EARLY one afternoon in late January 1911, a police officer in West Crowley, Louisiana received an urgent phone call. Neighbors feared something terrible had taken place at 605 Western Avenue, and indeed, when Office Ballew arrived at the house, he found the home’s three occupants -- a man, woman, and small boy -- lying in bed with their skulls split open. The bed was drenched in blood, and bloody footprints speckled the floor. The doors were locked, indicating that the killer had come in through a window and murdered the family while they slept. There was a bucket of blood in one corner, and at the head of the bed, just above the bashed-in bodies, stood a bloodied ax.
The local newspaper called it “the most brutal murder in the history of this section,” but it was just one of the ax slayings that would terrify parts of Louisiana and Texas in the early 1910s. The crimes would become connected to rumors of a deranged Voodoo priestess and a cult called the “Church of Sacrifice,” which was said to butcher its victims as part of their strange rites. But though suspicion initially focused on several men, the murderer would turn out to be an African-American woman named Clementine Barnabet, who may have had little connection to Voodoo at all. She would eventually confess to killing 35 people -- though exactly how many people she murdered is unknown.
“BRAINED WITH AN AX”
At the start of the second decade of the 20th century, the murders blazed a path of terror through a cluster of towns along the Southern Pacific railroad line. While sources argue about the first murder connected to the case, it may have been a woman named Edna Opelousas and her three children, killed in Rayne, Louisiana, in November 1909. The next killing took place in late January 1911, when Walter Byers, his wife, and their son were hacked to death in Crowley, Louisiana. The police were somewhat used to crime happening in their largely poor part of town, but the brutality of the murders -- ”brained with ax,” as one source put it -- surprised them. A little more than four weeks later, on February 25, the murderer struck again, killing four members of the Andrus family in Lafayette, Louisiana. By then, the police began to suspect that their crimes were so similar they may have been “the work of the same terrible monster.” A month later, in San Antonio, Texas, Alfred and Elizabeth Casaway were murdered in a similar fashion, along with their three children.
After a few false leads, police focused on Raymond Barnabet, a local petty criminal and sharecropper from Lafayette who lived in “the back part of town.” Raymond was arrested based on suspicions from his mistress -- after a fight, she’d griped about him to a friend and suggested a possible connection to the murders. During his trial in October 1911, Raymond’s children, Zepherin and Clementine Barnabet, testified against their father, and the teenage Clementine told a graphic story of her father returning home one night with blood on his clothes as he threatened the family [PDF]. Zepherin confirmed the story, adding that their father bragged that he “killed the whole damn Andrus family.” Both children said they feared for their life if their father was free.
But while Raymond sat in jail, another murder took place. On November 26, 1911, Norbert Randall, his wife, three children, and nephew were all murdered in Lafayette in the same heinous fashion, but with one horrific addition: While the rest of the family was attacked with an ax, Norbert was shot in the head.
It was clear a killer was still on the loose. Lafayette Parish Sheriff Louis LaCoste, who was already suspicious of Raymond’s children, arrested them both. His suspicions stemmed in part from the fact that they had bad reputations around town; during Raymond’s trial, their neighbors, the Stevens family, described them as “filthy, shifty, degenerate.” And there was another detail that concerned LaCoste: When police came to the Barnabet residence to arrest Raymond, blood from the Andrus murders had been discovered on Clementine’s clothes. She testified during her father’s trial that he had wiped the blood there, but the sheriff wasn’t so sure.
Indeed, when deputies arrested Clementine and searched the family’s home, they found more damning evidence. As The Daily Picayune reported on November 28, 1911, there was “a complete suit of woman’s clothes in her room, saturated with blood and covered with human brains.” Not only that, but the latch on their door was covered in blood. Zepherin provided an alibi for the night of the murders, but Clementine had none, and was taken to jail.
Even then, the murders didn’t stop.
THE HUMAN FIVE
In January 1912, three more families were murdered. In the third instance -- when Felix Broussard, his wife, and their three children were killed in Lake Charles, Louisiana -- the killer (or killers) splayed the victims’ hands apart with pieces of wood and left a handwritten message on the wall. Some sources say the message was written in blood; others, in pencil. Either way, the letters spelled a spooky sentence: “When he maketh the inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble” (a version of Psalm 9:12 in the King James Bible). The message was signed “Human Five.” The number in the signature led police to think a band of murderers was at work, and it also lent the group a nickname picked up by the press: The Human Five Gang.
The newspapers had a field day, and seized on the idea that the murders were connected to a Voodoo ritual. One of the first to take that angle, the El Paso Gazette, published a story on the Broussard murders titled “Voodoo’s Horrors Break Out Again.” The story suggested the crimes were connected to human sacrifice that took place as part of a Voodoo ritual, and emphasized the idea of the number five as somehow having ritualistic relevance. “Two months ago, six members of the Wexford family perished at the hands of the fanatics but one was an infant that had been born only the day before the tragedy and in all probability had not been taken into consideration when the plans for the human sacrifice were consummated,” the reporter for the paper wrote. “Now comes the Broussard tragedy with its five victims, thus completing a series of sacrifices of five separate families, each evidently intended to have involved five victims.” (These numbers were not entirely accurate -- the victim counts in a particular family
typically ranged from four to six.)
The El Paso Gazette was one of many to run with the Voodoo angle. After their story hit newsstands, several local papers also printed the possibility that the murders were connected to Voodoo. Around the same time, rumors were swirling that Clementine was the leader of some kind of cult called the “Church of Sacrifice,” which was supposedly led by one Reverend King Harris, a Pentecostal revival preacher with a small congregation connected to the Christ Sanctified Holy Church. Police took Harris in for interrogation after rumors of religious involvement ran rampant, but the reverend had never heard of a “Church of Sacrifice,” and was visibly shaken to think that his sermons could have possibly inspired a series of bloody ax murders.
Eventually, investigators would get at least some of their answers. On April 5, 1912, Clementine made a full confession, admitting to 17 murders. She claimed she had bought a Voodoo charm meant to protect her while committing her crimes, and said that she and her accomplices drew lots to see who would commit the murders. She also said that she disguised herself as a man to better lurk unnoticed at night. The Daily Picayune noted that “she declared she killed the children because she did not wish them left orphans in the world.” Her motives for the crimes, however, were never made clear.
The Lafayette Advertiser printed her full confession in the paper on April 5, 1912, but added at the end: “Clementine’s confession has been received with varying shades of belief owing to the positive way she swore in the trial of her father, and the misleading information she has given as to her accomplices.”
Indeed, it was difficult to keep Clementine’s story straight. She had previously testified in court that her father was the dangerous man behind the murders, but they kept happening. She gave names for her accomplices, but when Sheriff LaCoste investigated them, they went nowhere. Several arrests were made, but the search for the rest of the “Human Five Gang” was a dead end.
The district attorney, Howard E. Bruner, theorized that some of these murders were copycat crimes, but he believed that Clementine was a “moral pervert” who was guilty of everything she confessed to. (Clementine had admitted to “caressing” the corpses after she had killed them, regardless of their gender or age.)
The court records for Barnabet’s trial were summarized and published by The Federal Writers Project in 1942, and their account makes plain that there was a great deal of public confusion regarding the details of the case at the time. For one thing, there probably never was a “Church of Sacrifice” as the papers had said. Reverend Harris had preached in Lafayette the night of the Randall murders, but was otherwise uninvolved. According to the Federal Writers Project, “a state of confusion existed in the public mind regarding the Sacrifice Church, the existence of which had never been established and [Harris’s] The Sanctified Church, and the frequent arrests of the latter were made.” It is possible that the words Sanctify and Sanctified were confused with sacrifice after the Voodoo cult rumors began to spread, and that the misinformation was spread from there.
But the “Voodoo” damage had already been done. The Lafayette population was willing enough to place the blame on a nebulous Voodoo priestess committing murder while leading a sacrificial sect. It didn’t help that Clementine had named a Voodoo priest who had given the invisibility charm to her: Joseph Thibodeaux. She said that he also gave her the ideas for the crimes, but Thibodeaux swore that that had never happened, and that far from being a Voodoo priest, he simply engaged in root-based medicine. (One local paper explained to its readers that Thibodeaux “has ever been regarded as peaceful in disposition and harmless in intention,” and said he was “noted for the practice of conjuring warts away.”)
Despite investigators’ suspicions regarding Clementine’s confession, the stories about her continued to circulate. Bruner officially filed charges against her on April 14, 1912. While she sat in jail, she confessed to a total of 35 murders, but kept re-telling her story with differing details that make it hard to know the truth.
Her defense attorneys claimed she was insane, but she stood trial and was sentenced to life at Louisiana Penitentiary at the age of 19. She attempted an escape on July 31, 1913, but was caught the same day. Despite her escape attempt, she was considered a model prisoner. She didn’t, however, serve very long. According to one brief report about the prison, Clementine received a “procedure” that was said to have “restored” her to her “normal condition,” and which allowed her to be released on good behavior after serving 10 years.
REALITY OR MORAL PANIC?
So what about Clementine’s story is real, and what is media fabrication? The evidence found in her room, and the brain matter on her clothes, suggests that Clementine did commit some of these murders, but perhaps not all of them. Dr. Jeff Anderson, a history professor at the University of Louisiana Monroe, tells Mental Floss that either Clementine or “someone in her house” performed the majority of these murders, but that her confessions are so contradictory, “I don’t think she totally committed all of the murders that she said she did.” The question of Barnabet’s accomplices -- and whether or not they were part of some kind of Voodoo cult -- has never been answered.
Perhaps if Clementine’s race or class had been different, we’d be closer to knowing the truth. As author James Hoare wrote for Real Crime Daily, “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 ... to her mangled beliefs, a tabloid-baiting blend of Voodoo -- itself a blend of Catholicism and West African tribal rites -- and evangelical Christianity.”
Strangely enough, there was more than one set of ax murders terrorizing Louisiana around the same time. Nearby, the murders of the infamous Axeman of New Orleans tormented locals in the late 1910s. The killings have never been solved. And several decades earlier, a killer sometimes called the “Servant Girl Annihilator” committed several ax murders in 1880s Austin, Texas -- crimes that have never been solved, either.
Experts aren’t sure if all those murders are connected. But one thing’s for sure: More than a century later, Clementine Barnabet’s story -- the truth and the tangled legends -- continues to haunt us.
Additional Sources: “Chemist Metz Says Blood on Clothes of Clemintine Bernabet [sic], Charged With Murder of Randall Family, Pure.” Lafayette Advertiser; “Horrible Crime. -- Whole Negro Family of Four Brutally Murdered While Asleep in Their Beds.” Lafayette Advertiser; “Negress Confesses. -- Clementine Bernabet Gives Detailed Account of Axe Murders in Rayne, Crowley and Lafayette.” Lafayette Advertiser; “Negro Arrested - By Sheriff Fontenot for Rayne Butchery -- Family of Five Brained in San Antonio Last Week.” Lafayette Advertiser