When America’s most respected TV newsman announced the destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the usual assuring timbre of Walter Cronkite’s voice faltered. The TV camera panned to a debris-littered concrete slab that once was a three-story luxury apartment complex.
Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm when it hit Aug. 17, 1969, was the then-worst storm in modern times with sustained winds of 190 mph –with higher gusts – and storm tides of more than 24 feet. The physical destruction was unprecedented and the body count, though not the historic highest, mounted.
“This is the site of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi,” Cronkite said about the slab. “This is the place where 23 people laughed in the face of death. And where 23 people died.”
That broadcast, backed by the questionable sanity of Mary Ann Gerlach who claimed to be the only apartment survivor, gave rise to the Richelieu Hurricane Party myth. In a University of Southern Mississippi oral history, Gerlach claimed:
“The first thing that popped into my mind was, ‘Party time!’ We all got together and decided we were going to have a hurricane party on the third floor.”
Even though the myth was debunked in 2000 by the Sun Herald, the Gerlach story persists. Some news sources, filmmakers and writers correct the record, but it’s easy to find the myth.
The idea of the Richelieu “party” was just too poignant. Except for a few local historians and a few who knew the story firsthand– although mostly ignored – the Coast and nation believed the Richelieu myth for three decades.
As the Coast reflects on Camille’s 50th anniversary, the Richelieu “myth” joins other remembrances, public talks and museum exhibits. The Richelieu “truth” became public in 2000 after a retired Civil Defense director seeking historical accuracy helped set the record straight on the Coast dead.
Local, state and national death tolls varied from 124 to 159. Today, the official toll is usually cited as 172, with 131 bodies found and 41 missing. But even that number is questioned because occasional stories arise of someone left off the list.
Julia Guice, a familiar name in Camille histories, is credited with improving the list. In 1969 she was Biloxi’s Civil Defense director and her husband, Wade Guice, was director for Harrison County. Together they are credited with saving hundreds by convincing them to evacuate.
When the Coast held remembrances at the 30th anniversary, Julia believed it past time to confirm or correct the names of the dead. Her husband had died in 1996 not knowing, so Guice spearheaded detective work to set the record straight. She got stories in local media, with lists of the known dead alongside requests for names of any victims not on the list.
The Guice’s church, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, agreed to set aside land for a Hurricane Camille Memorial Wall that would display the names of all Coast known dead. This search is what lead to the busting of the Richelieu myth.
When Dr. Richard Keller read about her quest on the Internet he called from Maryland. Keller told Guice he was a Richelieu survivor but his wife Luane was not and he was upset that people thought she had died because they chose to party.
His contact lead to another Richelieu survivor, H.J. “Ben” Duckworth Jr., who lived in Jackson and who in August 2000 agreed to a Sun Herald interview. Duckworth said the Richelieu manager had assured residents the building was safe and designated a Civil Defense shelter.
The residents who decided to stay spent the morning boarding up and carrying up belongings in anticipation of first-floor flooding. An elderly couple asked Duckworth and his Navy Seabee friend Mike Gannon to look after them, and they all moved to the third floor.
“About this time, a traveling salesman that some residents knew stopped by the complex. Duckworth said the salesman asked them to get beer and have a hurricane party.
“We were too exhausted, and when he couldn’t find any takers he got in his car and headed toward New Orleans. That probably saved his life but, I’ve wondered if that man isn’t the origin of the legend,” Duckworth said. “Maybe someone heard him and thought the party really happened.”
Duckworth’s attempts to set the record straight through the years never made wide publication until his 2000 Sun Herald interview went nationaol
But the Gerlach claim and her version persists. In 1982, while on trial for murdering her 11th husband, Gerlach’s attorney used an insanity defense, partially claiming her Camille experience.
At the time of Camille, Gerlach was married to her fifth husband, Fritz Gerlach, who became one of eight known victims to perish in the Richelieu apartments. At least six, including Duckworth who died in 2013, survived and eventually got their story heard.