The C.C. Coffee Murder Mystery at Hal's Lake in 1928
Contributed by: David A. Bagwell
On Sunday, November 11, 1928 -- "Armistice Day" -- Christopher C. Coffee, a 73-year old retired Mobile insurance agent, left Mobile with a hunting party for a hunting camp on Hal's Lake in Lower Clarke County, just off the Tombigbee River. They must have spent Sunday night in Mount Vernon, and arrived at the hunting camp on the morning of Monday, November 12, undoubtedly by boat. Mr. Coffee had been there before, and had killed a turkey there before, and wanted to kill another one.
On Monday, November 12, the others in the party said they were going on a long hunting trip deep into the swamp, and Mr. Coffee, because of his age, decided to stay back at the camp with the black cook. The Mobile newspaper said that despite his age Coffee was a reasonably robust man, but his housemate Mr. Davison said he "was a pretty feeble man". But, after all he was on a hunting trip, so about Noon he decided to hunt near the camp, on Joe's Bayou at Hal's Lake. He took his new Browning automatic shotgun and wore the traditional hunting tie of a Southern gentlemen, a brown corduroy hat, coat and pants, and low black hunting boots. He had grey hair and a grey moustache, and weighed about 200 pounds. He probably met his death that afternoon about 3 p.m., but exactly how, and exactly why, and by whose hand, and what happened to him, were a big mystery to South Alabamians during the winter of 1929-30, when King George V was (falsely) thought to be dying, the rivers of Alabama were flooding at record levels (so that people at Choctaw Bluff had to be fed from tugboats), and the Coast Guard sank the rumrunner I'M ALONE at Chandeleur, causing the biggest international incident of prohibition. Maybe the crime is still a mystery; you decide.
After Mr. Coffee's disappearance, his friends searched the woods until midnight with gasoline lamps and searched the next morning too, but after the searching by the hunters, his fellow hunter N.H. Stevens called authorities, and search parties scoured the woods around Hal's Lake for four days, but found no trace of him, except a blood-stained gunny sack which was later explained to have been used as a stretcher to carry the body.
Suspicion started to center early around a party of black loggers who had been logging the area for Mobile River Sawmill, and on Sunday night, November 18, seven of them were put in Jail and questioned in the Mobile County Jail until 1 a.m. on November 19, "[w]hile no charges have been preferred against the negroes".
The Clarke County Democrat wrote on November 22 that "[o]bstinacy assumed by Carson Lewis and George Lang following their arrest was broken by [Mobile] solicitor Chamberlain and [Mobile] Sheriff Byrne Wednesday night after four days of severe grilling. Hour after hour they were questioned. . . ."
George Lang, gave a "lengthy statement" (after four days in custody) to the effect that on Monday afternoon, November 12, Mr. Coffee approached the logging area where they were working, and stopped and spoke to Carson Lewis, asking "where can I find the turkeys?" They talked a while, and Coffee headed on down the road. Lang continued:
After he had gone, Carson Lewis picked up a gum stick about four feet long and three inches in diameter and followed him. They got out of my sight. Carson Lewis came back about 40 minutes later. He still carried the stick. Later I heard Carson Lewis ask Percy Lang, who is my half-brother, to help him do something. I heard Percy Lang say to him later: "Carson, I think you've killed that man".
After the intensive questioning by the authorities [crack prosecutor and circuit solicitor Bart Chamberlain of Mobile and Mobile County Sheriff Pat Byrne], news reporters with whom the authorities spoke reported that "despite the statements made by George Lang, authorities are inclined to look upon what he said with suspicion". In general, the authorities seemed to believe that the most apparent motive for murder was to get Mr. Coffee's new automatic shotgun, valuable ring and the cash he carried.
By December 2, state investigative officers Rufus Cannon and C.H. Reid had gotten involved, and they got a statement from Percy Lang "contrary to any of those previously made". Percy Lang said that Mr. Coffee was killed on November 12, that his body was first hidden in a downed treetop, and that on the following Thursday (November 15) his body was weighted and thrown into Joe's Bayou, a part of Hal's Lake. After the statement, "a thorough search for the body in the vicinity of Joe's Bayou was made without success". As of December 2, five of the suspects were being held in the Mobile County Jail, and three at the Clarke County Jail in "Oak Grove". At that point, Clarke County solicitor Joe Pelham considered loggers Percy Lang, Bill Lang, Carson Lewis, and Jerry York to be implicated in the killing, and considered logger Will Lewis a material witness, while loggers Woodie Law, John Lewis and Tom Lewis (a new eighth suspect after put in jail) denied any connection whatsoever. Nobody mentioned any white suspects.
By December 3, Washington County solicitor Joe Pelham had warrants issued for the wives of the loggers, charging that they had possession of Mr. Coffee's gun and valuable ring. At that point Percy Lang "gave his third inconsistent statement to officers when he was questioned", and said that Coffee's body was buried on Bilbo's Island on the Washington County side of the Hal's Lake/Tombigbee River junction. In two previous statements he had said both that the body was immediately sunk in Hal's Lake and that it was buried for four days and then sunk in Joe's Bayou. A search party scoured Bilbo's Island without success.
The next day Percy Lang told a fourth story, this time that Mr. Coffee's body was buried on the banks of Baker's Creek, about three miles above Hal's Lake.
December 6, 1928 was the wildest day by far in the investigation. Percy Lang told his fifth contradictory story, which this time was that white moonshiners in Washington County mistook Mr. Coffee for Washington County Sheriff J.W. Henson, "active in warfare against prohibition law violators". However, the Mobile paper reported:
Lang had told so many "wild stories" as to the location of the body of the Mobilian that the Washington County sheriff doubted the truthfulness of the statement at the time. Sheriff Henson said today that the negro's statement as to the actual slaying of Coffee was believed to have been "one of the many wild stories he had told after he and the other negroes were arrested."
This was run in the Mobile Register under a banner headline saying "NEGRO LAYS COFFEE SLAYING TO MOONSHINERS".
The authorities had taken Percy Lang and several of the others repeatedly into the woods, being promised to be shown the location of the body, but every time, "Lang, it is reported, would admit he had led them on a 'wild goose chase'".
Perhaps the most remarkable part of that particular story was told in this understated manner on page fourteen:
Lang made his last trip with the officers on Thursday. He again led them to a spot on Hal's Lake. Again he confessed that he had not told where the body was located, according to Sheriff Henson today.
NEGRO FALLS INTO LAKE
The official report of the day's activities show[sic] that Percy Lang fell into the lake about Noon Thursday. After complaining that he "was cold", the sheriff said, the negro died about thirty minutes after being placed in the County jail here.
Washington County circuit solicitor (prosecutor) Joe Pelham, who was also editor of the Chatom newspaper, prepared and released the following statement:
An inquest was held by Frank B. Elmore, justice of peace of Frankville precinct, early Friday morning, and he called before him Drs. W.E. Kimbrough of St. Stephens, W.J. Blount of Milry and [A.J.] Wood and [C.C.] Rouse of Chatom. They were examined and gave it as their professional opinion that Lang came to his death by exposure. They said that they thought his exposure brought on pneumonia. The parties who were with Lang at the time he fell into the water and who were with him while he was out on the trip were also examined by Justice Elmore, and they stated that no punishment was given Lang while he was in their custody that would have caused his death. They stated that they thought he was feigning weakness to keep from having to go back the next day to assist in searching for Coffee's body.
The Mobile Register reporter talked to Drs. Rouse and Wood in Chatom, and Dr. Rouse "expressed amazement that 'such a statement was given out'"; Dr. Rouse "said that he 'could not understand how this report was gotten out'". The official report, he added, "will show the result of the inquest".
The Register reporter dug further. He found out that in [Washington County] Sheriff Henson's view, Lang "had long been considered 'as a dangerous negro'", having been suspected and actually investigated for having killed his much younger brother by breaking his neck.
The Register reporter also found out that on the morning of Lang's death the sheriff had turned him over to state investigator C.H. Reed, and said "I secured a receipt for the negro".
The circuit solicitor/editor's news story, however, reported that Lang had been taken to Hal's Lake by State Officer C.H. Reed, Sheriff J.W. Henson of Washington County and his chief deputy S.F. Tucker, Clarke County Sheriff S.G. McVay, and Jackson Town Marshal Fred Burroughs. Lang "had not had any dinner that day". While crossing a log over the logging float road at Joe's Bayou, Lang fell into water up to his waist. The water in December "was very cold and he did not change any of his clothing", but "it was not thought by the officers that he was suffering very much as he was able to walk and talk as usual". They made the seven or eight mile trip from Joe's Bayou to McIntosh Bluff in the open boat and, since the wind was very cold, "Lang was instructed to lie down in the bottom of the boat to keep warm". Upon arrival at McIntosh they took him to the home of H.T. Lynes and he was given a warm cup of coffee and dry socks. On the way to Chatom he complained of being weak and cold, and going up the jail steps he needed help. The officers put him in bed, noticed his body temperature was low, and called both Doctors Rouse and Wood, and though they arrived within a few minutes, Lang died. Lang's body was turned over to his father, Mack Lang of McIntosh, for burial.
Lang's death was given short shrift in the Clarke County Democrat, which wrote only:
Percy Lang, the first of the negroes to make a statement in regard to the case, died last week in the Chatom jail, following a brief illness. Officials stated that his illness was due to exposure, the negro having fallen in Joe's Bayou while accompanying a search party, pneumonia resulting.
The authorities continued to believe that Mr. Coffee had been killed for his gun, cash and Masonic diamond ring, but by December 9 the Mobile Register was running the banner headline that "SHOTGUN MOTIVE DISBELIEVED IN COFFEE CASE", reporting that:
[o]pinions expressed by the people of McIntosh and sections of Clarke are at variance with the theory on which officers of Mobile, Washington and Clarke Counties are reported working. Civilians have abandoned the idea that eight negroes would slay a white man for one gun and diamond ring.
Why do the negroes admit killing Mr. Coffee and then refuse to lead officers to the hiding place?" That is the question being asked in the McIntosh and Hal's Lake district as a result of the refusal of the negroes to show where they buried the sportsman. . . .
Most of the local white people interviewed by the reporter believed that just before his death Lang had given the true story when he said Coffee had been killed by white moonshiners.
Percy Lang was buried despite lack of a death certificate as required by state law. Washington County Registrar Mrs. H.T. Lynes (in whose home Lang had been given a cup of warm coffee on his wet and cold arrival in McIntosh) refused to issue a burial certificate until she was furnished a Washington County death certificate as required by state law, but she was instructed by Sheriff Henson to issue a burial certificate anyway, and she did.
At Lang's funeral, the black preacher conducting the funeral looked directly at Lang's father, and according to the Mobile reporter, said:
"tell all about this thing, tell these white folks what is on your mind". The preacher's request sounded like a command, but Mack Lang looked toward the little house where he had lived for many years, and said "that is the reason I won't talk". He agreed with his preacher when he later asked: "Are you afraid you will have to leave this section?"
On December 9, an employee of the Mobile River Sawmill found a skiff and oars with blood on them, in Hal's Lake, which were assumed to have been linked in some way to the killing, and Clarke County Sheriff McVay announced they would again drag Hal's Lake and parts of the Tombigbee for the body. On December 11, both Hal's Lake and the Tombigbee River were dragged with trot lines having 15,000 fish hooks, but no body was found. The authorities released Percy Lang's widow from jail, but kept Carson Lewis' wife Carrie in jail to try to get a statement from her about her husband's movements the night of the murder, but her husband by this point had "retained counsel and has been advised not to make any more statements".
About this time Mr. Arista Johnston, a white man who had grown up and hunted and fished around Hal's Lake but had moved to Shubuta, Mississippi years before, wrote to the editor of the Mobile Register in part as follows:
To the Editor of the Register: I have been reading with much interest the account of mr. Coffee's disappearance in the swamp near Hal's Lake. I was raised near Hal's Lake, have fished and hunted there.
. . . .
As to Mr. Coffee's disappearance, I don't believe those negroes killed him. I just think they got scared and confessed, not knowing what else to do. It looks like Mr. Coffee's diamond or gun or some of his effects would have been found in the negroes' possession, if they had killed him for robbery.
. . . .
If I was on the jury I would never convict those negroes for murder of Coffee.
A. Johnson [sic] Shubuta, Miss., Dec. 11, 1928.
By December 22 the authorities were about to hire a professional diver to look for the body when Carson Lewis offered to take them to the body, but they were delayed by lack of a motorboat.
Events took another unexpected turn about Christmas, when Sheriff McVay of Clarke County announced that the Coffee case might be solved within just a few days; this followed the finding of a new automatic shotgun in the hands of a white man near Chatom, though Sheriff Pat Byrnes of Mobile "expressed the opinion that the gun carried by Mr. Coffee at the time of his disappearance might be exceedingly difficult to identify", and that he had been unable to get the serial number of the gun. The next day Washington County authorities arrested Albert Bedwell, aged 35, a white commercial fisherman from Calvert, who was found to have an automatic shotgun in his camp at Duck's Mill across the Tombigbee from Hal's Lake (however, R.C. Howell of Calvert told the Register reporter that the gun was his). Bedwell said that at the time of the crime, he was fishing with another white man 16 miles downriver.
In the meantime, Carson Lewis led authorities to a spot where they found some charred bone and what they believed to be melted dental bridgework of Coffee's, and by the time of trial, it was said that this included some shoe eyelets. Lewis said the body had been burned for four hours, then the remains dumped in three sacks.
And, to make matters even more complicated, after the white Albert Bedwell was put in jail, the black Carson Lewis implicated him, and authorities tended to believe Carson Lewis and his version rather than Will Lewis, who said no white man was involved. Will Lewis said:
I was at work cutting out a float road. My work was about 250 feet away from where Percy Lang, Bill Lang, Jerry York and Carson Lewis were cutting timber. When the noise of the axes cutting timber stopped, I walked over to where they were at work when I left them, and I saw Carson Lewis, Percy Lang and Bill Lang hit Mr. Coffee with clubs. After a few minutes I went over to them and saw the body of a white man lying by a log. The body was partly covered with moss.
Circuit Solicitor Pelham said that Carson Lewis said that the bones they found at the site of the fire "were overlooked by the negroes when they carried other parts of Coffee's body away. A few non-inflammatory items and pieces of clothing were also found among the ashes of the fire".
Then, Albert Bedwell's spunky young wife turned up and went public with evidence tending to support his story, that he was fishing 16 miles downriver on the Tombigbee as he was quoted as having said when he was arrested. She found a witness that he had been in Mobile later that day, and the Register's reporters found that he had been selling 456 pounds of fish (for $27.36) to the Empire Fish & Oyster Company at 351 Davis Avenue in Mobile, after leaving his white fishing partner (LaCost) at Cedar Creek landing 16 miles below Hal's Lake on the Tombigbee only to sell the fish. Meanwhile, the investigators were maintaining that Bedwell and the black loggers were involved, and holding Bedwell incommunicado, so his wife couldn't get his help in preparing the defense.
Meanwhile, Bedwell's wife and lawyer were filing legal motions to get him out on bail, and succeeded about New Years. Even after his release, and even after R.C. Howell of Calvert claimed he owned the automatic shotgun which Bedwell had had at his camp on Bilbo's Island, the prosecutor was still planning to try the white commercial fisherman for the murder.
Meanwhile, State Attorney General Charlie McCall took over the case, and in the light of its complexity, the case was held over for the March, 1929 Clarke County Grand Jury. When state authorities arrived on the scene they didn't say much, but "a swift denouement of the case was forecast. . . ." Jerry York broke his silence, saying that he had hit Coffee with a club, but did it only because Carson Lewis told him he would kill him if he didn't.
By January 13 state authorities came and took all seven black suspects and the charred evidence to Kilby Prison in Montgomery, and "it was indicated that the state has practically abandoned its case against Albert Bedwell. . . ."
Even as Tombigbee riverboats were reporting suspicious bodies of white men on river sandbars, state authorities released Tom Lewis and Woodie Law, after Law told authorities he had hidden in the woods and watched the other six (the five still in jail and Percy Lang) slip up behind Mr. Coffee "and beat him to death with clubs".
On the eve of the grand jury's consideration of the case, the paper was noting that though the bones had been in custody of authorities for three months, and while they had repeatedly said that they would have them examined by an expert to see if they were human bones, no word of any such actual examination had ever leaked.
The Grand Jury on March 27, 1929 indicted Carson Lewis, Bill Lang, and Jerry York, they pleaded "not guilty", and the trial was set for April 4. Albert Bedwell was not indicted.
At trial on April 5, the prosecutors were circuit solicitors Pelham of Chatom and the famous, colorful and highly effective Bart B. Chamberlain of Mobile, Deputy Solicitor Paul Jones of Grove Hill, and Assistant Attorney General J.W. Brassell. "The negroes" were represented by the firm of Tucker and Mabry, Q.W. Tucker (himself a Hal's Lake landowner) and Woodford Mabry of Grove Hill. Mr. Mabry conducted the defense. The presiding judge was Hon. T.J. Bedsole. The Mobile paper predicted that "[a] legal battle replete with technicalities is expected when the trial gets underway", starting with complete lack of proof of murder because there was no body, no "corpus delicti".
There was a one-day trial and, after 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury found the three loggers guilty of murder and sentenced them to life in prison.
The transcript of the trial is preserved at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and there was ample evidence of guilt introduced against the parties charged, including testimony of confessions to the authorities and to others, to the effect that the loggers had killed Mr. Coffee by hitting him with thick gum sticks, hid his body, and came back later with fat pine wood from three stumps and ten gallons of gasoline and burned his body, then throwing the bones and remnants in the river in sacks, and burying a few remnants. There was no scientific evidence about blood on the ax, the boat, or the gunny sack, and no scientific evidence that the bones were human bones. There was no evidence about the boat, or about moonshiners.
The defendants' expressions did not noticeably change during the trial or at sentencing, whatever (if anything) that may mean. This case was newsworthy, but on the same day another black man was also given a life sentence in that court for "killing another member of his race".
On appeal, there were several legal issues, but the Alabama Supreme Court on January 23, 1930 affirmed the conviction, holding that (1) even though there had been no expert examination to prove that the charred bones were human, what was found at the fire site and explained by Carson Lewis (not to mention the disappearance of Mr. Coffee) was plenty of evidence that Mr. Coffee had in fact been murdered, (2) Carson Lewis' ax, found at his house, with white hair and what appeared to be blood stains was properly admitted in evidence even though no scientific tests proved the stains to be blood, and (3) Carson Lewis' "confession" was properly admitted even though he testified he had been "beaten" shortly before giving it, held to be properly admitted because there was no testimony showing that he confessed because he was beaten.
Well, you decide. Did white moonshiners do it? Did Albert Bedgood do it? Did these black loggers do it? Did all of them do it? And what really happened to Percy Lang? Did he die of pneumonia? Of exposure? And exactly how did he "fall" in the lake? What about the skiff with blood in it; was that just deer blood or hog blood, or Mr. Coffee's blood? Why would R.C. Howell or Albert Bedwell leave a brand-new automatic shotgun in a hunting shack on Bilbo's Island? Were those charred bones human bones or not, and why didn't an expert answer that crucial question at trial? Whatever happened to the shotgun and the ring?
Well, some questions just won't ever be completely answered. A fair reading of the transcript of the trial, however, pretty well makes clear that while there are still some questions, those three loggers were guilty of the murder, and that' s what the trial was all about, in the end.
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