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

The exhumation of the remains of Dr. Carl A. Weiss, Sr. Photo credit: Philip Gould
Here, beneath this oak, Evangeline waited for her lover, who never came. It is a spot made immortal by Longfellow’s poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.

Where are the schools you have waited for your children to have, which have never come? Where are the roads and highways that you send your money to build, which are now no nearer than before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and the disabled?

Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but they lasted only through a single lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations.

Give me the chance at last to dry the tears of those who still weep her.”
—Huey P. Long

On the morning of Oct. 21, 1991, shortly before 8:00 a.m., a crowd of around 50 people padded across the dewy grass to watch as a crew churned up the four feet of dirt above the Weiss family plot at Roselawn Memorial Park in Baton Rouge.

Two hours later, at precisely 10:07 a.m. and with the help of a frontend loader and a few straps, workers hoisted a damp cypress coffin bearing the body of Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. from where he had been laid to rest, undisturbed, more than a half a century before, and into the bright, blue sky.

His three-month-old son, Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., hadn’t been present on the rainy afternoon 56 years before, when his casket was lowered into the ground and his body was given back to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Dr. Weiss’ son was there on that crisp October morning in 1991, having lived nearly twice as long as he had, to witness his casket rise up from the earth, silently praying for God to grant him knowledge of his father’s redemption.

Weiss Jr. watched alongside a battery of reporters and cameramen as well as a team of graduate students led by a law professor from George Washington University named Jim Starrs. Starrs had made a name for himself by pursuing scientific investigations of high-profile cases from America’s past: The Lindberg baby, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Alfred Packer cannibalism case, the Boston Strangler, Meriwether Lewis, and the outlaw Jesse James, among others. This would become a case that defined his career: The assassination of Huey P. Long.

Behind the scenes, Starrs had been working with Carl Weiss, Jr. for more than a year. It was Carl who had convinced him to take on the case, and though they made no secret of their collaborative efforts, they were also careful not to draw too much attention to it, understanding that Jim’s investigation would only be taken seriously if it had at least the patina of objectivity.

After Carl told him that Mabel Guerre Binnings was in possession of his father’s gun, a fact that he’d learned in a conversation with Russell Long he promised not to discuss publicly, Jim found another way to substantiate it, recruiting students in his class on forensic science to dig up probate documents and other records, including a letter that Binnings’ father, Gen. Guerre, had sent to J. Edgar Hoover that provided the serial number of Weiss Sr.’s Belgian-made Fabrique Nationale semiautomatic .32 caliber pistol (the number given to Hoover was actually one digit off, something that was immediately recognized as a transcription error). This would be more than enough for them to force the issue in court, as Binnings had already made it known that she had no intention of handing the weapon back over to anyone named Carl Weiss. It would also effectively force the Louisiana State Police to consider reopening the investigation into Huey Long’s assassination, which they did, once they discovered that in addition to the gun (and a handful of bullets), Mabel Guerre Binnings was also in possession of the 600-page investigative report, nearly all of which had never been seen by the public.

Weiss Jr. would get his father’s gun back, at least temporarily. He agreed to donate the second-most famous FN Model 1910 to the state of Louisiana, and the state, in turn, agreed to put it on public display in a museum (It’s now featured in an exhibit at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge). But before placing it permanently behind plexiglass, the state police wanted to conduct a couple of tests.

No one disputed the gun’s provenance, but the bullets and projectiles that had been locked inside of the same box were a mystery.

It’s important to note: Carl Weiss, Sr. carried the only .32 caliber weapon that night. The bodyguards were armed with either .38s or .45s. These distinctions are enormously consequential, because, remember, those who promote the counter-theory claim that Weiss didn’t shoot Huey Long. He was struck by a bullet that ricocheted off of the marble walls.

The bullet entered Long in the abdomen and exited near the small of his back, which means it was moving at a relatively high velocity. The laws of physics pose a problem for conspiracists, because once that bullet bounces off of the marble, it slows down. The larger the caliber, the slower the speed. This doesn’t mean it would be impossible for a .38 or .45 caliber bullet to bounce off of the wall and through Huey Long; it just means there’s less of a probability of that occurring.

How do conspiracists get around these stubborn facts? Easy. They just ignore them, and, like Kellyanne Conway, they ask that we join them in a parallel universe of alternative facts. It’s important to be familiar with the weapons in the conspiracist’s arsenal: Emphasize the flaws in the initial reporting, when the facts are not yet clear and the news is still breaking. Nitpick minor inconsistencies between eyewitnesses. Present hearsay as first-hand accounts or “inside” information. Cherrypick science. When in doubt, lie, lie, lie. And of course, blame the victim.

Ed Reed, who concluded his book Requiem for a Kingfish by arguing that Huey Long assassinated himself by having a security detail, claimed Long was hit twice (nope, just once). Decades later, a mortician named Merle Welsh claimed that Dr. Cecil Lorio pocketed a bullet that he fished out of the dead Senator’s rib cage (the bullet that struck Long was never recovered). A pair of nurses believed that Long had been hit in the back and that the exit wound was on his frontside (wrong and wrong).

The Long assassination has been especially ripe for conspiracists because autopsies weren’t performed on either man. Moreover, Long’s medical treatment was shrouded in secrecy, undermined by personality conflicts between physicians, and beset by interference from his political loyalists. The crime scene was mishandled. The coroner was an anti-Long hack. The list goes on.

Both the number of people who said they were eyewitnesses and the number of former Huey Long bodyguards somehow increased over time. Several people claimed that they drove Huey to the hospital. Claims about the number of times Carl Weiss was shot have also ranged dramatically. By his own admission, Murph Roden shot Weiss 10 times, and in graphic photographs of Weiss’ lifeless body at the crime scene, he appears more like someone who had been viciously mauled by a pack of wild animals than a physician in a white coat who was shot to death. That said, however, the popular assertion that Weiss was shot 61 times is almost certainly a gross exaggeration.

How do we know this? Because while the state police were conducting ballistic test, Jim Starrs was leading an autopsy on the exhumed remains of Carl Weiss, Sr. It concluded that Weiss was struck by between 20 to 24 projectiles.

A laboratory skeleton indicating the trajectories of the projectiles fired into Weiss by Long’s bodyguards. Source: The Remains of Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Anthropological Analysis.

Starrs would later characterize the autopsy as, essentially, a wash. It didn’t exonerate Weiss completely, he said, but it did suggest he wasn’t the aggressor. This, however, was a major stretch. The report only indicated Weiss may have been in a defensive posture, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

There was another, even more significant finding.

More than anything else, Carl Weiss, Jr. had hoped the autopsy would substantiate, once and for all, whether his father had thrown a punch at Long. If there were fractures in the metacarpus, it would be strongly suggestive that Weiss Sr. had, in fact, hit Huey (and therefore probably couldn’t have shot him).

As it turns out, even though his entire body was pulverized, Carl Weiss’ hands were practically pristine. They weren’t the hands of a man who, only seconds before his death, threw a punch so hard that he drew blood.

The Louisiana State Police issued its final report on the re-investigation into the death of U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long on June 5, 1992, reaffirming the original conclusion.

“It is significant that in none of the internal memos and correspondence between General Guerre, then head of the Louisiana Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, and other investigators and members of the Long organizations, is there any mention of the possibility that someone other than Dr. Carl Weiss filed the fatal shot,” writes Lt. Don Moreau. “Huey Pierce Long was shot by a small statued man in a white suit. The shot was fired at ‘loose contact’ distance. The projectile entering the upper right abdomen and exiting the lower right back after traversing the body. The description of the wounds given by the attending surgeons coincides with the bullet hole locations observed in the photographs of Senator Long’s garments.”

Unfortunately, the report didn’t include those photographs, and after scouring the internet far and wide, I could only locate a small, scanned reproduction of one of the three photograph, buried in an ebook. But I didn’t give up.

Much to my surprise, the photos were much more compelling than I had imagined them to be, and while I understand the State Police’s reluctance to call inordinate public attention to the gruesome images on file of Dr. Weiss’ body, it’s a somewhat perplexing that they elected not to include these images in the final report distributed to the general public.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time all three, high-resolution images have appeared online (technically, they appeared on my social media accounts first, but the resolution wasn’t as optimal):

Huey's Suit Jacket from the Night of 09/08/1935
Huey's Long Sleeve Shirt on 09/08/1935
Huey P. Long's undershirt on 09/08/1935

If you’re confused at all about the images above, they are, in order from top to bottom, Long’s coat, his long-sleeve shirt, and his collarless undershirt. To better orient you:

Why, specifically, do I find these photographs to be compelling, probative evidence of Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.’s culpability? Forensic scientist Patrick A. Lane of the Louisiana State Police addresses this directly on page four of the Final Report:

“The observations made about the holes in the double breasted coat depicted in the photographs [the first image in the series above] in the preliminary Crime Lab report, are very consistent with a contact gunshot in the front right side and a second hole caused by the same bullet exiting the body. The full metal jacket .32 Auto bullet is capable of shooting through soft tissue if no heavy bone is struck in the bullet path. This type bullet will demonstrate appreciable change of diameter or expansion; thus, an exit hole may be very closely approximate [to] the bullet diameter or appear slightly smaller, depending on the elasticity of the material through which it is passing.

“The sooty-appearing residues around the four-pointed star shaped tear in the front of the coat indicates the muzzle of the weapon was in loose contact with the garment at the time it was discharged. The sooty residue is caused by the hot vapor cloud, burning gunpowder and lead from the base of the bullet, which forces the bullet through the weapon’s barrel. The force of the gasses as the bullet clears the muzzle of the weapon rips the material as it is loosely pressed against the weapon’s muzzle. Recognizing these two indicators allow a determination of the distance of a weapon’s muzzle at the time of discharge. This tearing and sooty pattern was duplicated in test firings made at the laboratory.

“This evidence strongly supports the statements made by the witnesses present at the Coroner’s inquest.”

In 2014, filmmaker Yvonne Boudreaux, a grandniece of Carl Weiss, Sr., and David Modigliani (Running with Beto) produced the documentary film 61 Bullets, which it can be streamed online (with a paid subscription for Louisiana Film Channel). Although the film is technically well-done and includes a few interviews that are of historic value (Carl Weiss, Jr., for example, who was effectively the film’s protagonist, passed away two years ago), the filmmakers quickly abandon any real effort at investigating the facts and instead turn the camera over to Boudreaux’s relatives and family friends, whose claims and commentaries are accepted without scrutiny.

At a Q&A panel following the film’s screening at the 2015 International Film Festival in Boston, Modigliani explained that the film was a nearly six-year process, during which time he and Boudreaux went back and forth on the plausibility of Weiss’ guilt. “When we realized there was gonna be no ‘who-dun-it,’ that there was not going to be a pay-off in the film, it became clear that it was going to more about these families seeking closure and what that emotional journey is like,” he said.

The fact that the controversy over what occurred inside of the Louisiana State Capitol on that September night in 1935 continues to be a source of pain and anguish for both the Long family and the family of Carl Weiss, Sr. illustrates the ways in which trauma can be inherited. Despite all of his efforts to scientifically or forensically prove that his father was not an assassin, ultimately, the crux of Carl Weiss, Jr.’s defense was that his father was too good, too decent, and too smart to do something so stupid and illogical, even if the evidence suggested otherwise.

It may very well be true that Boudreaux and Modigliani eventually came to the realization that the film they were making about “the unsolved mystery of Louisiana” wasn’t going to solve any mystery. The eyewitnesses to the shooting aren’t around any more. Patsy Odom LeBlanc, the 14-year-old schoolgirl who went to the Capitol that night with the hope of getting Huey’s autograph (and who ended up meeting Carl Weiss only 30 minutes before the shooting), passed away in 2005. Everyone else is long gone. And it’s also true that there isn’t any new evidence that has emerged, not since 1992 at least. But it also seems plausible that the filmmakers, Boudreaux particularly, may have not wanted to dig in too deeply because, as I’ve discovered myself, the more you scrutinize the conspiracy theory offered up by the Weiss and Pavy families, the more it unravels.

The film begins, fittingly, by following a group of elementary school students on a tour of the state Capitol. When they enter the corridor where the shooting occurred, the tour guide explains its significance and then directs their attention to the marble walls.

Screengrab: 61 Bullets

“These are some actual bullet holes on this wall,” she tells them, and we see the kids (clearly in the pre-COVID era) pressed up on the marble, palming and poking at what they’ve just been told are the scars from a night of horrific violence, a night that would have ordinarily seemed too far back in the past to even imagine.

Then, in a voice slightly louder than a whisper, the tour guide explains to the adults on the other side of the camera, “Makes it all a little more believable.”