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The Truth About Two Walsh County Lepers


Last week, we heard the story about Dr. J.E. Engstad of Grand Forks, who stirred controversy by saying two lepers in Walsh County were being neglected by their neighbors, being left to die without human contact. Dr. Engstad, after making a medical visit, claimed Sakkarius Aardahl and John Ostland were suffering in a decomposing sod house 16 miles west of Edinburg that was like a “living tomb.”

The doctor reported that no one had visited the lepers for a period of two years; and that even Mr. Aardahl’s family, who lived but a quarter-mile distant, would not drop in to see him. Dr. Engstad claimed the lepers were doomed to “eat, sleep, and pass the long hours” in total isolation with “nothing ahead of them but death – death by inches.”

On this date in 1900, a Walsh County commissioner, Mr. George Shepherd, responded to the doctor’s statements. Shepherd said the doctor was “sadly misinformed . . . regarding the condition of the lepers in Walsh County.” Shepherd revealed that Mr. Aardahl’s wife visited her husband three times per day, delivering her home-cooked meals, for which the county paid her one dollar a day. Commissioner Shepherd stated that he personally visited the men once a month, and that the County Physician and a preacher from Park River also made regular calls at the lepers’ house.

Mr. Shepherd said the sod home had been leper Aardahl’s original house, adjacent to the wood-frame farmhouse where Aardahl’s wife and family still lived. Far from being a “living tomb,” the sod house was “a good building of its kind,” being fairly well lighted, cleanly white-washed, and completely weatherproof.

Walsh County had been providing full care for 51-year-old Aardahl for seven years, and allowed the younger leper to live in Aardahl’s sod-house, because no one else wanted him around. The county government defended its care for the lepers, but responded to the swirling controversy by building a new wooden house, 14 feet by 24 feet, at a cost of $159. There the elder man died in 1903. The younger leper lived longer, but his ultimate fate has been lost to history.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: “Those Lepers: A Walsh County Commissioner Takes Exceptions to Certain Statements,” Grand Forks Herald, February 18, 1900, p. 7.

“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; March 5, 1900, p. 400; March 7, 1900, p. 402; May 8, 1900, p. 421;

“Sakkarius Aardahl,” 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.