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The Voodoo Ax Murders

Donate Were two waves of ax murders in the American south in the early 20th century truly associated with Louisiana Voodoo?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #923
February 13, 2024
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The Voodoo Ax Murders

The great city of New Orleans, Louisiana is perhaps best known for its French Quarter, jazz music, and Creole cuisine. But it is also (somewhat more privately) known for Louisiana Voodoo, a unique religion that blends West African religious traditions, Roman Catholicism, and Haitian Vodou. When two waves of ax murders swept through Louisiana and Texas between 1911 and 1919, only one person was punished: a teenage Black girl reported to be a Voodoo priestess. The newspapers had a field day sensationalizing the monstrosities of Voodoo. Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at that contemporary conclusion that Voodoo was the explanation, and see if young Clementine Barnabet — and Voodoo as well — deserve to be exonerated.

I do want to clear one thing up right at the outset: the Louisiana Voodoo religion has nothing to do with murder or human sacrifice. There's not a thing in Voodoo traditions or practices that would compel a person to kill anyone. You would be right to look at the title of this episode and suspect that it reflects societal prejudices and misunderstandings of the religion — probably even some xenophobia and maybe even some racism. Voodoo is mostly about healing and protection and connection to ancestral spirits. And yet, at the outset of the 20th century, two waves of ax murders swept through Louisiana; and many in the press sprang to this explanation. As one example, during the first wave in 1912, the El Paso Herald, reporting on the murders, put out an extra titled Voodoo's Horrors Break Out Again. The headline read:

"How the Cruel and Gruesome Murders of Africa's Wicked Serpent Worship Have Been Revived in Louisiana by a Fanatic 'Sect of Sacrifice'"

There's kind of a lot wrong with that headline. Voodoo has a lot of loa, or spirits, but practitioners don't really "worship" them in the way that Christians use the word. It's more of a relationship of mutual respect and honor. You may have seen Voodoo ceremonies where they'll get out snakes and hold them up in the air. That's not worshiping a serpent god; it's using a snake to invite the blessings of a loa named Damballah-Wedo, a revered loa who represents creation, fertility, wisdom, and purity; and is often depicted as a snake.

But this is not to say that the connection between the murders and Voodoo was entirely the result of yellow journalism and anti-Voodoo sentiment, because there was more to it — much more. But let us not get ahead of ourselves; let us start back at the beginning.

Between 1911 and 1912, at least twelve Black families — totaling 57 people — were all murdered with an ax while they slept. The murders happened in towns along the Southern Pacific railroad line, ranging from Lafayette, LA all the way to San Antonio, TX. A number of suspects were arrested, but only one — a Black teenage girl usually dubiously reported to have been a Voodoo priestess — was convicted and went to jail. Modern researchers generally find that she was probably mentally ill and may have had nothing to do with the murders.

Then, between 1918 and 1919, twelve more people were killed in a second wave of murders by ax. Unlike the earlier wave, these were all in New Orleans. This killer had an eerily specific modus operandi. He would use a chisel to cut out one panel from the back door of a house, and then use an ax from the house itself to kill his victim. Nearly all the victims were of Italian descent, and most were single victims who were alone in the home. In a few of the cases, a large man was seen fleeing the scene. He sometimes took small amounts of cash like a few bucks out of a wallet but never anything really valuable, so robbery was not the motive. Newspapers dubbed this killer "The Axeman of New Orleans", and the murders remain unsolved.

The two waves of murders were sufficiently different that few investigators, either at the time or today, consider them to have been related. The only similarity is the use of an ax, which is unusual indeed. The killer in the second wave sent at least one taunting letter to the newspaper, boasting how the police are stupid and warning them not to try to catch him. In this wave of 1918-1919, which happened all within the city of New Orleans, the press doesn't appear to have tried to connect the murders to Voodoo; and the suspects that the police investigated were not associated with Voodoo. That appears to have been confined to the first wave, 1911-1912, and not entirely without reason.

While the murders were going on, police caught at least one Voodoo priest selling charms to protect people from the killer. His name was Erasmus Johnson, and he was shot dead by a mounted police officer. If such an extrajudicial execution sounds a bit harsh — which it obviously was — we can turn to the context of race relations in Louisiana at the time.

It was an era of intense Jim Crow policing, and tensions between Black people and police were high. During the Robert Charles riots of 1900, 28 Black people in New Orleans were killed by white mobs throughout the city. There was a Black church at the time called the Council of God which focused on resistance to white supremacy and to police violence. In 1907, church members killed a white police officer during an altercation. This launched a public narrative among Louisiana whites in which Black churches were consumed with Voodoo curses, murderous African paganism, hypersexuality, and black magic. To get a sense of how Black churches were viewed, check out this passage from a New York Times article about the murders:

The Sheriffs of the section involved are inclined to think it is one organization, although they realize negroes of one place easily could hear of such tragedies in another town, organize themselves into a "Church of God" of their own, and go about killing off members of their race with a crude devotion to their end which would be ludicrous but for the horror of the accomplishment.

One thing is established positively. The crime series has been perpetrated by blacks of the lower class, lustful for blood vengeance, and hacking out the brains of those of their own kind without any real object and in the name of a God whom they never knew.

Early in the murders, a Black man named Raymond Barnabet was arrested after his wife turned him in, knowing that he'd been feuding with one of the murdered families. During his trial, his teenage daughter Clementine was among those who testified. She said he came home with blood and brains all over his clothes and ordered her to wash them — but other witnesses directly contradicted her testimony. He was found guilty, of course, but his lawyers appealed.

While he was in jail, another family was murdered. This time they arrested Clementine, after allegedly finding blood-soaked clothes in the room where she lived. While both father and daughter were in jail, yet another family was murdered. In fact, at least four more entire families were killed while Clementine was in jail, in the exact same way. Yet she was convicted, and only she — there were quite a few other Black people also arrested and charged — was the only person actually punished, being sentenced to life in prison.

Clementine's accounts of the murders were all over the map. She variously confessed to killing only one person, also to killing 17 people, and also to as many as 35. She variously claimed to have acted alone, and also to have had four accomplices. In court she had claimed her father was the murderer. A prison note stated "Examination by medical experts disclosed the fact that she was a pervert," whatever that means, but the whole picture of Clementine appears to be that of a person suffering from mental health issues.

Among those arrested was a reverend of the Christ Sanctified Holy Church named King Harris (or Harrison). His arrest was due only to the fact that he referred to his branch of the church as the Church of Sacrifice, and had set up other branches that he called Sacrifice Sects. There is no evidence that he used the term sacrifice in any way other than how Christians have always used it; but it was all the newspapers needed to put a label on their fantasy Voodoo church of human sacrifice — despite him assuring the police there was nothing in the church's teachings that condoned murder in any way. If you look up any old newspaper article about these events, you'll find "Sacrifice Sect", or some close variation, used as the name of the crazy murderous Voodoo cult the newspapers themselves invented. Sacrifice Sect had been the press's public face of the murders for some time when Clementine said at her trial, "I am the woman of the sacrifice sect. I killed them all, men, women and babies, and I hugged the dead bodies to my heart."

Most modern authors believe Clementine likely had nothing to do with the murders, and they note there's no evidence she took any special interest in Voodoo, and as a teenager she certainly wouldn't have been a "Voodoo priestess" as she is often described. In an academic paper titled "A Very Queer Case: Clementine Barnabet and the Erotics of a Sensationalized Voodoo Religion", Dr. Ahmad Greene-Hayes (who teaches African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School) writes:

The press, the police, and other Louisiana officials, along with an author employed by the Louisiana Writers' Project in the 1930s, used racialized and sexualized hyperbole to deem Barnabet a participant in a "Voodoo cult," purportedly called the Church of the Sacrifice. Moreover, in their quest for information about Barnabet and her beliefs, white Americans also imagined a monolithic Black religion — specifically, a sensationalized Voodoo religion — practiced by all people of African descent in the region regardless of their self-identification as Christians or practitioners of conjure, or both.

Yellow journalism — the practice of sensationalizing the news as much as necessary to outdo and outsell the other papers — has never done anyone any favors. And in the case of these ax murders, the practice only contributed to the deadly racial tensions of the day. You should give zero credibility to the claim that the ax murders had anything at all to do with the practice of Voodoo, and that's just as much credibility as you should give to the court's finding that Clementine Barnabet was the killer. Whenever you hear a story that's consistent with an entire population of your fellow humans being stereotyped, you should always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Voodoo Ax Murders." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 13 Feb 2024. Web. 19 Apr 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4923>

 

References & Further Reading

Bainbridge, W.S. "Religious insanity in America: The official nineteenth century theory." Sociological Analysis. 1 Jan. 1984, Volume 45, Number 3: 232-240.

Editors. "Voodooism Too Much for Law: Authorities Unable to Get a Single Clue." The Daily Republican. 25 Jan. 1912, Newspaper: 3.

Editors. "Voodoo's Horrors Break Out Again." El Paso Herald. 14 Mar. 1912, Newspaper.

Editors. "Negro Terror May Shorten Rice Crop: Blacks Are Fleeing from the Louisiana Grain Belt in Fear of the Sacrifice Sect." The New York Times. 3 Mar. 1912, Newspaper: 7.

Gauthreaux, A., Hippensteel, D.G. Dark Bayou: Infamous Louisiana Homicides. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016.

Green-Hayes, A. "A Very Queer Case: Clementine Barnabet and the Erotics of a Sensationalized Voodoo Religion." Nova Religio. 1 May 2023, Volume 26, Issue 4: 58-84.

James, B., McCarthy James, R. The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery. New Yor: Scribner, 2017.

McLaughlin, V. "The Strange Case of Clementine Barnabet." Homicide Research Working Group Annual Symposium Proceedings. 6 Jun. 2012, 2012 Edition: 32-39.

 

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