Verona's Leprosy House

In Verona's Prairie Moraine County Park lie the likely remains of a house created in 1896 to care for – and isolate – two people affected by arguably the most feared and misunderstood disease in human history…just fifty years before it became curable.

The Prairie Moraine County Park which we and our dogs enjoy today was once a remote parcel owned by the Dane County “Poor House” two miles to the north.  Started in 1854, the institution’s purpose was to house Dane County residents who could not care for themselves due to causes such as mental or physical illness, homelessness, addiction, old age, or family abandonment.  Some visits were short – just long enough for a fever to pass, an injury to heal, or to give birth.  Other patrons stayed for the rest of their lives, some of them being buried in the small cemetery still present next to Farm and Fleet.

Above image: The original Verona Poor House, built two miles north of the park in 1854.

In 1894 a Norwegian-born Town of Vienna resident named Thomas arrived at the Poor House in Verona.  Although by that time 1,400 people had passed through its doors, his was the first case where the reason for admission was listed as “Leprosy”.  The superintendents did not feel capable of handling this condition, so he was sent away to be boarded privately for three dollars a week while they consulted with the Dane County Board for guidance.

Shortly after, Thomas and his wife ended up living in the Town of Bristol with the family of Ole, another person with leprosy.  Both Thomas and Ole were physically disabled by the disease.  Unfortunately, they lived in a time when fear and stigma related to leprosy (today called “Hansen’s disease") had grown for thousands of years – but a cure was still a half century away.  The causal bacteria attacks the skin and extremities, causing sores, blindness, the shrinking of features like fingers, toes, and the nose, and a loss of sensation that leads to injuries and secondary infections.  Social consequences have been equally severe, including complete rejection from society.  Many cultures have unfairly connected this disease to sin and shame.  Sensational news articles of Thomas and Ole’s time exploited the historical stigma surrounding leprosy to provoke fear around their very presence here.

Today we know that leprosy is difficult to contract, and ninety five percent of people are naturally immune.  But in the 1890s the recommended course of action for a patient was isolation.  As for Thomas and Ole, in 1895 Dane County determined that the superintendents of the Poor House in Verona “are the proper persons to make provisions in those cases…and are hereby instructed to take charge of them and to have them “kept in some isolated place or provide some place on our county farm.

In 1896 a cabin was built in this park to house Thomas and Ole.  At a cost of $330, the small house measured 22’ by 28’, with three bedrooms, a sitting room, closet, and pantry.  Ole passed away before its completion.  Thomas moved in during the summer of that year.

Even though Thomas was isolated, he was not entirely alone.  Food and supplies were brought to him from the Poor House via highway PB, sometimes by other Poor House residents.  Charlie Haak, a neighboring farmer to the east, is remembered as visiting his cabin for games of cards.  For a period of time Thomas also had an attendant, William Bradley, another Poor House resident.

It was common for county officials, journalists, and other guests touring the Poor House to also visit the remote cabin.  Their reports on Thomas’ condition were printed in local newspapers, and through them we get a glimpse into what his life there was like:

“Wednesday, L.P. Edwin, superintendent of the Verona poor farm and asylum, took Rev. S. Gunderson, the Lutheran Minister of Mt. Horeb, to the little cabin two miles south of the poor farm where the leper charge of the county, Thomas Nelson, formerly of the town of Vienna, is kept.  Mr. Gunderson spoke words of comfort to the afflicted man and later administered to him the sacrament.  The afflicted man, who is a devout Christian and bears his sufferings with much fortitude, was greatly relieved by the minister’s visit and says he is now resigned cheerfully to his fate.  He is now unable to walk, is totally blind, and has lost the use of both hands.”

-Wisconsin State Journal. Jan 17, 1902.

Note that the antiquated term “leper” (used above), common even in biblical translations, carries with it centuries of stigma that persons affected by leprosy today wish to be separated from.  News articles of the time also used the term “leper colony” to describe the presence of Thomas and Ole in Verona, even though the evidence that remains indicates Verona had just this one cabin.  Larger settlements of persons with leprosy were common in other parts of the world starting in the middle ages, and even in recent centuries in the U.S. at the locations Carville, Louisiana and the Molokai island of Hawaii.

Thomas died in his cabin on November 1, 1902, after living there six years.  He was discovered by his attendant William Bradley and taken for burial in the next available plot in the small Poor House cemetery now by Farm and Fleet.  One source indicates there might have been a second person with leprosy to use the cabin shortly after.

By the 1910s the empty cabin was in ruins.  Ten-year-old Walter Batker, who lived on the neighboring farm to the north, disobeyed instructions and visited its remains with his friends.  Later in his nineties, Walter recalled, “I think we were forbidden to go there, but the spirit of adventure was just too much to resist.  Anyways, it was being used as a storehouse by the squirrels, woodchucks, etc.  They probably should have burned it down when he died.

In a 1919 interview, the Poor House Superintendent mentioned that the cabin had not been used since Thomas and the second individual’s passings, “though many curiosity seekers have visited the lot and taken pieces of the house and stray pieces of property.”  No evidence exists of Verona having a later leprosy house.  Several sources suggest that in later years patients with infectious diseases were instead housed onsite at the Poor House.  Paoli farmer Vernon Duppler recalled that in the late 1930s a group of Poor House residents, referred by some in the community as “lepers”, would occasionally walk from the Poor House to a stream on his farm at the south end of Range Trail to fish.  They would also care for cattle on county-owned land that today is Scheidegger Forest on Range Trail as they passed by.  Vernon did not know if they actually had leprosy, or if the title was simply being applied informally.

On a hillside on the western half of the Prairie Moraine dog park are two groupings of rocks.  In the early 1990s, a group of longtime Verona residents recorded their firsthand memories of the Poor House and its residents.  Among the group was Walter Batker, the man who had seen the leprosy house as a boy.  According to the members of the group, this is the site of the leprosy house (or houses) and these rock arrangements are foundations.  Both groupings roughly fit the known footprint of the cabin, and both appear in Verona’s oldest aerial photograph from 1929.  Further archaeological study is needed to look for artifacts that would indicate a historic dwelling.

The goal of the Prairie Moraine Friends and the Verona Area Historical Society is to highlight this story’s place among the historical wonders of the park as well as the history of Verona.  Aspects of Thomas’ story – fear and exclusion, but also caring and endurance – are repeated throughout history.  Maybe by remembering it, we are better prepared to understand (and perhaps help) the next “Thomas”.

Above image: A sensationalized 1897 newspaper article (using the antiquated term “leper”) illustrating the historical stigma surrounding persons with leprosy 

Star = Site of the ruins.

1 = Land containing the

    leprosy house.

2 = Verona Poor House

3 = Poor House Cemetery

4 = Batker Farm

5 = Haak Farm

Image:  Google Maps