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

Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.’s Belgian-Browning FN Model 1910. This photograph was taken in 1935. The gun was presumed lost for nearly 50 years until Mabel Guerre Binnings, the daughter of Gen. Louis F. Guerre discovered it in an old safety deposit box.
Our only explanation for his action is that it preyed upon his mind until it temporarily unhinged him and he felt himself a martyr, giving his life for the people of Louisiana.”
—Dr. Felix Octave Pavy, Sept. 9, 1935.

“Carl Austin Weiss was the most unlikely of all American assassins,” argues James W. Clarke in his book Defining Danger. Clarke, who holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Arizona, spent his career studying and analyzing the motives and characteristics of American assassins and domestic terrorists, so his assessment of Weiss, is notable, though not entirely satisfactory.

Why does he consider Weiss to be “the most unlikely of all American assassins”? Primarily, it’s an opinion informed by the way he was characterized in the press in the days and weeks following his death, which is to say Weiss seems unlikely because of how his family portrayed him. But there is ample reason to believe the portrayal of the young doctor as a happy-go-lucky family man, someone who thought more about the house repairs he needed to make and the patients he had on his schedule than he ever thought about politics or Huey Long, was completely contrived.

Carlos Spaht, the Baton Rouge judge who lost the 1952 Louisiana gubernatorial election to Minden judge Robert Kennon, worked in the same office building as Carl. He was also one of his patients. They were separated in age by only a few months (Spaht, who was only four years out of law school, was the younger of the two), and on weekdays, they’d often commiserate during coffee breaks.

“We weren’t as busy in those days as we are now, and we had more chances to visit,” Spaht later recalled. “I visited with Carl, had coffee with him in the Green Room at the Reymond Building. I got to know him quite well…. He expressed a great deal of strong feelings about Huey from time to time, because Huey had upset his family. He felt strongly that Huey was some menace to our democratic way of life and generally to the welfare of our state. I knew his feelings were strongly anti-Huey. He was very strong in his feelings that Huey was a very bad thing for Louisiana, that somebody ought to get rid of him in some way. That was his feeling.”

According to someone identified by the New Orleans Item as a “prominent Baton Rouge surgeon,” less than two weeks before the shooting, Weiss became bizarrely emotional when a conversation among a small group of physicians turned to the subject of the Kingfish. “A number of us were sitting around [on the afternoon of Aug. 29, 1935] in the amphitheater of a local hospital. Several of the doctors present began panning Sen. Long. The talk became heated. Suddenly I looked at Dr. Weiss. He said nothing but great big tears were rolling down his cheeks. He got up from the table and walked out of the room, still without saying a word.”

Dr. Willam H. Dick, who became close friends with Weiss when they were both completing their residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York, told a reporter that Weiss made no secret of his antipathy toward Huey Long. “He hated Long vehemently,” Dick said. “He had the belief fixed in his mind that Louisiana politics were the worst of any state’s. He was always a strong-willed and determined man, and on this point, he could not be shaken.”

In the mid-1980s, LSU released, among other things, notes from an interview that T. Harry Williams, the late historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning biography Huey Long, conducted with a Baton Rouge civic leader named Daisy Badley. Badley recalled an ominous conversation she had with Weiss while he drove her back from the hospital one day. “Dr. Weiss came to attend [to the hospital bedside of a patient] and offered me a ride home,” she told Williams. “As we passed the [Governor’s] Mansion, he looked at it and said, ‘I’m going to kill Huey Long.’ I said, ‘Don’t be a fool. The cops and guards will cut you down.’”

Ed Reed interviewed someone else—identified only as the son of an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy— who claimed that Weiss had told him essentially the same thing.

So who, exactly, was Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.? Was he a victim of a cruel and corrupt cover-up, a man wrongly blamed for a murder he did not commit, someone unjustly doomed forever in the footnotes of history as the first assassin of a United States Senator? Or was the young doctor a radicalized domestic terrorist with a death wish and delusions of grandeur?

One thing is for certain: He was not the person portrayed in the press. There was a dark side to Carl Weiss, and those who knew him personally would occasionally see flashes of rage and volatility, particularly when he spoke about politics. Tellingly, on the day after he was killed, the day of his funeral and burial, members of the Weiss and Pavy families indicated to the press that although they were obviously devastated by his death and baffled by Carl’s actions, they weren’t as shocked as one might have anticipated they would be, with one important exception: Upon hearing the news of his death, Carl’s widow Yvonne promptly fainted and collapsed onto the floor.

The Weiss and Pavy families initially accepted the accounts of multiple witnesses as being true and acknowledged that Carl had been carrying a weapon that night and that he’d been a fierce critic of Huey Long.

On the day of Carl’s funeral mass and burial, the family trusted Dr. Felix O. Pavy, Yvonne’s uncle, to be their spokesperson.

“Carl must’ve been temporarily deranged when he shot the Senator. I have no doubt Carl believed he was acting in the right,” Pavy told the Associated Press on Sept. 9. Pavy, who was 56 years old at the time, was described by the A.P. as an “elderly” man.

“There was nothing premeditated about the boy’s actions,” he said. “Why, only yesterday, he took his wife and baby and went with the older Dr. and Mrs. Weiss on an outing. While the older couple sat on the beach with the child, the younger Dr. Weiss sported about in the water. They returned home, and he bade his wife an affectionate goodbye as he left at 7 p.m. last night for the hospital on business. He even phoned and made an appointment to perform on operation in Our Lady of the Lake this morning. There is only one answer to Dr. Weiss’ action insofar as I see. You see, he was an intense and earnest lad and loved humanity. He was sorely distressed about the suppressive form of government he felt existed in Louisiana. He never talked much about it, and he certainly never confided in his family of any plan to kill Sen. Long. Our only explanation for his action is that it preyed upon his mind until it temporarily unhinged him and he felt himself a martyr, giving his life for the people of Louisiana. He must have felt that way—else how could he have left this wife and baby that he loved above everything.”

Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.’s Belgian-Browning FN Model 1910 semiautomatic pistol, which he purchased in Paris in 1930 for $25, the equivalent of $410 in today’s dollars, on display at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

Shortly before 10 p.m., as he steered his car onto Florida Street in downtown Baton Rouge, 19-year-old LSU student Tom Ed Weiss noticed a crowd outside of the newspaper building. He pulled over to ask what all of the commotion was about and learned that the Kingfish had been shot by a doctor named Weiss.

A cold rush of panic swept over his skin. It must’ve been his father, he thought, and so he raced over to his parent’s house. They were okay, thank God, but Tom Ed knew that meant his brother wasn’t. He tried calling Carl and Yvonne at home, but the phone lines were completely jammed. So, he fetched his cousin Jimmy, and together, they drove to his brother’s place in Spanish Town, where strangers had already started mulling around in the front lawn.

“Carl’s probably dead,” Tom Ed told Yvonne, at which point she fainted and fell to the ground. (When she finally got her feet back under her, Yvonne told reporters that even though she knew Carl disliked Long, she never imagined he would do something like this).

Tom Ed, along with his cousin Jimmy, went out looking for the Buick that Carl shared with his father. It wasn’t hard to find, parked about 100 feet from the front steps. When Tom Ed peered through the car’s windows, it appeared to him like someone had pilfered through the glove compartment. The flannel sock that Carl used to conceal his pistol was on the floor. Something, Tom Ed thought, didn’t seem right. Only a few months before, Carl let him borrow the gun for target practice, but later, when he noticed that Tom Ed hadn’t remembered to put the sock back in the glove compartment, he lectured his younger brother about respecting other people’s property.

Tom Ed was convinced that someone else must’ve come looking for the gun. Carl was too much of a neat freak.

While Jimmy walked back to Carl and Yvonne’s house to pick up the spare set of keys, Tom Ed wandered around to the back of the Capitol, right as a hearse began pulling away. He hadn’t realized at the time that it was carrying the body of his older brother.

When he and Jimmy reunited near the front entrance, the Buick had vanished. It took them nearly an hour to find it, way out in the boonies, which Tom Ed thought was more than a little suspicious, particularly in light of the fact that Carl’s keys weren’t among the personal items returned to his family. (Others have speculated the car was probably towed to a backlot because the legislature was set to reconvene in the morning, and it was standard practice to clear the reserved spaces up front of any vehicles that didn’t have a permit).

For the rest of his life, Dr. Tom Ed Weiss would steadfastly maintain that someone—he never knew who, exactly—had broken into the family’s Buick that night, snagged Carl’s pistol, and then carefully planted it next to his lifeless body.

Tom Ed believed that his hunch about the planted gun was supported by the failure of crime scene photographers to document the weapon Carl dropped by his side after Murph Roden fired his first shot, a gruesome hit that hollowed out Carl’s left eye before burying itself in his brain, killing him almost immediately. Roden responded the way he did because Carl was attempting to muscle out a second shot in Long’s direction. Fortunately, the gun jammed, though there is some dispute over whether it still ended up firing. Murph’s watch somehow got knocked off his wrist, and when it was returned to him, it’d been damaged in a way that was consistent with a bullet graze.

Tom Ed Weiss’ theory of a coverup asks that we not only agree with the naked belief that Carl was constitutionally incapable of committing an act as grievous as murder but also with absurd premise that Long’s bodyguards— in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing encounter that left Huey Long mortally wounded and another man, a stranger wearing a white coat, dead and facedown on the floor of the state Capitol— somehow had the wherewithal to abscond with the keys to the dead stranger’s Buick and then, in what can only be described as pure serendipity, to quickly locate the vehicle, pilfer through it, and discover a gun they could plant on him.

We are asked to believe that they did all of this undetected but in full view of multiple members of the press (many, if not most, of whom were critical of of Huey Long), several members of the state legislature (both pro- and anti-Long), and dozens of others, including an associate justice of the state supreme court, and we are told the evidence of this elaborate deception includes two photographs of Weiss’ body, the only two photos released to the public, neither of which display a weapon.

In other words, the fact that Huey’s bodyguards didn’t plant a gun in the photos somehow proves that Huey’s bodyguards planted a gun.

Carl loved that pistol. He was proud of it. Even though it was designed by an American, John Browning, the greatest firearms designer in history, you couldn’t buy a gun like his in the states, not easily at least. Colt manufactured practically everything that Browning dreamt up, but not the 1910. Only the Belgians—Fabrique Nationale—built it. Maybe the powers-that-be at Colt thought the pistol was too dainty, too effete, too urbane for their customers. Carl thought it was clever and sophisticated.

Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.

Four years after the FN Model 1910 started production, a teenager named Gavrilo Princip picked up one of John Browning’s dainty guns and fired two shots into the third car of a six-car motorcade in Sarajevo, assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie Chotek, and setting into motion a global war that led to the mobilization of more than 68 million soldiers and resulted in more than 20 million deaths. It’s unclear whether or not the pistol’s key role in shaping world history factored into Carl’s purchasing decision, but the Wikipedia page for the FN Model 1910 also notes that it was the alleged murder weapon in the assassination of Huey Long.

Carl would show off his 1910 to anyone who expressed an interest, and before he carried the gun into the Louisiana Capitol on the evening of Sept. 8, 1935, he spent the afternoon shooting at make-believe targets while lounging at his family’s camp on the Amite River.

At the risk offending those who believe it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, I have to ask: Why are journalists and historians so committed to the notion that Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. was—at least right up until the night of Sept. 8, 1935—such a paragon of virtue, and when was it decided that he’d always been a model of stability? You don’t need a degree in psychology to know that when Weiss burst into tears during an otherwise unremarkable conversation about Huey Long with a group of his colleagues, he was clearly exhibiting signs of mental or emotional instability.

One of his former colleagues in New York, who spoke with United Press International on the condition of anonymity, remembered a chilling comment Weiss made while operating on a patient. “We were in the operating room, and the patient was on the operating table,” the doctor recalled. “It was then that Dr. Weiss exhibited the attitude, which I resented. He turned on me with the exclamation: ‘What if they do die? Their lives are worth no more than guinea pigs. Science is the important thing.'”

With respect to the premise that Weiss couldn’t have been planning to assassinate Huey Long that Sunday night because he was also planning for the week ahead at work: It’s important to note that Weiss, along with the rest of the public, didn’t learn when Huey Long (by proxy of Gov. O.K. Allen) would be ordering the legislature into a special session until late Thursday night or early Friday morning. The session gaveled in on Saturday (some would later claim to have seen Weiss at the Capitol on Saturday night as well). The shooting took place on Sunday. In other words, Weiss didn’t exactly have a lot of time to plan ahead. What’s more, there was no guarantee that Huey would even show up (He’d be in the building; that was certain. But he could have just as easily decided to run the whole show from his apartment on the 24th floor, behind closed doors).

Still, does this mean Carl Weiss acted impulsively? Not necessarily. Remember, Weiss literally told Daisy Badley, “I’m going to kill Huey Long.”

Two days after Weiss’ death, one of his closest friends, Dr. J. Hallock Moore of Huntington, West Virginia, spoke with the Associated Press about the “brilliant man” who was suddenly the most notorious American assassin since John Wilkes Booth. Moore had spent four years working as an intern under Weiss at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

“I feel certain that he [Carl Weiss] went to his death in defense of an ideal that meant little to him personally,” Moore said. “But that’s the kind of fellow he was, very thorough and painstaking and with the courage of his convictions.”

Moore remembered his friend and former colleague as an almost obsessive workaholic, someone who regularly worked 18-hour shifts and who was willing to work for 40 hours straight, if that’s what the job demanded.

“I am confident that Dr. Weiss, after careful thought, concluded that Huey Long should be eradicated, and set out to do it as thoroughly as he would do anything else,” he said. “I am confident that Dr. Weiss never talked it [his plans to assassination Long] over with anyone else.”

There is one other question that needs to be asked: Why exactly did 29-year-old Carl Weiss hate Huey Long so much that he was driven to murder him?

The standard explanation is that Weiss must have been enraged by Long’s political opposition toward his father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Pavy, and other members of his wife’s family. Long’s first order of business in the special session was a bill to gerrymander Judge Pavy out of office. We’re told Carl must’ve shown up to confront Huey about that bill. There were also rumors that Long was preparing to resurrect a smear campaign against Pavy during his first run for office, more than 25 years before, suggesting that the Pavy family had “coffee blood,” a euphemism for mixed race ancestry and political dynamite in the Jim Crow South. It’s very unlikely Weiss would have known about a rumored attack ad that hadn’t even been drafted. That said, Long did call his printer in New Orleans, Joe David, only hours before the shooting to tell him to expect a letter in the mail about Pavy, though died before he could send it.

But James Clarke of the University of Arizona speculates that Weiss may have heard the rumors on the night of the shooting, presumably after leaving his home but before arriving at the Capitol, either in conversation or on the radio. This, Clarke suggests, would have been enough to trigger Weiss (again, it’s completely speculative).

I am skeptical of the theory that Carl Weiss was animated by some sort of distorted notion of nobly defending his in-law’s honor. There are multiple accounts of Weiss expressing his hatred of Huey Long years before he’d even met his wife or anyone in her family.

The rumors (which were false, by the way) about the Pavys having Black ancestors wouldn’t have been intended for a pro-Long audience, who were comparatively more progressive on racial equality and civil rights; they were about undermining the judge’s support among his anti-Long base. And make no mistake: While those opposed to Huey Long in the national press fretted about Huey’s autocratic impulses (and the very real possibility that if he ran for president in 1936, he would deprive FDR of a second term by siphoning away millions of left-leaning and working class voters), in Louisiana, the anti-Longs were a collection of staunch conservatives, white supremacists (open and outspoken about it too), and wealthy, educated white professionals who feared the loss of their political power and, importantly, their status and who were especially threatened by the populist from Winnfield who eliminated the poll tax and campaigned on the promise to “share the wealth.”

Over the years, Weiss’ relatives have repeatedly claimed that not only was Carl not a racist but that he may have been motivated to confront Huey Long for spreading a “racist smear,” as if Carl was some sort of civil rights champion or anti-racist activist. But implicit in this argument is the notion that there’s something inherently flawed or defective with anyone of mixed-race heredity. To the extent that it played any part in Weiss’ actions that night, then it wasn’t because Carl opposed racism; it was because he hoped to defend the racial “purity” of his wife’s family.

It is, of course, impossible to know precisely what compelled Carl Weiss to carry his gun into the Louisiana State Capitol that night, and while his death at the hands of vigilante bodyguards was itself an injustice, we should no longer entertain the hateful voices of the past who hoped to turn a murderer into a martyr.

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