Jim Bradshaw: When Earl Long's mental state made news
Sixty years ago Louisiana and the nation watched with a combination of awe, incredulity, and amusement, a political episode that was bizarre even by the standards of Long-era Louisiana.
During the summer of 1959 newspaper front pages were filled daily with the tirades, tantrums, and shenanigans of Gov. Earl Long that caused him to twice be confined in mental institutions, and to briefly act as governor while he was an inmate in one of them.
The manic episodes, family members said, were the result of Long’s return to heavy drinking and taking an assortment of pills either to help him sleep or keep him awake. Long said that was humbug (in much saltier words).
He was always volatile and hot-headed, but reporters began to publicly hint at the governor’s overuse of alcohol as early as April, when the Associated Press reported the governor’s hijacking of a legislative budget hearing “with his bottle of Tichenor’s antiseptic on the table before him.”
But things really began to unravel in late May, when Long railed for more than an hour and a half and, the AP said, “poured out scathing criticism” on legislators and political enemies … “as he screamed into the House microphone in a stinging, stump-speaking style.” They noted that he drank from a glass filled with “what appeared to be grape juice” during the tirade.
Two days later, the governor’s wife, Blanche, announced that Long had been ordered to bed “for several days” and that he was suffering from exhaustion. One of the people helping to make that decision was Jesse Bankston, Louisiana’s director of hospitals, who thought Earl needed more than bed rest at the governor’s mansion.
He thought Long needed to be confined for psychiatric evaluation and that the confinement needed to be outside Louisiana, so that he could not use his powers as governor.
On Saturday, May 30, Earl was strapped to a gurney, put aboard an Air National Guard airplane, and flown to the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. The doctors were told that Earl had agreed to be admitted. They soon found out differently. The AP reported that Long “refused to cooperate with hospital authorities.” The Galveston Daily News said his refusal included “a couple of violent episodes.”
He threatened his wife with federal kidnaping charges, and court-appointed lawyers in Texas filed papers claiming he was taken to Texas against his will. Long himself signed the legal papers, “Earl K. Long, gov. in exile by force and kidnaping.”
The hearing June 16 on his petition for release, according to United Press International, was punctuated by Long’s outbursts against, among others, “the horse doctors” who were overseeing his treatment. When the judge tried to quiet him, Long said he was just trying to help his lawyers prove he was sane.
Before the ruling came down in Texas, however, Long made a deal with Blanche and with his nephew Sen. Russell Long that he would consent to being moved to the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans.
He was there one day before he reneged on his promise. He told Blanche he’d said he would go to Ochsner, but that he didn’t say how long he would stay. There was also a rumor, reported in the Alexandria Town Talk, that once the airplane was over Louisiana, Long planned to order the Louisiana National Guard pilot to take him to his farm in Winnfield, rather than New Orleans. It didn’t happen, but it sounds plausible.
When Earl reneged, Blanche had a friendly judge sign orders committing the governor to the Southeast State Mental Hospital in Mandeville. Once again, “a screaming, cursing Gov. Earl K. Long was hauled to a mental hospital.”
But this one was a state institution in Louisiana. While an inmate at Mandeville, Long called a meeting of the State Hospital Board and had its hand-picked members fire Bankston as state hospital director and appoint a new one, who, in turn, fired Dr. Charles Belcher, the superintendent of the hospital.
Belcher’s replacement saw no reason to continue to hold Long, nor did a friendly judge when the family tried to keep him confined.
The AP reported on June 26, “Gov. Earl K. Long swept out of a jammed courtroom a free man today — a complete victor over his family and state officials who committed him to a state mental hospital.
“Gov. Long immediately set up a temporary statehouse at the Great Southern Hotel … near Lake Pontchartrain. From room 221 in the hostelry, the governor is expected to drop the axe on political enemies.”
Which he did.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.