Huey Long is among America's most colourful and influential politicians, who ruled Louisiana with an iron fist from 1928-1935, before he was untimely gunned down by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss.
Huey Pierce Long, Jr. was born on August 30, 1893, in Winnfield
, Louisiana, son of Huey P. Long Sr. and Caledonia Tison Long
. He was seventh of nine children (four boys and five girls), and quickly showed talents of intelligence and memory from an early age. He attended the local Winn Parish
high school, but was expelled in 1908 for circulating a petition asking to fire the principal.
From an early age Huey displayed a penchant for rebellion. He never got along with his overbearing mother, and hated being forced to attend church and school. From a young age he despised being told what to do, and always sought to dominate over others, a trait carried for the rest of his life.
Naturally, Huey would not live at home for very long, so in 1909 at age 16 his friend Harley Bozeman got him a salesman job with Cottolene, a company that made cooking oil from cotton seeds. Huey's territory was Northern Louisiana, and almost immediately he gained a reputation as being able to "sell anybody anything". He had the amazing ability to remember every face and person he visited; years later, when campaigning in northern Louisiana, this asset would come in handy, as people were impressed that he had remembered their names.
In 1910, as part of a Cottolene promotional, Huey had been assigned the task of organizing a Shreveport cooking competition. One of the entrees, Rose McConnell, immediately got Huey's attention, not for her chocolate cake (which Huey later admitted as being "sub-par"), but for her flowing brown hair and large chestnut eyes. Rose and Huey immediately hit it off, and on April 21, 1913, they were married.
Meanwhile, Huey had decided to focus his talents and get a law degree. He enrolled at Tulane University Law School (in New Orleans) in September 1914, and for the next eight months studied like mad, often forgetting to eat and sleep. In May 1915 he used a contact through his law teacher to take the Bar exam, which Huey passed, becoming Louisiana's youngest certified lawyer at age 22. He then moved back to his hometown of Winnfield, where he set up a law practice and was quickly renowned for his winning tactics and superb oratory skills in the court. He gained enough prestige to open a practice in Shreveport, Louisiana's second largest city, and quickly became well-off, financially.
Railroad Commissioner Long
Ever since he was a child, Huey had aspired to be a politician, and by the time he was 14, he knew exactly his goals, and how he was going to get there. As he told a friend in 1911, "I'm going to get a small-time position, gain a reputation, then run for Governor
. From there, I'll run for the U.S. Senate
, then the Presidency". Ultimately, Huey's goal was to be President and dominate everybody around him, a goal which may have been realized had he not been assassinated.
In 1917, a year before the Louisiana general election, Huey had been mulling his choices for the position he had wanted to run for. He had considered running against his brother Julius for district attorney of Winn Parish, but declined in return for Julius' support elsewhere. Huey's friend Harley Bozeman pointed out that the North Louisiana seat on the three-member Railroad Commission was vacant, and urged Huey to run for this post. Huey agreed, and in 1918 campaigned all over north Louisiana, visiting (and remembering) some of the same homes he had visited years earlier selling Cottolene and Wine of Cardui. Huey defeated his challenger, Burk A. Bridges, a patrician landowner, by a vote of 7,286 to 6,651.
As a lawyer, Huey had been renowned for fighting against big business - namely, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil. Now that Huey was one of three railroad commissioners (who regulated railroads and oil and gas pipelines in Louisiana), he carried his fight on the political scene. He immediately attacked anyone who would not support him as "feeding out of the hands of Standard Oil", and made moves to declare the pipelines as public utilities, which would bring them under his control. In 1922, he was made Chairman of the commission, and after launching vitriolic attacks against then-governor John M. Parker, decided to run for Louisiana governor in 1924, at the tender age of 31.
Long Our Next Governor
Long knew from the outset that he was a long shot for Governor, but his inherent impatience dictated that he at least try. He had many factors running against him - he did not have any real political organization set up (as opponents Fuqua and Bouanchaud did), he didn't receive the endorsement of any newspapers, and he was relatively unknown in the Cajun or Florida parishes, in South and East Louisiana.
One must remember that Huey wasn't running for governor against Henry Fuqua and Hewitt Bouanchaud, rather he was only running in the Democratic primary to nominate their gubernatorial candidate. However, like in other Southern states, the Democratic party was virtually the only party around - the Republicans were identified as the party of Yankee northerners and blacks - so the Democratic primary was essentially the election. As such, Huey campaigned tirelessly across Louisiana, trying to increase his state-wide profile, and made twice the speeches and covered three times as much ground as any of his other opponents. Here he also met the future Lousiana Secretary of State, and Huey's personal secretary, confidant and mistress, eighteen-year-old Alice Lee Grosjean.
On election day, January 15 1924, cold, wind-whipped rains fell across Lousiana, driving away many of the country folk, Huey's pillar of support. This was reflected in the results, Bouanchaud 84,162; Fuqua 81,382; and Huey Long, 73,985. Despite his shortcomings and difficulties, Long did remarkably well, winning an absolute majority in 21 (of 64) parishes, and having a plurality of votes in 7 others. State-wide, he had 20% of the vote, but in New Orleans, critical for any aspirant governor, he only received 17.7% of the city total. Long's supporters would later flock to Fuqua in the run-off, making Henry Fuqua Lousiana's next governor.
Biding His Time
Huey Long did not fret over the loss; the fact that he received nearly 74,000 votes was remarkable in itself. Huey knew that he had to do three things: 1, Establish a state-wide political organization; 2, Increase his votes in the South; and 3, Increase votes in New Orleans. Huey immediately campaigned for the re-election of US senator Joseph Ransdell, who was Catholic and held some sway in the South. Two years later, in 1926, Huey campaigned for the re-election of US Senator Edwin Broussard, a French Catholic from the Cajun parishes. This greatly increased Huey's exposure in the South, and cemented his popularity there.
Huey also developed a political organization, which soon grew large after a Shreveport businessman donated $40, 000 to Long for representing him in court. He and his supporters went around Louisiana, trying to drum up support, and Huey's vitriolic, energetic speaking style attracted most poor, rural voters. Despite Huey's gains in popularity, though, New Orleans still remained a hostile place toward him. However, by 1928, Huey Long was ready for another try at the Governorship, and this time, nobody would stop him.
In 1927, Huey Long announced for Governor and immediately launched into a frenzied, 600-speech 15,000-mile campaign. Long's reputation for ad hominem attacks were cemented during this time; an example is when he gave a speech in Shreveport, denouncing the anti-Long mayor "Wet Jug" Thomas, where he accused Thomas of:
- Being friends with black Republican leader Walter Cohen (back then, it was embarrassing to be friends with either a Republican or a black, let alone both)
- Being so odorous that a skunk could not stand being in the same room as him, and
- Being a trough feeder and a low-down, dirty thief and liar
A Shreveport newspaper said that Huey made so many insults, that "if code duello was still in force, Huey wouldn't live a week"
Despite his vitriolic speeches, Huey did have some real platform issues. In 1928, Lousiana had the worst highway system in the entire US, having only 331 miles of paved roads and three bridges statewide, none over the Mississippi River which divided the state in two. Huey Long pledged to immediately begin road and bridge construction, which would help infrastructure and employ thousands of poor. As well, Louisiana also had abysmal health care and education systems, so Long pledged free schoolbooks for all primary schoolchildren, improvement of Louisiana State University, and improvements to health care.
With a solid platform and massive support, opponents Riley J. Wilson and Governor Oramel Simpson (Fuqua died in 1926) realized they had no chance against Long. When the votes were counted after election day January 17 1928, the results were as follows: Long, 126,842 (43.9%); Wilson, 81,747 (28.3%); and Simpson, 80,326 (27.8%). Although Long did not have the needed 50% majority to win outright, Oramel Simpson pledged his votes to Long, in return for a lucrative Long government post. In the "real" governor's election in April, Long beat a Republican nonentity 92,941 to 3,733.
Almost immediately after election, Huey began his stranglehold on Louisiana. He appointed the Senate president and speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, but in an unprecedented move told them exactly which legislators to appoint to the various councils and committees (only 18 of 100 representatives were pro-Long, and 9 of 39 senators. Huey knew who to put on committees). As well, Huey would often stride into the Legislature uninvited, and tell the legislators what to do. Once, a representative thrust a copy of Louisiana's State Constitution in his face, to which Huey replied "I'm the Constitution around here now". By the end of the 1928 legislative session, Huey had managed to ram through his most important legislation, free schoolbooks for children and a $30 million bond issue to build highways and bridges.
In addition to legislative means, Huey also used patronage and intimidation to get supporters. Through patronage appointments he gained control of the State Health Board, the State Transportation Board and the Public Services Commission, among others. As well, any anti-Long legislators or politicians who threatened to vote against Huey were told that one of their relative's asylum pasts would soon become front page news on Long's newspaper the Louisiana Progress. Long also required all managerial-level state employees to sign undated letters of resignation, including his Lieutenant-Governor Paul Cyr.
By March 1929, Huey Long had predictably angered a lot of people. A group of 29 representatives, called the "Dynamite Squad", met regularly to discuss anti-Long tactics. There were grumblings of impeachment everywhere, but the shoe finally dropped in late March 1929.
Huey Long had proposed a 5 cent barrel tax on any oil refined in Louisiana, which meant that would directly affect Standard Oil's giant refinery in Baton Rouge. Standard Oil threatened that they would pull out of Baton Rouge if the measure passed (thereby unemploying half the city's workforce), but Huey pressed on nonetheless. This enraged the Squad, who on March 26, after a wild day in the legislature, submitted 18 articles for impeachment of Huey Long.
For the next month, these articles were debated and voted upon by the Louisiana House of Representatives, whom Huey was unable to buy or bribe. In the end, they approved eight articles of impeachment, including:
- Bribery and attempted bribery of legislators
- Seeking to intimidate the press
- Misappropriation of state funds
- Incompetency, corruption, and gross misconduct
- Using "vile, obscene and scurrilous language"
Although the House voted for impeachment on eight articles, it didn't mean anything until they reached the 39-member senate, who could impeach Huey if they voted on any one of the articles. If impeached, Huey would be stripped of his title as Governor, and forbidden from running for political office again in Louisiana, which for the power-hungry Huey would be worse than death.
Huey's "dream team" of lawyers found a loophole: the Senate had to approve of the articles by a 2/3 majority, so if Huey's team could get 14 senators to pledge support for him, then the proceedings could not continue (this legal strategy is called a Round Robin). Huey and his team managed to "convince" 15 senators to vote in his favour, and they all signed an affidavit saying they would vote against impeachment no matter what. Since Huey had over the 1/3 needed to prevent the proceedings, the judge overseeing the proceedings declared them to be "useless", and adjourned the senate. Huey had beat impeachment, and he had emerged a more power-hungry, extreme man.
As you may recall earlier, Huey's plan from childhood was to become governor, then senator, then president. Now, in mid-1929, after fighting off impeachment, and his popularity rising, Huey decided to run for United States Senator in 1930. Immediately, he began campaigning again against Sen. Joseph Ransdell, whom Huey had supported back in 1924. They both fought a bitter, long, protracted fight, but in the end, Huey was the victor, winning 149,640 (57.3%) votes to Ransdell's 111,451(42.7%).
Despite his victory in Louisiana, Huey wanted to remain governor until 1932, the next scheduled governor's election. He had recently had a disagreement with Lt. Gov. Paul Cyr, and so until Long could find a replacement for his Lt. Governor, he could not resign as governor because he, quote, would not "let Cyr be governor for a single goddamn minute". In the meanwhile, he consolidated his grip on Louisiana, instituting the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI), a separate organization responsible only to the governor, which could arrest and detain anybody without warrant. This meant that Huey had complete control of his opposition. In 1931, Huey dismissed Cyr on a technicality, and replaced him with pitiful yes-man Oscar K. Allen, who was elected "governor" in 1932. In reality, Allen took all of his marching orders from Long, and didn't have an independent bone in his body, allowing Long to be both senator and control Louisiana at the same time.
On January 25, 1932, Long arrived in Washington to accept his title as senator, in a typically lavish private coach. Immediately upon being seated in the Senate, he became a massive nuisance, spewing vitriolic insults at senators from his own party (Democrats), and his first bill proposed to "prevent anyone in America from making more than $1,000,000 per year". Naturally, this was defeated, but it didn't stop Huey from proposing more and more absurd bills, including one that would require all Jew's harp manufacturers to make them according to his specifications.
While Huey initially supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after his election Roosevelt refused to give Huey patronage power for federal positions in Louisiana, which greatly undermined Huey's own power there. As soon as New Deal legislation was passed in 1933, Roosevelt's own men distributed welfare checks across Louisiana, making him more popular than Huey, understandably enraging the junior senator. Huey countered by releasing his autobiography "Every Man a King" in September 1933, which outlined his populist stances on welfare reform and taxation while highlighting his own poor, working-class roots.
On August 27, 1933, things became worse for Huey. While attending a birthday party on Long Island, Huey proceeded to drink himself stupid, and did all sorts of rude things such as taking a fat woman's food away, saying "you're too fat already. I'll eat this", and urinating on a man who was blocking the urinals. The press had a field day with this, dubbing him "Huey Pee Long", and nationwide, especially in Louisiana, his popularity began to plummet. While on a speaking tour in Louisiana to boost his popularity, he was pelted with rotten fruit, vegetables and eggs. In a desperate bid to reverse this trend, Huey decided that the time had come to implement new populist economic measures in Louisiana and nationwide, culminating in the Share our Wealth club.
Share Our Wealth
Founded by Huey Long on February 5 1934, the Share Our Wealth society was a plan to make "every man a king". Huey encouraged people across America to set up local clubs, and if they wrote to Huey Long's senate office they would be officially recognized. The basic tenets of SOW went like this:
- No family in America would make less than two or three thousand dollars per year
- The average family income would be $5,000 per year
- All fortunes over $5,000,000 would be confiscated
- All yearly income, or gifts/inheritances of over $1,000,000 would be subject to a 100% tax (confiscation)
- This wealth would be redistributed to the poor through money, goods, and company stocks
Naturally, in the depths of the Depression (where less than half of America's families were making more than $1,250 per year), this was extrememly appealing to many Americans. By July of 1935, A year and a half later, there were 7,682,768 members in 27,431 clubs in all 48 states, and approx. one in every 20 Americans was a member. There were even 17 clubs meeting in Ontario, Canada, where Huey's radio broadcasts could be heard. This created a massive, grassroots support base for Huey, who began to present an actual threat to FDR in the 1936 election.
By 1935, Huey had achieved all of his objectives in life, and saw no reason why he would not eventually be the President of the United States. He knew he couldn't win in 1936, but this was part of his plan to the Presidency. He would announce as a candidate for the Democratic party in 1936, against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt, and make a lot of noise. When he lost, he would announce a third party, a "Share the Wealth" party, whose candidate (not Long himself) would draw millions of liberal votes away from FDR, thus defeating him. After four years of misery under a Republican president, Huey planned to rise to the platform in 1940 as "America's Saviour". Had Huey not been killed in 1935, this plan may have worked, and would have almost certainly defeated FDR. While Huey worked dilligently on this plan throughout 1935, he didn't think he had enough power yet in Louisiana, so he started to implement almost draconian measures there, many of which infringed on freedom of speech and press.
Throughout late 1934 and 1935, Huey Long had called numerous "special sessions" of the Louisiana legislature to implement new policies. By this time, there was no effective opposition, and most of the legislators were mindless yes-men. Apparently, Huey decided he needed more power, so he passed a series of stifling motions, some of which included:
- The state government could appoint any teacher, councillor or city position, removing the power of municipalities.
- New Orleans Tax Act: Prevented the city of New Orleans from collecting any taxes, effectively bankrupting the city. Later repealed when they joined Huey Long's ranks.
- State Board of Censors Act: This board, responsible to the governor, could prohibit any movies from being shown in Louisiana, including newsreels
- Henry B. Pavy: This sole anti-Long judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court was gerrymandered out of his seat, as were several other anti-Long district court judges.
- State Civil Service Commission: Gave complete power over all fire and police stations to the Governor, who could arbitrarily hire or fire any policeman or fireman
- State Elections Board: Had the power to count and confirm all ballots cast in a Democratic primary - essentially gave the power of elections to Long, and only for those elections that mattered.
- State Printing Board: would solely determine which newspapers were to be the "official printer" for a region - namely, printing notices for parishes, municipalities and school boards. For many small newspapers, this meant the difference between life and death, and as a result many small anti-Long newspapers drastically changed their stances to pro-Long
- Advertisement Tax: stated that a tax of 2% would be levied on all advertisements for newspapers with over a 20,000 person distribution. Since all newspapers that size in Louisiana were anti-Long, some, like the New Orleans Times-Picayune, became pro-Long in a hurry, to encourage a tax "exemption".
Huey Long also became increasingly violent with his enemies. When, on January 25 1935 a group of 300 armed protestors overtook the East Baton Rouge Courthouse to protest Long's policies, Long responded by placing Baton Rouge under martial law, and forbidding the formation of crowds and the "carrying, transporting, selling or buying of firearms". Baton Rouge was renamed "First Military District", and put in the command of the BCI commander, General Guerre. Martial Law was imposed until July.
On Sept. 8, 1935, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Louisiana's formeost eye-ear-and-throat doctor, rose from his family's dinner table and said he was going to make a "house call" on a patient. Instead, he put a cheap Belgian .32 automatic pistol in his pocket, and set out for the capitol building.
He had been angered at the fact that Huey was going to claim that Judge Pavy (mentioned above) had "tainted blood" (basically, that he had black ancestry in his blood). This was the highest insult anybody could give anyone in Louisiana, and as it happened, Judge Pavy's daughter was Dr. Weiss' wife. It could ruin the family's reputation, as well as Weiss' thriving practice.
At approx. 8:45 PM, Weiss walked into the large, marble lobby of the Capitol building, and waited for Huey to arrive, standing behind a large marble pillar. At 9:15 PM, Huey came striding out of his office with his entourage of bodyguards, and at once Weiss stepped out and shot Huey once in the abdomen. Huey yelled out and ran back down the hall, when his trigger-happy bodyguards opened fire and riddled Weiss' body with over 60 bullets. One of the bullets ricocheted off the marble wall, hitting Huey in the lower spine, when he promptly fell. After being rushed to hospital, Huey died 30 hours later from a kidney infection caused by Weiss' bullet.
Huey's funeral on Sept. 10, 1935, was the largest ever in Louisiana history. Over 175,000 people packed the square in front of the Capitol building to see the funeral procession. After Huey's death, O.K. Allen became the actual governor, and in 1939, his brother Earl K. Long would become governor. Huey left an indelible mark on Louisiana politics for the next 30 years, and he was the closest thing America ever had to a dictator. Many attempts have been made to discover his true character, but Huey himself put it best when he said "I am Sui Generis - Leave it at that (one of a kind)".
sources: "Every man a King, by Huey Long. "The Kingfish and his Realm", by William Ivy Hair. http://www.flash.net/~manniac/hueylong.htm, http://www.ibiscom.com/volong.htm,