Holes in the Story: Huey P. Long, Carl Weiss, and the American Spectacle of Conspiracy

Image credit: Lamar White, Jr. | Bayou Brief

As generations of Louisiana social studies and history teachers can confirm, a highlight of the tour at the Capitol in Baton Rouge, both for schoolchildren and their adult chaperones, are the bullet holes that festoon the marble walls of the corridor where the Kingfish was shot and Carl Weiss was killed in a hail of gunfire. (The pencil that is still lodged into the ceiling of the Senate chambers after a bomb exploded in April of 1970 is also pretty cool). Although many of the holes have been filled in or patched up over the years, there are at least a couple that you can easily spot (and poke with your finger, if you so desire).

The holes are not only a relic; they are tangible, tactile evidence of one of the most consequential and defining events in Louisiana history. They also help visitors to imagine the sheer pandemonium that must’ve unfolded at that very spot nearly nine decades ago, illustrating the recklessness and the brutality of the response by Huey Long’s bodyguards.

There’s just one problem, however. At the risk of spoiling all of the fun and with all due respect to all of the wonderful people who have served as tour guides at the Louisiana Capitol, I regret to inform you: Those aren’t bullet holes. They’re actually just defects in the marble, which are known to occur for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which being the passage of time. And no, this isn’t just my “opinion,” and despite what some may suggest, there’s nothing debatable about it.

Tellingly, in the months after Long’s assassination, apparently no one in the press or in state government or even in law enforcement noticed that the marble slab walls at the site of the shooting were riddled with bullets. When investigators inspected the crime scene for evidence of fresh damage the following day, they reported finding only a single nick on a marble column approximately three feet away from Weiss’ body. But when they went back to look a second time, the nick couldn’t be located, suggesting it was probably an illusion created by the lighting.

Additionally, multiple reviews of the photographs taken of Weiss’ body at the crime scene reveal that the marble walls and flooring were completely undamaged.

Based on what I’ve been able to gather from state and national news archives, it appears that the claim was originally concocted by the producers of the radio show Frank Watanabe and The Honorable Archie, a brazenly racist series about the exploits of a Japanese “houseboy” named Frank (voiced by Eddie Holden) and his employer, a British aristocrat named Archie (voiced by Reginald Sharland).

A transcript of the episode about the scene of Huey P. Long’s assassination appeared in the April 16, 1936 edition of the Napa Daily Journal (the broken English was deliberate):

It’s worth emphasizing: This was a fictional program; there was never a fact-finding trip to Baton Rouge. Nonetheless, the folklore about holes in the walls quickly took on a life of its own, and when tourists began showing up at the Capitol in search of the defective marble, state officials, for the most part, enthusiastically promoted the attraction, even though several of them knew it was entirely fabricated.

However, after Robert Kennon was elected governor, he ordered the corridor to be cordoned off from the general public in order to expand the size of his office’s waiting room. The marble slabs were removed and replaced with wood paneling, and for a few years, Kingfish curiosity-seekers were out of luck. But when Huey’s younger brother Earl took back power in 1956, the legislature unanimously adopted a resolution by state Rep. Alton De Nux of Avoyelles Parish urging that the original marble paneling be reinstalled.

At this point you may be wondering how this ever became a part of the assassination narrative in the first place, considering that, initially, no one even noticed the bullet holes and that photographs of the crime scene, taken on the night of the shooting, didn’t reveal any damage. If you’ve ever visited the Louisiana Capitol, then you know that there are, in fact, noticeable holes in the walls and in at least one column at the spot of the shooting.

While no one ever fessed up to it publicly, it seems pretty obvious the tourist attraction that’s been on display at the Capitol since 1967 is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. (Renovations that relocated the governor’s office from the main floor to its current digs on the fourth floor delayed the corridor’s reopening to the public).

Indeed, there were holes that could be found in the Capitol’s marble walls on the night of the shooting. They were just 10 to 15 feet down the hall, and as those who worked in the building since its opening on May 16, 1932 could have told you, they were part of the original construction.

In 1954, Hermann Deutsch, veteran New Orleans newsman and author of the 1963 book The Huey Long Murder Case, began grumbling to fellow reporters about how new holes seemed to be suddenly materializing at the location of the shooting while the original ones down the hall were being patched up or filled in.

“Hermann Deutsch stood by shaking his head in the lobby hallway where Huey Long died,” the Opelousas Daily World reported in June of 1954. “Some tourists were fingering the ‘bullet holes’ in the wall. ‘Tain’t so,’ he told us, pointing out the genuine holes in the marble wall beginning about 10 feet away, which had all been filled in with plaster and hardly showed up. ‘I was standing right here when the bullets started,’ he said, pointed. ‘Huey fell right here, like this,’ he said, indicating. But he agreed with us that whoever chipped the new holes, giving tourists something to gawk at, probably did a smart thing.”

In late 1966, when renovations were finally finished on the governor’s new offices on fourth floor, State Buildings Supt. Jerry Bennett gleefully announced that the original marble slab walls with the bullet holes from the night of the shooting were going back on display for the public.

Less than a year later, however, he made another announcement.

“They are not bullet holes,” he said. “They are soft spots and deteriorated spots in the marble. The holes flaked out.”

It turns out that the marble walls currently in place at the site of the assassination of Huey Long and the killing of Carl Weiss are not the original slabs, despite Alton De Nux’s efforts and the legislature’s insistence. You don’t need to conduct a complicated forensics or chemical analysis to figure this out (though testing, which has been done, confirms the material is different). All you need are a few photos of the walls and flooring in 1935 and photos of the same locations today. Better yet, if you ever find yourself at the Capitol, bring the old photos with you; the differences between the “new” marble and the original are difficult to miss.

Notwithstanding my general belief in the principles of an education based on truth and facts and the free and open exchange of ideas, I can understand why some may suggest that the stories about the fake bullet holes in the wrong marble are largely harmless and ultimately inconsequential. As a pedagogical tool, stories like these—imaginative albeit violent— can make history more engaging and accessible for certain types of students, and, as a result, those students will be more likely to cultivate critical thinking and research skills. Of course that only works if the exhibit at the Capitol provides the scientific explanation—that is, the geological, chemical, and environmental factors—for the bullet-shaped holes.

That’s not what we are presenting. Instead, under the imprimatur of the state and the pretense of attracting tourists, Louisiana officials have, for several decades, either deliberately misrepresented or unwittingly fabricated evidence at the scene of a political assassination, which has the effect of deflecting responsibility from Weiss (who was seen both carrying and firing his .32 caliber pistol at near-pointblank range into the Senator’s abdomen), while also shifting blame and scrutiny to Long’s bodyguards (under the theory that Long was killed by at least one or perhaps as many as three bullets that missed Weiss, ricocheted off of the marble walls, and then struck the Kingfish).

JFK Assassination conspiracists have argued for nearly 60 years against the so-called “magic bullet,” which refers a controversial finding by the Warren Commission that Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally were struck by the same bullet. In fairness, there were legitimate reasons to be skeptical. We know Oswald fired three shots. Kennedy was struck twice, Connally once. Initially (and understandably), investigators assumed the three hits accounted for all three bullets. The FBI, however, had determined that Oswald’s rifle couldn’t be fired any faster than 2.25 seconds, which wouldn’t have been a concern except that Abraham Zapruder’s home video recording clearly showed Kennedy and then Connally getting shot within a span of less than two seconds. This is what gave rise to the theory of a second shooter in the Grassy Knoll. Given the locations of their wounds and the way in which they were seated (Kennedy behind Connally), conspiracists asserted there was no way the same bullet could have struck both men, unless it somehow abruptly—or magically— changed directions. And that would have been true, except conspiracy theorists were unaware of one critical detail. The backseat of Kennedy’s limousine was built three inches higher than its front seats. When the crime scene models were adjusted to account for that factor, the bullet’s trajectory lined up perfectly. Mystery solved.

Unlike the assassination of President Kennedy, there isn’t any video footage of the encounter between Huey Long and Carl Weiss or of Weiss and Long’s bodyguards. And if there were photographers still in the building, they either had decided to high-tail it out of what sounded like an active war zone or they simply weren’t fast enough. The entire terrifying ordeal may have felt like an eternity to those who witnessed it, but in reality, it was over within a matter of minutes. Huey bolted out almost immediately. He was already downstairs assuring Jimmy O’Connor that he was not, in fact, joking about getting shot when his boys—the Cossacks, people sometimes called them—finally stopped shooting.

Assume for a moment that the story told by members and defenders of the Weiss and Pavy families is true. Weiss did not shoot Huey Long (some believe he didn’t even bring his gun inside); instead, they argue, the doctor struck Huey in the jaw, presumably in response to Long whispering an insult at him. (It would’ve had to have been whispered because no one in close proximity, including at least two reporters, heard any words exchanged between the two men). In response, almost instantaneously, one of Long’s bodyguards (there’s no consensus on which one exactly) fired exactly one shot in Weiss’ direction, but instead of hitting Weiss, the bullet bounced off of the wall and struck Huey in the abdomen, making it appear to everyone present that Weiss, the man standing directly in front of Long (who, as you will recall, he’d just punched in the face), was the shooter.

It’s at this point that all hell breaks loose.

If, in fact, this was how things actually unfolded, then the bullet that struck Long wasn’t merely magical, it was more like one of the “toon bullets” from the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That is, it literally had a life of its own.

In fairness, the “toon bullet” theory is just one of several scenarios contemplated by conspiracists. Unlike most of the other hypotheticals, however, it provides at least some accommodation for time, but as this behind-the-scenes footage from the reenactments featured in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries illustrates, there are a few problems with spacing and distance.

Regardless of how you decide to choreograph it, any version of the story that does not involve Carl Weiss shooting Huey P. Long is one that demands we completely reject the sworn testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, not all of whom—contrary to popular belief—were Long’s bodyguards. The conspiracy, therefore, begins with a stunningly audacious premise: We are asked to not only disregard the accounts of those who were there; we’re also asked to believe that they are all criminal liars, guilty of both perjury and conspiracy.

And what evidence is there to support this? Nothing more than the mere fact that they were all on good terms with Huey Long.

With controversies like these, we sometimes claim that truth will be known in the fullness of time, that distance provides perspective. Passions fade. Tempers cool. New information emerges that illuminates important details. The facts, we like to think, have a way of sorting themselves out. Over time, we get a better idea of those who provided credible testimony and those who were only interested in peddling self-aggrandizing sensationalism. Despite the durability of counter-theories and the popularity of conspiracies, the legal case against Carl Weiss for the assassination of Huey P. Long—that is, the case that can be established in admissible evidence and through eyewitness testimony—is actually considerably stronger today than it was in September of 1935, if only one could know then what we know now.

This may seem ironic to some. Others may argue that the opposite is true, that there is even more reasonable doubt today than in 1935. But while it’s undeniable that conspiracists have been successful in building a case in the court of public opinion, it’s also true that the overwhelming majority of their case would not be allowed either as evidence or testimony in a court of law. And the parts that would likely be allowed to be entered into evidence? There are legitimate reasons to believe they help more than hurt the case against Carl Weiss.

Put simply, the counter-theory is almost entirely dependent on speculative hearsay, often collected from secondhand or even third-hand accounts. Take, for example, Ed Reed’s 1986 book Requiem for a Kingfish, which advances a dubious story that the lawyer of an Angola inmate told him. The man claimed to have been a trustee at the Capitol on the night of the shooting and alleged Weiss had attempted to approach Huey twice before but was rebuffed. When Weiss tried for a third time, he slipped and fell, which apparently rattled the bodyguards so much that they immediately shot him to death. This is perhaps the most ludicrous and least credible of all of the stories that conspiracists have offered, and suffice it to say, not only is there is no corroborating evidence of this inmate even being present that night, of the hundreds of people present in that Capitol, no one else witnessed any previous encounter.

In a 2017 episode of the podcast Criminal, which features interviews with both Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Jr. and Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, III, the host claims that two things in particular have bolstered the credibility of the counter-theory.

The first involves the mystery of the Kingfish’s bloody lip, which, perhaps for dramatic effect, was falsely alleged to have only been discovered after Long arrived at the hospital.

When Huey P. Long showed up at the Our Lady of the Lake Sanatorium that night, in addition to an obvious entrance wound from a bullet in his side and a less-than-obvious exit wound in his back, he also had a bruised and swollen lip. In 1963, long after practically everyone in Louisiana had heard the counter-theory that Weiss had punched but didn’t shoot Huey Long, a woman named Jewel O’Neal told reporter David Zinman, in an interview for his book The Day Huey Long Was Shot, that she had been a 20-year-old nursing student working late that night and had heard an exchange between Long and the attending physician, Dr. Arthur Vidrine, about the laceration on Long’s lip. She recalled Long telling Vidrine, “That’s where he hit me.”

More than 20 years later, another woman, Melinda Bandiera DeLage, spoke with Ed Reed for his book Requiem for a Kingfish. DeLage, who presented herself to Reed as one of the “nurses” at Huey’s bedside but in actuality had been a high school student who occasionally volunteered as a scrub tech at the hospital, claimed to have heard an almost identical exchange. On the podcast Criminal, DeLage’s recollection is characterized as corroborating the account told by O’Neal, but notably, DeLage said the exchange she heard was between Long and a different doctor, Dr. Henry McKowen, an anesthesiologist and vehement critic of the Kingfish who would serve as a pallbearer at Carl Weiss’ funeral the following day.

“When Huey Long was brought to the operating room by the stretcher,” she repeated during a 1998 interview, “Dr. [Henry] McKowen [the anesthesiologist] came around and looked to his face, and he turned to Huey Long and said to Huey Long, he said, ‘What is that on your face, on your lip?’ He [Long] said that’s where he hit me, meaning Dr. Weiss had hit him. And so Dr. McKowen just went to the surgery. But it appears to many people that [this] is very important.”

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the reasons one may be skeptical about the decision to wait decades before revealing this detail to the public and imagine these two nurses—and apparently no one else— heard Long say the same thing to two different doctors that night. DeLage makes the assumption that a half-delirious Huey must’ve been referring to Carl Weiss as his assailant. (Incidentally, DeLage would later reveal herself to be somewhat of a fabulist. In the late 1990s, she initially ignored Dr. Donald Pavy’s interview request, claiming that she was afraid of being shot for talking).

Even if Long had made a comment about being hit, remember that we already have, on the record, sworn testimony from bodyguard Elliot Coleman, in which he described how he had attempted to strike Weiss and how “in the confusion, my blow landed on someone else.” Coleman’s testimony was corroborated by another bodyguard, Paul Voitier, who provided the name of the recipient of Coleman’s errant punch when he was questioned during the coroner’s inquiry.

“Mr. Coleman walked in and punched at Weiss and, I think, struck Weiss and punched again and missed Weiss,” Voitier said. “I think he hit Senator Long in the mouth right where that bruise was.”

There is another explanation: Years later, a third bodyguard, Joe Vitrano, told Ed Reed that he trailed Huey Long out of the Capitol that night and witnessed Long slip as he reached the bottom of the stairs, smacking his head against a wall and splitting his lip.

To state the obvious: The reason that Long’s bloody lip has received inordinate attention from counter-theorists and conspiracists is that it could suggest that Weiss had punched but not shot Huey Long. Of course, there is a major difference in magnitude between socking someone in the jaw and shooting them, nearly pointblank, in the gut, but it seems notable that Weiss’ defenders and family members have been willing to concede both that he was likely the aggressor and that at the very least he likely had physically assaulted a sitting United States Senator, seemingly without provocation. It certainly undermines the portrayal of Weiss as a mild-mannered, church-going doctor who believed in the Hippocratic Oath’s command to “do no harm.”

The other revelation mentioned in the Criminal podcast was the so-called “sworn affidavit” dated Sept. 24, 1993 that 79-year-old Frank Grevemberg, a one-time Louisiana State Police Superintendent from 1952 to 1955 and a full-time conservative iconoclast with a well-documented record of self-righteous grandstanding and hypocritical bullshittery, gave to W. Thomas Angers, Jr., a Republican Party operative and lawyer originally from St. Mary Parish.

Grevemberg, who, in 1993, still used terms like “white slavery” and continued to refer to Black people as “negroes,” recalled a conversation about a conspiracy, conducted at the order of Gen. Louis F. Guerre, commander of the Louisiana State Bureau of Identification and Investigation, to blame Carl Weiss for Long’s assassination. It was a conversation that Grevemberg claimed to have had way back in October of 1953, nearly 40 years before, with three state troopers, all of whom denied the discussion took place as Grevemberg described and none of whom had even witnessed Long’s shooting, despite Grevemberg’s claim that two of the troopers were “walking behind Sen. Long and two of his bodyguards” at the time.

I decided to make available the entirety of Grevemberg’s nearly 2,500-word statement, including an update he affixed to it in 1997 in which he claimed that he “wasn’t certain of the names of the troopers until I had more time to reflect on the occasion.” By “more time,” he apparently meant four years.

Click above to read.

For educational use only. All rights belong to the author.

If you are distracted by the shiny veneer of a document that dresses itself up in meaningless legalese, I would direct your attention to page three in which Grevemberg states, “I am combining the comments of both troopers into one narrative,” thus rendering worthless a document that would already be considered inadmissible in court.

Grevemberg subsequently argued that the troopers who refused to corroborate his account were merely abiding by some sort of an unspoken pledge they’d taken to protect one another, but, as anyone familiar with the prevalence of what amounted to unsubstantiated gossip at the time (and its near-ubiquity among law enforcement in Louisiana), Grevemberg’s motives were obvious: He hoped to recycle a sensational and fake story that practically everyone in Louisiana had already heard by October of 1953 as a way of hyping a book he was pitching. Eventually, in 2004, Grevemberg released his memoir, titled My Wars: Nazis, Mobsters, Gambling and Corruption: Colonel Francis C. Grevemberg Remembers. His co-author and publisher, by the way, was the same GOP activist, Tom Angers, Jr., who had taken his “sworn affidavit.” Angers also just so happens to have been the publisher of Dr. Donald Pavy’s book Accident and Deception, which is essentially a compendium of dubious hearsay and contradictory rumors he collected over the years. A cottage industry of conspiracy. (To be clear, my criticism of the late Dr. Pavy’s book, which I found wholly unpersuasive and poorly edited, should not be confused for criticism of his advocacy on behalf of his family).

Unlike his cousin Donald, Carl Austin Weiss, Jr. was careful not to get mired in the politics surrounding the allegations about his father’s actions on the night of Sept. 8, 1935, and because of his decision to steer clear of litigating the legacy of Longism, he was a more effective fact-finder and more persuasive advocate for his father than anyone else. Indeed, it’s unlikely the controversy would persist to the extent that it has without his tenacity.

At the same time, however, by reigniting the debate, Weiss Jr., who passed away at the age of 84 in 2019, may have also, unwittingly, helped to bolster the case that his father was indeed guilty of assassinating Huey P. Long.

Next page: Sins of the Father

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