The first soul to appear in the history of this little island shaped like a ladybug was none other than the Wampanoag god, Moshup, that none-too-gentle giant with the hair-trigger temper. This was way back in the day (even before when the Clintons began vacationing here), when the Indians on Cape Cod called on Moshup for backup.
Ten-inch-tall demons called Pukwudgees were harassing them.
Don’t you hate it when Pukwudgees do that?
These vicious little thugs stomped on the Indians’ arrows, poked holes in their canoes, and scattered sharp objects on the hunting paths.
Hero-sized Moshup gathered up his five buff sons and tracked the nasty ‘wudgees through the wetlands. But the mean little buggers still had tricks up their tiny sleeves: They blinded the Moshup boys with magic powder, then slaughtered all five of them!
Papa carried his slain sons to Buzzard’s Bay, and tipped them gently into the water. He built up mounds of rocks and soil around them, and then he slinked away to sulk all these centuries. In the meantime, the ocean surged up and bore the burial mounds off shore. Eventually they settled into the small archipelago known as the Elizabeth Islands – Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena, Cutty Hunk, and Penikese.
By the way, science has attempted to explain this mash-up of islands, and the whole of the eastern seaboard, with buzzwords like glaciers and the Laurentide Ice Sheet and, later, the Wisconsin Glacial Stage. But the problem with scientists is they never hire English majors to come up with story arcs and suspense and character development, with bad dudes like Pukwudgees thrown in so that the audience sits through the whole five acts waiting for those hallacious imps to get what’s coming to them!
As early as 1003, Vikings may or may not have landed on Penikese. In 1524, explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano may have rowed out to take a very unimpressed look at the several square miles of barren rock, ditto the French navigator Jehan Alfonce in 1542.
Leave it to Brit explorer Bartholomew Gosnold to shakes things up a bit: In 1602, he and his crew rowed over to see what they could find. They chased off four frightened natives, and swiped their canoes, leaving them stranded.
Nothing happened on neglected little Penikese until 1871 when the Anderson School of Natural History set up shop there. Just close your eyes and picture a mini-me of Harvard teleported to bluffs overlooking the sea. Grand Victorian buildings blossomed over the littoral, including a laboratory, a dorm, a dining hall, and the Anderson mansion.
Financier John Anderson hired internationally acclaimed scientist, Alexander Agassiz to spearhead the new school. Unhappily, Agassiz grew deathly ill during his first summer. (Deathly illness seemed to be the leitmotiv of Penikese retreats). He was shipped off island where he died. The school, built to be an immortal beacon of learning, lasted only another fleeting gasp of a year.
The notion that maybe Penikese was cursed – perhaps by those original natives whose canoes had been poached? – took root in the imagination of the inhabitants of islands to the south west, and those of the larger island, Rhode, to the north east.
And what better way to break the malevolent spell of Penikese than by banging up a facility for lepers?
In the late 19th century, waves of immigrants brought cases of leprosy to our shores. Nowadays, we know leprosy is not the creeping crud kind of Fringe contagion it was always cracked up to be: Ninety-five percent of humans are immune to it. But in 1905, when the Penikese Island Hospital first opened its doors, treatment consisted of hiding the afflicted away. Forever.
Doctors and staff moved into the remains of the once-noble Anderson buildings. Each patient received a clean and bright new cottage along the shore. The lepers tended vegetables, sewed clothes, re-built the grand old facilities, and graded new paths. All this healthy outdoor activity and sense of purpose strengthened their bodies and uplifted their spirits; perhaps even extended their lives. Then when the end arrived, the patient was buried in the picturesque cemetery bordered by a green picket fence and set up over the north sea.
Now you may be asking, Is this little island haunted? You bet! (You can read all about it – in grisly, disgusting detail -- in the chapter The Leper Ghosts of Penikese in Vineyard Supernatural, 2008, Down East Books. Written by Whosimadoddle.)
In 1921, all patients were boarded onto a boat, and shipped to the new national Louisiana Leper Home in Carville. From this time until 1973, the Anderson buildings went to rack and ruin, the grounds to the depredations of the masses of birds who found sanctuary there. The grim little island’s first and last warden, Mr. Turner, lived on site with his wife and several kids. In 1941, a freak accident occurred: one of the Turner kids killed a sibling with a hunting rifle. The stricken Turners moved away.
Penikese got a breather and remained unoccupied by humans for thirty-two years.
Which brings us up to date with the final and still on-going operation on little Penikese: An outward bound-style prep school for bad boys from surrounding counties. Fresh air, outdoor labor, the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing, along with the acquisition of good yeoman’s skills – these were ---and are -- meant to straighten out those juvies fast and hard.
The new recruits – New Jacks, they’re called -- are also taught to respect the leper ghosts that drift through the shadows of the silent, black Penikese night. Today’s delinquents feel a common bond with the lepers, who suffered stigma and banishment even greater than theirs.
It’s a tough little hood of an island, Penikese, but it’s done a lot of good, and a bunch of interestingly good karma must be doubling back on it.
Let’s all go have a picnic there!
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