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Uncle Earl—Crazy 'bout the Northshore

by Webb Williams

In 1960, Earl Long was stumping for Congress in his “last hurrah” election.

“As governor of this state,” he said in one desperate, memorable speech on the northshore, “I’ve tried to be the governor of all the people—and not just a handful of the people. Now, had I done that, I’d be the finest man that the (Times) Picayune and Leander Perez and the scandalmongers have ever known. Instead of you hearin’ about stripteasers, instead of you hearin’ about call girls, instead of you hearin’ about Uncle Earl crazy,” (audience laughs as he pauses and laughs) “I want you to take this occasion to take a good look at Uncle Earl. If I was crazy in Galveston, if I was crazy in Mandeville, I’m still crazy.”

I was on the phone with an old friend, noted author Jason Berry, who recounted his first personal recollection of Earl Long. “Watching your governor go crazy on TV is what I would call a D.L.E.—a Deep Louisiana Experience.”

Jason recalled his dad, Jason Berry, Sr., whom I remember as a true southern gentleman with a charming wit: “In 1959, when I was 10, my father called me into the living room. He pointed at the TV news: ‘Son, I want you to watch history-in-the-making. Look at that man. He's your governor. His name's Earl K. Long. Look out now! Three men are holding him down in a wheelchair. Can you believe that? They're dragging him into a mental hospital in Mandeville and Channel 6 is bleeping out his curse words!’”

Berry boiled the whole Earl Long irony down into a few sentences: “Here was a man who had a psychotic breakdown on the floor of the Louisiana legislature, bounced between two mental hospitals in less than a month, got himself sprung out—only to cavort with a young woman who literally symbolized sin. That man then announced his candidacy for Congress! And he WON! He won the House seat in a hard-fought election during the dog days of the summer of 1960, in the middle of Louisiana, the Pentecostal heartlands! Not until Bill Clinton survived impeachment would a politician prevail over such epic damage in the national media, where headlines had called Earl ‘the crazy governor.’”

While Jason Berry’s fascination with Earl Long culminated in his tour de force one-man play, the wildly sardonic “Earl Long in Purgatory,” Mandeville’s own Jack McGuire, former city councilman and political historian, has amassed a most impressive library of documents, films, memorabilia and correspondence relating to Earl Long’s era. At the behest of McGuire’s father, who was chief administrative officer under New Orleans Mayor “Chep” Morrison, Jack began a study of the Long campaign as a school project in his senior year at Newman.

With his vast, personal knowledge of the events of that time and his incredible attention to detail, he took issue with the outrageous re-writing of history in the fictional movie farce, “Blaze,” and cited inaccuracies in a biography, “Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics,” by Michael Kurtz and Morgan Peoples.

McGuire’s book, “Uncle Earl Deserved Better,” was praised by Earl’s nephew, Russell Long, in a foreword that said, “Jack McGuire’s exhaustive study sets the record straight. It is well-written and thoroughly researched.” He also went on to say, “My Uncle Earl was as mortal as any man. And yet I believe he stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of men who have occupied the governor’s office since Louisiana became a state.” He felt Uncle Earl was “a sincere man of the people.”

Jack says, solemnly, “I don’t believe he was crazy. I believe that he had a collapse that was brought on by the strain of the legislative session and his attempts to stop the purge of black voters from the registration rolls.”

Long had introduced amendments to bills that would come to the legislature in the 1959 session that would have, in effect, grandfathered-in registered voters who had been registered for a certain period of years. It was designed to prevent the purges of black voters that were being undertaken throughout the state by the White Citizens Council. Thousands of blacks were stricken from the registration rolls for minor errors or the way that the forms were filled out and their names signed. In one instance in Washington Parish, about 3,000 blacks were removed from the registration rolls after the White Citizens Council was successful there.

During the legislative session, Long suffered a collapse that was brought on when he started drinking heavily, which he really had done only in moderation for some years. He had also started smoking again, though he had stopped after a heart attack in 1950. He was not sleeping, and he was obsessed with the idea of trying to circumvent the then one-term gubernatorial limit in the state constitution. He floated the idea that he would resign as governor, Lieutenant Governor Frazar would become governor, and then Earl would run and not succeed himself—he would be succeeding Frazar!

That would have worked out fine, Long thought, but then the democratic state central committee decided that he would have to resign prior to the election. Whoa, Earl said—he wasn’t willing to give up the office. He began taking some pills to try to help him sleep. Those, in combination with the drinking and uppers and downers and everything else, brought on the infamous collapse and breakdown on the floor of the legislature in 1959.

He launched into a profane tirade, a terrible embarrassment to him and the state, and the next day he appeared before a joint session of the legislature, fully intending to apologize for his actions the day before. But, baited by Willie Rainach and the segregation leaders, he lost his temper again, going into another tirade attacking his opponents and telling vulgar stories that were totally inappropriate.

Northshore native Jesse Bankston, Louisiana’s director of hospitals, believed that Long needed treatment immediately. He brought attendants from the Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville to the Governor’s Mansion to help restrain the governor. A family member, Dr. Arthur Long, was called to the governor’s mansion, and they literally held him prisoner in his bedroom for two days while they considered what to do.

His wife Blanche, who was born in Covington, was convinced that trying to run for governor again would kill him, because his health had deteriorated so badly. Senator Russell Long, his nephew, was concerned that it would be an embarrassment to the Long family. They decided, on Bankston’s advice, that he should be taken to a facility out of Louisiana, where he could not exercise his powers of the office of governor.

He was given injections and sedatives, strapped to a gurney, put in the back of a station wagon, taken to the airport in Baton Rouge and flown to Galveston on an Air National Guard plane. They took him to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.

Dr. Titus Harris, the head of the clinic, was led to believe that the governor was coming as a willing patient, but he soon realized that was unquestionably not the case. He said that he believed that Long had suffered what was, in effect, a nervous breakdown from stress and overwork.

At a therapy hearing after he had been in Galveston almost two weeks, Long told his wife and nephew that unless they cooperated with him and allowed him to return to Louisiana, he was going to file several federal charges of kidnapping against them, because they had taken him across the state line against his will. Senator Long was sufficiently concerned about this that he discussed the matter with J. Edgar Hoover, explaining to the FBI chief that he felt that the whole affair was merely a family matter and that the federal government should not get involved in it.

Long, acting as his own attorney because he had no resources available, got a court-appointed attorney to file the papers for him to petition for a habeas corpus hearing. Habeas corpus literally produces the body of the person in question to show cause why he is being held, so that no one should be illegally confined.
Driving home his case, Uncle Earl signed his legal petition “Earl K. Long, Governor of Louisiana, in exile by force and kidnapping.”

Earl told Blanche and Russell that if they would agree to let him leave John Sealy Hospital, he would go to Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans for treatment. They all agreed to that arrangement. He flew from Galveston to New Orleans, was checked into Ochsner, tested, and spent the night. The next morning, at breakfast with Mrs. Long, Earl casually remarked that he thought he would go rest at their “Pea Patch” Farm in Winnfield, where he had recuperated after he had a heart attack in 1950. He certainly did not intend to go back to Baton Rouge at that time. Mrs. Long said, “But Earl, you promised that you would come to Oschner Foundation hospital for treatment.”

He said, “That I did and I’m here, but I didn’t say how long I‘d stay.”

Mrs. Long was very alarmed about what he might do next and what actions he might take against those responsible for moving him to Texas. She phoned ahead to the coroner in Baton Rouge, Dr. Chester Williams, and told him to start drawing up the papers to have Long legally committed to a state institution. She went ahead of him in another car, signed the papers at the courthouse, and had Judge LeBlanc issue the order for him to be examined.

Long, meanwhile, left the hospital in a state police car and was intercepted outside of Baton Rouge by six sheriff’s deputies who told Long they would have to escort him to Baton Rouge. They got behind the wheel of his car, and instead took him to the courthouse basement where an appalling scene ensued. Long refused to get out of the car to be put into a sheriff’s vehicle.

The deputies dragged the governor of Louisiana, kicking and screaming, out of the car. They punched him, knocked him to the ground, and put him in their car. He was examined by the coroner, who was not a psychiatrist, and by a psychiatrist who had never met him. The psychiatrist rendered a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, which was quite commonly used at that time to commit anyone for any reason.
He was taken to Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, where he was admitted under the commitment order. While he was treated there, the acting director of the hospital, Dr. Charles Belcher, later indicated that they had not made any final diagnosis of his true condition.

Long secured his release from Southeast Louisiana Hospital by having his attorney from Hammond, Joe Arthur Sims, an old friend and supporter, represent him. They again filed a petition for a habeas corpus hearing that was set in the judicial district court in Covington—at Covington Junior High School, later Schoen Middle School. This was the temporary courthouse while what we now call the “old” courthouse on East Boston Street was being built.

Long devised a clever strategy. Through Sims, he called a meeting of the state hospitals board to convene there a half hour before the court hearing on his habeas corpus petition. He also called Lieutenant Governor Frazar; William J. Cleveland, president pro tem of the state Senate; and Robert Angelle, speaker of the House of Representatives, to meet him there in Covington.

Was Governor Long calling all the shots? Absolutely. He was in total command of the situation. Sound like a smart strategy? Yes, indeed. There was nothing crazy about the way he maneuvered this drama at all. Joe Arthur Sims was not the architect of this—Earl was. Sims acted on his orders on his behalf. In fact, at one point, Earl even gave Sims messages to people promising the governor would soon be back at the helm of state government.

Uncle Earl hated his confinement. “They had to unlock ten doors to reach me,” he said. “A dungeon in hell was no worse than Mandeville, and the food is bare as a cupboard in a poor man’s house.”

He was in Southeast Hospital in Mandeville for about eight days. After a special meeting of the state hospitals board, while Long had all the authority he needed to dismiss Bankston, Long said he wanted to be sure that no one would challenge what he did. He had Bankston contacted by Joe Arthur Sims. Cleveland, Angelle, and Frazar met with Bankston the night before the hearing, requesting that Bankston order Earl’s release. Bankston declined to do so. He was still a dear friend of Long’s, and felt he still needed treatment; he sincerely worried about the effects of all the commotion on Earl’s health.

Was Bankston under any pressure? No, he was not, according to McGuire. He was a very honorable man who felt—like Mrs. Long and Russell—that they were acting in Earl’s best interest.

But Uncle Earl disagreed with that sentiment. So he had the hospital board dismiss Bankston as director, and then appointed a Long friend who was also a physician as the new director. That individual then dismissed Dr. Charles Belcher as the acting superintendent of Southeast Louisiana Hospital and named a new one. Not surprisingly, the newly appointed gentlemen then determined that Governor Long was in fine shape and that there was no need to hold him any longer. To make sure that this stuck, Long had the dismissal of Bankston signed by the lieutenant governor, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House. He had all his bases covered.

At the hearing before Judge Jones in Covington, young Jack McGuire was in the courtroom. “I recall there was a minor criminal case that had to be disposed of first, and then they called the case of Governor Long’s petition for a hearing of habeas corpus to show cause why he should be held at all,” Jack remembers.

Technically, this was not a sanity hearing—it was a hearing to determine whether or not the state had the legal authority to hold him. Long’s attorney, Joe Arthur Sims, read the order dismissing Bankston; he read the order appointing his replacement; he read the order dismissing Dr. Belcher; and he read the order of naming his replacement. He recognized these men in court as the new officials in charge of the hospitals department and Southeast Louisiana Hospital.”

Jack was excited. “It was masterful. I remember Sims contending that there was no cause to hold Governor Long, that he was not insane and should be released. Sims then moved to dismiss all proceedings involving Governor Long. State Attorney General Jack Gremillon agreed, admitted that the state had no case, and joined the motion to dismiss—and Long was free.”

A sheriff’s deputy from Covington was sent by St. Tammany Sheriff Andrew “Red” Erwin to pick up the governor and bring him to meet the sheriff and several other people for breakfast. “They had breakfast at the Green Springs Motel on Military Road in Covington. But Earl didn’t eat what was put in front of him at the Green Springs Motel breakfast,” Jack said with a smile. “He ate off everybody else’s plate—but only because he was afraid that someone would try to poison him. After everything else that had happened to the man, his fear was quite rational.”

The newly-freed Earl Long moved to the Pine Manor Motel in Covington to rest for a few days. The site is now an Exxon station across from Office Depot on Highway 190. On July 2, 1959, a “mystery woman” in veils visited him there. She was Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr.

Long was never really a ladies’ man, but after Blanche had him committed in Galveston and Mandeville, he openly flaunted his friendship with Blaze. It seems, however, that he was more out to embarrass his wife than anything else. Longtime friend, Senator B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn of Washington Parish, doubted that Earl was in love with the woman. “I think he just had his problems and, evidently, Blaze was real nice to him—kindness helps anyone when they’re kinda’ down and out.” Her book included a disclaimer that it was a “novel,” which by definition is a work of fiction.

I agreed with Jack’s contention that it is a shame that the accomplishments of the man’s lifetime have been swept aside by most people because of his breakdown.

“Well, you know, people say he was crazy, but what you really need to understand is (that) here was a man under great strain trying to advance the then-unpopular cause of civil rights. He drank heavily under that pressure, had a breakdown, and although he was the governor of the state, he was held incommunicado—a prisoner in the governor’s mansion– by members of his own family. He was flown to Galveston, Texas against his will, stuck with needles and sedated. He had to effect his own release, he returned to Louisiana and was arrested in a courthouse basement, pummeled and knocked to the ground by sheriff’s deputies, and then finds out he has been ordered by his own wife to the state mental hospital that he built—heck, that’s pressure!”

McGuire recalled Earl’s comments in a speech after those tumultuous times—just before Uncle Earl’s last hurrah in his successful 1960 run for Congress. He won that election, but died of heart failure 10 days later. “You know,” he said, “that I’m not crazy—and I’ve never been crazy, but let me tell you this, if you had done to you what they done to me it would be enough to drive you crazy!”


Copyright 2003, M&L Publishing, all rights reserved.