hyde was one of them.

That’s how Father Damien became a public figure right at the start of his labors which have become legendary and today the church is considering his elevation to Sainthood. He had not been on Molokai long when Charles Warren Stoddard went there to meet him. Stoddard was an American travel writer, poet, musician and a professor at Notre Dame University. He spent several days at the leprosarium and was not afraid to speak to the inmates. He got to know Damien and saw firsthand his operation, for which he had only praise; which inspired his book “The Lepers of Molokai.”

Stoddard moved on traveling all over the Orient, South America, etc., and eventually published his book “Summer Cruising in the South Seas.” As fate would have it, Stoddard was a charter member of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, along with Samuel Osbourne and his friend, the up-coming artist, Joe Strong, who was secretly engaged to Sam Osbourne’s daughter, Isobel, or “Belle.” All of them were at the club one night in 1880 when Joe and Belle introduced to everybody a guest, all the way from Scotland–Robert Louis Stevenson.

That night RLS and “Charley” Stoddard became friends. Charley told Louis intriguing stories of the South Seas and he also told him all about Father Damien. Stevenson was much impressed and decided then and there that if he ever got to that part of the world, he would have to look up Father Damien.

To be continued.


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