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The Strange Case of Christian Bertelmann of Kauai

The story of Ko‘olau (1862-1896), the Kekaha cowboy, who after being afflicted with Hansen’s Disease (known also as leprosy), fled to refuge in Kalalau Valley in 1892 to prevent authorities from deporting him to the leper colony on Moloka‘i, is well-documented in fact and fiction.

Ko‘olau’s story also involved a case of murder, for when Deputy Sheriff Louis Stolz went to Kalalau Valley in June 1893 to arrest him, Ko‘olau shot and killed Stolz.

But, the story of another Kaua‘i leper, legislator and rancher, Christian Bertelmann (1838-1895) of Pila‘a, is relatively unknown.

Sometime after 1886, the German-born Bertelmann contracted Hansen’s Disease, of which he was an exception, since the dreaded disease mostly struck down Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians.

Bertelmann’s family then smuggled him out of Kaua‘i in the disguise of a woman aboard a ship bound for Japan, where it was rumored that cures for leprosy had been successful.

However, his treatment there failed and he returned under cover to Kaua‘i and went back to his Pila‘a home, where his family hid him in a secret room.

He dared not go out during daytime, but would saddle a horse and ride across his pasture lands in the evenings.

Some nights he would pass by the neighboring Ewart family home and hear the Ewarts playing musical instruments.

Then he would tether his horse and sit and join their music by quietly playing his flute, the instrument he’d played when he’d once been a member of the Ewart family musical group.

On one of those nights, the Ewarts heard music accompanying them from outside.

It seemed awfully strange, and being curious as to the source of the mysterious flute playing, they went out and searched, but all they discovered was the place where Bertelmann had tied his horse.

They had no idea it was Bertelmann, for as far as they knew he had moved from Kaua‘i some time ago and had not returned.

After Bertelmann died he was discreetly buried on a hill near his home.

Bertelmann was survived by wife Susan Bertelmann and children Frank, Catherine, Helen and Christian Bertelmann.

  1. Wil Welsh September 6, 2020 2:38 pm Reply

    Hey, Hank! I love your stories and appreciate the research you put into them. This, like the Koolau story, invites movie treatment! Fascinating! As a side comment, Pilaa has long interested me. The first year I was on the island in 1965, I “discovered” that beautiful beach and ran across what I later learned was the remains of a Frank Sinatra/Toshiro Mafune war movie filmed there. The images and the pristine sea water are vivid in my mind! Best to you!

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