“Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”2 Kings 5:14, The Holy Bible, KJV
James read the telegram. He took a deep breath. This was going to be a challenge, for he had never treated nor even seen a single case of this particular disease. But, he had no choice. This poor man needed help, and it seemed he was the only one willing to be of service. It was in times like this that he was grateful for those who had sponsored his education. He would never regret coming back to the town that had helped him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. He would help them all, or die trying.
This is the story of a small West Virginia lumber town, a doctor given the task of a lifetime, and a foreigner plagued with a fatal affliction.
In 1881, eighteen-year-old James L. Cunningham, along with his parents and family, moved to Hacker Valley in Randolph County, West Virginia. James had finished his high school education in Ohio, and now he was teaching and passing on his knowledge to those in his new hometown. He taught school for seven years, but he never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor.
Ever since he was a child, he had known. At the age of two, James had almost died from a dangerously severe attack of the croup. He survived the ordeal only to be imprinted with a desire for the medical profession. In 1888, his dreams came true. A leading citizen of Hacker Valley, William Mace, provided the funds to send young James to medical school. He attended Baltimore University Medical College, and after completing his medical degree, returned to West Virginia and settled in the small town of Pickens, just a few miles from Hacker Valley.
Dr. James L. Cunningham, lovingly called “Doc”, started his family and his practice in Pickens. In 1894, “Doc” Cunningham was wed to Mary Roberts in the newly built Presbyterian Church. It was the first church erected in Pickens, and the good doctor and his bride were the first couple wed in the church. James and Mary had two daughters Ethel and Mabel, and they lived in a large house just behind the south side of Main Street.
“Doc” Cunningham did a lot for the community of Pickens during his 65 year long career. He delivered over 3,600 newborns, and help many a wounded lumberman with his injuries. But there were hardships that came and plagued the town. From measles and typhoid epidemics to famine and starvation, “Doc” and the town of Pickens saw their fair share of death and sadness. The doctor’s own daughter was a victim of the debilitating disease of Polio. But, “Doc” Cunningham’s greatest challenge would come down the B&O line to Pickens in 1906.
It was in 1906 that George Rashid arrived in Elkins, West Virginia. George’s story is one full of contradictions; a legend passed down as inconsistent folklore. Nevertheless, the following is a rough account of his travels from his home, across the Atlantic, to Maine and eventually West Virginia.
George had come to the United States from Syria landing in Waterville, Maine in 1902. He started work and was eventually joined by his wife. About two years after coming to America George began to develop sores and rashes on his face and arms, and they spread all over his skin. This immigrant was no stranger to the disease he now believed plagued him, for he had seen it back home in Syria. He continued work, however, wearing long sleeves and gloves to hide his condition from his coworkers. But despite his best efforts, those around him began to grow suspicious, and so George left. He began wandering throughout the country from Pennsylvania to Indiana to West Virginia.
George traveled from town to town in West Virginia from Enterprise to Clarksburg where he was supposedly hospitalized for three weeks. He then traversed to Richwood, Philippi, and finally Elkins where he was seen by a local doctor, Dr. W.W. “Ben” Golden. The doctor inspected George and the lesions on his skin eventually confirming the young man’s suspicion. The doctor’s official diagnosis – tubercular leprosy.
George knew that as soon as word spread of his disease that he would be in trouble and that he would never be able to reach home once more. This young immigrant held to the belief that if he could just reach his native shores and bathe in the Jordan River, he would be healed. And so George went on the run, escaping Elkins and fleeing on the railroad. In July of 1906, authorities in Cumberland Maryland were alerted to be on the lookout for a young man who had boarded the morning train on the Western Maryland Railroad just south of Elkins.
George was soon apprehended and forced into containment in an old wooden boxcar. Through the dark nights and the hot stuffy days of July, the Syrian leper was locked up until railroad and health officials could decide what to do with him. Eventually, it was decided that he would be returned to Randolph County, to Elkins from where he had fled.
He was taken from Baltimore County to Camden Station, and on to Parkersburg, West Virginia where flocks of curious citizens were reported to have stood outside the depot to get a look at the “Syrian Leper”. From Parkersburg to Clarksburg and finally, to Elkins, George kept riding the rails never knowing where his new home would be. Passed on like unwanted goods, George was then sent to the most remote section of the B&O line in Pickens, West Virginia.
Early one August morning, at around 6:30 am, the train carrying George Rashid stopped about two miles outside of Pickens at a place called Hanging Rock. The train was met by local Pickens doctor James L. “Doc” Cunningham, who had been alerted to the situation via telegram. “Doc” had been practicing in Pickens for about 12 years and had been a B&O surgeon since 1900. It fell on him to take care of the man aboard this train.
“Doc” helped the railroad workers unload a tent and supplies from the train and set them up not far from the banks of the Buckhannon River for the stranger’s new residence. “Doc” Cunningham examined George’s leprous wounds and began treating them with chaulmoogra oil. He also discovered that George not only suffered from leprosy, but also from an untreatable critical heart condition.
George lived in his tent for a while until a small house was built for him with an actual bed and woodstove. Living in Pickens, he had a number of caretakers and guards. One guard recollected that the leper had once asked him what he would do if he tried to run away. The guard, Walter McCord, replied that he would probably shoot him in the foot. George responded that he would not run away, but if he promised to kill him, then he would run away.
George’s last caretaker, James Thomas, took great care of George even giving him a fancy suit, much to the delight of the sickly man. Mr. Thomas’s daughter, Mary, prepared meals for George every day. They were delivered to his window on wooden trays which were destroyed after every meal. George’s favorite meal was chicken, and it was often said that the only way he would let someone take his picture was if they brought him chicken. The B&O railroad let George’s wife ride the line down to Pickens to visit him on weekends. According to reports, she lived in Elkins with one or two of George’s brothers.
The citizens of Pickens were not always happy with the fact that they were living in close proximity to a leper. In fact, there was once a large uprising of men who were set on George’s removal. They marched from a local saloon right down to “Doc” Cunningham’s office and told him what they thought about being burdened with this foreigner. “Doc” simply pulled out a pistol and told them to get out, silencing the mob.
Other citizens of the town were concerned that George was bathing in the Buckhannon River upstream from them and contaminating the water. The fact was that George never bathed in the river. He was always aware of what he did and any action that might put someone else in danger. It is said that he never even touched the fence that was erected around his quarters for fear that someone else might touch it too. When children came around, as they often did to toss him some of his favorite apples, he would yell “unclean” to be sure they never came close.
George’s stay in Pickens would not be an extended one. Early on the morning of October 20, 1906, George’s caretaker, Mr. Thomas, went to rouse him from slumber, but there was no response. Thomas went to fetch “Doc” Cunningham, and the two men opened the door to the leper’s abode to find that the young man had died. Although his disease had progressed to his fingers and toes, George did not die from that which plagued his skin, but from his heart condition. It seemed that death had finally set George free.
Undertakers, Zinn and Morton, were summoned and George was buried not far from his house in Pickens. Lime was poured into the grave to appease the fears of the local citizens, and two stones were placed atop the earth to mark the grave. Today, visitors to Pickens can still visit the grave site of the Syrian Leper, George Rashid. They can wonder at the life of this young man who brought to West Virginia the only recorded case of leprosy in the state.
“Doc” Cunningham remained a friend to George throughout his stay in Pickens. He showed the same kindness and care to this young immigrant that he showed to all of his patients. Indeed “Doc” was known statewide for his long doctoral career, for his complete devotion to the sick, and for his stint with the Pickens Leper. Continuing his practice in Randolph county, “Doc” worked for 65 years, delivering his last baby when he was 94 years old. On his 100th birthday, he received congratulations from senators, congressmen, the governor, and from many of the people whose lives he had saved. Looking back over his long career, “Doc” must have been thankful for those who had believed in his potential and sent him to college, those who had allowed him to help infants, mothers, lumberman, and even a leper.
Today, the town of Pickens is still filled with history. Many downtown structures, family residences, and original churches are still standing. If only their walls could talk, they’d tell of this town’s long history and the rumors they once heard of the strange Syrian man living just outside of town.
Take a trip to Pickens, West Virginia and let the town tell you its story. Visit the depot at the end of main street, the old Opera House, the Pickens Hotel that survived the fire of 1945, the Presbyterian Church where “Doc” was married, and the grave of George Rashid, the “Pickens Leper.”
FYI: the town of Pickens hosts an annual Maple Syrup Festival in March of every year making it the perfect time to visit the town!
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- Sheets, L. Wayne. “The Pickens Leper.” Goldenseal, Fall (1997).
- Nelson, Arnold, Nelson, Rosemary Smith, & Smith, Ozella. Haven in the Hardwood. Parsons, West Virginia: McClain Printing Company, 1971.
- “Famed Pickens Doctor will be 100 Septmeber 1.” Record Delta, August 21, 1963.
- “Eye-Witnesses Tell Leper Story.” Record Delta, August 21, 1963.
- Irons, J.C. (M.D.). “The West Virginia Medical Journal,” no.1 (1906): pg. 21.
- Sheets, L. Wayne. “Pickens Leper.” The West Virginia Encyclopedia. December 08, 2015. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1850