Charles William Stewart (1863-1925) and William Elmer Stewart (1901-1925), a father and son from Brunswick County, gained notoriety in the Roaring Twenties for killing two law enforcement officers in a shootout over a moonshine still. The two were both executed in North Carolina’s electric chair on April 17, 1925 at Central Prison in Raleigh and were buried at Wilmington’s Bellevue Cemetery.
On July 29, 1924, U.S. Deputy Marshal Samuel Lilly, 47, and Detective Sgt. Leon George, 52, a “liquor enforcement officer” with the Wilmington Police Department, discovered a moonshine distillery in the Northwest community of Brunswick County, about 15 miles northwest of Wilmington. It was apparently a small still, as the two officers loaded it in the trunk of Lilly’s Ford and drove off.
Later that afternoon, locals discovered the Ford and the officers’ bodies, “riddled with bullets and buckshot” near a sharp curve in the road “at the head of Bob’s Bend” in Northwest, “in one of the most lonely spots imaginable,” according to newspaper accounts. Lilly’s body was lying outside the car; George’s was seated inside. George’s pet Airdale, “Baby” was found shot to death in the back seat. (News accounts of the period gave heartrending descriptions of the dog’s body.)
Brunswick and New Hanover County law enforcement officers, together with federal authorities, quickly organized a coordinated manhunt. The next day, July 30, the younger Stewart — commonly known as Elmer — and a friend, Jack Ramsey, were flushed out in a swamp behind a Brunswick County house. (Ramsey was later released and disappeared from the story.) The elder Stewart, known as C.W., “haggard, unkempt and obviously shaken,” surrendered to the Brunswick County sheriff on Aug. 1, 1924, at Bolivia. (Reporters noted that Stewart’s hand quivered “like one palsied” when he reached out to shake the sheriff’s hand.) The two were held without bond at the Brunswick County jail in Southport.
George’s funeral attracted some 2,000 spectators to Bellevue Cemetery. (Ironically, the Stewarts would later be buried less than 300 yards from his gravesite.) A 26-year veteran of the police department, who had been serving at the time of Wilmington’s 1898 riots, George was recalled in newspaper accounts as the officer who had gently fed peanuts to a runaway circus elephant to lure it back to its pen. Robed Ku Klux Klansmen appeared at the conclusion of services and burned a cross at George’s grave. The dead officer was not a Klan member, newspaper accounts noted, but Klansmen said he stood for “law and order,” and thus was on their side. Lilly, a Craven County native, was buried near New Bern.
The Stewarts, who apparently had a longstanding reputation as moonshiners, went on trial together on Oct. 2, 1924, in Superior Court at Southport. Given the prevailing racism of the period, with “Jim Crow” segregation fully enforced, it was notable that prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Amos Hooper, a 70-year-old black man, who said he had heard Stewart, a white man, confess to the shootings.
On Oct. 11, 1924, both men were found guilty, and Judge Henry A. Grady sentenced them to death. The Stewarts were transferred to Central Prison in Raleigh. Shortly before the execution date, C.W. Stewart wrote out a confession to the killings, in an apparent last-minute effort to gain clemency for his son. (Among other details, he claimed that Lilly had drawn his gun first in the confrontation.) On April 15, 1925, Elmer Stewart was baptized by the pastor of Edenton Street Methodist Church in Raleigh. (The clergyman had previously served at Grace Methodist Church in Wilmington.)
Newspaper accounts of the Stewarts’ execution were horrific. C.W. Stewart, described in the Raleigh News & Observer as looking like “a sick old man rather than a desperado,” met his end stoically and was quoted as saying “God bless you all” to witnesses. Elmer Stewart, who died second, tried to inject some humor; “Take your time, boys,” he told the electric chair’s attendants, “I’m in no hurry.” However, the younger Stewart — referred to in newspaper accounts as “the boy” — was clearly nervous, putting up a seemingly endless stream of chatter and prayers (“Dear Jesus, forgive them”) until the warden finally gave the signal to proceed.
Reporters noted a sound like frying bacon and “the stench of scorching flesh” coming from the chair. C.W. Stewart required three shocks to die; newspaper account claimed his skin turned “completely purple, except for leprous white stretch marks which showed where it had strained against the straps. Elmer Stewart died after two shocks totaling a minute and a half; witnesses claimed to see a boil erupt and burst on his legs as the electricity was applied.
Trina N. Seitz, a sociologist at Appalachian State University who has studied the death penalty in North Carolina, claims that accounts of the Stewarts’ deaths (and of other gruesome electrocutions) eventually helped persuade the General Assembly, in 1935, to substitute the gas chamber for the electric chair as the state’s mode of execution. Ironically, the Stewarts were the first Death Row inmates at Central Prison to have a professional executioner; Joseph Stone was paid $25 for operating the chair on April 17, 1925.
In parts of the community, at least, lots of people seem to have sympathized with the Stewarts. In September 1925, nearly five months after their executions, the Wilmington News-Dispatch reported that a Wilmington police officer and a caretaker at Greenfield Park traded punches in an argument over the case. Some people claimed that Leon George had threatened the Stewarts on a number of occasions, making the shootings sound more like self-defense. Oddly, in his confession, C.W. Stewart said he felt no ill will toward George and claimed to have intervened on George’s behalf in a fistfight.
Newspapers reported that hundreds of people crowded into the home of Mrs. Rufus Squires, C.W. Stewart’s daughter, at 108 Wright St., Wilmington [Map this], for the Stewarts’ private funeral. Some 5,000 people accompanied the coffins to graveside services at Bellevue, presided over by the Rev. J.P. King of Sixth Street Advent Christian Church.
Sometime later, George’s remains were moved from Bellevue, according to accounts, to a plot closer to relatives.
Date posted: May 29, 2009
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