Any true crime buff knows that, statistically, most serial killers are white men in their late 20s to early 30s. But that's certainly not always the case. Dating back to crimes in the early 20th century, Clementine Barnabet is believed to be the first Black female serial killer in America. Then again, the story might not be so simple.
Clementine's tale is one of darkness, mystery, and a potential involvement with a cult and the occult. Her twisted story has a disturbing beginning, a baffling middle, and a chilling end. And it all began when her family moved to Lafayette Louisiana in 1909.
Clementine's upbringing was not an easy one. Her father, Raymond Barnabet, was a sharecropper. Since this line of work was hardly profitable, Raymond also brought in money as a petty thief. Regardless of this financial struggle, he was hardly a sympathetic character. He was reportedly often unfaithful to his wife, Nina, and had a habit of turning his violent temper on his family to inflict them with physical abuse.
Besides her parents, Clementine lived with her brother, Zepherin. The four of them inhabited a rundown part of town, struck by devastating poverty. But the family found solace in what was called The Church of Sacrifice. This was a cult which provided opportunity for male and female members alike. In fact, at the age of 17, Clementine was one of the leaders of the organization.
The trouble begins
In 1909, Rayne, Louisiana saw the terrible murder of Edna Opelousas and her three children. It would be the first case suspected to be linked to a spate of disturbing murders that would haunt towns along the Southern Pacific railroad line through Texas and Louisiana.
In January of 1911, authorities in West Crowley, Louisiana uncovered what the local press referred to as "the most brutal murder in the history of this section." Walter Byers, his wife, and their small son were found dead in their beds, their skulls split open by the swing of an axe. Blood drenched the beds, and bloody footprints trailed across the floor. The locked door indicated the killer came in through the window. And while an eerie bucket of blood sat in the corner, the still-bloody murder weapon lay at the head of the bed.
Murders in such a poor area of town might have been dismissed if not for the vile brutality of the execution. And a little over a month later, four members of the Andrus family in Lafayette were killed in the same manner. As another month passed, San Antonio, Texas saw the murder of Alfred and Elizabeth Casaway along with their three children.
From 1911 to 1912, no less than a dozen Black families were slaughtered by a remorseless axe murderer.
A killer accused
After a couple of bad leads and false starts in their investigation, the police set their sights on Raymond Barnabet as the prime suspect. He was thrown under the bus by his mistress, who suggested to a friend he might have a connection to the murders after the couple got into a fight. He swiftly went to trial for the crime in October of 1911, where both of his children—Clementine and Zepherin—testified against him.
In court, the teenaged Clementine recalled a night in which her father returned home covered in blood and slinging threats at his own family. Zepherin corroborated this, adding that their father bragged about murdering the Andrus family. The siblings asserted that their own lives were in danger if Raymond remained free.
However, even as Raymond sat in jail, another Lafayette murder took place in November. Norbert Randall, his wife, their three children, and his nephew were killed just as brutally as the ones before. Though while most of the victims were once again slain by the swing of an axe, Norbert was shot in the head.
Suspicion quickly shifted to the Barnabet siblings who had insisted their father was behind the killings. Both Clementine and Zepherin were not well-liked around town. Their bad reputations led their neighbors to describe them as "filthy, shifty, degenerates."
Lafayette Parish Sheriff Louis LaCoste was further disturbed by another key detail. When the police had brought Raymond in for his arrest, Clementine's clothes had been smeared in blood from the Andrus murders. While Clementine had claimed it was put there from her father wiping his hands on her, the sheriff had his doubts about this account.
After Clementine was arrested on suspicion of the murders, the police searched the Barnabet home. There they found more clothes drenched in blood and covered in what appeared to be human brains. The latch on their door was slicked with blood as well. And while Zepherin could provide an alibi for the murders, Clementine could not.
But once again, as Clementine sat in jail, the murders continued on.
The Church of Sacrifice
January of 1912 saw three more families slain, including Felix Broussard, his wife, and their three children. In this last incident in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the victims' had their hands splayed apart by pieces of wood. A message was left written on the wall—some say in pencil, while others claim it was done in blood. It declared a version of Psalm 9:12 in the King James Bible, "When he maketh the inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble." The note was signed off as "Human Five."
Naturally, the signature led the authorities to believe the perpetrator of these slayings was actually a group. As the newspapers ran with the story, the crimes were soon linked with a Voodoo ritual. The press suggested that the violence wrought against the deceased families was done as a human sacrifice which utilized the importance of the number five. This further fueled rumors that Clementine was part of a cult called the Church of Sacrifice, which was said to believe one could obtain riches and other wealth through human sacrifice. This cult was reportedly led by a Pentecostal revival preacher named Reverend King Harris. However, when asked about his involvement with the murders and the cult, Harris was appalled to hear people thought his sermons could have inspired such horrific crimes.
In April of 1912, Clementine gave a full confession, owning up to the murder of 17 people. She confirmed people's belief that Voodoo played a part in it, saying she obtained a charm that was supposed to protect her in her pursuit of killing. She further claimed that she had accomplices, and that they drew lots to see who would be chosen to commit the murders. While she said she went so far as to kill the children of the family to save them the pain of being orphans, her full motivations for the murders were never really established.
Despite her confession, her story was flimsy at best. Her testimony against her father hurt her credibility. Her story was furthermore lessened by the fact that any investigation into her alleged accomplices went nowhere. Arrests were made, but if there was a group behind the "Human Five" they would not be found.
Howard E. Bruner, the district attorney, believed that some of the crimes of the period were probably copycat crimes. Nonetheless, he felt that Clementine was morally depraved, and rightly guilty of all she had confessed. However, public confusion surrounding the crime probably led to a great deal of misinformation—such as the mere existence of the Church of Sacrifice at all.
Still, once Voodoo had been confessed to, there was no stopping that train of thought—an easy belief to embrace given a heavily racist context, certainly. The residents of Lafayette were all too prepared to label the murders as Voodoo sacrifices—a belief Clementine cemented by naming Voodoo priest Joseph Thibodeaux as the one who provided her with her invisibility charm. She further insisted that Thibodeaux planted the ideas for the crimes in her head, but he denied all involved.
The longer Clementine sat in jail, the more murders she confessed to. She admitted to 35 killings, but with every story she told, the more the details changed. Despite her attorneys claiming insanity, Clementine was still sentenced to life in prison at the age of only 19.
In 1913, Clementine attempted to escape from Louisiana Penitentiary. She was caught the very same day, and it was the only attempt she ever made. By all accounts, she was otherwise a model prisoner. Not that she served for very long, despite her lifelong sentence.
A brief and vague report on the prison claimed that Clementine received a "procedure." No details were given as to the nature of such a thing, and this was before the time in which lobotomies were common medical practice. However, this eerily nondescript procedure was said to have "restored" her to a "normal condition."
Ten years after going to prison, she was released on good behavior. However, following her release, there are no known accounts of Clementine's whereabouts.