‘Nation’s most famous leper’ sought refuge in Tryon

On this day in 1938: John Early, referred to in newspapers as “the nation’s most famous leper,” dies at the federal leprosarium in Carville, La. Early, 64, was born near Weaverville. He contracted leprosy (later known as Hansen’s disease) while serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. On his return he was captured and quarantined — leprosy was widely feared, though only slightly contagious.

After the first of many escapes, he took refuge on a small farm near Tryon. Neighbors objected, however, and he admitted himself to the Carville leper colony, then operated by the Catholic Church. In 1921 he escaped to Washington, where he walked in on a startled congressional committee and spoke for a bill that would put the Carville facility under the U.S. Public Health Service. In large part because of his lobbying, the bill passed.

In 1927 Early again fled to Tryon. This time his neighbors petitioned the surgeon general to suspend the federal law mandating segregation of lepers and to let him live in isolation on his farm. Their effort failed, however, and Early was returned to Carville for the last time.

 

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