An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing

“One of Bedou’s best students was Villard Paddio. Paddio, who resides in the Treme area and operated an uptown studio, distinguished himself by being Louis Armstrong’s preferred photographer in New Orleans and by promoting himself as a commercial photographer.

“Paddio has the opportunity of seeing his photographs reproduced in Black history books, yearbooks, programs, directories and other publications recognizing Black achievement and promoting the consciousness of patronizing Black-owned businesses.”

— 1988 article in the New Orleans Tribune

Villard Paddio, from the May 31, 1947, Louisiana Weekly, shortly after his disappearance.

Editor’s note: Here’s my new post about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 baseball team, and about the famous 1931 photo of Satchmo with the squad’s players and other members of his entourage that, over the decades, has become iconic in both Louis Armstrong lore and New Orleans baseball history. My previous posts on this topic are here, here, here and here. …

On the morning of May 24, 1947, Villard Paddio, one of black New Orleans’ most popular and influential photographers, leaped over a railing and into the swirling tides of history.

For a reason known only to him, the man who snapped the iconic portrait of the Secret 9, Louis Armstrong’s early-1930s semi-pro baseball team, brought his story, and his life, to a close.

In doing so, Villard — who established a successful photography business in Treme in the late 1920s despite the economic perils of the Great Depression, and despite the bigoted racial norms of segregation that smothered the city — snapped thousands of images of New Orleans’ Creole and black middle- and upper-class residents, families and musical stars.

Paddio was so good, and so admired, that Armstrong himself frequently employed him as a personal photographer, especially when Satchmo came home to the Big Easy. That resume included the famous portrait of the Secret 9, the one with the players, managers and Louis’ close friends and confidants, that was taken during Armstrong’s mid-1931 visit to his hometown.

Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9, 1931 (photo by Villard Paddio, print from the Al Rose Collection at the Louisiana Research Collection)

The players are resplendent in their bright, white new uniforms — according to press accounts from the time, Satchmo spared no expense for his team, including outfitting them in spiffy new threads — and Louis himself stands at the far right, his famous smile beaming with pride, leaning on a baseball bat, duded out with a white hat, dark jacket and striped white pants.

While Armstrong was flitting around New Orleans on his triumphant homecoming in August 1931, he attended a game between his Secret 9 and the Melpomene White Sox, an event that included a little goofing around by Satchmo and a couple members of his entourage, Sherman “the Professor” Cook and Little Joe Lindsey, as well as a Secret 9 loss.

The team didn’t last very long, at most a couple of years, and only a handful of its games were reported in the media. By the end of 1932, the Secret 9 appears to have dissipated for good. Over the last couple decades, the team has gained a level of mythos within Satchmo lore and has been cited as both an example of Louis’ love for the national pastime, as well as the trumpeter’s quirky, one-of-a-kind personality and personal story.

I’ve written about the Secret 9 a few times, and for a year or two I’ve worked with various folks on investigating the origins of the photo, as well as the identities of each player in it, something that has always been a mystery.

New Orleans city directory, 1942

My fellow history divers and I did ID one of the players (more on that a little ways down), and various contemporaneous articles in the Louisiana Weekly had mentioned the names of a couple players on the team at the time, especially pitcher Kildee Bowers. However, I/we have yet to put any more names to specific faces of players in the famed photo.

But what about the man who snapped the picture? What about Villard Paddio? That subject, my friends, is well worth excavating because his role in the life of the greatest jazz artists of all time — including the Secret 9 — is enormous.

Here’s how Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum, described the relationship between Satchmo and Paddio, and the significance of it, in an email. Note especially Paddio’s accompanying Louis during the latter’s 1931 homecoming tour that included the Secret 9 photo:

“Without Villard Paddio, our understanding of Louis Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans would be incomplete. Goodness knows Louis spent enough time talking about that period but without Paddio, we would be left alone to imagine what the [Colored] Waif’s Home band looked like, or we’d be at a loss trying to picture his mother Mayann.

“And when Armstrong triumphantly returns home for three months in the summer of 1931, it’s Paddio once again who is there to document his return to the Waif’s Home, his historic appearance broadcasting at the Suburban Gardens and his legendary ragtag baseball team, the Secret 9. Every image Paddio took of Armstrong has become iconic, and all fans of the trumpeter should be thankful that Paddio was there over a nearly 20-year stretch to document some of the most important moments in Armstrong’s time spent at home.”

To further point out the relationship between Armstrong and Paddio, especially the latter’s role in the former’s 1931 return to New Orleans, I turned up an article from the July 11, 1931, issue of the Chicago Defender reporting on Satchmo’s homecoming that summer.

In a “New Orleans News” column, reporter Emily C. Davis stated that Mike McKendricks, “assistant manager of the Louis Armstrong band,” attended a reception at the home of one Miss Doris Dozier. Other attendees of the gathering included McKendricks’ wife, Armstrong and other band members, and Davis then added:

“Several other social courtesies are being extended the popular musician and his wife, including a luncheon by V. Paddio, the photographer …”

Thus, with Paddio’s crucial role in Armstrong’s life established, we can focus a lens on the photographer’s life. And, as mentioned in the intro to this post, the saga of Villard Paddio begins at the end, as it were. Telling the tale of such an influential photographer and artist must start at his puzzling, somewhat forgotten death.

The front-page story about the tragedy in the Louisiana Weekly is pretty harrowing in its own right, telling a tale of an ailing man who was at his wit’s end. The story stated:

“New Orleans lost one of the South’s leading photographers to the muddy waters of the Mississippi River on Monday morning, May 24. Ill for some time from a heart ailment which led to a nervous breakdown, Villard Paddio, 53, 2009 Kerlerec Street, apparently despondent, ended his life by leaping from the Canal Street ferry, Westside, into the Mississippi.

“Paddio, a native of Lafayette, La., was known as one of New Orleans’ most progressive citizens, modest in his habits and manner.

“According to information obtained through police of the Third Precinct, Arthur Neville, 30, … told them that he had called at Paddio’s residence in response to a call for a taxicab at about 8:30 o’clock Monday morning. Paddio, unknown to Neville at the time, requested that he be carried to Algiers for a visit to a sister who was ill. Paddio also told Neville that he, too, was ill.

“After boarding the ferry, Paddio left the cab and walked to the rail. Hardly had Paddio reached the rail, he jumped into the river. Neville yelled that a man was overboard, and the ferry captain ordered that the boat circle the area where Paddio had entered the water, and ordered a life boat lowered. However, Paddio was not seen or found.

Canal Street ferry landing, with the neighborhood of Algiers in the background, across the Mississippi River, circa 1920 (photo from the Louisiana State Museum archives)

“A raincoat and umbrella to Paddio, which he had left in the cab, was returned to Mrs. Hilda Paddio … She told the investigating police that the description of the man who leaped into the river answered that of her husband. Mrs. Paddio also stated that her husband had been ill for six months and had been released from Flint-Goodridge Hospital one week ago.”

The article concluded by stating that “[a]t press time his body had not been recovered from the river.”

The article also attested to Paddio’s key role in the local black community by stating that after returning from military service:

“Paddio opened his own business, and since that time has earned quite a reputation as a photographer. His interests in the future of Negro business led him to support every movement in that direction. A pioneer in the field of organized Negro business, his zeal and since attempts to foster business opportunities won him many friends in all walks of life.”

What was the ultimate fate of the seminal photographer who captured Louis Armstrong’s early years on film and became a pillar of the New Orleans black community?

The answer is that I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. And it’s not for lack of trying.

Simply, Paddio’s body was never found, and I tried to dig into what exactly happened on the morning of May 24, 1947, and in the years after.

No contemporaneous news reports exist that report that his body being being found (which includes the Louisiana Weekly and several of the city’s daily papers), and I did a cursory newspaper database search in the hopes of finding a report of an unidentified body washing up somewhere, either in New Orleans metro area or downriver from the city. No luck.

I went to the New Orleans Public Library, the official repository of the archives of the city government and administration, and went checked out the 1947 annual internal report of the Algiers Public Service Co., which at the time operated the ferry across the Mississippi off which Paddio jumped (between the southern corner of the French Quarter and the westbank community of Algiers). I was hoping to find meeting minutes or something, but was dismayed when the records were just actuarial tables and accountant’s reports.

An ad in the March 1, 1930, issue of the Louisiana Weekly. The ad was part of a full-page, shopper-type promotion for local black business for Mardi Gras weekend.

I also asked for the New Orleans Police Department homicide reports, which, from what I could glean from archives finding aids, would be most likely to contain missing persons records. However, the library staff, after going down to the basement to find the cops reports, told me that the homicide reports for 1947 … just weren’t there. Gone.

Soooooo, I moseyed on over to Tulane University, home of the Louisiana Research Collection, where I combed through the records of the American Waterways Operators, a consortium of shipping companies and related river-centric businesses, governmental bodies, oversight agencies and Coast Guard officials formed to monitor and regulate the Mississippi River waterway.

But that was also a dead end — I found no mention in the 1947-48 AWO meeting minutes of any casualties, crimes or suicides on, from and/or around the Algiers ferry.

(I mulled whether to file an official FOI request with the Coast Guard and/or National Archives for any pertinent records, but I ultimately decided that it would be too much of a headache and might delay the publishing of this post for months, with very slim chances of a positive result.)

I also checked out an internal examination of “police developments in New Orleans” for 1946-47, to no avail.

The only thing that added even a little to the story was the NOPD’s annual report for 1947, and even then the pertinent information was limited.

It looks like the department seemed to realize that some type of water emergency squad was necessary — a squad trained in and equipped to prepare for boat-assisted water rescues and water-safety training was formed the same month as Paddio disappeared. In fact, during summer 1947, the squad saved more than 35 people from drowning in Lake Pontchartrain. However, the report makes no direct mention of the squad performing any operations on the river.

The NOPD also featured a Juvenile and Missing Persons Division as part of the Detective Bureau; however, most of the detail about the division’s activities in the report concern juveniles, youth and child mistreatment and abuse. About cases involving the missing, the report states:

“This Division keeps the records of missing persons for the Department and acts as a clearing house for records of this type for the Department as a whole. Attempts are made to locate missing persons and arrangements provided for their return home.”

So I guess Villard Paddio would maybe fall under this category? It’s unclear.

The most interesting info in the report, at least as far as this blog post goes, is the suicide statistics, under which I’m assuming Paddio’s case might also fall. Overall, the NOPD recorded 46 total suicides for 1947, more than a third of which were by people over 50. Thirty were white males, 13 were white females, three were “colored” males, and one was a colored female.

(I’m assuming there were more suicides by people of color that weren’t reported or ignored. However, traditionally there are less suicides among the black community than among whites; in 2019 in Louisiana, for example, the suicide rates for African Americans were well less than half that of whites.)

NOPD annual report, 1947, pg. 9 (from the Louisiana Research Collection)

Within the “colored male” category in the NOPD suicide reports in 1947, there were only three total, and only one listed as a colored male 50 years old or over. So that, quite likely, was Paddio. Under cause of suicide, a total of 12 were listed as ill health, including just one for colored males — again, that could very well be Paddio.

Finally, in the stats for type of suicide, there’s no specific line for leaps from boats, just categories for drowning and “jumping from high places.” Significantly, however, there were no suicides for 1947 listed as colored males who drowned, and there were likewise none under jumping from high places. Four of the listed drownings were white males, and one was a white female. (Just as a side note, there were no listed suicides for black females at all.)

So these numbers really don’t say much about what specifically could have happened to Villard Paddio after he jumped from that ferry, which, given the futility of my other, previously-mentioned research, leaves us more or less back at Square 1.

Villard Paddio’s rise as one of the most prominent black photographers of his day, as well as the legacy his immense body of work speak to the type of determination, perseverance and hope that was often needed for African-Americans, including light-skinned Creoles like Paddio, to survive amidst the segregation found in New Orleans in the 20th century. 

Unfortunately, the original source material and products that composed Paddio’s work are possibly lost to time, but his photography can still be seen in the archives of the Louisiana Weekly and other newspapers, as well as various historical collections and archives in New Orleans and beyond.

Villard Paddio’s WWII draft registration card

On that note, and at the risk of wandering off too far afield, I think it’s important to place Villard Paddio’s importance to the cultural and social stew of “colored” New Orleans — including why Louis Armstrong had such an affinity for Paddio and his work. 

To zoom out a little bit and sketch the scene in the first half of the 20th century in New Orleans, arguably the best, most incisive and comprehensive volume about black photography in New Orleans is the book, “Picturing Black New Orleans: A Creole Photographer’s View of the Early Twentieth Century,” by Arthe A. Anthony.

In the book, Anthony examines and celebrates the life of her grandmother, Florestine Marguerite Perrault, who forged a successful business and a celebrated identity as black New Orleans’ most prominent and respected photographer.

As a biography of a trailblazing woman of color, “Picturing Black New Orleans” is stellar, and I highly recommend it — it’s rich with fascinating personal insights and anecdotes from Anthony about her grandmother and Florestine’s life and career. It traces how courageous, tenacious and dedicated Florestine was, both as a person of color and a woman, at a time when being both was a major double whammy for anyone.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll look at Anthony’s discussion of the bigger picture about the situation in which Creole photographers in general found themselves from the turn of the century into the 1950s and beyond, and then detail Anthony’s discussion of Paddio, who was a disciple of Florestine Perrault. 

In her book, Anthony, while unspooling her grandmother’s life, outlines the social, political and economic atmosphere in which her grandmother operated, especially as a light-skinned Creole who not only had to navigate the indignities and oppression of Jim Crows, but also had to walk the fine lines of social demarcation that existed among Creole and black society in New Orleans. Creoles held a place in New Orleans that was at once unique, nuanced and perilous when it came to forging their way in the city.

I write all of the above because of this — Florestine Perrault, along with one of her equally preeminent photography colleagues, Arthur P. Bedou, tutored Villard Paddio in the art and business of photography. It was largely because of them that Paddio — the man who worked as Satchmo’s personal photographer, including snapping the iconic photo of the Secret 9 — excelled as a lensman and as an entrepreneur.

The Emmanuel Perez Orchestra, a photo taken by Arthur P. Bedou, one of Paddio’s mentors and colleagues (photo from the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s collection)

In addition, much of the above description of the social, economic, political and racial facing Florestine at that time applies equally to Paddio. However, as Anthony notes, Paddio had a few advantages that she didn’t have — namely being a male who also had the ability to travel outside of New Orleans to shoot events beyond the metro area.

Anthony writes that Paddio used a military pension to finance his formal education that led him to opening his own studio. Here’s how Anthony describes Villard’s de facto apprenticeship with Perrault and Bedou, and Paddio’s emergence as the third part of black New Orleans’ triumvirate of legendary photographers:

“Paddio became the third member of this trio in the mid-1920s. Bedou was Paddio’s first teacher, but they parted ways due to a disagreement of undetermined origin. Their breakup brought Paddio to Bertrand’s Studio for instruction from Florestine, much to her husband’s consternation. Paddio became an accomplished portraitist as illustrated by his photograph of Dr. L.T. Burbridge, the president of Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company, which appeared on the cover of Negro American Magazine in July 1931. And his charming photograph of nautically dressed four-year-old Willie Joseph Misshore was the cover illustration for the August 1932 issue of the local Our Youth magazine. In addition to portraits of Creole family and community life, Paddio often made group photographs of musicians. One of his most famous subjects was Louis Armstrong, who called Paddio his favorite photographer when he was at home in the Crescent City.”

Arguably Paddio’s crowning achievement — and his most influential work, aside from his Armstrong images — was “Crescent City Pictorial,” a 28-page, souvenir booklet published in 1926 by O.C.W. Taylor, co-founder and first editor of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper (which has continually published since 1925, including during and after Katrina, and for which I’ve been blessed to freelance report for several years).

The booklet chronicles  “to the Progress of the Colored Citizens of New Orleans, Louisiana, “America’s Most Interesting City,” with just about all of its photos being taken and contributed by Paddio; subjects include some of the most successful black-owned businesses at that time, social organizations, educational institutions, churches and iconic architecture. The Tulane library Web site says the Pictorial “serves as one of the best visual documents of African American life in early 20th century New Orleans.”

Its contents are available at the Amistad Research Center on the Tulane campus, including digitally here. (Amistad has been a continuous source of information and resources for me over the years, including microfilm of the Weekly and the Old Timer’s Baseball Club’s collection, which was donated by the late Walter Wright, one of the most famous baseball players, managers and educators in black New Orleans.)

A 2014 Slate article by Rebecca Onion describes the “Pictorial” thusly:

“The pages of the booklet aim to show off the diversity and breadth of life in the black community. Photographer Villard Paddio, who owned a studio in the Treme area of the city, took pictures of the interiors of businesses, social clubs, community centers, “old folks’ homes,” and hospitals. The booklet contains four pages of the exteriors of homes of its citizens, and two pages of churches.”

In particular, Onion points to the images of the stunning Pythian Temple, which served as a social and entertainment hub, and a center of black socio-political activism. Onion writes:

“A collage of images of the Pythian Temple features a group shot in the roof garden, which functioned as a dance hall … The page also shows the range of professionals and businesses that leased offices in the temple’s space: doctors, attorneys, and the Liberty Industrial Life Insurance Company.”

In addition to his work chronicling Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans jazz scene, the Crescent City Pictorial and his in-studio portraiture, Paddio’s photos frequently appeared in the pages of the national African-American press. Here’s a few examples (print quality is low because they’re printouts from online database archives that have been converted from PDFs to JPGs):

Pittsburgh Courier, Apr. 5, 1930

Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 19, 1935

 

Pittsburgh Courier, March 11, 1933

Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1936

Paddio also occasionally advertised in the national edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, frequently touting his skills at touching up and restoring photos. A promo in the paper’s Sept. 16, 1933, issue blares, “PHOTOGRAPHS COPIED, RENEWED ENLARGED,” with a snappy couple of lines below:

“Have you some family snapshots, tintypes or old photographs? Are they faded, torn, soiled or scratched? What would you not give to have that cherished picture splendidly restored or enlarged!”

Then, centered under states, “Prints in Black and White or Sepia — Oil Paintings,” then his Dryades Street address on the bottom line.

Or sometimes Paddio himself was in the news for the Courier, such as the paper’s Aug. 8, 1942, which includes a photo of Paddio handing a check to Ernest J. Wright, fundraising campaign director for the New Orleans Negro Board of Trade.

The caption states that the owner of Paddio Studio on Dryades Street, “brought in 35 business houses as new members at the regular meeting at the regular meeting of the board last Thursday.”

Ernest J. Wright was a prominent social worker and Civil Rights activist who made a gutsy run for lieutenant governor in 1963, becoming the first person of color to do so since Reconstruction. However, I don’t think he’s in any way related to the Ernest Wright who owned the NNL’s Cleveland Buckeyes in the 1940s.

I want to note that in the Paddio-Wright snapshot, Paddio looms over Wright, so I think he was a pretty sizable guy. In terms of physical appearance, Paddio for some reason reminds me of Beau Jocque, the late zydeco great. Anyhoo …

Also of significance is the location of Paddio’s photo studio and residence. One of Paddio’s early addresses with his own family was at 2227 Onzaga St., which was in the historic Seventh Ward.

An early and traditional Creole neighborhood that played a significant roles in both New Orleans’ civil-rights history as well as the development and growth of jazz, the Seventh Ward was adjacent to the more famous Treme area and was part of the former Claiborne Avenue district, an economically-thriving, culture-rich, middle-class black commercial and residential section of the city, unfortunately, was bisected and decimated by the construction of I-10 in the mid-20th century.

Modern-day 2009 Kerlerec St.

The family later moved a half-mile south to 2009 Kerlerec St., also in the Seventh Ward but a little closer to Treme.

Which segues to the location of Paddio’s Studio, which was first located at 1428 Dumaine St., smack dab in the middle of Treme. Today, the address is in the north corner section of none other than the famed Louis Armstrong Park, between the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and the Treme Community Center.

What I believe is 1428 Dumaine St. today

However, at the time, in the 1920s and ’30s, the studio still stood amidst the culturally-rich Treme neighborhood.

At some point, Paddio moved his business to 2113 Dryades St., in the Central City neighborhood, another economically and culturally vital section of New Orleans, and a relatively multicultural one. (Or as multicultural as Jim Crow New Orleans could get.)

For a century, the Dryades Street corridor anchored the bustling commercial district that featured a wide array of white- and black-owned businesses, including the Page Hotel, which, as the primary business of promoter/team owner Allen Page, served for decades as the business center of the New Orleans Negro Leagues.

The neighborhood was also home to the storied Dew Drop Inn music club, as well as seminal New Orleans musicians like Buddy Bolden and Professor Longhair.

Central City/Dryades also served as the cradle of the city’s civil-rights movement, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the New Zion Baptist Church and a series of prominent protests were rooted.

However, much like the Claiborne district, Dryades was uprooted and crippled by 20th-century development, a process that depressed the neighborhood economically, leading to high crime rates and socio-cultural void.

2113 Dryades St. today

However, in the 1980s a revival of sorts began, when part of Dryades was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, after Oretha Castle Haley, a leading local civil-rights activist who served as president of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.

That was followed by significant reinvestment in the neighborhood, include the funding and construction of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center and the New Orleans Jazz Market, which took their place, along with the Dryades YMCA, as pillars of the rebirth. That rebirth hasn’t been swift, and it still continues as of now.

Alrighty, that wraps it up for now for Villard Paddio. It’s quite a tale, and a mysterious one that, quite sadly, might never be fully solved.

The final installment in the Secret 9 series will focus on the famous photograph itself, the various discovered copies of it, and the process of unraveling the iconic picture’s history.

However, I’m not sure when this last planned post will go live, because it will probably require in-person visits to one or more libraries or archives, which, for the time being, won’t be possible. Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long!

Below is a bunch of biographical info about Paddio, including the basics of his own life, as well as a glimpse at his genealogy and family. If you want to check out now, I totally understand.

As many people know, I’m obsessive about such research and am frequently seduced into diving into the rabbit hole. Thus, at the risk of making this high-falutin’ screed any longer, I want to highlight a few details/insights quirks of Paddio’s biography and family tree, just for a little contextual color.

His date of birth

The first is Paddio’s date of birth, which, in the various documents I found, is all across the map. He was born in the Lafayette Parish town of Scott, or so he said on his WWI draft card. However, the issue of the exact date of his birth, or even the year of his birth, skews wildly — his WWI draft card states he came into the world on May 17, 1883. However, his draft card for the Second World War reports his birth date as Feb. 19, 1892 — nearly nine years later!

To see if either of those dates is even close to the actual one, the Louisiana Weekly article reporting his disappearance in 1947, he was 53 when he leapt over the rails of a ferry. That means he would have been born around 1894; likewise, if he had been born on the listed dates on his draft cards, he would have been either 65 or 55!

(The 1947 article states that Paddio was indeed born in Lafayette, although it doesn’t specify if that’s Lafayette Parish in general or specifically in the city of Lafayette, which is also the parish seat.)

The 1900 federal Census lists Villard’s birth year as 1893, and the 1910 Census lists him as 18, which means he would have been born in 1892, while the data in the 1930 Census places Paddio’s birth year as 1896.

His early family tree and places of residences

Another facet of Paddio’s life that’s worth tracking is his family’s location, where it called home.

It looks like Paddio’s family originated, at least postbellum, in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, including his grandfather, Charles Paddio, who owned a farm and toiled as a planter in the village of Vermillionville. I haven’t found any records for anyone who could be among previous, i.e. pre-Civil War, generations of Paddios of any race or status.

Charles appears to have been born in 1813 or thereabouts, and he was married to the former Mary Louise Senegal, nee about 1830. Charles, a planter, owned his own property, where he and his family worked.

The 1870 federal Census lists Charles and his family as “mulatto,” and several of his neighboring residents were listed as such as well. That would establish a running theme through the Paddios’ documented history — exactly what race in which they’d be pigeonholed, as it varies from “mulatto”/biracial to black/”negro,” to even white on a small handful of documents. Such official ambiguity is no surprise, given his light skin and status as a Creole in a city and state containing complex racial stratification and designation.

Lafayette Parish and Lafayette city proper have a history that ranges from unseemly to downright frightening, at least when it comes to racial issues — and that no doubt significantly impacted the development and history of the Paddio family.

From the prevalence of slavery to postwar violence and suppression of civil rights to the integration process, it’s not a pretty picture. I won’t go into details — in the continued interest of blog post length — but there’s some good articles on the subject here, here and here.

While a good chunk of Paddios stayed in Lafayette Parish right up through today (particularly the town of Carencro), while others eventually migrated to Texas, including in Beaumont and Galveston along the state’s Gulf Coast. Some headed for St. Landry Parish and its parish seat, Opelousas, and others filtered to New Orleans itself.

A move to Mermentau

All of that aside, back to Villard Paddio and his immediate family. They shifted from Lafayette County, located in south-central Louisiana, to the parish to the immediate west, Acadia — the town of Mermentau, specifically, which is listed as their home in the 1900 and 1910 Censuses (Censi?)

Villard appears to have been the youngest offspring of the Telephose and Laura (nee Bauque) Paddio; according to the 1910 Census, Laura had seven children total, five of whom were still living — Charles (who had started his own family with whom he lived next door), Georgia, Raoul, Villard and a fifth I haven’t been able to pin down.

Telephose is listed as 60, while Laura is 48; by 1910 they’d been married 35 years, meaning Laura was just 13 at the time of the nuptials! Villard’s reported age is 18.

Telephose (strangely listed here as Teliswa) was a farm laborer — owned his farm himself — a role his sons also took on. Interestingly but not surprisingly — this was Creole and Cajun country, after all — the family’s primary language was French, and only Villard and Georgia could read and write. (Georgia worked as a cook in a private family.)

Mermentau, La., has always been an extremely small community, it looks like, having reached its peak historical population of 771 in 1980 (as of 2010 it held 661 folks.)

Originally part of vast, heavily-wooded marshlands and bayous inhabited by the Atakapa people, the community became known as a refuge of smugglers, pirates and other rapscallions engaged in all sorts of skullduggery and illicit shenanigans.

The tiny cluster of residents expanded ever so slightly through the 19th century, as traders, missionaries, French government agents and logging interests set up temporary or permanent shop, a process augmented by the arrival of railroad service. Nestled along the Mermentau River, the community became a legally-designated village in Acadia Parish in 1899.

Today, Mermentau is 86 percent white, roughly 12.5 percent black, with small percentages of other racial demographics. About a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Villard’s military service

Villard’s youth in Mermentau segues into the next facet of Villard Paddio’s biography — his WWI service, which, as Arthe Anthony wrote in her previously-discussed book, allowed Paddio to settle, post-war, in New Orleans and launch his photography career.

I’m not sure specifically where Paddio was stationed during the war, but his draft card reports his occupation as a cook, as of June 1917, and his residence as Mermentau.

Paddio’s WWI draft card

Villard’s name was drawn on July 21, 1917, and he was scheduled to report for service Oct. 27. According to a transport vessel that departed from Hoboken, N.J., presumably for active duty, on Dec. 4, his unit is listed as a quartermaster company.

His immediate family

Finally, I want to touch on makeup of Villard Paddio’s immediate family. His parents were likely Telephose Paddio, born around 1850, and the former Laura Bauque, nee about 1840. Documents show that Laura could have lived until 1950 — possibly making her 110!

By my count, Villard had at least four brothers and sisters — the aforementioned Charles, Laress, Georgia and Raoul. He might have had another brother, Joseph.

1910 federal Census

Coming back to the theme of racial ambiguity, in the 1910 Census, Telephose, Laura, Villard and his siblings are listed as white, reflecting the fact that they had very light skin and could “pass.” His brother’s family, which lived next to Villard’s family, were also recorded as white. They were living in Mermentau still.

Railroad depot in Mermentau in 1967

(Further, the 1930 federal Census lists Laura, Telephose and two grandchildren as living in Mermentau. The rest of the residents listed on the sheet are reported as white, with a “w” written in the pertinent column about race. However, the Paddio family, spelled as “Patio,”  is reported as “NEG,” and it appears as if the pen was pressed on the paper really hard, with some writing underneath it. That hints at the possibility that the census-taker that he or she “goofed,” for a lack of a better term.)

Anyway, from 1910s Mermentau, Villard headed to war and settled in NOLA. Exactly when and by what process he did so, I’m not sure. He’s listed in the city directories at least as early as 1925.

As far as starting his own family, Villard Paddio married his wife, Hilda, the former Hilda Poree, and had a son, Villard Jr., in 1928. Hilda was born in 1895, the daughter of Hypolite and Adele Poree; Hypolite was a bricklayer who had lived in New Orleans for some time. Hilda worked as a seamstress.

After Paddio’s disappearance in 1947, Hilda and their son moved to Los Angeles. Hilda passed away there in 1978 at the age of 82, while Villard Jr. died in 1987 at 58. Villard Jr., like his dad, spent time in the Army; he enlisted in November 1950 and served nearly two years during the Korean War.

I’m pretty sure that Villard Sr. and Hilda had some grandchildren, but I stopped short of trying to locate any specifically.

7 thoughts on “An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing

  1. I enjoyed the article, Ryan. Somewhat of a trip down memory lane for me with so much familiarity in terms of street names and places in the Crescent City. Lots of precious memories and flashbacks. I was born in Flint-Goodridge Hospital. And, of course familiar with Dryades St. area and Melpomene St. I can still smell the bakery at the corner of Simon Bolivar and Melpomene/MLK. I know the Treme area well and last place I lived in NO was seventh ward in Gentilly. Have also rode that Canal St. Ferry many times even when cars had to ride across.

    I did not know Villard Paddio and have no recollection of his name coming up back in the day. An interesting and accomplished man.

    I always appreciate your reference to my dad. He endured all of the same challenges as Villard Paddio in terms of the realities of a hostile Jim Crow society. My dad also had multiple birth date possibilities, official and unofficial. Interesting that both lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

    Keep up the great work. It remains significant and meaningful.

    Be well, wise, and safe my friend!

    Rodney Page

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  4. I am the granddaughter of Villard Paddio, daughter of Villard Paddio Jr. My siblings and I were stunned to find out the truth about Grampa Paddio. We only knew Gramma Hilda and no one EVER talked about Grampa. I would love to visit.

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