Part Two of Three
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You have shot me!”
On the night of Sept. 8, 1935, Sen. Huey P. Long was a body in constant motion. Even though he hadn’t left the state Capitol in Baton Rouge since arriving at his 24th floor apartment the previous afternoon, Long had been working at a frenetic pace for more than a week, operating on very little sleep and with a stubbornly persistent case of hay fever.
“As long as he [Long] was in his apartment [at the state Capitol], there was no break in the stream of people who came to call on him,” Murphy Johnson Roden, his most trusted bodyguard who would later rise to prominence both as a lieutenant commander in the naval reserves and as the assistant superintendent of the state police, once recalled.
Known to his friends as “Murph,” he was just 30 years old that night, the night that would define his life, all within a span of less than a minute, the night that he shot and killed a 29-year-old1 ear, nose, and throat specialist named Carl Austin Weiss, Sr., the night Huey Long took a bullet in the gut.
Roden was from Arcadia, Louisiana, way up in Bienville Parish, a place that had become world-famous only a year before, when a posse of lawmen led by Texas highway patrol officer Frank Hamer ambushed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker on the side of a dusty highway eight miles west of town, firing as many as 130 rounds into their 1934 Ford Deluxe V-8. Hours after the newswires first reported on the deaths of the couple known simply as Bonnie and Clyde, as many as 10,000 people flooded into tiny Arcadia, lining the sides of 2nd Street to watch as the bodies of the two gangsters were towed into town, still seated behind the wheel of their destroyed getaway car. At the time, Roden was already a seven-year veteran with the Louisiana Highway Patrol, appointed back in 1928 by then-Gov. O.H. Simpson, but he was watching a different circus, the one happening down in Baton Rouge.
On the first day of November 1934, at the direction of Gen. Louis F. Guerre (pronounced “gear”), Roden was transferred into the Louisiana State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the agency sometimes derided as Huey Long’s secret police force. Less than three months after joining the bureau, he received his first assignment. “For some time,” Roden testified six days after Long’s death, “my assignment was to stay with Sen. Long and see that no one harmed him.”
For the next 42 years of his life, Murph Roden refused to discuss his “sacred” time with Huey P. Long or to say anything about the night of Sept. 8, 1935 beyond what he’d recalled at the coroner’s inquest. He had “been with [Long] constantly since the 15th of January,” he said, which wasn’t literally true, of course, but was close enough. Roden had a commission with the Metropolitan Police Force in D.C. so that he could protect the Senator when he was on Capitol Hill, and he was with Long on Aug. 29, when the Kingfish left Washington for the final time, escaping to New York for a whirlwind 36-hour celebration.
“We flew to New York from Washington and went straight to the New Yorker Hotel, where they always put the senator in a suite on the thirty-second floor,” Theophile Landry, another bodyguard, recalled years later. In addition to Landry and Roden, Long’s entourage also included a third bodyguard, Paul Voitier. The three men were considered the most valued members of Long’s security force, who were frequently derided in the press as “skull crushers” and “Cossacks.”
“We got there on Aug. 29. I remember that because the next day, a Friday, was his birthday, and Ralph Hitz, the owner of the hotel, sent up a big birthday cake,” Landry said. “Lila Lee, a New Orleans girl who was vocalist for Nick Lucas’ band that was playing the New Yorker’s supper room, came up to the suite with the cake to sing ‘Happy-birthday-dear-Huey.’ After the cake had been cut and we all had a taste of it, he gave the rest to Ms. Lee.”
A day after his 42nd birthday, after catching only two hours of sleep, Huey P. Long took an early morning train to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania so he could meet with newspaper executives at the Telegraph. They’d expressed a keen interest in printing Long’s next book, My First Days in the White House. But before he finalized a publishing deal, he first attended a Long “family picnic” about 35 miles west, in Long’s Grove, a tiny hamlet outside of Lebanon. The annual reunion typically drew as many as 500 members of the sprawling Long family, but that year, more than 2,000 people showed up for the chance to meet their famous distant cousin.
Huey was a hit with the crowd, but, as the New York Times reported, there was at least one distant relative, “Cousin Cleve,” a “member of the Socialist branch of the family,” who made it abundantly clear that he opposed “Cousin Huey.” Cleve’s entreaties for an on-stage debate were ignored, and when he asked permission to deliver a speech he had prepared, his request was promptly denied. It may seem somewhat ironic. After all, Huey, whose Share Our Wealth Society promoted redistributing the richest privately-held fortunes in America, was considered by his many of his opponents to be a dangerous socialist. But among actual card-carrying Socialists as well as the 6,000 or so members of the Soviet-funded Communist Party USA, Huey P. Long was often the subject of intense criticism, believed to be a charlatan and a sham who was espousing just another iteration of capitalism.
Murph Roden hadn’t accompanied the senator on the trip. Instead of taking the train to Harrisburg, Roden checked out of the Hotel New Yorker and returned to Washington D.C. He was tasked with retrieving Long’s bright blue Cadillac limousine, which was brandished with Louisiana License Plate Number One, and motoring down to New Orleans along with Earle Christenberry. The Cadillac should not be confused with Long’s candy apple red 1935 DeSoto Airflow SG Business Coupe, which was outfitted with a D.C. plate identifying its owner as a member of the 74th Congress (pictured below).
From Harrisburg, Long climbed aboard an overnight train and headed to St. Louis. His final destination was Oklahoma City, where, on Monday, he was to deliver the keynote speech at the Oklahoma City Trades and Labor Council’s Labor Day celebration. When word spread that Long would be making a brief stop in St. Louis (a very brief stop, as the train to Oklahoma was scheduled to depart only 15 minutes after his arrival), “that old station there was packed and jammed like nobody ever saw before, with people that were not working, it being Sunday, so they just wanted to catch one glimpse of the man while he was passing through,” recalled Landry.
Whereas Long had been greeted by a delegation of elected officials during his short visit to America’s “Gateway to the West,” the reception he received in Oklahoma City wasn’t nearly as warm, even though Huey had himself once been an Okie. He lived briefly in nearby Norman after high school. Years before, an older brother, George, who was known by the nickname Shan, had moved to Oklahoma and established a dental practice. Shan Long also had managed to get himself elected to the Oklahoma state legislature back in 1920, stepping down after only a single term in what some have claimed was part of a deal he’d made to avoid corruption charges. (Eventually, he would return to Louisiana, where, 17 years after Huey’s death, he became the first member of the Long family to serve in the lower house of the United States Congress).
On Monday, after a last-minute decision to ride in the city’s Labor Day parade, Huey left Oklahoma as soon as he could, boarding the next train to Dallas. From Dallas, two bodyguards, Landry and Voitier, would drive their boss to Shreveport, where another bodyguard, George McQuiston, had been dispatched to bring him down to Baton Rouge the next morning in a state police car.
During the following three days, Tuesday through Thursday, Long plotted his next big move.
At Long’s behest, Gov. Allen would call for the legislature to convene in a streamlined special session on Saturday morning. Huey meanwhile made a last round of edits to the package of 42 bills he hoped to pass, 31 of which comprised a “final dossier of ‘dictatorship laws.'” They would be introduced all at once in the House late Saturday night, assigned to one of two committees, reported back favorably on Sunday night, passed along and rubber-stamped by the Senate on Monday, and then deposited on Gov. Allen’s desk for his signature.
Long had a few main priorities. If he was to challenge FDR in ’36, he wanted to ensure that he’d be at no risk of losing his seat in the Senate. To that end, he proposed moving the date of the next Democratic primary election for the Senate—the contest that would determine his re-election— from the fall up to January. He was also well-aware of how Roosevelt, who now believed Long to be one of the two most dangerous men in America, was intent on limiting his influence in Louisiana, planning, among other things, to use federal patronage to hire Long’s political opponents in the state for key positions in government. Hoping to return volley, Huey promoted a quixotic bill that would impose a $1,000 fine and jail time for any federal employee who violates the 10th Amendment, which designates to the states any powers not specifically provided otherwise to the federal government. He imagined the new law as a way of preventing interference with his “program” in Louisiana, though, admittedly, he recognized its constitutionality was subject to attack.
But at the very top of his wish list, House Bill Number One, was a proposal to gerrymander most of the 13th judicial district in the predominately anti-Long St. Landry Parish, then the fourth-most populated parish in the state, into the 15th judicial district, which included parts of pro-Long Acadia, Lafayette, and Vermillion Parishes. The intention was obvious. Long wanted to draw one of his fiercest and most prominent political enemies, seven-term incumbent Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy, out of office.
After two full days of work in Baton Rouge, on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 5, 1935, Huey P. Long rushed down to the Roosevelt hotel in New Orleans, where he broadcasted a three-hour radio show for WDSU.
That night, for the first time in over a month, he finally managed to get a night of restive sleep at his home on 14 Audubon Boulevard in New Orleans, a 5,300 square-foot four bedroom “mansion” only a stone’s throw away from the Tulane campus, later described in an application to the National Register of Historic Places as a “pretentious example of a 1920s suburban residence in the Mediterranean mode.”
Long was up early the next morning, returning to the Roosevelt, where he would hold court with the aforementioned Seymour Weiss, the hotel’s proprietor and Long’s most loyal and most valued advisor. Before he headed back to Baton Rouge on Saturday for the special session, the two planned a round of golf at the course in Audubon Park. As such, instead of spending the night at home with his family, Huey decided to remain put in his suite at the Roosevelt.
Gov. Allen would issue the call for a special session at 10 a.m. Saturday, right around the time Huey and Seymour were barreling down St. Charles Avenue, en route to the golf course, in Seymour’s brand-new Cadillac. The car would be ruined only a day later after Seymour blew out the engine in his rush to Huey’s hospital bedside in Baton Rouge.
Murph parked Huey’s Cadillac— with License Plate Number One— outside of the golf course at Audubon Park. There was no need to hurry, for once. The legislature wasn’t set to convene until 10:00 p.m.
“On Saturday evening, September 7—the session’s first night—Huey became enraged at the sight of elderly [journalist and adversary] Thomas O. Harris, who was sitting with friends at the press table in the House of Representatives,” writes William Ivy Hair in The Kingfish and His Realm. “Long cursed Harris, Harris cursed back, and the Kingfish’s bodyguard George McQuiston slapped the old man, who was then taken to jail and booked as drunk and disorderly. Otherwise, the evening was quiet.”
Most of Sunday was quiet as well. Passage of Huey’s legislation was a foregone conclusion.
At 7:00 p.m., an hour before the House was scheduled to gavel into session, Long claimed the seat behind Gov. Allen’s desk and began calling in his legislative leaders, individually, to ensure they would all be present the following morning for a caucus of his supporters. Afterward, he roamed in and out of the chamber and through the corridors and backrooms of the Capitol, his Capitol, for its very existence had been first constructed out of his imagination.
Journalist Hermann B. Deutsch retraced Long’s steps with precision for nearly the next two-and-a-half hours, up until sometime between 9:19 to 9:22 p.m. From his 1963 book The Huey Long Murder Case:
The stage is set for a violent climax. Huey Long has turned through the anteroom of the governor’s office, where Chick Frampton [reporter for the New Orleans Item], bending over the desk with his back to the door, is preparing once more to lay down the telephone without breaking the long-distance connection to New Orleans. He has told his editor, Coad, to hang on while he—Frampton—goes in search of the Senator, and does not see Huey just behind him. Intent on his conversation with Coad, he has heard neither the Senator’s question as to whether everyone has been notified about the morning’s early caucus, nor Joe Bates’s [special agent of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation] affirmative reply.
By the time he puts down the telephone and turns, Huey Long has already dashed out into the hallway where [Judge] John Fournet steps forward to greet him. The Senator stops momentarily to talk to A. P. White [Gov. Allen’s secretary] in the partly opened private doorway to the inner office. He has noticed, while looking over the House from the Speaker’s rostrum, that some of his legislative supporters are absent, and asks White where the hell this one, that one, and the other one are, adding: “Find them. If necessary, sober them up, and have them at that meeting because we just might need their votes tomorrow!” Then he turns, facing the direction of the House chamber.
For that one fractional moment every actor is motionless: Huey Long, with John Fournet at his left elbow and Murphy Roden just behind his right shoulder; Chick Frampton in the very act of stepping into the corridor from the double doors of the governor’s anteroom; Elliott Coleman [Long bodyguard and later Sheriff of Tensas Parish] down the hall in the direction of the House, near the door of the small private elevator reserved for the governor’s use; and among three or four individuals standing in the marble-paneled niche recessed into the wall opposite the double doors where Frampton is standing, a slim figure in a white suit.
Inside of the House chambers, members were wrapping up for the night when the room was jolted by rapid series of loud bangs.
“Fireworks,” joked Speaker Allen Ellender.
The Final Days of Huey P. Long
Aug. 29-Sept. 10, 1935
Next page: Rage Against the (Long) Machine
Warning: The following pages contain images that some may find disturbing and inappropriate for children without parental guidance.