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World War I Centennial
New Orleanian Edgar Bouligny was the war’s first American Casualty —And the Story Was Just Beginning
As both a French and Spanish Creole (his family could be traced to the earliest days of the founding of New Orleans), Edgar Bouligny grew up hearing stories about his intrepid ancestor, Dominique de Bouligny who founded the town of New Iberia, Louisiana. He later served as military governor while Spain ruled the colony in the late 1700s. Edgar’s grandfather represented Louisiana in Congress in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. Independent, stubborn, and virulently unionist, John Bouligny received national attention for bravely refusing to vacate his seat when Louisiana voted to secede.
Edgar was stamped with many of the traits of these men in his bloodline, among them being the violent inclinations of Edgar Sr. As a young teen, his father was once arrested for firing his pistol into the belly of another teen who first punched him on the steps of the French Quarter’s elegant Opera House at the conclusion of a performance there. After firing the gun, he fled into the building through the scattering crowd, ran up the staircase, and somehow avoided three shots fired at him by his accoster who chased after him. (One cannot help but wonder why two teenagers from upstanding families were carrying weapons). Both boys were arraigned in court the following day wherein a high-pitched argument erupted between them in front of the judge’s bench. After being subdued, they were both sentenced to 24 hours in jail and fined $25. Three years later he was arrested twice, once for causing a disturbance at a voting poll and again for assault with a deadly weapon. Even more serious charges were to follow: the murder of a man in Los Angeles (not guilty verdict) and manslaughter in El Paso for shooting his bookkeeper (guilty–4 years in prison).
Edgar, Jr. was just three years old when this last incident occurred, too young to know about his father’s criminal misdeeds and fondness for gunplay. Yet the younger Edgar would continue his father’s irascible behavior. At 13 he found himself in a New Orleans boarding school for boys where military science was taught, the College of the Infant Jesus, presumably for disciplinary reasons. Even within this closed environment, however, he managed to burglarize over 20 homes and businesses. His parents took their lawyer’s advice and had him plead insanity. The strategy worked. He was sent to the Louisiana state mental hospital in Jackson, avoiding detention, at least in a penal facility.
Not long thereafter, he escaped, fled to St. Louis at 17, and took a job as a bellhop at a hotel in that city. A short time later his wanderlust brought him to San Francisco where he was shanghaied and forced to work as a deckhand on a steamer to China, then back to San Francisco. Disillusioned and aimless, he joined the U.S. Army and, in his first assignment, helped to guard that city from looters in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1906. He left the Army in 1912, but when war broke out in Europe in 1914, he felt drawn to the adventure. Edgar’s affinity for France and his sympathy for their struggle against the Germans was compelling. Besides, he was fluent in French, thanks to his mother’s’ insistence on a proper Creole education for her son. He along with roughly 120 other Americans joined the French Foreign Legion. It did not appear to be a difficult decision for him. “I thought France was worth fighting for,” he stated simply, “so I went. That’s all”
Bouligny enlisted in August of 1914 in the Legion, one of the first Americans to do so, and remained there until May of 1917 when he became a fighter pilot for the notorious Lafayette Escadrille. During his stint on active duty, he was wounded four times at the Battle of the Somme, becoming the first American casualty of the Great War. More danger befell him when an enemy bomb exploded under his trench near Rheims. Bouligny was buried in the debris for 27 hours before he was accidentally discovered and dug up, stunned but still alive. Later as a pilot he survived landing his disabled biplane after taking fire from the famed German “Flying Circus” in the skies over Albania. Arrogant as ever, the six-footer often boasted that the Germans didn’t have a bullet with his name on it. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military for his heroism in combat.
Before returning to the U.S., he met a pretty French girl named Odile Hubeau while having photos developed at the shop in Paris where she worked. They immediately began seeing each other several times a week. Deeply in love, they were married nine months later. But what appeared to be an endearing story of a wartime romance in the City of Lights abruptly turned sour when, a day after their marriage, Edgar confessed to her that he was already married to an American. To the lovesick young French woman, that seemed not to be an impediment as long as her hero divorced his first wife, which he did once they arrived in the U.S. to begin their lives together. There, they would drive around the nation as partners in a photography business, an affinity shared by both of them. But what followed was only occasional success selling their work to travel magazines and such.
By the late 1920s they were broke, so the couple decided reluctantly to return to New Orleans, perhaps to lean on Edgar’s family for financial help. They rented a cheap French Quarter apartment at 409 Bourbon Street. Penniless and without direction, the decorated airman was no longer held in the esteem he had once achieved while in uniform. His wartime exploits overseas never translated into a solid post-war career in America, and the discontent stirred his inner demons. Clinging to the memories of his salad days as a pilot in France, Edgar found solace sharing the aerial photos he took from his cockpit while flying over the ruins of shelled cities and broken battlefields to American Legion posts and civic associations. During these presentations, Edgar could at least temporarily relive those moments which connected him spiritually to his great great-grandfather Dominique, whose burial in St. Louis Cathedral among Louisiana governors and bishops attested to the significance of his life.
But these talks were never sufficient to tame his tortured spirit. He began going out alone at night to various clubs in the “Tango Belt,” a niche in the French Quarter on upper Iberville Street where the lascivious dance continued well into the early morning. Edgar returned home way too late, way too often. Not surprisingly, this led to loud arguments with Odile, followed by curses and beatings. By 1931 the marriage was irreconcilable. The 43 year-old Bouligny was exhibiting the classic symptoms of what was then called “shell shock” or, in modern terminology, PTSD. He had become only a residue of his former self, an ugly predator, and his still adoring wife was his convenient and easy prey.
One day he seemed particularly agitated and punched her, knocking the petite 37 yearold to the floor of their tiny kitchen. When the six-footer came at her again with clenched fists, she shot him with his own .22 caliber pistol, which she had hidden in the kitchen sideboard. As he lay dying, she picked up the head of her bleeding husband and rested it on her lap crying over him, sobbing again and again that she loved him. Odile was taken to the police station where she detailed in both French and fractured English the recent years of physical abuse. The coroner identified eight bruises on her which, he said, were likely caused by kicks or punches, validating her claim of self-defense. Several of the couple’s relatives hurried to the police station to speak on her behalf, including Edgar’s inconsolable 76 year old mother who prayed the rosary incessantly throughout the ordeal. “Poor boy. He was never the same after the war,” she cried. “He was sick. None of my family feel hard against her.” Odile was released without charges, still muttering, “I love him still. I will always love him.”
Newspapers from Modesto to St. Louis to Brownsville gave the story front page status. In a few, the report occupied an entire page accompanied by broad artist renditions of the murder scene and photos of the couple – Edgar, square jawed and looking resolute in his impeccable uniform and Odile, prim in the stylish dress of the 1920s. “Shot Her Husband Because She Loved Him,” shouted the bold headline of the July 5, 1931 Ogden Standard Examiner. “First American Wounded in War Slain by Menaced War Bride,” exclaimed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Several reprinted an entire account of Bouligny’s adventures before and during the war written by Captain Paul Rockwell, who had earlier penned a history of Americans who joined the French Foreign Legion before the U.S. declaration of war. The former pilot had longed for the attention he had once received as an acclaimed fighter ace over a decade before, yet as Odile made her way back to her native country shortly after the shooting, that attention was now fraught with disdain for him rather than veneration. Once a national hero, the New Orleanian had become merely a character in a tragic opera.