“The House that Huey built,” the Louisiana state Capitol building in downtown Baton Rouge, towers over the city’s skyline. If you’re traveling into Baton Rouge on Highway 190 East, the route most commonly taken by people from central and northern Louisiana prior to the construction of Interstate 10, the building comes into view several miles before you reach the Mississippi River, appearing to stand alone, in the same way the Emerald City materialized in front of Dorothy.
It is the nation’s tallest state Capitol, and as its nickname suggests, it was conceived and built by Huey P. Long, the Kingfish, a man that Franklin D. Roosevelt considered to be one of the most dangerous in America.
“It’s also the nation’s tallest tombstone,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne once observed. The body of Huey P. Long is buried on the Capitol grounds. Atop his grave, there’s a statue of Long overlooking his building.
At 9:22PM on September 8th, 1935, Long, then a U.S. Senator, was shot while walking down one of the building’s corridors. He died two days later, at 4:06 in the morning, only 42 years old and still generally considered to be the most powerful politician in Louisiana’s history.
The official version of Long’s death is that it was an assassination carried out by a 29-year-old, well-respected Baton Rouge physician named Carl Weiss. Weiss, the story goes, was angry that Huey P. Long had orchestrated the ouster of his father-in-law, Benjamin Pavy, from a judicial seat in St. Landry Parish. The Pavy family were outspoken opponents of Long, and according to unsubstantiated rumors, Long had once claimed the Pavys had “Negro blood,” which some speculate had also driven the young physician to confront Long that night.
For the past eight decades, students of Louisiana history have been taught that Carl Weiss approached Huey P. Long, exchanged some heated words, and then pulled out a gun and shot him once in the abdomen. Long’s bodyguards immediately returned fire and killed Weiss, shooting him 61 times.
Long had initially survived the shooting and was able to walk down a flight of stairs and across the grounds of the Capitol and then hail a car to take him to the hospital. He lived for another 32 hours, and many believe that he only died because of incompetent medical care.
The assassination of Huey Pierce Long has earned a central place in the mythos of Louisiana. It ensured he would not merely be remembered as a powerful and ruthless politician but as a man who had sacrificed his own life in service to the people of Louisiana. The word assassination is reserved only for a select few, and in a macabre way, the term itself is an expression of respect for the victim.
Only a leader can be assassinated, and only when their life was taken by someone opposed to them for political or religious reasons. In that respect, an assassination is also a political statement, a way of intimidating and silencing those who supported and respected the fallen leader.
83 years after Huey P. Long’s death, we should acknowledge a compelling body of evidence that suggests the story we have told about Huey P. Long’s death is wrong, even if the true story diminishes the mystique of the Kingfish. Huey P. Long wasn’t assassinated by Carl Weiss.
More likely than not, he was killed accidentally by a stray bullet fired by one of his bodyguards, likely either Joe Messina or Murphy Roden.
There are bullet holes from that night still visible in the Capitol’s marble walls. But more significantly, there are holes in the government’s story about who is responsible for causing the death of Huey P. Long, and some of those holes have only come into view in the past twenty years.
Eight years ago, at a symposium held in the Old State Capitol, Dr. Carl Weiss, Jr., who was only an infant when his father died and who has spent much of his life researching the events of that night and retracing his father’s steps, spoke for the first time at length about his long-held belief that his father did not actually shoot Huey P. Long. In fact, he asserts his father wasn’t even carrying a gun that night. (Thankfully, because of the great work of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, you can watch the lecture here).
Carl Weiss, Sr. did confront Long. He was angry, though the exact reasons why are unknown and will probably always remain unknown. His son dismisses the long-standing theory that the confrontation had anything to do with defending his father-in-law. “I don’t think it makes any conceivable sense that a person would carry out an attack like that on behalf of a father-in-law who was ready to retire anyway,” his son contended.
“The other reason is equally fuzzy, but it’s suggested that Huey may have made some kind of racial slur, which my father interpreted wrong and chose to avenge himself. Again, I don’t think that’s the least bit likely.”
Weiss may have not carried out an attack on behalf of his father-in-law, but historian Ed Reed believes the most likely explanation is that he simply wanted to plead his father-in-law’s case. According to Reed, Carl Weiss had attempted to talk with Long three times, stationing himself in plain view outside of the door to the governor’s office, and each time, he was rebuffed. Several other historians agree and argue that the likeliest story is that after Huey P. Long made an insulting comment to Weiss, the young doctor punched him in the face. At that point, Long’s bodyguards opened fire.
This theory is bolstered substantially by the sworn affidavit of Jewel O’Neal, a nurse who had attended to Long that night. According to O’Neal, Long told her, “That’s where he hit me,” while she was treating his bruised lip. Another nurse confirmed O’Neal’s account.
Decades later, Carl Weiss, Jr. had his father’s body exhumed, and according to a forensic analysis, there was evidence of a small fracture in one of his hands consistent with the type of injury from throwing a hard punch.
If Weiss had planned on killing Huey P. Long that night, he made no indication of his motives to anyone who knew him. The Weiss family home, it’s worth noting, was on Lakeland Drive, very near the state Capitol. “My father’s daily route home literally took him through the parking lot of the Capitol,” his son explained.
That day, Weiss had attended to a man named Morgan, who later told police investigators that the physician was not acting unusual and did not seem disturbed at all. He also made plans to perform surgery the following morning, and at dinner that night, he tried to cool the temper of an uncle who was arguing about politics.
His actions that day did not seem like those of a man who was plotting to kill the most famous man in Louisiana.
There is also significant evidence that police engaged in a hasty cover-up in order to place a weapon in Weiss’ possession. His brother, Tom Ed Weiss, arrived at the scene within an hour and discovered that police had moved the doctor’s Buick from where it had been originally parked and had also pilfered through the car’s glove compartment, which is where Weiss kept his gun, a .32 caliber pistol he had purchased on a vacation in France.
A security guard on duty that night, Elois Sahuk, told the historian Ed Reed, “One of the bodyguards, who is now dead, told me that he felt that that gun was a throw down gun, that one of the bodyguards had gone out to the car that Carl Weiss had driven up in, had gotten that pistol and had thrown it next to the body.”
There was a gun next to Weiss’ body, but curiously, his car keys were missing.
When surgeons operated on Long, they were able to recover a .38 caliber bullet, the same caliber as the weapons carried by his bodyguards. Weiss’ .32 caliber pistol was never a match, and for decades, the weapon was nowhere to be found.
Then, in 1991, a researcher hired by James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, made an astonishing discovery: The weapon was owned by Mabel Guerre Binnings, the daughter of Louis F. Guerre, the man who headed up the investigation into Long’s death.
“It is submitted that there is significant scientific evidence to establish grave and persuasive doubts that Carl Austin Weiss was the person who killed Sen. Huey P. Long,” Starrs announced at a meeting of the Academy of Forensic Scientists in 1992.
A year later, in 1993, the son of Huey P. Long, the late U.S. Sen. Russell Long, met the son of Carl Weiss. Russell Long had steadfastly maintained his public belief that his father was assassinated by Carl Weiss, but privately, he wasn’t always as adamant.
Three years ago, the writer Jonathan Alter unearthed a letter that Russell Long sent to Tom Ed Weiss, Carl’s brother. “We shared a personal tragedy,” he said of himself and Carl Weiss, Jr.
“It was my fortune to know some of the eyewitnesses and respect them,” he wrote about his father’s bodyguards. “I do not want to do anything to cast doubt on what they testified under oath. Yet I remain of the view that only the Eternal could know all that happened and why it happened as it did.”
Something else happened in 1993. Colonel Frances Gravemberg, who served as the Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police in the 1950s and a man who earned a sterling reputation for his work against organized crime, stated in a sworn affidavit that he knew the identities of the men who were responsible for shooting Huey P. Long.
Two troopers who were eyewitnesses to the shooting had told Colonel Gravemberg they watched Long’s bodyguards plant a gun on the unarmed Weiss shortly after accidentally wounding Long; the fatal bullet was aimed at Weiss but ricocheted off of a marble wall and struck the Kingfish.
In the late 1990s, the Louisiana State Police reviewed their investigation on Huey P. Long’s death, an investigation which, by all accounts, was flawed from the very beginning. “On September 16, 1935, a sham inquest was held, in which only fervent Long loyalists (including a puppet judge who later admitted he hadn’t seen the shooting) were allowed to testify and no autopsy or ballistics tests were conducted,” Jonathan Alter explained.
Despite the substantial evidence that Carl Weiss was not the shooter- indeed, could not have been the shooter, the police did not change their ruling. “We believe from a law enforcement standpoint that he had motive. We believe he had opportunity. And we believe he had the means to do the job. And we know that he was there,” they wrote then, a position that, presumably, they still hold.
The story of Huey P. Long will be told in Louisiana for generations to come, but hopefully, some day soon, we will tell the truth about the final chapter.