ARTICLES & ESSAYS

In His Own Hand: The Correspondence of Edmond G. Landry from Carville, Louisiana

By Claire Manes

 

An October 3, 1924, letter to Dr. W.F. Carstens, the chief health officer for Iberia parish reads in part, "Dr. O.E. Denney Medical Officer in Charge of the United States Marine Hospital #66. . . authorizes me to have Mr. E.G. Landry, leper,1 33, male, married, sent forward. Signed Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the Louisiana State Board of Health" (Landry, medical records). The letter initiated a week of official correspondence leading ultimately to Edmond G. Landry's voluntary incarceration in the national leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.

On October 10, Landry, accompanied by his father and paternal uncle, left his home, his wife, his two children (ages two and five), and his mother-in-law for the national leprosarium. According to official correspondence during the week of October 3-10, Edmond Landry went "anxiously" and "voluntarily" (Landry, medical records). His own letters to his family do not attest to that same anxious interest in his fate. I do believe, however, that he went voluntarily; to do otherwise would have meant to be interdicted and perhaps shackled. I can only imagine his emotional state on that October day, but he must have gone with his eyes wide open, knowing that he would probably spend the remainder of his days in voluntary incarceration in Carville. His brother, after all, had died at the leprosarium only eight months earlier, and Edmond had been diagnosed with leprosy two and a half years prior to his admission to the hospital. During his final year and a half at home, he had been deemed totally disabled and was perhaps bedridden. His daughter, who was five years old when he entered Carville remembers, "I just know he had been sick for a long time" (Manes).

Edmond Landry was my grandfather. He died at Carville in December 1932, thirteen years before I was born. I grew up with silence surrounding him. I knew that he had "died in a hospital" and that he had had leprosy, a truth I learned painfully when I was nine or ten. However, the truth that I absorbed most keenly was that we did not talk about him. On the few occasions when I ventured to ask about him, I would experience a silence filling the room, and I would hear the same mantra repeated, "He died of kidney disease in a hospital."

Even when I became an adult, we did not talk about grandpa, and today I often still resort to euphemisms and circumlocutions when I speak to strangers about him. However, in 1998, seventeen years after his wife, my grandmother, died, I began a deliberate study of my grandfather's life. I examined a collection of letters that had been in my immediate family for twenty-one years—a collection left to us by Edmond's brother Albert who also died in Carville, as did all of Edmond's brothers and sisters. When I first read the letters, I was captivated. My grandfather began to live for me. His letters from Carville were short, the longest being six and a half handwritten half sheets of paper.2 A first reading revealed them as simple—complaining about food, talking about his work, acknowledging over and over that "things are the same here," but they were my grandfather's story, in his own hand, in his own voice. They revealed to me the grandfather I had always yearned to know.

That 1998 experience led to my study with Dr. Marcia Gaudet at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, to an appreciation of the richness of this narrative material, and to a realization that grandpa's story had broader implications than simply satisfying my long held curiosity. I thus began a more committed journey to know this man whose absence had shaped my life.3 This article examines some of those letters in an attempt to recover the life of Edmond G. Landry as he told it during his eight years and two months in Carville, Louisiana. I do this not simply as Edmond's granddaughter, but as a scholar who hopes to illuminate this one man's life as he constructed it in a context that was both isolating and stigmatizing.

This article will examine Edmond's performative narrative, told in the primary way available to him, letters written in his own hand without any expectation that they would endure. These letters give immediacy to Edmond's lived experience and enable me as a student of his letters to examine the life he built and the way he described it. This account contributes to the scholarship that has already been done on Carville by Marcia Gaudet, Zachary Gussow, and other scholars, by looking at the way one man shaped his life in Carville in a period when there was no successful treatment for leprosy, and when he as a patient had been diagnosed as "suffering from a disability which is probably permanent in nature" (Landry, medical records). I intend to "think with" the letters as Arthur W. Frank explains in his book The Wounded Storyteller: Body Illness and Ethic. Frank notes that thinking with a story "takes the story as already complete [and] experience[s] it [as] affecting one's own life and . . . find[ing] in that effect a certain truth of one's own life" (1995:23).

Allesandro Duranti, in Rethinking Context, affirms the necessity of paying attention to the context of a narrative. The primary context of these letters as I understand them is the United States Public Health Services Hospital in Carville, a total institution administered by the United States Public Health system and serviced by the religious order, the Daughters of Charity. This total institution was built around the stigma and mystery of leprosy, a mildly contagious condition that in the early twentieth century evoked virulent fear and prejudice in a curious public. The letters indicate that my grandfather's life was contextualized by his separation from family, his presence in the hospital, and the anonymity that it encouraged. However, those same letters indicate that his identity was not controlled by that context. His letters show a man who continued to direct his life with the limited choices available to him. As such, his letters could be considered what Hilde Lindemann Nelson, in her text Damaged Identities, calls a counterstory, for they represent a man telling his own story in his own words, not succumbing to the attitudes, prejudices, or stories that were prevalent about leprosy patients in the early twentieth century.

While Edmond spent the last eight years of his life in Carville, Louisiana, he maintained contact with his family through their visits to him, his two visits home, and his correspondence with his wife, parents, and siblings. His thirty-eight letters from Carville represent an incomplete collection (most of the letters to his wife have been destroyed), but they are his presentation of himself in his own hand. They are from a man who wrote despite the fact that he, as he expressed it, did not always feel like it, got the blues when he did write, and put off writing when he did not know how to answer questions from his family. The letters represent a man who desired to maintain contact with the family that refused to ignore or forget him, isolated as he was in a military hospital for the treatment of leprosy.

Each letter is unique in its own right, and all the letters cumulatively present a picture of Edmond Landry's life as he recorded it. For the purpose of this article, however, I have chosen to pay particular attention to his first extant letter home and to relate it to others in the collection. I have selected the first letter because it is the first extant letter in the Carville collection; it is one of the longest, and its contents cover themes that are present in other shorter letters. In that sense it seems to be a prologue to Edmond Landry's life in Carville. The letter dated June 5, 1925, begins as all of them do, "Dear Folks," but it ends a bit more effusively than most, "Love and kisses to all, as ever, Edmond." The letter reads in part:

Received Amelie's letter today and was glad to hear from her. I prefer to receive your letters on Friday so I can answer them right away instead of the following Friday. . . .

I received the box of peaches yesterday and it is useless for me to say that they were enjoyed. They are not so big but they are delicious. I gave a few out but kept most for me as they are well preserved. Many thanks for same. . . .

I had gone to the hospital to see Alex who is very low and his friends, mostly all, went back on him and he takes it hard to be without visitors. . .

Last night I ran out of news and went to bed leaving this open in case that I would think of anything else. . . .

Well I must clean my monkey cage for inspections so will have to close.

Love and kisses to all, as ever, Edmond.

Reflecting on this first letter, I discover several strands that recur in other letters and deserve attention here. Those themes include: grandpa's identity, his accommodations in Carville, correspondence with his family, compassion for others, and food from home.

Grandpa's signature simply but significantly identifies him by his given name, "Edmond," rather than as "Gabe Michael," his Carville name. Although patients at that time were encouraged to use assumed names, my grandfather never used his in correspondence with his family. Similarly my mother recalls that my grandmother, Edmond's wife, always addressed her letters to Edmond G. Landry, not to Gabe Michael. He maintained his identity despite his condition, and he saw no reason to hide it when he used the United States Mail system. (Since this article was written I have discovered one envelope on which my grandfather uses his alias in the return address.) In correspondence with his family he remained "As ever, Edmond."

His choice of signature is important; so is his comment about his accommodations. In thinking with this letter, I am struck by his closing paragraph, "Well I must clean my monkey cage for inspection so will have to close." For me the two words "monkey cage" leap off the page. They reflect a life that is trapped and on display, in a cage which offers little promise of viable escape.

Edmond calls his cell-like accommodations not simply a cage, but a monkey cage, as though he felt not only trapped but under observation like a laboratory monkey. The description fit. He was cleaning the cage for inspections, and patients were regularly the subjects of a variety of experimental treatments both sanctioned and unsanctioned. A booklet prepared by Julia Elwood for the hospital's centennial notes that prior to successful treatment in the 1940s, management of Hansen's disease (the preferred term for leprosy) included "intensified studies in chaulmoogra (the primary treatment in the 30s) . . . injections of a variety of drugs, proteins, glandular extracts, serums, antitoxins, plant extracts and vaccinations. Doctors tried heat treatment, x-rays, fever therapy, fat free diets, milk injections and transfusions of blood plasm (sic)" (1994: 34).

Patients were not only subject to experimentation like laboratory animals; they were subject to scrutiny, curiosity, and media hype that undoubtedly could make them feel like zoo animals. In the late 1920s a patient at the hospital was tried for murder. The occasion gave rise to the dilemma of how to try him and yet protect the judge and jury from presumed contamination. Plans were made to set up an isolation booth in the courtroom, protecting those in attendance from his disease, but making the accused a caged spectacle on view by the fearful curious public (National Hansen's Disease Center archives).

Monkey cage described grandpa's immediate accommodations. In another letter dated January 11, 1926, he calls the larger accommodations of Carville itself, "truly a leper's place" and in a letter on February 16, 1927, he acknowledges that he is far away from home and in a place that "[I] have to like with all its disadvantages as much as I could want to be away from here."

This poignant reference to an abiding homesickness explains perhaps the struggles that grandpa experienced when facing the task of corresponding with his family. As he notes twice in the June 1925 letter, he was always glad to hear from family. While correspondence from family was always welcomed, writing home was problematic. Even in this first extant letter, one of his newsiest, he notes, "Last night I ran out of news and went to bed leaving this open in case that I would think of anything else." In subsequent letters "anything else" becomes harder to find, as most subsequent letters are shorter than this one. More and more he remarks in one way or the other, "there is nothing new here and I am feeling the same" (May 7, 1926).

Deeper, however, than the paucity of news is the depression that letter writing engenders. In August 1927 he notes, "I received several letters from Aunt A. which I never answered but God know[s] I like to hear from them and mean to write but what is there for me to tell them that they have not hear[d] of through you all. And if I want to get a real good case of hard blue I just got to sit down to write a letter and as I said before this is also one reason for my not writing oftener" (8 August 1927).

Letter writing also raised other issues, specifically how to answer questions that he did not care to answer. In the letter just quoted, Edmond addresses that issue as well as he explains, "I tried to answer Mamma's question [about making his Easter duties] by not answering it."4

A final dimension of correspondence indicates that in writing and receiving letters, he could somehow control and separate his two worlds, home and hospital. He notes that "I prefer to receive your letters on Friday so I can answer them right away instead of the following Friday." I have puzzled over that sentence because there seems to be no evidence that letter writing was restricted to any particular day and time. A friend suggested that grandpa controls and separates his life in this statement. He has both a life and work in Carville during the week, but he makes weekends his time and place for correspondence with family.5

Although Edmond acknowledges the difficulty of living in a place such as Carville with a stigma such as leprosy, his letter of June 1925 also reveals an abiding concern for his fellow patients. This characteristic prevailed throughout his life in Carville. Stanley Stein in the book Alone No Longer (1963), his personal memoirs of life in Carville, characterized my grandfather as "the only altruistic character I had so far met at Carville [a man who had] a desire to work for the common good. . . . He was the man who had founded the patient's canteen and was managing it without salary" (1963: 53). The June 25 letter attests that this altruism existed from Edmond's earliest days at the hospital. He says, "I had gone to the hospital to see Alex who is very low and his friends mostly all went back on him and he takes it hard to be without visitors. I general[ly] call on him everyday."

In that same letter he writes about having his pants cleaned and pressed by a fellow patient. "I had given them to a new man to wash so as to help him out, as he had no money."

This concern for his fellow patients seems to transcend his own inner demons, of which there were many. Two letters written only days apart in February of 1928 represent both his deep personal despair and his abiding willingness to "be of service." The first letter to the United States Veteran's Bureau inquires, "If a patient in this hospital, rated total and permanent on account of leprosy would abscond from the hospital [or die] would [his wife and two children] continue to receive compensation?" (medical records, 22 February 1928). Yet a week after that tellingly disturbing letter that seems to express a desire to escape or commit suicide, he wrote to Dr. O.E. Denney, the Medical Officer in Charge, about an upcoming medical conference in New Orleans and offered, "to go to New Orleans to demonstrate manifestations of this disease to visiting Doctors there." He puts his offer in terms of service, "if I can be of any service at the convention. . . I'll. . . be more than glad to volunteer" (medical records, 29 February 1928).

The service that Grandpa manifests in these letters was recognized by others at Carville. An unsigned eulogy at his death reads in part that "[he] gave freely of his time and money . . . [his] heart was equally wide open . . . without distinction upon the just and the unjust" (Landry Manes collection).

Grandpa was apparently a caring albeit an often-depressed man, but he was also a man who loved to eat, especially food from home. According to his correspondence he on occasions received peaches, candy, an Easter egg, cake, and chicken, which he usually ate with friends. One letter recounts that he, Eddie, and Helen "ate the whole chicken by ourselves except two sandwiches which we gave to a blind boy and a crippled one" (Landry, 16 February 1927). Another time he shared his food with "two kids [who] mopped up on mutton" (Landry, 7 May 1926). There were occasional drawbacks with food from home as one letter notes, "We enjoyed the chicken and cake very much but the chicken as good as it tasted sure did make us sick" (Landry, undated). Food from home, even when it made him sick, seemed preferable to the hospital fare which "was no count" (Landry, 10 October 1925).

His comments about food in this first letter and throughout his correspondence from Carville act as a thread that links together the other themes I have tried to surface. Food was a pleasure in itself, a warm and welcome contact with home, a reason for correspondence with family, and an opportunity to share with friends and acquaintances.

A story that has a prologue benefits by an epilogue as well. For me an undated letter from my grandfather serves as that epilogue and as a fit conclusion to this study. The letter is simple, forthright about his sufferings: swollen legs, pressure in his chest, earache, toothache, and kidney problems from which he died, but other elements in the letter are far more striking than his litany of ills. In that short letter Edmond Landry appears as a man who has constructed a meaningful life in a meaningless environment. He is grounded in his existence, alive to the simple pleasures of his life, and more importantly he has achieved a rough peace with his fate. He writes, "Dear Folks, Just a few lines to let you know that I am feeling allright. Have been going out for a walk every day this week. This afternoon I walked to my house in the back. On my way back I stopped at 41 house [the address]–my place–39 house Eddie's to listen to radio and at Val's room as he had missed me at hospital. I don't feel tired. My legs are stronger and don't swell much . . . .It is getting cold to nite. Hope it clears up tomorrow. . . Hope all of you are well. Love to all. As ever, Edmond."

Edmond Landry spent eight years and two months isolated from home and family, but in that time in his own hand he sketched out a life that struggled to reconcile his fate. I believe that this simple undated letter attests to that. He remained as ever, Edmond.

Notes

1. The terms "leper" and "leprosy" are painful and odious words for those who suffer from Hansen's disease (the preferred term for the condition erroneously called leprosy). However, Edmond Landry lived at the leprosarium in Carville before the designation Hansen's disease was even conceived. It was "leprosy" that incarcerated him, and where such designations are needed for historical accuracy, I have used them.

2. A much longer letter to Edmond's wife was recently discovered. While it adds to the dynamics of the couple's relationship, it does not invalidate the information in this article.

3 This paper was first presented at the Louisiana Folklore Conference in Lafayette, La., in 2003. There have been some changes since then. Further research has resulted in the completion of my dissertation on the Landry Family letters, and the archives mentioned as being in the possession of the Daughters of Charity in Carville, Louisiana, are now in the community's archives in St. Louis, Missouri.

4. Easter duties refer to the requirement by the Catholic Church that members, under pain of mortal sin, go to confession and receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season. The family, especially the mother, was apparently devoutly Catholic and no doubt the fact that Edmond had apparently not made his Easter duties would have been of much concern to his mother.

5. I owe special thanks to David Breaux, my companion and reader, for this observation.

Note that following Hurricane Katrina in 20015, the archives for the Daughters of Charity were moved to the headquarters of the Daughters of Charity in Bethesda, Md. Some of the material was also lost in the hurricane.

Sources

Archives. National Hansen's Disease Center. Unpublished collection in the possession of the Daughters of Charity, Carville, Louisiana.

Durante, Alessandro and Charles Goodwin. 1997. Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elwood, Julia, ed. 1994. Known Simply to the World as Carville—100 Years. Carville, La: Department of Health and Human Services. U.S. Public Health Service, Gillis W. Long National Hansen's Disease Center.

Frank, Arthur W. 1995. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaudet. Marcia. 1988. Through a Hole in the Fence: Personal Narratives of Absconding from Carville. Fabula 29:354-64.

_____. 1990. Telling It Slant: Personal Narratives, Tall Tales, and the Reality of Leprosy. Western Folklore 49:191-207.

_____. 2004. Carville: Remembering Leprosy in America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Gussow, Zachary. 1989. Leprosy, Racism, and Public Health: Social Policy in Chronic Disease Control. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Landry, Edmond G. (aka Gabe Michael) 1924-1932. unpublished letters. Landry-Manes Collection. Leonide L. Manes, copyright holder. New Iberia, La.

_____. Medical records, Carville, La. United States Public Health Service, Gillis W. Long National Hansen's Disease Center.

Manes, Leonide L. 1998-2007. Interviews by author. New Iberia, La.

Nelson, Hilde Lindemann. 2001. Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Stein, Stanley. 1963. Alone No Longer. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

The article was first published in the 2010 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Clare Manes is a folklorist in Lafayette who published Out of the Shadow of Leprosy: The Carville Letters and Stories of the Landry Family in 2013.