Carl Austin Weiss was the most unlikely of all American assassins.”
Before we consider the physical evidence and the findings of forensic scientists and investigators, we should first consider why, at 9:22 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 8, 1935, the young Baton Rouge physician felt compelled to climb up the 48 steps of the state house and approach the Kingfish.
The most common explanation for Weiss’ motive, if he is said to have had one, begins with the fact that he happened to be the son-in-law of none other than Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy. In this telling, the young doctor became so enraged upon hearing Long’s plan to gerrymander Pavy out of his judicial seat that he decided to exact his revenge.
The judge, it’s worth mentioning, wasn’t the only member of the Pavy family to have earned Long’s ire. Ben Pavy’s brother Paul lost his job as the principal of an Opelousas high school, and his daughter Marie, who taught at the nearby elementary school was fired as well, ostensibly because they were not certified by the Long-controlled board of education. Or so the story goes.
Others claim that Long was preparing to resurrect a rumor from the very beginning of Judge Pavy’s career, nearly 30 years prior, that alleged the Pavy were part-Black and that the young physician, having heard this, was there to defend his family’s honor. This, too, is difficult to substantiate.
“Questioned years later, some of Long’s associates claimed they never heard that the Kingfish was planning to resurrect the rumor about African ancestry in the Pavy family,” William Ivy Hair writes in The Kingfish and His Realm. “Others, however, said they knew of it. Most specific was Joe Fisher, who was close to Long, and who recalled: ‘Huey . . . had warned Pavy for six months to lay off him [or] he would say the Pavys have ‘coffee blood.’ In some way this got out and Weiss heard about it.’ Huey, Fisher noted in a tone of admiration, ‘was like a rattlesnake, he always warned first.’ It was characteristic of Long, when striking his lowest blows, to resurrect charges someone else had made years earlier; probably the Long organization was not preparing to cite the Kingfish as saying the Pavy family had Negro blood, but rather that Sheriff Marion Swords of St. Landry Parish had said so back in 1910.”
Regardless of how Long presumably would have framed the attack, there is at least one piece of tantalizing evidence that seems to support the claim that it was in the works. Only hours before the shooting, Long placed a phone call to Joe David, the owner of Franklin Printing in New Orleans and the man Huey turned to for campaign fliers and circulars. Fisher claimed that Long had told him to await an “important story” about Judge Pavy that he’d be sending him for the American Progress, Huey’s propaganda outlet. But the story never arrived, and David never learned what Huey had in mind.
One of the principal promoters of this theory, at least initially, was Congressman Cleveland Dear, an anti-Long flamethrower from Alexandria who made the accusation the centerpiece of his campaign for governor in 1936. Dear offered nothing but hot air, and today, when you read the reports of his antics in the news archives of papers like The Shreveport Journal and The Alexandria Daily Town Talk, it’s difficult not to feel a little repulsed by the way he so shamelessly exploited the grief of Weiss’ family, especially Dr. Carl Austin Weiss’ 57-year-old father, Dr. Carl Adam Weiss.
Others, like Walter Winchell, the celebrity gossip columnist and syndicated radio host, floated to his audience—”Mr. and Mrs. America,” he called them— the outlines of another concocted motive:
Not only had Huey thrown Weiss’ dad-in-law in the gutter because of political differences of opinion, but Huey had taken his two sisters (instructors in Baton Rouge high schools and had them kicked out to show his authority. On top of ALL THAT, Long issued an order prohibiting young Dr. Weiss from operating in any hospital in Baton Rouge or vicinity!…Thus ruining the whole family and wrecking their lives. When he went to the hospital that night, the surgeon-in-chief had just gotten the order, and when he told Weiss, the poor fellow just had about all he could endure naturally.
Suffice it to say, there is absolutely no truth whatsoever to the claim that Huey Long had somehow yanked Carl Weiss’ hospital admitting privileges.
Conspiracies flourish best in a vacuum, and both the decision not to perform autopsies for either Weiss or Long and the perception that the initial investigation into the shooting deaths had been politicized and rushed (to be sure, some argue it’d been delayed) were more than sufficient in creating room for doubt.
Considering that the Washington D.C. bureau of United Press International had received word of Long’s shooting as well as the name of his would-be assassin only ten minutes later, you can be certain that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had heard as well. Within the first hour or so, there were cables being circulated throughout the bureau, the first of which was incorrectly dated “9-7-35” and wrongly claimed that Long had been shot twice. Hoover jotted a quick note on the bottom of the memo: “No investigation as no federal law violated. J.E.H.”
A few days later, after he was sent a news clipping of a report out of Baton Rouge claiming that Wingate White, president of the newly-formed organization Young Democrats of Louisiana, had telegrammed President Roosevelt to request that he authorize a federal investigation into the shooting. “Be careful,” Hoover scrawled on the clipping, “& caution our New Orleans office to avoid any contact with this situation. 9/13/35 J.E.H.”
Hoover, it should be noted, was entirely correct in his assessment. At the time, there wasn’t any federal law against threatening, harming, or even assassinating a federal official. The crime was purely a matter of state law, and the FBI had no jurisdiction over its investigation. (This would change in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination).
To those who insist in Carl Weiss’ innocence, the counter-narrative starts with a portrayal of Weiss as a gentle, prodigiously talented, and preternaturally brilliant doctor who was not only too smart to do something so stupid but who also who believed deeply in following the Hippocratic Oath’s command to “do no harm.”
There was nothing about Weiss, we’re told, that could have indicated he was ever capable of committing such a brazen act of unprovoked violence. He played the piano beautifully, was fluent in German and French, finished medical school when he was only 21, studied in Vienna and Paris. He was bookish but not detached. Plus, he had everything to live for, and he had given every indication that he planned on living. He and his wife had their first child, a boy named Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., only three months before. Earlier in the day, he and his family, including both of his parents, spent a few hours of carefree relaxation at their camp on the Amite River. That very night, he had been lining up his appointments and figuring out his schedule for the week. He’d never been a fighter. He weighed less than 130 pounds, which worried his father, whose last conversation with his son had been about how he needed to eat more.
Besides, Carl wasn’t ever into politics.
But this portrait has been almost entirely constructed by members of Weiss and Pavy families, who, for the past 86 years, have vigorously fought to exonerate him if not officially than at least in the court of public opinion.
Following Long’s death, Earle Christenberry eviscerated those who had refused to take Long’s concerns seriously, and both he and others in the Long organization began spreading a rumor that Carl Weiss had attended the meeting at the DeSoto (There was a man whose name was transcribed as “Dr. Wise” in attendance, and some believe it’s possible that Carl Austin’s father, Carl Adam, was present).
As Clarke points out, both T. Harry Williams and Dr. Octave Pavy, who had initially served as the family’s spokesperson, espoused the theory that Weiss was on a moral crusade. Williams doubted that Weiss had even heard the rumors about Huey’s intention to smear Judge Pavy. Therefore, it must’ve been about larger moral and ethical concerns. As for Dr. Pavy, this was the initial statement he put out on the family’s behalf:
Our only explanation for his action is that this [Long’s] suppressive type of rule preyed on his mind until it unhinged, and he suddenly felt himself a martyr, giving his life to the people of Louisiana. He must have felt that way, else how could he have left the wife and baby he loved above everything?
With respect to the third theory, it is true that, almost immediately, there was speculation Long had been shot accidentally by his trigger-happy bodyguards. Aside from his family’s clearly incorrect assessment of his emotional and psychological well-being and the belief that Weiss Sr. was simply smart enough to not be so stupid, there are a few other reasons the family continues to insist in Carl Weiss, Sr.’s innocence.
First, the decisions by both families to not conduct autopsies on either man (but particularly on Long) deprived the public from knowing, with certainty, who shot whom. Weiss would have been the only person carrying a .32 caliber; everyone carried either a .38 or a .45. The bullet (or bullets) that Weiss allegedly fired have never been recovered. No weapon can be seen in the crime scene photos of Weiss’ body, which had obviously been rolled over and propped up before pictures were taken.
But there’s an obvious problem with any theory that exclusively assigns fault to Long’s bodyguards or that suggests Weiss lacked a sufficient motive. When the Weiss and Pavy families first learned of Carl’s death and the allegations he had shot Huey P. Long, the question they couldn’t figure out wasn’t, “Why would Carl want to kill Huey Long?” It was, “Why was Carl even there in the first place?
In the past 30 years, no one was more effective at advocating in defense of Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. than his son, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., who died in 2019 at the age of 84. In a testament to how much of an impact he made in restarting and then reorienting the terms of the discussion, news of his passing earned an extensive and respectful obituary from the New York Times.
Weiss Jr. was an undeniably sympathetic figure. Distinguished, erudite, and genteel, he’d been only three months old when his father died and had somehow been shielded from learning the shameful truth—his mother told him that he passed away in a “shooting accident”— until he was ten and discovered John McGrady’s illustration (at the top of this page) while thumbing through the most recent edition Life magazine.
After the shooting, his mother, Yvonne, moved them back to her family’s home in Opelousas and, shortly thereafter, to Paris, where they likely would have lived permanently had World War II not gotten in the way. Before she met her late husband and after earning a bachelor’s degree from Newcomb College (today, part of Tulane University), Yvonne won a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. Instead, though, on Sept. 3, 1939, mere hours before the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany, mother and son boarded the Île de France and sailed to New York.
Yvonne was, in her own right, a remarkable woman. Stylishly beautiful and whip-smart, she eventually decided to return to higher education, hoping to earn her doctorate in French Studies at Columbia University. She defended her dissertation, a sprawling, nearly 500-page study of “Louisiana in French letters,” which you can download here, in 1943. For reasons that remain unclear, however, Columbia withheld the degree. (Carl A. Weiss, Jr. claimed that he only spoke French at home and didn’t learn English until he was older).
In the 1950s, she remarried a textile executive named Henri “Hap” Bourgeois and took a job as the librarian at Farmingdale High School in Long Island. When she passed away from colon cancer in December of 1963, at just 55 years old, John Thistlethwaite, the editor of her hometown paper, the Opelousas Daily World, described her as, “one of the warmest, most engaging, most intelligent and lovable souls that Opelousas and St. Landry Parish has ever produced.” Farmingdale High School renamed its library in her honor.
“She was not only beautiful to look at but a beautiful person,” Miriam Silver, the first director of the Yvonne Bourgeois Library, told the New York Times in 1993. “There was something regal about her.”
In 2017, Columbia University decided to take another look at her dissertation, and she became, posthumously, Dr. Louise Yvonne Pavy Weiss Bourgeois.
Understandably, she rarely spoke about her late husband. She remembered Sept. 8, 1935, which began with mass in the morning and and then an afternoon at their camp on the Amite (technically, the camp was owned by one of her father-in-law’s colleagues, but the Weisses used it more than anyone) as “one of the happiest days of our lives.”
“And Sunday night,” she said, “was the saddest.”
Although cancer took her before she could grow old, one can’t help but be impressed with how she persevered with grace and panache.
“My mother had a world-shattering tragedy in her life,” her son once said. “But she was strong enough to survive it and overcome it.”
It must also be said, however, that her decision to conceal from her son the truth about his father’s death wasn’t just about protecting him; it was also allowed her to avoid confronting some extraordinarily difficult questions. Her late husband’s brother, for example, Tom Ed Weiss, not only refused to believe Carl could ever be capable of murder, he insisted that after killing his brother, Long’s bodyguards were somehow able to steal Weiss’ car keys, rush downstairs and into the parking lot, break into Carl’s vehicle, a black Buick, pilfer through his glove compartment, and, presumably with nothing more than blind luck, find Carl’s Browning pistol. Others, like James E. Starrs, a forensic scientist who, with the family’s cooperation and support, exhumed and then conducted an autopsy on Weiss’ body in 1991, have attempted to rationalize Weiss’ decision to carry a weapon with him—something that doesn’t exactly square with the portrayal of Weiss as a man who never contemplated violence— as standard practice for any physician of the time. But Yvonne was well-aware of the fact that her late husband had actually purchased the gun, a used, $25 .32 caliber Belgian Browning pistol, while he was studying abroad in France, years before he became a practicing physician, and that he was proud of the weapon. In fact, that very day, he’d carried the pistol with him when they went to the camp. Together that afternoon, Yvonne and Carl took turns “plink[ing] at targets in the Amite River,” Weiss Jr. would later acknowledge, though he did not believe that his father actually carried the gun with him inside of the Capitol.
Yvonne also knew that her husband had been upset by the news that Long intended on gerrymandering Judge Pavy out of a job. He’d discussed this with her at some point on Sunday; Yvonne couldn’t recall whether the conversation took place during the morning (a story about Judge Pavy appeared in Sunday’s Advocate) or when they were at the camp in the afternoon, but she remembered his words. “Carl said, ‘It’s just terrible that no one is doing anything about it,'” she would recall years later. “I said, ‘What could you do? Nothing could be done about it.'”
While other members of her family portrayed her late husband as being apolitical and uninterested in the business of the legislature, she knew otherwise. “Carl felt very strongly about injustices, and he thought that was a terrible injustice. And, of course, he didn’t like Long or his tactics, disapproved of him,” she said. “He thought this was the last straw.”
- In Part One of this series, I described Carl Weiss, Sr. as being 28 years old, which relied on multiple sources, including listings on the genealogical website Ancestry.com and Weiss’ Wikipedia page, which claims Weiss was born on Dec. 6, 1906. Shortly after Weiss’ death, various press accounts reported that he was 30 years old. However, in his testimony during the coroner’s inquest, Weiss’ father, Dr. Carl Adam Weiss, stated that his son was 29 years old, and there are various sources that list Weiss’ birthday as Dec. 6, 1905. I think I have figured out the confusion. In records from the 1910, 1920, and 1930 Census counts, Carl Austin Weiss’ ages are listed as four, 14, and 26, respectively. After publishing Part One, I was able to obtain Weiss’ autopsy report, which states, in no uncertain terms, that he was 29 years and nine months old at the time of his death. He was born on Dec. 18, 1905 at 446 North Street in Baton Rouge.