At about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 8, 1935, a bullet ripped through the abdomen of U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long as he stood in a corridor of the Louisiana state Capitol, inflicting a wound that would kill him 30 hours later. Within seconds of that shot, at least two dozen others were fired into the head, chest, abdomen, pelvis and arms of Carl Austin Weiss, a 29-year-old ear, nose and throat specialist who was in the same corridor, killing him on the spot.
The conventional explanation -- reaffirmed on June 5 at the conclusion of a special Louisiana State Police reinvestigation begun last fall -- is that Long, whose admirers called him "Kingfish," was shot by Weiss who, in turn, was cut down in a hail of bullets fired by Long's bodyguards, a contingent variously referred to as "Cossacks" or "skull crushers."
But that scenario has never been universally accepted. Weiss was a young doctor with a rising career, a new family, no known political involvement and, according to family and friends, no evident motive to throw away his life in an assassination attempt. An alternative theory is that Weiss approached Long -- possibly brandishing a gun, because he, like other Louisiana doctors making house calls, was known to carry one -- and that the bodyguards overreacted, catching the senator in the cross-fire or with a ricochet off the marble walls.
Last summer James E. Starrs, a George Washington University professor of forensic sciences, reopened the case by organizing a team of researchers who would obtain all the evidence they could get and apply some of the latest scientific methods to try to learn what really happened. Only the most minimal of investigations was done at the time. Neither Weiss nor Long was autopsied. The guns and bullets had supposedly been lost. Even the police records of the case were missing.
Thus it was that Weiss's bullet-riddled skeleton last fall came to rest on a wooden table in Douglas Ubelaker's office on the third floor of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.
At Starrs's behest, the body was exhumed in September from a Baton Rouge cemetery. The stainless steel vault was intact, as were the coffin's cypress boards. The coffin nails, however, had rusted away and the boards had collapsed.
"Unfortunately most of the soft tissue was gone -- just decomposed -- but we were able to learn some things from the bone," said Ubelaker, a physical anthropologist who specializes in interpreting skeletons to discover what happened to individuals in life.
Examining Points of Impact
Many of Weiss's bones were in pieces, evidently shattered by bullets. Ubelaker placed them all in plastic bags and hand-carried them on a plane back to Washington. Some of the bullet holes were obvious. Others revealed themselves only after bone fragments were glued back in place.
"We did a detailed examination of each of the points of impact," Ubelaker said. "Under the microscope you can tell the direction the bullet came from by looking at how the bone is splintered and repositioned." At least 23 and probably 24 bullets struck Weiss's bones. Undoubtedly, others passed through without hitting bone. (Some estimates say Weiss was shot as many as 61 times.)
To show what happened, Ubelaker took a hanging skeleton used mainly as a teaching tool and glued the tip of a drinking straw to each site of impact. The angle of the straw marked the bullet's path. The skeleton looks like a pincushion. Weiss was hit seven times from the front, three times from the right side, twice from the left side and 12 times from the back.
"He was shot many times from many different angles," Ubelaker said. "That doesn't prove Long was caught in the cross-fire, but it's certainly possible."
Three vertebrae were shattered. The right shoulder blade took four hits. Eleven ribs showed 18 damaged sites.
A bullet hole under Weiss's left eye tells a special tale. The slug entered at a low angle and went up into the brain case. Ubelaker found it there, a hollow point .38-caliber slug. According to Lucien C. Haag, a Phoenix ballistics expert recruited by Starrs, such a bullet would have had enough energy to exit Weiss's skull unless it had been slowed by passing through something else first.
Other Elements of Doubt
Caught in the slug's hollow point, Haag found, was a tuft of light tan cotton fibers. Weiss was wearing a white cotton suit the day he was shot. Might he have raised his arms to shield his face during the shooting? The slug could have passed through a sleeve before entering Weiss's head, catching fibers that would be discolored inside Weiss's brain. Ubelaker found evidence to fit that scenario: one bullet wound to Weiss's left wrist and two to his right arm.
"This indicates Dr. Weiss was not in an attacking posture. He had gone to a defensive posture and yet they continued shooting him," Starrs said.
None of the bodyguards' accounts at the inquest or later mentions Weiss throwing up his arms, yet the forensic evidence shows he must have. Had such evidence come to a court of law trying Weiss, Starrs said, it would not have proven innocence but "it would at least add to the element of reasonable doubt."
The skeleton also provided the chance to check one theory about the assassination. Before dying, Long was asked about an injury to his lip. He is said to have replied something like, "That's where he hit me." This has led to speculation that Weiss merely threw a punch at the Kingfish.
If so, Ubelaker reasoned, there was a chance Weiss did what many others have done and broke a fingerbone in the act. Ubelaker did find some hairline fractures that looked suspicious at first but then it turned out they were in both hands and, for that matter, in both feet. They must have resulted from changes after death.
While the Weiss autopsy yielded no conclusive answer to the question of who shot Huey Long, another arm of Starrs's investigation came closer. He found that the alleged murder weapon -- Weiss's gun, which had been thought to have disappeared half a century ago -- was in the possession of Mabel Guerre Binnings. She was the daughter and heir of Gen. Louis F. Guerre, who in 1935 headed the Louisiana State Police investigation of Long's assassination.
Even though Guerre had long denied knowing what happened to the gun, he had willed it to his daughter -- a fact Starrs discovered when it was found itemized in the inventory of Guerre's estate after he died in 1966. At first, Starrs said, the daughter refused to acknowledge having the gun but eventually relented when Weiss's son sued to get it back. It was a .32-caliber Fabrique Nationale semiautomatic that Weiss had bought years earlier while traveling in Europe.
Along with the gun was preserved a single .32-caliber slug, presumed to have been the one that killed Long. Examination of the slug showed that it had been fired and had "adhering tissue-like material on it," Starrs said. The material, however, has not been analyzed. It also has a flat spot where it had hit a hard surface. Analysis of the flat spot showed calcium carbonate, a mineral common in marble.
"It had all the earmarks of being the bullet that went through Huey Long and smacked into a marble wall in that corridor," Starrs said.
But according to Starrs, when Louisiana police ballistics experts fired a bullet -- a vintage 1935 round of the same kind -- from Weiss's gun and compared the slug with the preserved one, the marks imparted by the grooves inside the barrel were very different.
Thus, he concluded, the bullet that Louisiana officials appear to have preserved as the one that killed Long could not have come from Weiss's gun. That and the fact that Weiss was trying to defend himself against the bodyguards' fusillade, Starrs said, establish "grave and pervasive doubts that Carl Austin Weiss M.D. was the person who killed Senator Huey P. Long."