Politics & Policy

The Truth about Huey Long

Huey P. Long in 1935 (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)
Louisiana’s populist 1930s dictator was shot by his own security guards, not a political opponent

Dr. Carl A. Weiss Jr. died on August 1, 2019. It’s not typically considered newsworthy by the New York Times when a retired orthopedic surgeon passes away at the age of 84, but Weiss was more than a physician. He was the son of the man who shot Huey P. Long.

Or so we were taught. As a child growing up in Louisiana in the 1990s, I learned that there was absolutely no doubt that in the 1930s, the state’s best governor and all-around great man died at the hands of a political opponent out for blood. That story, like so much about Long, is a lie.

The myth of Long’s assassination is just one in a long line of tales meant to lionize the former governor and U.S. senator, painting over his lengthy track record of corruption and brutality in his pursuit for power. Huey P. Long, historian Arthur Schlesinger explained in a 1986 Ken Burns documentary about the populist politician, was the closest thing to a dictator the U.S. has ever seen.

“It’s a mistake to regard Huey Long as an ideological figure, a man committed to a program,” Schlesinger said. “I think Huey Long’s great passion was for power and money, and he stole a lot of money and accumulated a lot of power and destroyed all those who got in the way of these two ambitions.”

Many Louisianans have instead chosen to remember Long as the flamboyant politician who gave pencils to poor schoolchildren and built sparkling new bridges across the waterways of the swampy state. Some fetishize his authoritarian regime as the zaniest chapter in Louisiana’s colorful history, ignoring the long-term damage he caused in both governance and reputation to the state.

His supporters, then as now, happily overlooked his tremendous moral failings and their institutional consequences for Louisiana because he supposedly fought for the common man. He was among the earliest American politicians advocating for redistribution of wealth, insisting that true equality would only be achieved when big corporations — in his case, Standard Oil — were forced to pay higher taxes to fund a more robust welfare state.

In public, Huey P. Long boasted of his populist policy bona fides, hiding his well-to-do upbringing to convince Louisiana’s poor and working class that he understood their plight. But in private, Long lived lavishly at taxpayer expense.

In speeches, he condemned J. P. Morgan Jr. for owning 100 suits, which Long said he stole off the backs of working people. Meanwhile, Long used state funds to outfit a luxurious wardrobe of as many suits or more. Deciding that the existing governor’s mansion wasn’t grand enough for him, Long demanded that a new one be constructed. When the legislature wouldn’t approve the funds for the project, Long simply ordered construction to begin, and it did.

Long’s penchant for diverting state funds for his own purposes became especially flagrant when, as governor, he appointed himself chief legal counsel for the state in its lawsuits against private businesses. He billed liberally, lining his pockets with so much taxpayer money that he could afford to maintain multiple residences, including one at the luxurious Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.

Long also required every state employee to direct 5 to 10 percent of each paycheck to his “deduct box,” a mysterious fund that subsidized his political machine. Fearing Long, Louisiana’s sizeable civil-service population contributed at least $1 million to his “deduct box” each year.

Long controlled everything in Louisiana public life, from using the Louisiana National Guard as his personal police force to coaching LSU’s football team. When the media wouldn’t do his bidding, Long created and distributed his own newspaper. In it, he mocked his political adversaries and smeared anyone who spoke against him, endangering their livelihoods and the safety of their families.

To maintain his schemes, Long demanded unwavering allegiance from everyone, ranging from elected officials to low-level civil servants. If you resisted, you paid dearly.

My grandmother’s grandfather, Walter Burke, was a prominent anti-Longite who had previously served in the Louisiana state senate. When other notable Louisianans signed bribery-backed loyalty oaths, Burke testified in support of Long’s impeachment for a laundry list of corruption charges. Long responded by sending his henchmen to Burke’s home to threaten his family.

Other Long critics fared much worse. When one legislator became too vocal in his criticism of Long, the governor drilled a hole in the state capitol’s ceiling above his desk to pour a steady stream of water upon him. Another learned his father had been fired from his job after the young state representative voted against a piece of Long-backed legislation.

Standing opposite Long often meant endangering your life. When Long worried that two political opponents would expose the identity of his alleged mistress, Long arranged for them to be kidnapped, only to be released after he won his U.S. Senate election. During his gubernatorial administration, Long was even accused of attempting to facilitate the murder of a state representative who opposed him.

Long’s proclivity for payback extended far outside the state legislature and into the lives of thousands of ordinary Louisianans. Because so many relied upon civil-service employment during the Great Depression, Long effectively controlled the most secure jobs in the state. State workers, even janitors, were forced to pledge fealty to Long, and those who did not soon learned that they had been fired. Meanwhile, small-business owners who refused to sign loyalty oaths would lose vital contracts with state hospitals, schools, and prisons.

Though many people were hurt at the hands of Long and his cronies, perhaps none suffered more gravely than the Pavy and Weiss families. Benjamin Pavy was an anti-Longite judge in St. Landry Parish whose judicial district Long gerrymandered in hopes of preventing him from winning reelection. Judge Pavy had planned to retire, but for insurance, Long allegedly began spreading a rumor that Pavy had “Negro blood,” hoping to delegitimize him in the eyes of voters.

On September 8, 1935, Long was making the rounds at the Louisiana state capitol in Baton Rouge, a regular occurrence for the then–U.S. senator who still maintained total control of the state, both through a constant physical presence and by extension through his vast network of political cronies working on his behalf. Dr. Carl Weiss, Sr., a 29-year-old physician married to Judge Pavy’s daughter, lived near the capitol and decided to confront Long after wrapping up his house calls for the day.

When he challenged the Senator about his harassment of Judge Pavy, Long allegedly dismissed the young doctor by using a racial slur. According to sworn testimony consistent with forensic evidence, Weiss responded by punching Long in the jaw. Long’s bodyguards panicked, showering Weiss with bullets. After sustaining 61 gunshots, Dr. Weiss died, leaving behind a young wife and 3-month-old son, Carl, Jr.

During the altercation, Long, too, was shot in the abdomen, but he was well enough to walk down the capitol steps, hail a cab, and ride to the hospital without medical assistance.

According to Bayou Brief, Weiss’s patients testified that he was of sound mind and normal demeanor during his visits that day, and Weiss had even scheduled a surgery for the next morning. Additionally, two hospital nurses revealed in sworn testimonies that Long only said Weiss punched him in the jaw. And most importantly, his bullet wound was inconsistent with the gun Weiss carried as security on his house calls — a gun that Weiss’s son says was not even in his possession during the argument with Long.

It is almost certain that when Weiss punched the senator for allegedly using a slur about his family, Long’s bodyguards overreacted, firing their guns needlessly and indiscriminately into the skirmish. Long was simply caught in the crossfire.

Of course, the truth was not politically expedient for Long’s allies, who indubitably feared public backlash to the bodyguards’ negligence. So, as he underwent surgery, they began their cover-up. They moved Weiss’s car. They tampered with and hid evidence. They removed Weiss’s gun from his glove compartment and planted it on the scene. And they launched their smear campaign against Weiss, portraying him as a bloodthirsty assassin determined to stop the good works of Huey P. Long who was thwarting the best efforts of the bad guys to keep the little guy down.

Long died a day and a half after his altercation with Weiss. Experts contend his death was largely preventable, but significant mistakes on the part of the hospital — a hospital he effectively controlled — made his recovery impossible.

Approximately 100,000 people, largely poor and hailing from every corner of the state, attended Long’s funeral at the new Louisiana state capitol. They mourned the death of a man they naïvely thought was a martyr for the cause of the poor and downtrodden of Louisiana. His supporters lamented that he never became president, certain that, if given the opportunity, he would have made “every man a king.”

The entire premise of his assassination was a lie, and people in power knew it. In 1993, Colonel Frances Gavemberg, a former superintendent of the Louisiana State Police in the 1950s who was well-respected for his work combating organized crime, swore in an affidavit that he knew the identities of the men responsible for Long’s death.

Long’s family had their doubts, too. While his son, Senator Russell Long, publicly maintained that Weiss killed his father, he insinuated in private letters to Carl Weiss Jr. that he was unsure of the circumstances of his father’s death.

A few weeks after Long died, Louisiana officials conducted a bogus investigation, fraught with corruption and stacked with Long insiders. They relied upon key witness testimony from individuals who were not present that day. Investigators refused to perform an autopsy or ballistics test.

In the decades that followed, Weiss’s innocence became historical consensus. In the 1990s, the case was reopened. Six decades after Long’s death, Louisiana State Police held firm in their original determination of Weiss’s guilt, doubling down on demonstrably false statements widely rejected by scientists and historians.

“We believe from a law enforcement standpoint that he had a motive. We believe had opportunity. And we believe he had the means to do the job. And we know he was there,” they said.

By all accounts, that is the position of the Louisiana State Police in 2019. As a result, Weiss is still recorded as Long’s murderer. When Carl Weiss Jr. died last month, his life’s work of affirming his father’s innocence remained unfinished.

Today, Long haunts Louisiana in the form of a notoriously dysfunctional government and economic stagnation. In the physical sense, he is an omnipresent force in the shape of a once-majestic infrastructure system bearing his name that now crumbles in disrepair.

Per Long’s wishes, Louisiana’s state capitol remains the tallest in America. A proud statue of him stands before it. Long is buried in front of the building, making the state capitol, as former lieutenant governor Jay Dardenne once quipped, the tallest tombstone in the country.

In addition to the buildings and bridges bearing his name in Louisiana, the state honors him in Washington, D.C. One of the two statues representing Louisiana in the U.S. Capitol is of Long, and, astonishingly, the Architect of the Capitol’s website still lists Dr. Carl Weiss as his assassin.

Thus, a family that for generations has been forced to live with the lies of Long and his cronies must continue to do so. Even if one is unconvinced by the overwhelming evidence confirming Weiss’s innocence, there is simply not enough proof to conclude he was guilty of murdering Long either. For that reason, Weiss must be exonerated, and his family’s name must be cleared.