The 'Voodoo' Murders of Clementine Barnabet, Who Claimed to Have Killed 35 People

A collage of news clippings related to the Clementine Barnabet murders
A collage of news clippings related to the Clementine Barnabet murders
iStock.com/Lauren Spinelli

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.)

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.

This story first ran in 2017.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

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This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

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9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

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Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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New Online Art Exhibition Needs the Public’s Help to Track Down Lost Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and More

Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you wanted to compare both versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in person, you couldn’t. While the second one currently hangs in Paris’s Musée d'Orsay, the public hasn’t seen the original painting since 1990. In fact, nobody’s really sure where it is—after its owner Ryoei Saito died in 1996, the precious item passed from private collector to private collector, but the identity of its current owner is shrouded in mystery.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is one of a dozen paintings in “Missing Masterpieces,” a digital exhibit of some of the world’s most famous lost artworks. It’s not the only Van Gogh in the collection. His 1884 painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was snatched from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren museum earlier this year; and his 1888 painting The Painter on His Way to Work has been missing since World War II. Other works include View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne, William Blake’s Last Judgement, and two bridge paintings by Claude Monet.

Paul Cézanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the University of Oxford's art museum on New Year's Eve in 1999.Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new online exhibit is a collaboration between Samsung and art crime expert Noah Charney, who founded The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. It isn’t just a page where art enthusiasts can explore the stories behind the missing works—it’s also a way to encourage people to come forward with information that could lead to the recovery of the works themselves.

“From contradictory media reports to speculation in Reddit feeds—the clues are out there, but the volume of information can be overwhelming,” Charney said in a press release. “This is where technology and social media can help by bringing people together to assist the search. It’s not unheard of for an innocuous tip posted online to be the key that unlocks a case.”

The exhibition will be online through February 10, 2021, and citizen sleuths can email their tips to missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]