In biblical times, persons who had leprosy were shunned and had to call out “unclean!, unclean!” – to warn others away. In North Dakota, the most publicized cases of more modern leprosy were in Walsh County, near Edinburg.
There, two men became wards of the county, getting room and board and medical care as welfare. Their plight came under investigation by Dr. John E. Engstad, a prominent Grand Forks physician. On this date in 1900, the Grand Forks Herald published Engstad’s second opinion on their diagnoses; and the doctor confirmed that both men were, indeed, lepers.
The elder man, named Sakkarius Aardahl, born in Norway in 1848, had immigrated to the U.S. in 1889. Mr. Aardahl was 51 years old and was the father of six children, ages 10 to 22. His farm was located 16 miles northwest of Edinburg.
Dr. Engstad noted that the Norwegian leper was “gradually wasting away,” being totally blind, and with only three fingers remaining intact. The county provided lodging for the Norwegian in a sod house on the leper’s own farm. His wife and family lived in a nearby wood-framed house.
The other leper was Swedish immigrant John Ostland, age 37, whose leprosy was not as advanced as that of the Norwegian. When the Swede applied for assistance, the county put him in the sod house with the Norwegian leper. The Swede reportedly cooked and cleaned house for the blind man.
Dr. Engstad called the sod-house, having five-foot-thick walls and only one window, “a living tomb,” where the lepers were doomed to “eat, sleep, and pass the long hours” with “nothing ahead of them but death – death by inches.” The only human contact the lepers had, according to Dr. Engstad, was when one the Norwegian’s children would “shout a greeting . . . from the top of a ridge nearby.” The doctor criticized Walsh County’s care and advocated for the creation of a national leper hospital, where these men could get better treatment.
Dr. Engstad’s newspaper report stirred up strong reactions from Walsh County officials, who said Engstad had merely sensationalized the case. As for the men , the Norwegian leper, Mr. Aardahl, lived for only three more years. The Swede, John Ostland? Well, his fate was unknown after 1905. But the case of the two lepers was debated for some time thereafter, a controversy explored in another episode of Dakota Datebook.
(Total words: 390 words).
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.
SOURCES: “Death Would Be Welcome: The Condition of Two Walsh County Lepers Is Extremely Sad; Shunned By The Community,” Grand Forks Herald, February 11, 1900, p. 5.
Minutes of the County Commissioners, Walsh County, ND, vol. D, March 8, 1900, p. 404, 405.
“Sakkarius Aardal,” 1900 U.S. Census: North Dakota Population, Silvesta Township, Walsh County.
“Leper Dies In Walsh County,” Minneapolis Tribune, February 12, 1903, p. 2.
“Walsh County Lepers: Citizens At a Mass Meeting Memorialize Congress to Provide a Place for Them,” Grand Forks Herald, October 17, 1897, p. 2.
“Leprosy Case: Citizens of Walsh County Would Like More Isolation,” Grand Forks Herald, August 27, 1897.
“Leper: Being Cared For At Expense of [Walsh] County, North Dakota,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 16, 1905, p. 11.
Separation of lepers in Old Testament times in Leviticus 13: 44-46.
J.E. Engstad, “History of Eight Cases of Leprosy Occurring In My Practice,” American Journal of Dermatology, vol. XVI, no. 2, (February 1912), p. 65-65.