Above all, he gave the Southern masses hope. He did some foolish things and some wrong things. He said some things that he should not have said and some that he did not believe. But this we may be certain he meant: ‘my voice will be the same as it has been. Patronage will not change it. Fear will not change it. It cannot be changed while people suffer. The only way it can be changed is to make the lives of these people decent and respectable.'”
I’ve written about the death of Huey P. Long previously, unpacking the various reasons why I had believed that the official version of story—the one that I was taught in middle school (in a textbook written by two of my great-aunts) and the one that has been generally (though not universally) accepted for nearly nine decades—was a lie: Huey P. Long, I argued, wasn’t assassinated.
But since publishing that essay three years ago here on the Bayou Brief, I’ve done a substantial amount of reading on the subject of Long (and Longism), primarily in connection with the book I am writing about reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t attempt to write about Louisiana during the 20th century (or Louisiana politics in any century) without first possessing a working knowledge of the biography of the man who called himself “the Kingfish.”
Marcello was 25 years old in the small hours of the morning of Sept. 10, 1935, when, at precisely 4:06 a.m., Huey Pierce Long, Jr. finally decided to give up the ghost. To be sure, it is unlikely the two were ever personally acquainted. Marcello was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, throughout the majority of Long’s reign. Prior to that, he was a teenager who roamed the oyster-shelled streets of the bohemian French Quarter, making ends meet by engaging in a series of petty crimes and by bringing produce from his father’s vegetable farm to the Sicilian-Italian grocers who controlled the French Market. Yet there are few people who would affect Marcello’s destiny more profoundly than Long.
But I’ll save that for the book.
Presently, in this three-part essay, my purpose is to both synthesize the research and commentary I’ve collected about the controversies and conspiracies surrounding Long’s death and to explain why I am now persuaded that, while his motives may never be understood, 29-year-old Baton Rouge physician Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. was indeed Long’s assassin.
As many of you are doubtlessly aware, there is scant physical evidence remaining; aside from a couple of holes in the marble walls and columns of the state Capitol that tour guides insist are bullet holes left during the pandemonium that night, we have only Dr. Weiss’ Browning Model 1910-32 .32 caliber pistol, a hodgepodge of shell casings of questionable provenance, photographs of Dr. Weiss’ savagely mangled body laying on the cold marble floor of the state Capitol, sworn testimonies from multiple eyewitnesses, an almost negligently thin medical record on Long’s vitals, treatment, and prognosis while he was a patient at Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium, and a pair of unpublished photographs purporting to be the clothing Long wore the night of the shooting.
There was a coroner’s inquest a week after Long’s burial, which determined that Long had been struck by a single bullet that entered near his kidneys and left a small exit wound in his back. On the 50th anniversary of Long’s death, his son, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, entered the entire coroner’s inquest report, including transcripts with all witnesses, into the congressional record (begin on page 23210).
In 1991, the Louisiana State Police would reopen the investigation, albeit briefly, after the discovery of the purported murder weapon. You can download the LSP’s final report here. That same year, the family of Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. ordered that his body be exhumed and that an autopsy be performed. We will address both the reopened investigation and the Weiss autopsy later and in greater detail.
For now, though, if you will beg my pardon, I’d like to radically reorder the standard structure for works like these and rescue the bibliography from the end pages so that I can both introduce you to some of the sources upon which I relied and to offer my own critiques and assessment of at least part of what amounts to a massive body of scholarship.
What’s the point, exactly? One of the things that I failed to take into consideration in my previous essay was the significant extent to which the well-worn battle lines between pro-Long and anti-Long forces influences the terms of the discussion.
I also hope that this will serve as an online compendium for those interested in learning more about the life of Louisiana’s most legendary political leader. Throughout these pages, you will find a series of archival photographs, many of which I have transformed from their original black and white into full color, as well as newspaper clippings, documents, and scholarly essays about Huey P. Long.
For those of you unfamiliar with Louisiana, this map should be useful:
There were several texts from which I drew the bulk of my critique, including Long’s 1,707-page FBI file. Since I couldn’t find a version that contained the full document in a single file, I decided to create one myself, which you can download here.
Additionally, there were multiple books and essays that I found particularly instructive. These books include, in no particular order: Richard D. White, Jr.’s (no relation) 2006 biography Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long, Dr. Donald Pavy’s Accident And Deception: The Huey Long Shooting and Addendum (originally published in 1999 but updated in 2016), Alan Brinkley’s award-winning 1983 book Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression, and William Ivy Hair’s 1991 book The Kingfish and His Realm: The Life and Times of Huey P. Long, all of which be purchased as digital downloads via Amazon, as well as Ed Reed’s 1986 book Requiem for a Kingfish: The Strange and Unexplained Death of Huey Long and the aforementioned 1963 book The Huey Long Murder Case by Hermann B. Deutsch, which are both out-of-print.
I should note that I found this pristine, signed first edition copy of Reed’s book, numbered 2150 out of 2500, for sale on eBay for only $25.
If you live in Louisiana, it should also be fairly easy to find a copy of Requiem for a Kingfish at your local public library. I genuinely enjoyed Reed’s book, even if I disagreed with his ultimate conclusion and thought he occasionally made too much of a big deal about minor inconsistencies between eyewitnesses (It shouldn’t be shocking that there was a great deal of confusion from the moment the first shot was fired).
Physical copies of Deutsch’s book, which I thought was spectacularly written and imminently credible, are slightly more difficult, though not impossible, to come by, but fortunately, you can find the entirety of The Huey Long Murder Case available to read online and at no charge through Project Gutenberg.
Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell believes that the late William Ivy Hair produced “the best Long biography written to date” with The Kingfish and His Realm. With all due respect to Powell, I strongly disagree. Hair wrote a fine book. It’s accessible and mainstream, which I suppose was the point. If the subject interests you, I recommend you read it. But Powell’s praise of The Kingfish and His Realm—which, by the way, was published by LSU Press— amounts to a not-so-subtle disparagement of the most acclaimed work of biographical scholarship ever produced by an LSU faculty member, the seminal text on Long: T. Harry Williams’ 1969 opus Huey Long, winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, which is available in hardcover and paperback as well as a 31-hour audiobook.
Williams’ book is a genuine masterpiece and a groundbreaking work of oral history, amassed out of a trove of interviews he conducted with members of the Long family, lifelong friends, colleagues, supporters, opponents, and those who knew him best. Start there.
Critics of the book believe that Williams was too deferential to the Long family and overly generous to Long, which is another way of saying that Williams’ biography, unlike practically every other previous book about Huey P. Long, didn’t condemn the man as a brazenly corrupt, demagogic troglodyte.
In the interest of enhancing the public’s knowledge and enriching our collective understanding of the life and the death of the most significant political leader in Louisiana history (and with the caveat that I am guided by the wisdom of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper when she said, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”), I also decided to upload and to share an essay by Professor Williams and the prepared version of a speech he delivered in 1959 as well as six additional academic essays by other scholars that I found especially instructive.
- T. Harry Williams, “Louisiana Mystery: An Essay Review.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 6, no. 3, 1965, pp. 287–291. Click here to download.
- T. Harry Williams, “The Gentleman from Louisiana: Demagogue or Democrat.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 26, no. 1, 1960, pp. 3–21. Click here to download.
- U.S. Rep. Harold B. McSween (D- Alexandria, Louisiana), “Huey Long at His Centenary.” The Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 69, no. 3, 1993, pp. 509–520. Read online here. Click here to download.
- J. Michael Hogan and Glen Williams, “The Rusticity and Religiosity of Huey P. Long.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 7, no. 2, 2004, pp. 149–171. Click here to download.
- Mark T. Carleton, “Four Anti-Longites: A Tentative Assessment.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 30, no. 3, 1989, pp. 249–262. Click here to download.
- Edward F. Haas, “Huey Long and the Dictators.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 47, no. 2, 2006, pp. 133–151. Click here to download.
- Edward F. Haas, “Huey Pierce Long and Historical Speculation.” The History Teacher, vol. 27, no. 2, 1994, pp. 125–131. Click here to download.
- Hugh Davis Graham, “The Enigma of Huey Long: An Essay Review.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 36, no. 2, 1970, pp. 205–211. Click here to download.
Before unpacking the circumstances of Long’s death, it’s important to first recognize the significant extent to which this entire discussion is defined by radically divergent perceptions and portrayals of Huey P. Long the person and Huey P. Long the political persona.
Indeed, with the exception of Long’s FBI file and the Louisiana State Police’s Final Investigative Report, all of these texts make at least some attempt to answer the same simple question, a question that perplexed Long’s contemporaries and continues to divide his biographers and historians: Who was Huey Pierce Long, Jr.?
A brief digression: On Nov. 3, 1918, when Rose McConnell Long gave birth to a baby boy, her husband Huey was out on the campaign trail, running in his first election, for a seat on the Railroad Commission (now known as the Public Service Commission). By the time he returned to their home in Shreveport, he learned that she had named their newborn “Huey Pierce Long III,” a decision that earned his immediate veto.
“I was Huey Long, Jr., and I hated being ‘Little Huey’ all my life,” he told Rose. “I’m not going to wish that on a son. Furthermore, when a man is in politics, he almost always winds up being repudiated. It’s better for a boy to have his own name if things go badly for me, he can have his own name to make it on.”
They decided instead to name their boy Russell, but, as it turned out, they never actually got around to changing the boy’s birth certificate. When Russell Long went to enlist in the Navy in June of 1942, he learned, for the first time, that his legal name was actually Huey Pierce Long III. The future U.S. Senator then filed the necessary paperwork to ensure his given name, Russell Billiu (his middle name was in honor of his mother’s cousin), would also be his legal name.
I mention all of this because recently, I spoke with Russell Long Mosely, the grandson of Sen. Russell Long and the great-grandson of Sens. Rose McConnell Long and Huey Pierce Long. Mosely, 46, is an attorney and Baton Rouge real estate developer, and as I discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s also an effortlessly articulate political thinker and a proud but earnest defender of his maternal great-grandfather’s legacy.
Huey Long, he reminded me, was only 34 years old when he became the 40th governor of Louisiana, an improbably young age that seems even more remarkable when one considers that Long had run a credible campaign for governor four years prior. (Incidentally, Louisiana’s youngest governor was Henry Clay Warmoth, who was 26 when he was elected in 1868. Warmoth was still alive when Long took the oath of office 60 years later).
In Mosely’s opinion, it’s important to appreciate the extent to which Long’s youth not only influenced his temperament and leadership style but also how he was perceived by his political opponents and portrayed in the press.
More fundamentally, any understanding of Huey P. Long must begin with an understanding of the time in which he emerged as a political force, something that Mosely explained in detail during a Huey Long symposium in 2010.
I think he’s right.