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Who are coastal Carolina’s most notorious moonshiners?

Ben Steelman

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.

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19 Responses to “ Who are coastal Carolina’s most notorious moonshiners?”

  1. On July 24, 2009 at 10:41 am Cliff Williams wrote:

    Sgt LeonGeorge was moved from Bellevue to Oakdale Cemetery.

    Cliff Williams
    President Bellevue cemetery.

  2. On October 23, 2009 at 8:17 pm Timothy Stewart wrote:

    I am the Great Grandson of Charles William Stewart and the Grandson of William Ellmer Stewart and I am very proud of both of them. But I have to wonder how much longer you people will continue to drag our name through the mud and not have the courage to set down with us and here our side of the story. One that tells how these two law men were harrassing and threatening my Grandfather and Great Grandfather. As for the so called testimony from the black man I have copies of the transcripts of the trail and there is no mention of such. There is however testimony from a moonshiner who was released from jail the day before the so called murders. As for the cross burning by the Klan my mothers father was active in the Klan and he was also friends with both of the Stewarts there has never been any mention of this incident. Is there proof? Waiting to here from someone. It is truely amazing how famlies with money can and do cover up their crimes and there is no mention of it but when those that are poor are convicted it stays in the news forever. My father was three years old when his father and grandfather were put to death and brought back to the family home for viewing. Dad lived with that picture the rest of his life. I guess it made the people of this town and the news media feel good about themselves to torture him as much as possible. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  3. On October 29, 2009 at 12:11 am Rick Frederick wrote:

    Dear Folks:

    I have been interested in the family of Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart (1906-1985) for many years. My interest is purely historical, and I gladly would place online any information that would help others interested in this family reconstruct the facts. Yank Stewart was only 19 when he lost his father and brother. Any materials will be used as directed by the Stewart family.

    Thanks and best regards,

    Rick Frederick
    Archivist and Webmaster
    Caswell County Historical Association
    Yanceyville, North Carolina

  4. On October 29, 2009 at 10:57 am BOB MURRAY wrote:

    I am the great grandson or CW. Why dont you try to get the whole story.L Geoge was after CW’s daughter and told to stay away.Threats were made by George.I bet George had a jurisdiction problem, so Lilly was needed. Alot of the captured shine was sold in Virginia by the Feds. The judge was one of CW”s best customers.Killing is a crime, but the whole story should be told. Bob Murray. bobmurray@embarqmail.com PS we should talk tim

  5. On October 29, 2009 at 3:16 pm tim boyle wrote:

    i am the great grandson of yank stewart.i grew up near him on carolina beach rd.all memories of him are good,my family is very proud of him and how he treated all of us.i never talked to him about his father or brother,but people that i have talked to that knew him said there was more to the story than what was published and they were very liked in the area.

  6. On October 29, 2009 at 4:45 pm kevin boyle wrote:

    I am also yank stewarts great grandson ,we lived next door to him for years in the late 70:s early 80″s, i recall him telling me stories of his past ,i also recall everyone in town knew and respected him , he was a good man, also to Timothy Stewart i was not aware that elmer had any children i would love to talk to you .please email me at klbbigshow@hotmail.com i do have some photographs of him and have done some research on my own any one intrested email me

  7. On October 29, 2009 at 6:00 pm BOB MURRAY wrote:

    i stayed with uncle yank for a while around 1970 or 71.he was fun to be around,along with his dog jack.i remember he made me suffer when i woke up with a hangover.i was only 18.he made me eat his special breakfast of fish eggs mixed with scrambled eggs and bacon.he had a hard life ,but made the best of it.i heard CW was hard on him.my mom HILDA FAYE STEWART MURRAY passed away 10/9/09.mom told me a few stories about the stewarts. PAPPY STEWART never talked about the past.he witnessed the execution.the only thing he ever said when the papers had an article was.i whish they would leave my daddy alone.

  8. On October 29, 2009 at 9:12 pm kevin boyle wrote:

    Rck or Tim how can I contact you? i can be contacted at klbbigshow@hotmail.com

  9. On November 24, 2009 at 10:37 am Sherry Hewitt wrote:

    I am the aunt of two of Yank Stewart’s great-grandchildren: Jason and Jennifer Faircloth. Their father, Bobby Faircloth, is Yank’s grandson. I heard there is a documentary being written about Yank and his prison escapes. Does anyone know about this?
    Thank you.
    Sherry Gore Hewitt

  10. On May 4, 2010 at 4:16 am Jeffrey Hufham wrote:

    My name is Jeffrey Hufham. William Elmer “Buddy” Stewart was my stepfather and he was the son of Anthony Dewitte “Pappy” Stewart brother of Yank. I spent much of my early teenage years fishing and claming with Yank and his black lab named Stash. Yank was a most kind and generous man and would go out of his way to help anyone in need. Pappy was the same way and so was Buddy. I loved them all and they taught me what it means to be a man. They were good moral people. Yank did what he did to get even with the state for the “railroading” of his father and brother. Who can blame him. I sure can’t. In fact, I applaud him for it.

  11. On January 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm Terrance Ellmer Stewart wrote:

    I am Terry Stewart. C.W. Stewart is my great grandfather and Elmer Stewart my grandfather. Another poster here, Timothy Stewart, is my brother and we have two other brothers and a sister.

    The fascination that others have for this part of our family story is understandable. It is indeed dramatic and traumatic and so full of the intrigue and passion that tends to catch people’s interest. That interest has lead to painful episodes for those of us in the family however.

    My father, Wink Stewart was a proud, determined and amazingly intelligent man regardless of the fact the he had only a third grade education. He was a man that would do anything to help anyone he regarded as an underdog. Maybe because he certainly was that himself. Though we were not prosperous, we did not go hungry, our clothes were not fashionable but decent and he tried to give us the best he could. Car trips to the mountains of North Carolina in the summer and Boy Scouts were things he loved doing with us. He was also troubled and tortured beacuse of the event and having had to grow up in a small southern town that could never let him forget and would never forgive him for the sins of his father and grandfather. Perhaps he should have moved away and found a different life but his pride and dogged determination failed to allow him to follow that path.

    I knew nothing of this tragic story until I was about 22 years old. That came about in the midst of another family trauma and was therefore even more painful and difficult for me to understand and accept. As the full scope of the story became apparent to me, it opened my eyes to many things about my father and our family and why our life had been so difficult. As I matured, I better understood the pain and anger I sometimes witnessed in him. And I always wonder what he might have become and/or accomplished had that gun battle involving his father and grandfather never taken place.

    I left Wilmington at the age of 15. There are times that I think about moving back. It is after all, a beautiful southern city, steeped in history, southern charm and full of decent wonderful folks. I am a city manager and hold a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, with over forty years working in local government. Several years ago, the City of Wilmington City Manager’s job was open and I received contact from the search firm asking if I would apply. (They did not know I was a Wilminton native nor anything about the family story.) I thought about it and how nice it would be to be able to move back to the place of my roots, and be near family again. Then reality sunk in and I thought again. I was almost certain that if my family connection were to become known, I would not be considered as a serious candidate regardless of my education and experience. And there was never any thought about trying to hide that. It would always be found out in the end, so I did not seek the job. Another example of our family still paying the price for something that happened nearly a hundred years ago. By the way, Wilminfton got a fine manager, Mr. Sterling Cetham and he’s done a great job for the city.

    Please know that I fully understand a crime took place and that two men lost their lives. I am no apologist for the actions of my ancestors. What I do fervently believe however is that there was more to the story. While it may not forgive CW and Elmer of their actions, a full recognition of the circumstances would likely have mitigated the judgment rendered upon them. And a horrible judgment it was. At the age of three, Dad was caused to look upon their bodies , burned and blackend from the ending of their lives in the electric chair.

    Perhaps one day someone will attempt to examine this tragic story from an objecitve and fact based perspective. More importantly though is the hope that though CW and Elmer may not be forgiven for their actions, the community will eventually show some forgiveness for the remainder of our family.

  12. On May 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm Ken Murray wrote:

    My name is Ken Murray. CW. Stewart is my Great Great Grandfather. I was too young to meet him of course, but I did know his son as my “pappy”.

  13. On July 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm Kim Murray wrote:

    CW was my Great Great Grandfather and his son was my “Pappy”. I am the daughter of Robert Murray and Sister of Ken Murray. My fathers mother was Hilda Fay Stewart Murray. I think about all the times she would say that one of the cops wouldn’t leave the family alone especially CWs daughter. If he said the cops drew their guns first I certainly believe it. Other than moonshining, I see nothing of criminal acts. Had they been out there robbing places and shooting people and making general violent trouble I would think again. I have never experienced anything but good from our family. Pappy was a gentle soul and so were his children and other family members. I can’t help but think about what a horrible death they suffered and it certainly seems they didn’t have a fair trial. There was much more to the story. Of course my heart goes out to the cops families as well. No one deserves that, but CW and Elmer were not some cold blooded killers either. My grandmothers wish was that some day someone would speak the truth of the situation and make it known, so I suppose here we are. My grandmother is missed and I wish she could see all these posts. She was an amazing musician, artist, housekeeper, mother, grandmother, wife and spirit. May all of the departed rest in peace and the rest of us move forward and forgive. Perhaps the lesson to all of us is that life is so fragile and precious. We should embrace each moment as if it were our last with respect and kindness toward one another. Free will is a sacred thing and should be handled with care. We need to take ownership of our own actions and be responsible for our reactions to the actions of others. Savagery is never the answer and I am certainly relieved that no one will have to suffer such as CW and Elmer have again in that state.

  14. On July 14, 2011 at 10:36 pm stewart gillette wrote:

    i am stewart gillette the great grandson of yank stewart,hes where i got my name an im proud of it ! i thnk his story should be told!

  15. On January 9, 2012 at 12:35 am alyssa chevalier wrote:

    C.W Stewart was my great great grandfather although i am to young to have met him i have heard many stories about him from my grandma Marjorie boyle ( C.W Stewart grand daughter.)

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  17. On July 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm www.msarbinowo.pl wrote:

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  18. On January 16, 2018 at 12:57 am Todd Gillette wrote:

    Charles Yank Stewart was my great grandfather on my mothers side ,I remember him very well always stood out to me as someone who captured your attention right away ,although I was very young I remember all the help he gave us when we moved to brunswick county in 1980,his love for family and his animals are something that stood out to me and how I remember him.I know he helped many in need in the area also.ive never heard anyone local say anything bad about Yank.Wish I could have known him better!!! But as I’m older now I appreciate what I seen in him,my grandmother shared a lot of his generous qualitys,and it’s reflected in all of his family today,

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