Monroe’s Legendary Bag Lady

Another article I wrote for Road Trips:

There are a few in Monroe who remember a disheveled African-American homeless woman, wrapped in an old dress and coat with burlap bags wrapped on her feet. She was often seen wandering the streets of Monroe.  Some of you may have gone to the play, “Honey Babe’s Treasure”, written by Rev. Roosevelt Wright, Jr. which was based on her life.  I was privileged to go see it when it was first performed in 2003 and was moved to tears.  Her story is a sad one, based on a lot of myth.  Here are the facts and legends of this remarkable woman.

            The first time we see Betty, she is married to John Langhorn and appears on the 1910 Ouachita Parish census.  Her profession is listed as “Washwoman”.  Legend says she was a kindergarten teacher at a time kindergarten was not available in the public schools.  It was said she adored children.  She mistrusted banks, (as most of that generation did!) so she saved her money in mason jars and any other jars she could find.  Her life was content with John and her home was soon filled with the laughter of six children.

            The story of Betty picks up again around 1925.  Betty came home from work to find her house on fire and all six of her children had perished.  It was said this horrific shock was the cause of Betty’s mental illness.  She left her husband John and took off to wander the streets.  Her husband, on the census records of 1930 and 1940, states his marital status as “widowed”.  Perhaps John just couldn’t deal with the illness of his wife and cut ties to her.  We will never know.  John would eventually pass away in 1946. After the death of Betty and John’s children, Betty took on the nickname of “Honey Babe”.  It was said to be the nickname John called their children.

            Honey Babe became the terror of little children and an object of pity for adults.  She would wander the streets of Monroe, begging for spare change.  In her hand she would carry a jar of water, which she used to bathe and wash her clothes with.  She would talk to herself, and sometimes singing the Alphabet Song she taught to her students so long ago.  Honey Babe had enough of her mental faculties to still save what money she would collect.  She would sew some of the paper money into her dress.  Legend states she would bury the rest in empty lots and under houses, still using the Mason jars like she did when she was married. Honey Babe became a secret benefactor.  Those persons in need, be it sickness or poverty, would sometimes find a mason jar filled with money sitting on their front porch.  It was always attributed to Honey Babe.  This generosity is what most people remember her for.  Once it was figured out that Honey Babe had hidden money, she was followed, but she never revealed her hiding places.  To this day there are rumors that some of the mason jars are still buried around Monroe.

            Honey Babe made her home in pasteboard boxes propped up against fences next to the railroad.  She would also sleep in Magnolia Cemetery.  This gave rise to the legend among children that she was a ghost or a demon.  They would run away screaming and crying at the sight of her or would throw rocks at her.  Honey Babe never was known to have hurt a child.

            When in her deepest struggles with mental illness, Honey Babe could be erratic.  A January 29, 1953 article in the News-Star states that Mr. Perry Lee was driving his 1950 Ford down DeSiard Street early one morning.  As he neared Patterson Street, Mr. Lee saw Honey Babe trying to cross.  Mr. Lee tried to avoid her by dodging right, but she changed directions in the street several times. Honey Babe was hit in the hip by the front bumper and was taken to the Charity Hospital.  Her injuries were not serious.

            In 1957, on a cold November morning, Liberty Hill Baptist Church on South 18th Street went up in flames.  Many firefighters were sent to the scene but the building was a total loss.  It was found that the cause of the fire was Honey Babe.  She was trying to warm herself but ended up setting the church on fire.  She was charged, but was sent to the East Louisiana State Hospital at Jackson on a plea of insanity.

            Honey Babe’s end came May 2, 1958.  Her body was found on Grammont Street head first in a ditch with about a foot of water in it.  She had drowned right in front of one of her makeshift homes.  It was thought she had a seizure or maybe had a heart attack.  She fell in the ditch and couldn’t get out again.  After the coroner’s examination, her body was sent to a local funeral home.  An anonymous benefactor, who was rumored to have been someone Honey Babe had helped, gave her a lavish funeral.  She was cleaned and dressed in a beautiful dress with her hair styled.  She was then laid out in a fine coffin in a room full of flowers.  Many people attended her funeral.  It was a grand send off for a beautiful, charitable soul.

After writing the above story, I was able to find a copy of her death certificate. Her father was Edward Benet (probably Bennett). She was buried in Magnolia Cemetery by Lamothe Funeral Home.

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