Political Assassinations: Huey P. Long
Huey P. Long was one of those colorful populist characters that southern history occasionally produces. A poor-boy-made-good, he rose from humble beginnings to capture the governorship of Louisiana, a United States Senate seat, and the imagination of a nation reeling from the devastation of the Great Depression. Public opinion was divided: supporters viewed him as a savior of the masses while detractors feared that the populist-run-amok was a genuinely dangerous demagogue who would wreak havoc on the American political system. With his talk of sharing the wealth and ensuring that the common man grabbed a large slice of the economic pie, Long was jockeying for a presidential bid in 1936. It was not to be. He died from an assassin’s bullet in September 1935.
Chapter 21 of Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders discusses the unusual circumstances surrounding Long’s assassination.
Long captured national attention by arguing that elite forces were destroying the life of the common man. To ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth, he announced his Share the Wealth program in 1934. Proclaiming “every man a king,” the man nicknamed the “Kingfish” delivered a radio address arguing that no one should be able to accumulate a personal net worth exceeding 300 times the average family fortune. He also sought to cap personal income at $1 million, with inheritances limited to $5 million. All citizens would be entitled to an old-age pension at age 60. Free education would be provided to all qualified students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.
In rejecting the old southern bromides on race, Long adapted his demagoguery to questions of class, recognizing that he could forge a working alliance among Louisiana’s poor more effectively than he could demonize the Negro. Denounced as a dangerous socialist, he was unflappable. His rejoinder was simple and devastating. At the height of the Great Depression, with so many Americans destitute and hungry, Long contended that the wealth had better be redistributed or the have-nots would rebel against their desperate circumstances. Capitalism could only be saved by an enlightened means of improving the lives of the poor. Unlike the southern populists of yesteryear, Long was not merely a poseur bandying about vitriol to stir up political support, although clearly he recognized the political appeal in bashing wealthy elites. He appeared genuinely to empathize with the impoverished, having come from modest means himself. He also was prepared to sponsor legislation to achieve his goals. Because he would back up words with concrete action, Huey Long became one of the most revered—and reviled—southern politicians of the twentieth century.
Long harbored presidential ambitions, but he died only a month after announcing his candidacy for the nation’s highest office. On September 8, 1935, Senator Long was in the state capitol in Baton Rouge promoting a redistricting bill that would oust his political foe, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy, from the bench. Pavy’s son-in-law, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, tried to speak with Long several times. After being continually rebuffed, Weiss allegedly fired a handgun at the senator, striking Long in the abdomen. Long’s bodyguards fired 62 shots at the bespectacled Weiss, killing him instantly. Long lingered for two days before dying at the age of 42. According to lore, his last words were, “God, don't let me die. I have so much to do.”
Carl Weiss was not the typical assassin discussed in the book. The eldest of three children, he was born into an upper middle class Catholic family in Baton Rouge. His father was a physician. As a child, Carl was quiet and highly intelligent. Always a precocious boy, he loved mechanics, electricity, and music, disassembling and reassembling a family heirloom clock at the age of eight. He also learned to play the piano, clarinet, and saxophone. Although he was interested in target-shooting guns, he did not enjoy hunting live targets. Everyone who knew him well believed him to be the gentlest of souls.
Emulating his father, he grew up to be a well-respected physician in the community. Later, in 1933, Weiss married Yvonne Louise Pavy from the little town of Opelousas. With this marriage, Dr. Weiss was thrust into the middle of a long-simmering feud between two rival factions in Louisiana politics. Yvonne’s father, Judge Benjamin Pavy, was a prominent and vocal critic of Governor Huey P. Long. The governor was incensed that he could not control the judge. Rumors circulated that Long had dredged up an ugly rumor indicating that the Pavy family possessed black blood, a smear that held genuine legal ramifications. In the highly segregated South of the 1930s, a family sporting Negro ancestry would face a host of legal and cultural impediments. Long was not the typical racist white politician of his time, but he was not above using whatever means were necessary to win a political fight. Judge Pavy was no stranger to rough-and-tumble politics. He ignored the rumor.
The judge’s son-in-law, however, had reason to fear racial attacks. In June 1935, he and Yvonne added a baby boy, Carl Jr., to their household. By all accounts, Dr. Weiss adored his wife and son. In an era where fathers typically left the care and feeding of babies to their wives and nannies, Carl Weiss shared in all the household duties, happily changing diapers, waking in the middle of the night, and pushing a baby carriage.
The standard narrative suggests that when Governor Long introduced a bill to redistrict Judge Pavy out of office as political retribution for the judge’s opposition, something snapped inside of Carl Austin Weiss. It was the last straw after Long’s previous affronts. (In addition to the rumors of racial impurity in the Pavy family, Yvonne’s uncle, Paul Pavy, and her sister, Marie, who were employed in the state’s public schools, lost their jobs because they were not certified by the state board of education, controlled by Governor Long.) When he learned of the anti-Pavy legislation, the brilliant, good-natured, doting father simply had reached the end of his tether. He carried a gun with him, as many doctors did in that time and place, for personal protection. Realizing that Huey Long was out to destroy his family, he resolved to use the gun for another purpose. The normally shy, affable, gentle family man became a determined political assassin who refused to be thwarted from his duty. In short, he sought revenge for past slights or to prevent future depredations.
Other theories abound. Perhaps Weiss did not kill Governor Long as a premeditated act. Instead, it might have been a spur-of-the-moment decision. Looking back on his actions earlier in the day, his behavior was not the behavior of a man about to commit an infamous crime. Weiss spent time with his family and nothing seemed amiss. From everything that he said and did, he was looking to the future. He scheduled time to perform surgery the following day. He loved his family passionately, and he planned on seeing his beloved son grow to maturity. Because Governor Long was known to travel with bodyguards, Weiss must have known that he would be shot down if he tried to kill the governor. Nothing in his behavior indicated that he was a calculating killer. In fact, throughout his life he appeared to be an emotionally healthy, happy, well-grounded, intelligent human being without a penchant for violence.
One version of events suggests that Carl Weiss was part of a conspiracy to kill Huey Long. Many people wanted the governor dead. Weiss may have been an idealistic young man induced to eliminate a problem not only for his family, but for the good of Louisiana, and perhaps the nation.
Alternatively, Weiss might have been a Manchurian candidate-style assassin who was programmed to kill the governor without realizing that he was doing so. According to this narrative, Weiss was a malleable personality who became the unwitting tool of the Powers That Be, namely the corporate interests that feared the rise of a powerful populist. Alas, as with many conspiracy theories, the idea of shadowy, nefarious forces acting behind the scenes is tantalizing, but not a shred of credible evidence indicates that anyone else was involved.
A more plausible scenario is that Weiss did not plan to kill Governor Long. Perhaps he wanted to speak to the man, to share his outrage at the governor’s ill treatment of the Pavy family. According to this theory, Weiss lunged at Governor Long to give the fat political boss a piece of his mind. The exchange went horribly wrong. Long’s bodyguards, caught off guard and overreacting, whipped out their guns and started shooting. In the crowded hallway, they not only hit the unknown assailant, but they inadvertently shot their boss. Rather than confess their misdeeds, they planted the gun on the dead Dr. Weiss and concocted the tale of a crazy physician who shot the governor. Because Long could not provide insights into what happened and the doctors never performed an autopsy to establish a definitive cause of death, determining what happened is almost impossible after the passage of many decades.
Whatever happened that late summer evening in September 1935, assessing Carl Austin Weiss’s motives—assuming he committed the crime in the first place—is impossible. Nothing in his background suggested that he would become a political assassin. He appeared to be a well-adjusted, productive citizen. Because he was cut down in a hail of bullets before he could be interrogated, his secrets died with him.