By Divyansh Agarwal ~
A seemingly typical Sunday evening in Louisiana, September 8, 1935, was about to become extraordinary. The House of Representatives had organized a special session to pass a set of bills. A prominent member present in the State Capitol that evening was the 42-year old Senator, Huey Long. Elected Louisiana governor at the age of 35, the youngest in history, Long’s autobiography best summarized his political agenda: “Every Man a King.” He abolished the state’s poll tax, distributed free textbooks to students and pushed for tax on petroleum products to help fund social programs. Not surprisingly, his efforts at wealth redistribution did not sit well with many. One such person was a district judge Benjamin Pavy.
That Sunday evening, Pavy’s fate was to be voted upon in Baton Rouge. Long had introduced “House Bill Number One” in the Capitol to intentionally re-draw Louisiana’s districts and gerrymander his political opponent Pavy from the bench. Pavy’s son-in-law, a physician named Carl Weiss, was present in Baton Rouge that day to speak with Long and prevent Pavy’s ousting.
Shortly after 9:20pm that night, the House voted to pass the Bill, removing Pavy from office. As Long walked out of the Capitol’s main hall, he was approached by the 29-year-old Dr. Weiss.
Suddenly, smoke and the sounds of machine gun fire filled the Capitol. A few minutes later, Long was found stumbling down the stairs with a bullet through his right upper abdomen. Meanwhile, Weiss was found dead in the Capitol’s main hall, with 61 bullet holes counted in his body. Long was taken to the Charity Hospital–New Orleans (CHNO), where surgeon Arthur Vidrine, assisted by surgeon William Cook and pediatrician Cecil Lorio, deemed sufficient evidence of internal hemorrhage and immediately began preparing for an operation. At approximately 4:10am on Tuesday, September 10th, Long succumbed to death.
Up to this point, all historical resources agree with each other. The events resulting in Long’s death that happened between 9:22pm and 9:37pm that Sunday evening, however, remain shrouded in mystery.
The most popular version of those fifteen minutes casts Weiss as the obvious assassin. Best summarized by former New Orleans Tribune reporter C.E. Frampton, who was present at the State Capitol that night: “[Weiss] pulled his hand out from under his coat and fired point blank at Huey.”
An opposing theory is that Weiss was having a heated discussion with Long and punched the senator in the face. Long’s bodyguards open fired on Weiss, when a stray bullet accidentally hit Long.
Was Weiss guilty and a murderer, or did a bullet fired by a bodyguard ricochet off the marble and accidentally kill Long? Perhaps this—arguably one of Louisiana’s most enduring mysteries—will never be completely resolved.
Interestingly, correspondence between two medical luminaries of the day, Alton Ochsner, of the New Orleans’ Ochsner Medical Center fame, and Michael DeBakey, a pioneer cardiovascular surgeon, offers insight into Long’s murder mystery. Ochsner was a mentor to DeBakey during his medical training at Tulane University in the late 1920s, and the two exchanged dozens of personal letters during their careers.
The day after Long died, on September 11, 1935, Ochsner wrote to DeBakey describing how Huey was in the Operating Room for two hours, but “…never recovered from shock…one bullet entered his body, but passed through the colon a couple of time[s], through the kidney, and apparently passed through the base of the right lung.”
About a month later, on October 17th, 1935, another letter from Ochsner to DeBakey added: “…Weiss came in to speak to Long and that following a cursing by Long that Weiss hit him. This would account for a cut which Huey had on the lip and which caused some bleeding from his lip.” Historians have confirmed Ochsner’s account. Furthermore, a 1935 affidavit from a nurse, Jewel O’Neal, stated that while she was treating Long for the bruised lip, Long said, “That’s where he hit me.”
Ochsner was not present in the Capitol that night but in his letters he told DeBakey:
“Weiss was knocked to the ground by one of the guards, following which Weiss shot but instead of hitting Huey hit one of the guards in the hand. Following this the guards began shooting while Weiss was on the floor and one of the bullets supposedly rickashawed [sic] from the wall and struck Long.”
Although the bullets fired that evening left holes that are still visible in the Capitol’s marble walls, the holes in the narrative surrounding Long’s death appear to be filling.
Historians have long argued that Weiss was framed as the murderer and mounting evidence has accumulated in support of Weiss. Weiss was regarded as a gifted surgeon, and the day of the shooting, he had called an anesthesiologist colleague about a tonsillectomy case for the next day.
Weiss never left any writings or indications that he was planning to shoot Long, and in fact, was a supporter of Long’s. And allegedly, Weiss approached Long in the halls of the statehouse three times that Sunday night, and the shootout happened only on the third encounter. Why would any assassin pass up two supposedly easy opportunities to shoot their target?
Beyond a doubt, the historical truth is complicated by the fact that at the time, the shooting was not investigated with any evidence-based or methodical approach, and no autopsy was performed on Long’s body.
It has also been theorized how a weapon could have been placed in Weiss’ possession. After the shootings, his car keys were reported missing. It was found that the surgeon’s Buick had been moved from where it had been originally parked. The car’s glove compartment, which is where Weiss kept his .32 caliber pistol, had also been tampered with.
Ochsner’s letter written in the October 1935 further adds:
“…surgeons who attended Huey stated that the entrance and exit wounds were several centimeters in diameter, which hardly could have been produced by a steel-jacketed .32 bullet which was fired from Weiss’ gun….Weiss was buried from the Catholic Church with full rites, and I am told that such is not possible for a murderer or suicide…”
Indeed, during Long’s operation at the CHNO, a .38 caliber bullet was recovered from his body, which corresponded to the weapons carried by Long’s bodyguards; Weiss’ pistol was never a match.
More intriguingly, forensic examination of Weiss’ skull showed that he was most likely in a defensive position with his hands raised when Long’s bodyguards continued shooting at him. Weiss was wearing a white cotton suit the day he was shot. A bullet under his left eye had a tuft of light tan cotton fibers, suggesting that he raised his arms to shield his face during the shooting. The slug could have passed through a sleeve, catching the cotton fibers before entering Weiss’s head.
“Only the Eternal could know all that happened,” Long’s son Russell wrote in 1993. But, it is fascinating that historical archives at the National Library of Medicine provide a unique perspective from a local medical expert on the events in that narrow back corridor of the Louisiana Capitol that Sunday night.
Divyansh Agarwal is an MD-PhD Student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. He is a Michael E. DeBakey Fellow in the history of medicine at the NLM in 2018.
Learn more about the NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellowship in the History of Medicine.