Harmon’s Histories: The heartbreaking tale of Montana’s only victim of leprosy

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

It was early 1921 and Mrs. D. R. Feighner was on a mission. Walter McLeod donated $2 to Mrs. Feighner’s campaign. Grace Dyson chipped in 50 cents. The Ladies’ Auxiliary, Spanish War offered $3.

In just a few days time, Mrs. Feighner had rallied dozens of Missoulians to contribute well over $500 to buy Elsie Willett a piano – and they were happy to do so.

Feighner had been touched by a newspaper story about Orville and Elsie Willett, who were living in total isolation in a small cabin near Alberton. 

The couple had a phonograph, but limited records. Elsie, an accomplished pianist, wished she could play to pass the time, but couldn’t afford such an expensive item. With the money raised, the Willetts were presented with a fine “Euphonia Inner-player” piano.

A short time later, Lt. F.M. Alexander of Fort Missoula presented the Willetts with a radio receiver capable of tuning in stations as far away as 2,000 miles, to keep the couple informed and entertained.

What was behind all this community outpouring of sympathy and support?

Orville Willett, a former state senator and veteran of the Spanish War, had contracted leprosy while a soldier in the Philippines at the turn of the century, and was now quarantined by the state. Elsie chose isolation as well, refusing to leave her husband. 

San Francisco’s “isolation hospital” had refused to take Montana’s only leper. That city’s health officer, Dr. William C. Hassler, told reporters, “Every state should take care of its own patients.” So Mineral County decided to keep Willett on a farm a few miles outside of Alberton.

For a decade, Orville and Elsie Willett lived in isolation in a small cabin near Alberton. (Montana Historical Society Archives)

In an interview with Joseph Townsend, a Missoulian reporter in 1921, Willett said he believed he knew the exact day he contracted the disease. He was serving in the First United States Infantry in 1902 guarding prisoners in a compound in the Philippines, when he was assigned to burial duty. The body of a dead native “was covered in scales.”

He first noticed his own symptoms in 1904, and consulted physicians after a severe attack in 1906. But a diagnosis was elusive.

Orville continued to work at his job for the railroad and later was elected a two-term state senator from newly minted Mineral County. It was during that time he married Elsie. He recalled sitting in the Senate chambers “with a white spot, which is almost a sure indication of leprosy, in the center of my forehead … and three doctors sat in the same chamber and they let me marry the woman.”

Just months after the marriage, a correct diagnosis was made – he was told he had six months to live. His mind numb with the news, Willett decided the only answer was to commit suicide somewhere that his body “wouldn’t have to be touched, even to be buried.”

He even knew where he would do it – directing the reporter’s attention to a ledge of rocks on a nearby mountainside. “There is where I was going to die!”

Orville Willett

But, he said, it was Elsie’s “gentle influence” that convinced him not to go through with it and he “place(d) himself utterly into the care of his maker.”

Montana’s board of health pushed for Willett to receive the so-called chaulmoogra treatment, a variation on Chinese and Indian traditional medicine, using the oil from the seed of a tree to ease the symptoms.

But Orville said (based on his religious beliefs), “I would rather a thousand times fill a leper’s grave than to submit myself to a physician’s care. I will never submit to medical treatment.”

Such treatment, he believed, would be an affront to the teachings of the Bible. God, he said, “has the power and the will to heal the sick and cleanse the leper.”

With a $50 per month federal pension and about $100 from the county for monthly maintenance, the couple settled into a routine at the cabin, putting in a small garden, cutting firewood, and taking care of household chores. Their dog, “Dixie Lad,” was always at their side.

Friends and neighbors tried to convince the Willetts to try the medical treatments offered, but they refused. Orville, in a public letter in 1921, said “I cannot take medical treatment without forsaking my faith in the true and living God, and this is something that I will not do regardless of what demands the public may exact of me.”

Willett challenged efforts to force him into treatment, saying the government had no right to haul them “about the country contrary to our will and in direct violation of our rights as citizens.”

Six years later, though, Orville finally gave in. The Mineral Independent newspaper reported in 1927, “O. G. Willett, the Montana leper, in quarantine near Alberton, east of Superior, for the past 10 years, is now on his way to the leper colony at Carville, La.,” accompanied by his wife.

“Mrs. Willett, who, it is said, has never contracted the disease, plans to enter a sanitarium where she will be under observation and tests will be made to determine that her system is free from the disease. Before she left she said she hoped to be near her husband to give him all comfort possible, as she has hopes for his recovery.”

Orville Willett told the reporter, “I will eliminate all drugs, such as coffee, tea and tobacco, and also not use any animal products, which are poison to one in my condition. My diet will be sweet oranges, raw lettuce, cabbage and carrots. I will gradually eliminate all cooked foods and live exclusively on raw fruits and vegetables.”

Orville G. Willett died less than a year later, on Tuesday, January 10, 1928 at 6:10 p.m. at the United States leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana.

The cabin west of Alberton where the couple had been quarantined was destroyed by fire – possibly by arsonists – shortly after the Willetts left.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.