Clementine Barnabet: The Dark Mystery of Louisiana’s Voodoo Axe Murders
Laid on the dock, I got a pain in the head
When I woke up, to tell the truth, I found myself dead
Jim Towel, ‘I’ve Been Hoodooed’
A February chill pressed upon the windowpane as the family were murdered, their brains crudely bashed out by the flat heft of an axe while they slept.
The atrocity didn’t stop with the deaths of Alexandre Andrus, his wife Mimi, his three-year-old son Joachim and his 11-month-old daughter Agnes. Sometime after 7am, Mimi’s brother Lezime Felix stumbled across the gruesome tableaux and what he saw must have turned his stomach and broken his heart.
It was a scene so macabre that Sheriff Louis LaCoste and Deputy Coroner Clark, accompanied by a score of deputies, crossed the railway tracks from the white-washed colonial facades of downtown Lafayette immediately. There’s no record of Lacoste and Clark’s politics – indeed, both appear diligent public servants – but the haste with which these two officials in Jim Crow-era Louisiana attended the murders of a black Creole family so poor they could boast only one bed between them speaks volumes about what had been seen.
Inside the cabin, the bodies of Alexandre and Mimi had been placed by the bedside, propped up on their knees with the woman’s arm draped over her husband’s shoulders as if in prayer. The baby and the toddler were laid in front of them on the bed. Were it not for the gore, the gristle and the brain splattered across the sheets, it would have appeared almost serene.
Despite the chill, Dr Clark – who arrived first and showed LaCoste around – reported that the bodies were still warm, placing the time of death at around midnight. The killer had entered the shack through the kitchen door, done their terrible deed and then exited the way they came.
This was no robbery. Four lives were all that had been stolen.
Like a rational man, Lacoste blamed the irrational.
The only lead was Garcon Godfry, an escaped lunatic from Pineville, less than 80 miles from Lafayette. Shaking down Godfry’s mother, they eventually brought him in and returned him to the asylum. They were, however, unable to connect him to the murder: Godfry’s whereabouts had been thoroughly accounted for. According to The Lafayette Advertiser further arrests were made, but like the pursuit of their straitjacketed scapegoat they came to naught.
Suspicions began to form: they were looking at more than one night of horror. The axe had fallen before.
Murder becomes Serial
Tell all you back-bitin’ pappas where I was nineteen-and-four
I was down in Louisiana on the killin’ floor
Arnold ‘Doc’ Wiley, ‘Spider in Your Dumpling’
A month earlier, in January 1912 a family of three had been murdered in nearby Crowley. A couple of years earlier still – September 1909 – the same fate had befallen a family in Rayne, another town within striking distance of Lafayette over the boundary in Acadia Parish. The victims were black and all had been murdered with an axe, but these weren’t subject to the same level of chilling detail as the Andrus family’s gruesome nativity scene.
Nor had they been neatly brained with the blunt side of the tool – they’d been decapitated and dismembered.
The real showpiece in this killer’s back catalogue had come back in January 1912.
Felix Broussard, his wife and their three children were slaughtered in Lake Charles, a town further out along the line through Rayne and Crowley. This was a call-back to the Andrus murders for its elaborate staging, and like the Andrus murders it dripped with dark magic.
The Broussards were found laid out across the sheets each skull crushed by the blunt of an axe. The weapon itself left under the bed.
The scene was strangely bloodless, the victim’s gore collected in a bucket as it left their bodies, but the most unsettling detail was their hands – each finger had been separated held splayed apart with wooden pins and rolled up pieces of paper.
Written above the door were the words “Human Five” and on the wall a Biblical passage, bastardised from Psalm nine:
When He maketh the inquisition for blood He forgetteth not the cry of the humble.
Similar cases soon appeared further down the tracks in neighbouring Texas. Neatly half-way between New Orleans and Houston, the railroad had changed Lafayette’s fortunes and the Southern Pacific now appeared to be tracing a blood-red line from Cajun country to the Lone Star State.
As far as Lake Charles was from Lafayette, Beaumont was from Lake Charles. On 19 February 1912 the bodies of Hattie Dove and her three children were left piled almost naked on the bed, each one slaughtered by axe-blows to the head. Unlike the others though, Dove had put up a fight and there were signs of struggle in the shack.
According to the Beaumont Enterprise “furniture had been overturned and the bed cloths had been torn from the bed, while blood was everywhere.”
In April 1912 the Cassaway family were killed in their San Antonio, Texas bed. Nothing was stolen and the bodies had been neatly – almost lovingly – arranged on the linen. Then another family of three – their names unknown – lost their lives in Hempstead, Texas.
The following month, Glidden, Texas – neatly between San Antonio and Huston – awoke to the screams of neighbours and a nocturnal axe murder of its own when Ellen Monroe, her four children and lodger (and possibly lover, given the shared the same bed) Lyle Funancune were snuffed out while they slept.
According to the Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, the bodies were found at 7am by Monroe’s fifth child Parthenia, who had lived with her grandmother.
Like Dove, Monroe and Funancune apparently survived the first blow, their bodies found by the bedside rather than in it, but this wasn’t a blip in what was otherwise the grimly reassuring pattern of a serial murder. The case’s connection appears purely circumstantial – an axe and a family murdered after dark.
Sheriff Bruce Mayes and a pack of bloodhounds traced the killers tracks to the home of Jim Fields. That morning while Parthenia Monroe howled in grief, Fields had washed his shoes and bought rail tickets to Flatonia, Texas, 32 miles from Glidden. He was carrying a suspicious quantity of cash and his jacket was flecked with blood. His recently scrubbed boots matched the prints at the scene perfectly although the charges were later dismissed.
That this had been nearly so neatly resolved – and that Glidden was well out of the previous murder arc – was quickly forgotten.
To gossips and newsmen alike, it looked as though a pandemic of axe murder was sweeping Texas and Louisiana. Black communities held panicked meetings in courthouses, young black women working as servents began sleeping in their employers’ kitchens rather than return home, men began to acquire guns (a further source of anxiety for the white elite) and rig up ‘alarm systems’ of fishing line connecting door knobs to toes.
The Utica Saturday Globe reported:
Every cabin door and window is locked and barred and no family sleeps without a guard. Every ax, every piece of iron, everything which might be used as an instrument of murder, is picked up and carried inside.
A tragic footnote to the hysteria, on 15 April 1912, a young man in Smithville, Texas rose in the night to stretch his legs and was shot dead by mistake.
Enter the Axe Woman
She the first girl I loved, last one I ever will
Lord, this-a thing baby, will get somebody killed
Andrew ‘Smokey’ Hogg, ‘I Bleed Through My Soul’
The axe-blade swung through the night air of Lafayette again in November 1912, neatly shattering the life out of a family of six while they slept in their three-room shack. Each had been struck behind the right ear with the reverse of the blade and the bodies were found by the surviving daughter, who by fortune alone had escaped death.
The 10-year-old had spent the night at her uncle’s house. Returning home in heavy rain the next morning, she pushed open the kitchen door and found her father – Norbert Randall – her mother, her three siblings and her cousin lying cold in two beds.
Water had made short work of the evidence, the rain outside had obliterating any incriminating tracks and the murder weapon left inside had been washed clean. Once again, the dogged Sheriff LaCoste pounced on the first available lead, but this time he made an arrest.
A young woman had been found creeping around near the Randall cabin, her blue and white dress covered in blood and brain.
Aged between 18 and 20 – her striking stature making it difficult tell – Clementine Barnabet was a folk terror made flesh.
She scandalised the press, stirring up a gumbo of moral panic in a state where Civil War and Slavery remained a living memory. Everything about Clementine Barnabet represented a collision – even a perversion – of cultures in the eyes of white Louisiana, from her mangled Creole French and mangled bloodline (newspaper reports describe her as “only one eighth [black]”) to her mangled beliefs, a tabloid-baiting blend of Voodoo – itself a blend of Catholicism and West African tribal rites – and evangelical Christianity.
Initially protesting her innocence, she later admitted that she had killed the Randall family with accomplices, but only because they wanted to ‘try out’ a Voodoo charm (acquired from the splendidly named “Hoodoo doctor” Joseph Thibodeaux) they believed would protect them. This story changed a third time, with the axe-woman blaming her father and brother. Then the story changed a fourth and final time by the time she took the stand, she absolved her father and saved him from a death sentence.
The resulting circus of the grotesque produced by this final harrowing narrative made headlines across the US – and even the world.
If Louis LaCoste had run a reasonably even-handed investigation, the trial in Lafayette Parish Courthouse would be anything but. In a sensational article (its language edited here for modern sensibilities), Ohio’s Mahoning Dispatch recalled:
With screams of hysterical laughter the girl rocked back and forth in the witness chair, her great eyes rolling into the back of her head, barely any pupil showing. Amidst sharp commands from the court and quick questioning of the prosecutor, the woman told of how because the Randall family had refused to obey church orders she had crept upon their cabin late on Sunday night with a keen-edged axe concealed in the folds of her cotton wrapper.
She told of how after she had thrown open the door of the tiny cabin she crept upon the sleeping husband and wife and before either could arouse had split their skulls in twain with her death dealing implement. She told how the four [children] on the floor started to cry out and how stealthy tread she approached their trundle beds and swinging her axe killed two with one blow and then lay about her with quick swings hacking the bodies of the two remaining children until they were scattered in bits about the room.
As she completed the awful tale, she rocked to and fro and then said: “An’ judge, thet ain’t all either.”
The girl continued to tell of how when a family by the name of Andrus living in an isolated section of the parish near the Mississippi river had refused to obey the message from God supposed to be the utterings of a Voodoo doctor who had been seen in this district, she with other religiously crazed [black] fanatics went to the Andrus cabin in the dead of night and there with axes hacked the sleeping members, four in number, to pieces, ending their bloody orgy with weird prayers and incantations.”
For all its jaw-dropping unreality, the key points of this horror story stacked up.
Norbert Randall was the brother-in-law of Alexandre Andrus, and both families had been present at the Church of Sacrifice. The murders themselves took place on Sunday nights (as The Harford Herald reports) “presumably after the [worshippers] had worked themselves into a religious frenzy at their meetings.”
That Barnabet had directed the murders as well as participated in them accounted at least for the differences in execution, from the neat surgical bludgeoning to the brutal bloodletting. And it also accounted for the fact that the murders continued after her arrest.
Copycats, Churches and Conspiracies
Whoa, the dogs are howlin’, all over the neighborhood
That is true sign of death, baby, that ain’t no good
Willie Dixon, ‘I Aint Superstitious’
Some posit that these were copycat crimes designed to exonerate Barnabet, but that seems unlikely. After all, she had confessed and she had blood-drenched clothes in her possession.
Others suggest that Barnabet wasn’t involved at all and was merely a fantasist fitted up by a justice system only too eager to close this gristly chapter in Lafayette’s history or a fanatic taking the fall for her faith, but then her story does fit with the established facts.
While much of her depiction in the press was a predictably heavy handed blend of bigotry, misandry and credulity. Take away the Voodoo charms and tignon head-dress (fashionable amongst Creole women, it was linked to Voodoo thanks to the likes of Marie Laveau) and Clementine Barnabet remains an eerie, intimidating presence.
Albert Dickinson, an otherwise measured reporter from the Utica Saturday Globe, visited Barnabet in her jail cell and was instantly disquieted by the woman he found sitting on the floor humming an unknown hymn.
She “stood to greet me with a grin of delighted anticipation” and the experience left such an impact on the newsman that he left no record of what they discussed. His chats with the occupants of neighbouring cells, meanwhile, he was more than happy to recall.
But the logical interpretation evidence, confession and circumstance contrived was dwarfed by the lingering mysteries.
Of the church itself, little is certain. That its name was alternately written as Sacrifice Sect, Sect of Sacrifice, Sanctified Sect of the Sacrifice Church, and God Sacrifice Church, suggests that few journalists ever managed to really get a handle on what it was about, conjuring up images of a revival tent that simply pulled up the stakes left town long before the deputies showed up.
The Auckland Star in New Zealand, the no doubt second-hand nature of the information casting scepticism on the veracity of their account, reported:
[Men] who have attended the church say that their sermons nothing short of appeals to passion, frenzied shooting taking place, many people, overcome with wild zeal, rolling on the floor naked.
What we know for certain is its links between the Lafayette victims and the membership of Clementine Barnabet. It was a compelling enough connection that a number of preachers were picked up by various law enforcement agencies in all the jurisdictions involved. The church’s leader Reverend King Harris was questioned too, but accounts of Harris remains strangely elusive, so too do the rumoured links between the Sacrifice Sect and the Voodoo cults of New Orleans.
This religious dimension, as well as the reference to a “Human Five” spurred on theories that the Human Five were either the number of victims (which for various reasons weren’t always five) or a sect-within-a-sect that was carrying out the church’s bloody mission. This mission? A number of news reports paint the slayings as a ritual to grant immortality (tying them to blood-drinking Voodoo rites), but another rumour that gained currency was that the victims were all mixed race and this was anathema to the church, who sought to purify the flock.
This was somewhat tenuously backed up by an underlined passage in a Bible belonging to one of the Sacrifice Sect preachers who found himself briefly under lock and key:
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
This is plausible to a point, but it ignores that Barnabet herself was of mixed heritage, as indeed were many Louisiana Creole people. Perhaps she was ‘purifying’ herself through bloodshed, but to take that line is to pile supposition upon supposition.
The church disbanded soon after the murders, taking all hope of clarity with it and forcing contemporary investigators to cast the net wider.
The Axe-Men hit the Road?
I’m gonna cut your head four different ways
That’s long, short, deep and wide
Blind Willie McTell, ‘A to Z Blues’
More outlandish theories lay blame at the door of the jazz-loving Ax-Man of New Orleans, responsible for a series of brutal attacks between May 1918 to October 1919. However six years is a heck of a ‘cooling off’ period for a serial killer and his MO is altogether different.
These were rage attacks. The Ax-Man attacked predominantly Italian-American couple, smashing down their doors to gain entry and most tellingly the Ax-Man left survivors by accident rather than design. Frenzies are careless, they don’t leave much time for delicately rearranging corpses, daubing psalms on walls or jamming splints between the fingers of children.
The peerless Todd C Elliot, whose Axes of Evil: The True Story of the Ax-Man Murders was an invaluable resource for this article, posits that Lyn George Jacklin Kelly may have been responsible.
Entering true crime infamy for the Villisca axe murders in June 1912, Kelly entered the Moore family home while its inhabitants slept and carved them . He left the axe at the scene and skipped town on a train. The dates work, but there’s a big geographical gap between the frenzy in Louisiana and Texas, and Kelly’s crime in Iowa.
While the Lafayette murders were strange, Villisca was stranger – the victims faces were covered with gauze and the mirrors in the house covered with bedclothes. When he eventually confessed, his motives were religious mania and he worked as a Presbyterian preacher, using his position of trust to pick his victims. Some of his flock even recall him preaching about “blood sacrifice.”
That fits with Louisiana/Texas murders, but only to a point.
The problems are many and commonalities do not always equal similarities. A religious colouring links the two, yes, as do elaborate ritualistic killings, but these killings are so different, both in terms of Villisca’s white victims and the precise ‘dressing’ of the Villisca crime scene that speaks of a very specific urge that our man Kelly was working out through his axe handle.
While the Louisana and Texas axe murders – and the New Orleans ones, for that matter – were break ins, Kelly waited patiently in the Moore attic, waiting for the family to return and head to bed.
Granted this wasn’t an option in the two/three room shacks of Rayne, Crowley and co, but it suggests a great deal of thought and planning.
Perhaps more importantly – how was a white English-born Presbyterian preacher (and one-time chaplain to the New Jersey Ku Klux Klan) able to team up with a black evangelical/Voodoo church without anyone passing comment?
Come to that, how was he able to creep around black neighbourhoods in the Deep South after dark without eliciting notice?
All of these theories do of course ignore the vital matter of Clementine Barnabet and raise as many fresh questions as they offer answers.
The real death toll is enshrouded in mystery, as murky and folkloric as the beliefs that inspired it. Some journalists recorded that as many as 300 may have been slain by the sect in its various guises over a six year period, drawing a veil of terror down on the black townships of Louisiana and Texas, and bringing the beat of Voodoo drums into the ashen-faced conversations of a middle and upper class that would sooner forget its black neighbours even existed.
How many deaths were actually down to the will of this mysterious cult and how many of these were down to Barnabet specifically will never be entirely clear. Nor will we ever know how many unrelated crimes in Texas and Louisiana were bundled in with the case.
The different jurisdictions and the absence of modern forensics saw to that, with the opium of gossip and hearsay soon dousing all further flickers of truth.
Flanked by three white Sheriff’s deputies at her trial, she howled:
“I am the axe-woman of the sacrifice sect. I killed them all, men, women and babies, and I hugged the babies to my breast, but I am not a murderer.”
It’s a clear confession, yet it ends with a scorpion sting of ambiguity that seemingly went unquestioned.
Sentenced to life imprisonment and entombed in infamy as America’s first black female serial killer, her legacy is a tidy solution to a tale that is anything but.