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MURDER ON MONTAUK: The True Story of the Murder of Wm. H. Langsdale, Grandfather of Congressman Brad

langsdale, de van, bradley byrne

As many of you may or may not know, I have spoken and given lectures on the Second Amendment. [1] We even had the incredible opportunity to host Alan Gura, perhaps of the foremost legal authorities on the Second Amendment and also lead counsel in the Heller case (where SCOTUS in 5-4 opinion held for first time that Second Amendment guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms for personal defense in home) and the McDonald case (where Second Amendment was incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment to apply to state and local authorities).

So it was with great interest that I followed President Obama’s recent executive orders this week, and the response of our local congressman from the First Congressional District of Alabama, Bradley Byrne. Congressman Byrne responded to the President’s executive orders by urging the debate and focus of the federal government should be in funding more mental health treatment. Congressman Byrne shared a personal story of tragedy his family experienced at the hands of a crazed shooter, who the State had released twice from the Alabama Insane Asylum in Tuscaloosa as example of how this issue is personal to him.

bradley byrne, alabama congressman

Daily Signal (Heritage Foundation) published a piece about the case here: Fatal Shooting of Congressman’s Grandfather Prompts Him to Urge Mental Health Reform, Not Gun Control.

The Washington Post published a piece here: Republican congressman opens up about grandfather’s murder while defending gun rights. Byrne was quoted as saying “As I recall, a younger man in her neighborhood who was mentally ill, and there wasn’t any provocation. … He shot and killed my grandfather… So it was a pretty tough time for my family… It was just one of those incidents where he got a gun when he wasn’t supposed to.”

“My grandfather was shot and killed by a mentally ill person. And it devastated my family. It devastated my mother and grandmother and my two uncles. So when we talk about people who have been shot by mentally ill people, I understand it. I understand what it does to the victims.”

Incredibly, Byrne noted “I never heard anything like that [the need for gun control] come across their lips,” he said.

The crux of the Washington Post piece was that Congressman Byrne has focused his talent and energy in reforming health care laws instead of more invasive government encroachment on the Second Amendment. It should be noted that the President has also supported additional funding for mental health care access in this area.

Several media outlets have posted a video interview Congressman Byrne gave C-SPAN on January 6, 2016 in which he discusses his grandfather’s murder.

“At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Now wait a minute, there’s the responsibility of the person that has the gun.’ …Don’t penalize the other 90-plus percent of people in America who buys guns legally and use them legally and don’t hurt anybody because we have a tiny percentage of people who have violated that.”

Fox Business interviewed him as well. Rep. Byrne’s take on Obama’s executive action.

I was intrigued by the story and did a little research. The killing occurred almost 96 years ago in what is now midtown Mobile. I have written and spoken on this era of crime here in Mobile. In fact, just 12 years after Congressman Byrne’s grandfather’s slaying, one of Mobile’s most infamous honor killings – the Battle House Honor Killing of 1932 occurred. One reason I mention this is because the same prosecutor and judge were involved in the trial of the killer of Bradley Byrne’s grandfather.

So for those of you interested in the facts of his grandfather’s murder, here you go.

“The Tragedy”

William H. Langsdale (Congressman Byrne’s grandfather) was a native of Indianapolis, Indiana and in 1920 was in the employ of the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company here in the City of Mobile. Before he arrived in Alabama, Langsdale was Secretary of the Pasadena, California Chamber of Commerce. Before moving to Mobile, he settled in Baldwin County, Alabama where he toiled as a tobacco farmer. The lure of an advertising position perhaps is perhaps what landed him in Mobile. Later, he would become director of personnel of the Mobile Shipbuilding Company. The year prior to the shooting, Langsdale had taken a similar position with the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company.

doy Leale, alabama dry dock and shipbuilding company, world war II

Photo from The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library

He lived with wife and three children on Montauk Avenue in midtown Mobile.

Montauk Avenue, Old Hand-drawn Map, City of Mobile, 1911

Montauk Avenue (Map of the City of Mobile 1911 by John R. Peavey, Jr. CE

The only eyewitness account of what transpired that was reported was that told by Mark Lyons, the president of the McGowin-Lyons Company. Lyons was an eyewitness to the shooting and his description of the killing was chilling. That fateful Sunday, March 28, 1920, Lyons was seated on the gallery of his home when he noticed John De Van walk across the street. Lyons noticed De Van had a double barreled shotgun. Lyons related that De Van spoke to him before crossing the street to the Langsdale residence at 30 Montauk Avenue. Lyons said that Langsdale too was enjoying the day on his front porch with his wife. Sensing imminent danger upon sight of De Van, Langsdale sprung from his seat and bolted toward his front door. De Van quickly raised his shotgun, set his sight on Langsdale and pulled the trigger. The shot struck Langsdale in the back of his head, falling him. The shot was not fatal however, and Langsdale attempted to rise despite his wounds. De Van then shot a second time in the shoulder mortally wounding Langsdale.[2] Another newspaper account reported that after the first shot “Mrs. Langsdale went to her husband’s side and lifted him partially in her arms” and then De Van unleashed a head shot.[3] The news accounts reported that Langsdale “died immediately.”[4]

Langsdale died in his wife’s arms.

The Mobile Register, April 24, 1920.

Meanwhile Mrs. Langsdale was “prostrated for some time after the tragedy.”[5] Apparently, De Van fled the scene. Newspaper stories detail a surrender of sorts. Later that day, De Van’s two sons handed their father over to a Mobile police detective and motorcycle officer. Newspaper accounts noted that the murder weapon was also turned over to the authorities.

Langsdale’s funeral was held at his home and was presided over by the Rev. Thomas R. Bridges of All Saints Episcopal Church. Langsdale was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.[6] Langsdale was just 37 years old, survived by a brother, John Langsdale, listed as residing “in the west.”[7] Perhaps more gut wrenching was the fact the Langsdale left behind his wife and three small children, William H. Langdale, Jr. (7), Jack (2 ½ ), and Mary who was a mere six weeks old. Mary was Congressman Byrne’s mother. The AL.COM story Friday listed her name as Elizabeth. Her name is Elizabeth.

The State of Alabama vs. John B. De Van

Mobile Motorcycle Policeman circa 1930.

Photo is from The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Erik Overbey Collection

De Van was charged with murder and held until the next day until he could be brought before a judge. Little if anything was known of De Van. Even less was known about the motive the killing. The first glimpse the criminal justice system had of the defendant was the next day when he was brought before the recorders court (now municipal court) for his arraignment.

Apparently, the prisoner did not have difficulty in securing counsel as it was reported both John W. McAlpine and R.E. Cunningham appeared on De Van’s behalf to enter an Insanity Plea.[8]

The circuit solicitor (now district attorney) Bart Chamberlain (father of Black Bart Chamberlain) appeared for the State at the arraignment. To an inquiring town and newspapermen, Chamberlain revealed that De Van had twice been admitted as an “inmate” to the insane asylum in Tuscaloosa. As to what prompted De Van to commit the killing, Chamberlain would only say that De Van admitted he did it because Langsdale “mesmerized his family.”[9]

Bart Chamberlain, Mobile’s Circuit Solicitor (District Attorney)

Photograph from The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Erik Overbey Collection

The prisoner was held without bond until the next grand jury convened and returned and indictment. The wheels of justice moved quickly in those days.

We began to learn more information about De Van after he was taken into custody. De Van lived at 29 Montauk, across the street from the Langsdales, and was 53 years old. His occupation was reported as that of a groceryman.

1920 City of Mobile Directory listing De Van’s occupation as salesman

He had been living in Mobile, albeit interrupted by one of his stints in the state’s insane asylum, for about six years.[10]

1920 Mobile City Directory showing Langsdale and De Van as across the street neighbors

Newspapermen sought out and found one of DeVan’s sons, Walter De Van. Walter would drop a real bombshell- his father had been in and out of the state insane asylum twic. Despite this, his father was diagnosed as cured or “well” just three years ago. His father returned to Mobile where made a living in the grocery business. Curiously, Walter noted that his father “had been working in a retail grocery store here up until a week ago.”[11]

The case was assigned to the circuit court of Judge Claude Grayson.

Mobile County Circuit Judge Claude Grayson who presided over lunacy proceedings of

John De Van, killer of W.H. Langsdale.

Photo From The Doy Leale McCall Erik Overbey Collection

Prior to the lunacy hearing date, the defense requested a trial by jury (then called a lunacy proceeding) to prove De Van insane at the time of the killing, and therefore not fit to stand trial. According to the law at the time, the defendant must assert this defense at the time of arraignment.

Insanity, Claude Grayson, De Van

Alabama Criminal Code of 1909, Section 7176

Once the defendant asserted this defense and the court found reasonable ground to doubt his sanity (twice committed to the state mental hospital coupled with defendant’s admission seems reasonable grounds to me), the trial would be suspended until a jury first determined that the defendant was sane. The relevant controlling statute from Alabama’s Criminal Code is below:

“Insanity Plea Will Be Offered for John De Van,”

Mobile News-Item, March 30, 1920.

As the lunacy hearing date approached, Bart Chamberlain surely began to experience concern with his case. The hearing was set for April 19. At 9:30AM on the morning of April 19, 1920, Bart Chamberlain appeared ready to challenge De Van’s insanity plea. Yet a curious thing became readily apparent. No one appeared for the defense. Chamberlain seized this advantage and moved for Judge Grayson to dismiss this lunacy proceeding for want of prosecution (basically that the defense by not showing up to argue their case or present evidence should have their petition dismissed). Judge Grayson and Chamberlain waited about ten minutes and then Judge Grayson granted Chamberlain’s request, and dismissed the lunacy petition. This was a huge victory for the prosecution as now the State could prepare the case for trial and get to put its witnesses on and present its full case without having to be bothered by the defendant’s insanity plea. It was too good to last, as the defense attorneys appeared at 10:00AM and pleaded with the Court to reconsider as they were under the impression the hearing was to commence at 10:00AM. Judge Grayson apparently admonished the defense counsel, but ultimately agreed to set aside his previous order. Chamberlain then asked the court for a continuance as he needed more time to evaluate De Van’s sanity. Apparently his evidence was lacking. He knew he had his work cut out for him, and stated to the Court that he needed additional time to subpoena witnesses who had “business dealings” with De Van presumably with the intention of proving De Van’s competency. Judge Grayson granted the request, but only until Friday, April 23, 1920.[12]

On Friday, April 23, 1920 at 9:30AM the case was called.It was a one day hearing with testimony dominated by the county coroner, Dr. Stephen F. Hale (whose lawyer and jurist brother Foster Hale was shot and killed by his lover Willie Mae Clausen in his downtown Mobile law office in 1931) and Dr. P.J. Howard. Both testified that based on their training, experience, and evaluation, De Van was insane. Their testimony took up the better part of two hours according the newspapermen.[13] Chamberlain was caught in an unusual position here as Hale was his star witness in most homicide cases he tried, and would later try. So to criticize his findings too harshly or challenge his expert opinion or qualifications too strenuously could potentially taint future homicide prosecutions . Nevertheless, Chamberlain did do his duty for one of Mobile’s citizens whose life had been so needlessly taken. He argued to the jury that the two doctors had just become acquainted with De Van and how could they propound such opinions on such a limited time period. The case was then submitted to the jury.

The jury was not out long, returning a verdict “in a few minutes.” The verdict? De Van was insane. Instead of sending DeVan to the gallows, Judge Grayson sent De Van to the state’s insane asylum in Tuscaloosa. De Van had cheated death and was sent back a third time.

De Van escapes hangman’s noose. The Mobile Register, April 23, 1920.

Jurors took only minutes to find De Van Insane. Mobile News-Item, April 23, 1920.

These horrific murders are the kinds of life- changing events that echo through generations and forever transform and define a person and family. I put great stock in Congressman Byrne’s recounting of the event. His poor mother was but a babe six weeks to the world. His mother would be left to fend for herself and her three children during some of the most difficult days of the great depression.

Unfortunately, the reporting on the trial was poor. None of the witness testimony was published. Many questions still remain. Why did the State of Alabama release this man not once, but twice? Perhaps it was because of the record overcrowding at the facility along with a lack of adequate funding by the state legislature. Why was De Van able to possess a firearm after having been committed to the state’s insane asylum? Where did he get the shotgun? Surely there had been warning signs prior to the killing. What were the circumstances surrounding the loss of his job just a week before the killing? Was this a triggering event? What did De Van mean by his cryptic statement that Langsdale “mesmerized his family?”

As to the fate of Mr. De Van, that remains a mystery. I have been unsuccessful in my research as to his ultimate fate after his lunacy hearing.

Was the State of Alabama who unleashed this man more legally or morally culpable in Langsdale’s death than DeVan, a man found legally insane in mere minutes by a jury of his peers? Perhaps. And perhaps this is the reason Congressman Byrne’s focus is on true mental health reform as a greater deterrent to these senseless shootings than more gun laws. From the research I have gathered, I honestly believe than no gun law would have prevented De Van from killing poor Mr. Langsdale that day. So when Congressman Byrne speaks of mental health in this context, I for one am inclined to listen.

Alabama Hospital for the Insane in Tuscaloosa (Bryce) circa 1907

Betty Byrne and with her son and future United States Congressman Bradley Byrne.

About the Author:

Matt Green is a former state prosecutor and municipal court judge. He is now in private practice with a focus on constitutional law, economic liberty, civil rights, criminal defense, and personal injury. He is President of the Brevard Hand-Alex Howard Chapter of the Mobile Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.

[1] I addressed our local Federalist Society Chapter on the Battle of Athens, TN and the primacy of the right go keep and bear arms not only for individual self-defense but also as a check against tyrannical government. See Battle of Athens presentation. See also Battle of Athens Video Trailer Promoting event.The Battle of Athens (sometimes called the McMinn County War) was a rebellion led by citizen of Athens and Etowah, Tennessee against corrupt local government officials who refused to stand for any open and free election. The citizens, including some World War II veterans, accused the local officials of political corruption and voter intimidation. This instance in American history underscores a core component of the Second Amendment- a safeguard against government tyranny.

[2] “Wm.H. Langsdale Shot and Killed by John. B. De Van,” The Mobile Register, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[3] “De Van Declared Insane By Jury of Circuit Court,” The Mobile Register, April 24, 1920.

[4] “No Cause Is Found For Killing,” Mobile News-Item, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[5] “No Cause Is Found For Killing,” Mobile News-Item, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[6] “Insanity Plea Will Be Offered for John De Van,” Mobile News-Item, March 30, 1920.

[7] “Wm. H. Langsdale Shot and Killed by John. B. De Van,” The Mobile Register, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[8] “Insanity Plea Will Be Offered for John De Van,” Mobile News-Item, March 30, 1920.

[9] “No Cause Is Found For Killing,” Mobile News-Item, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[10] “No Cause Is Found For Killing,” Mobile News-Item, Monday, March 29, 1920; see also “Order DeVan Sent To Asylum,” The Mobile Register, April 23, 1920.

[11] “Wm. H. Langsdale Shot and Killed by John. B. De Van,” The Mobile Register, Monday, March 29, 1920.

[12] “State Asks More Time To Prepare,” The Mobile Register, April 20, 1920.

[13] “Order DeVan Sent To Asylum,” The Mobile Register, April 23, 1920.

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