The Life of Joseph Dutton

Ira Barnes Dutton, better known as Joseph Dutton or Brother Dutton, was born in Stowe, Vermont on April 27, 1843.  His father, Ezra Dutton, was a farmer who also worked as a cobbler.  His mother, Abigail Barnes, was a schoolteacher.

The family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1847.  At the age of six, Ira started doing odd jobs around James Southerland’s bookstore, where he mastered the art of bookbinding and learned a little of printing.

He received most of his early education from his mother, and did not enter school until the age of 12. Later he attended Milton Academy and Milton College.  Ira was interested in things military and became a member of the Janesville Zouave Corps. With the onset of the Civil War, the cadets of the Janesville Zouave Corps were enrolled as Company B of the volunteer regiment, which later became know as the 13thWisconsin Volunteer Infantry.  Dutton was soon appointed regimental quartermaster sergeant, later promoted to Lieutenant and ultimately Captain.  The regiment never engaged in any major battles.

After the war, Dutton remained in service as a quartermaster’s agent on cemeterial construction duty, which involved disinterring bodies from scattered graves and reinterring them in national cemeteries.

Dutton was married in 1866, but the marriage soon failed.  His wife was unfaithful and extravagant and left him in 1867.  (They were not legally divorced until 1881.) Dutton spoke very little of his marriage in the following decades.

Then began a period in Dutton’s life which he later referred to as the “degenerate decade.”  He said that he had been a moderate drinker before and during the war, but during this time “the drinking, chiefly of whiskey, was fierce and reckless – even up to July, 1876.”  At that time he became “strictly an abstainer” after estimating that he drank 15 barrels of whiskey over the course of 15 years.

In 1868, Dutton worked with a friend whose business was a distillery.  After two years there he went to Memphis where he lived and worked for 14 years; six years with a railroad company and then eight years with the War Department as a special agent investigating claims and other business.

Around 1881-1882, Dutton determined that he wanted to do penance and make atonement for his “wild years.”  After studying the Catholic faith, he decided that embracing the faith would best enable him to lead a penitential life.  He was received into the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s at Memphis on April 27, 1883, his 40thbirthday where he took the name of Joseph.

Soon after, he entered the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, where he stayed for 20 months, devoted to a life of hard work and silence.  However, he realized that the best way for him to do penance was not through a life of contemplation but through a life of action.  He left the monastery, with the blessing of the abbot, and sought out other religious orders.

Damien first learned about Father Damien and the Kalaupapa Settlement while attending a conference in New Orleans with the Redemptorist order from Saint Louis.  There he read the account The Lepers of Molokai, a small work by Charles Warren Stoddard, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who had visited Damien and Kalaupapa in 1884.  Immediately inspired, Dutton traveled to Notre Dame and consulted with Stoddard as to the feasibility of joining Damien in his work.  Receiving encouragement, Dutton left for San Francisco and sailed to Honolulu where he met with the Catholic Bishop and the government’s President of the Board of Health.

Receiving approval from both, Dutton went to Molokai where he arrived on July 29, 1886.  Father Damien had been diagnosed with leprosy the year before.  Now, more than ever, he needed an assistant to help him carry on his work after he was gone.  Dutton threw himself into the work.  Damien later wrote:

The courage of my Dear brother Joseph Ira B. Dutton appears to respond very well to the special calling for which our Blessed Lord has chosen him.  He takes a special interest in all what concerns the altars and sacristies of our churches . . . He also acts as our Druggist – and he’s truly a good confrere to me.

Soon Dutton became an expert in caring for the patients’ medical needs.  The settlement physician wrote:

For many months after his arrival, his daily routine, from daybreak to dark, was cleansing and dressing the sores, ulcers and other skin troubles; removing carious and necrosed bone – all of the type that leprosy inflicts on mankind.  He was methodical and accurate in his work and quick to learn the rudiments of medicine and surgery.

Father Damien had established homes for the “orphan” boys and girls in Kalawao near his church and house. In 1888, the girls were moved to a new home in Kalaupapa under the direction of Mother Marianne and the Franciscan Sisters.  Father Damien died in 1889, and then much of Dutton’s work was taking care of the boys. 

In 1895, H. P. Baldwin, a Maui sugar planter, donated the money to establish a large, multi-building boys’ home on a campus across the road from Damien’s church.  Dutton was put in charge of this Baldwin Home for Boys where he labored for the next 35 years.

Dutton supervised the Baldwin Home and a staff of (usually) four Brothers from the Sacred Hearts Congregation.  Dutton continued to work at sore dressing, but with the arrival of the brothers, he was free to take on other activities.  Interest in the Settlement continued and Dutton became a prolific correspondent. It is said that his address book contained over 4,000 names, and bags of mail delivered to him sometimes weighed over 50 ponds.  

Dutton became famed and revered.  He corresponded with Presidents Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt, and had the attention of such writers as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. Perhaps most notably, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt directed the great white fleet of 16 battleships, then on a voyage around the world, to divert from its course to sail past Molokai and honor Brother Dutton. 

In 1893, Dutton had left the Kalawao side of the Settlement for the first time since his arrival on the peninsula to travel about two miles to the Kalaupapa side to attend to the shipping to Louvain of Father Damien’s effects.  Returning to Kalawao, he never again left the grounds of Baldwin Home or the church across the street until 1930, when he again went to Kalaupapa for eye surgery.

By 1930, Dutton was 87 years old.  He had become feeble, nearly blind and nearly deaf.  On July 4, 1930, two of the brothers took him to Honolulu where he spent his remaining days at St. Francis Hospital.  He died there on March 26, 1931, just one month short of his 88thbirthday.  His body was returned to Kalawao where he was buried near Father Damien.

Although being a penitent, Dutton frequently expressed how happy he was in his life of service at Kalawao. He commonly signed off his letters with “Joyfully yours.”