Thursday, August 18, 2011

Portrait of a Tough Guy: Yank Stewart

Following is a transcript of a newspaper article that appeared in The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) on November 25, 1962. The old newspaper clipping was provided by a relative of Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart (1906-1985) and was in very poor condition, with small, but important, sections of text missing along a fold line. The images that accompanied the article were barely legible. However, click on them to see a larger version. The photograph to the left appeared many years later.

"Portrait of a Tough Guy--Last In a Series: The Escape From an Escape-Proof Prison -- The Life of Prisoner Yank Stewart" by Gene Roberts Jr. The News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C., Sunday Morning, November 25, 1962, Section III, Page 2.

Prisoner Yank Stewart, who in 1959 already had six escapes on his record, swore he would boost the number to seven.

"Damn you," he told the deputy sheriff who recaptured him after his sixth flight from confinement, "I'll escape again the first chance I get."

Prison officials responded to Stewart's threat by shipping him immediately to Ivy Bluff, an "escape-proof" penitentiary which bore no resemblance to its name. Concertina wire, not ivy, was entwined around its outer wall of heavy gauge steel.

Newspapers labeled the prison "Little Alcatraz," and in the three years since its construction it had lived up to its reputation. It took only the toughest 30 or 40 prisoners from a State prison population of more than 10,000 and housed them securely. Not one had escaped.

Concrete and Brick

In addition to its concertina wire and steel, the prison made liberal use of concrete and brick. The exterior of the building was of brick. The floors were of concrete, to prevent prisoners from tunneling their way to freedom. The steel wall that fenced in the building was set in two feet of concrete, again to discourage tunneling.

A green, well-clipped lawn lay between the steel wall and the brick building, but no "keep off the grass" signs were necessary. No prisoner ever set foot on the lawn.

Inmates left the prison only to work in the prison rock quarry. Before leaving, the stripped off their clothes and submitted to a search. The repeated the process upon entering the building.

Stewart was not allowed out of the prison, even for work in the quarry. He was kept in an isolated cell in the most tightly guarded wing of Ivy Bluff. Nine steel doors separated him from freedom. As a step of super preparation, the prison superintendent ruled that no one guard was to carry the keys to all of the doors.

[Unfortunately a section of text is missing here due to the deteriorated condition of the newspaper.]

. . . e, Stewart next was assigned to Ivy Bluff. This time, he won a temporary transfer [to Central Prison in Raleigh] by threatening a hunger strike. Again, he mutilated the fingers of his left hand by [slapping] them with his cell door, a maneuver that sent him to a hospital bed in the prison infirmary at Raleigh. [Stewart had been transferred from Ivy Bluff t the hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh, for treatment of a mutilated fingers that he had slammed against a steel cell door.]

A Desperate Man

Now, in his third period of confinement at Ivy Bluff, Stewart was even more desperate than when he smashed his hand. He paced his cell constantly, shouting to guards that the was the "most persecuted prisoner in the prison system." An ulcer pained his stomach and the thought of completing the remaining 20 years of his prison sentence (a term that would keep him confined until past his 73rd birthday) pained his mind.

"The prison department has punished me since I came in," he complained. "I am no different from other prisoners."

Prison officials contended he was different and had to be kept in "maximum security" for the protection of the public. Since the State executed his father and brother in the mid-twenties, Stewart had served 25 years in prison and had become in prison terminology, a "professional criminal."

On his last trip to the prison infirmary [at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina], he and another inmate, James Christy, had sawed the bars from the infirmary window, used a rope of sheets to reach the ground 63-feed below, dashed 125 paces to an eight foot wall and scaled it within firing range of three guards.

"You must face the fact that the public now views you with suspicion," a panel of prison officials told him upon his recapture. "We'll have to regard you with unusual caution."

Unknown to Stewart, a panel of consulting psychiatrists sided with him, and against the prison, on the governing philosophy of Ivy Bluff. The psychiatrists questioned the policy of making the prison "undesirable from the inmate's point of view." They were referring to such Ivy Bluff practices as denying prisoner's visiting and letter writing privileges, soft drinks, candy and any reading mater other than seven selected magazines.

"It is impossible to contain a pressure by maintaining a stronger container," said the psychiatrists, who contended the Ivy Bluff inmates were psychopaths and should be given treatment.

Even if Stewart had known about the psychiatrists' report and had believed its recommendation would be accepted (only recently did the prison department began adopting them), he was in no mood to wait.

On December 7, 1959, Stewart by-passed one of the nine doors which had blocked his way to freedom and was ready to try the remaining eight. Working with a hacksaw blade which was smuggled to him despite the prison's strict security measures, Stewart sawed three short bars from the bottom of his cell.

Three Accomplices

He then tossed the blade to James Strickland, a burglar kept in isolation three cells away from Stewart. Strickland sawed his bars and passed the blade to Douglas Anderson, who was serving a life sentence for kidnapping. After his bars were cut, Anderson threw the hacksaw blade to James Christy, the fourth man in the prison's isolation wing and Stewart's accomplice in the infirmary break two months earlier [at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina].

At 9:15 p.m., Stewart called to Guard John Case, who stood his station just outside the isolation wing.

"Hey, John," Stewart yelled,"Bring me some toilet paper." When Case entered the wing, Stewart said, "Christy down there wants the paper."

Case walked past Stewart and opened the gate that separated Stewart's cell from those of Anderson, Christy, and Strickland.

Stewart watched the guard carefully as he moved down the narrow corridor. If he closed the gate behind him, the escape attempt would be foiled. The guard, in a moment of forgetfulness that would cost him his job, left the gate open . . . . [Unfortunately a section of text is missing here due to the deteriorated condition of the newspaper.] but [Stewart] squeezed through an opening 11-inches square. Meanwhile, Strickland executed his part of the escape plan. Reaching through the bars of is cell, he grabbed the guard's foot as he walked by.

Overpowers A Guard

Stewart dashed through the open gate and overpowered Guard Case. Christy, Anderson and Strickland crawled through the openings they had cut in their cells to assist.

Wielding the 11-inch cell bars as weapons, the prisoners forced Case into a cell, took his keys and locked him in.

At this point the prisoners had by-passed only the gate and the doors to their cells. Eight steel doors still stood in their way.

Case's keys took them through three of them, leaving five still blocking their escape. Now, they were in the stairwell which led from the isolation wing to the prison control room and Case's keys were useless.

Stewart had already foreseen this complication. They must wait in the stairwell, he said, until the night sergeant came with a guard to replace Case from what normally would have been a boring and lonely watch over the isolation wing.

At 9:30, 15 minutes after the escape plan was put into action, Sgt. L. E. Phillips and Guard Frank Pruitt walked into the stairwell and were surprised, overwhelmed and beaten by the prisoners.

More Keys

[Unfortunately a section of text is missing here due to the deteriorated condition of the newspaper.]

Pillips' keys took them past another two doors and into the control room. Three guards . . . were . . . doors and two guards, who watched the prison from two outside towers, were left.

"Play it our way or get killed," Stewart told Sgt. Phillips. "You call Sgt. Shupe at his home and tell him to get over here in a hurry. Tell him Yank Stewart is hurt and needs some medicine."

G. B. Shupe, a day sergeant who kept master keys to the prison with him at his home, rushed to Ivy Bluff. When he opened the door to the control room, his jaw went slack in surprise.

There at his desk sat convict James Strickland, his hand clutching a .38 caliber pistol.

"Hello there, Sgt. Shupe," said Strickland. "You didn't expect to see me here, did you?"

Stewart now had keys to every prison door, but two guards still manned the outside towers. With the prison bathed in spotlights the guards could kill or maim any prisoner who tried to dash for the outer wall. There must be a way, Stewart figured to get the guards out of the towers. He found one.

Calls The Guards

"Call them guards up and tell them to come in here for a cup of coffee," Stewart told Shupe. "Tell them you're sending some new guards to replace them."

"You boys want a midnight snack?" Shupe asked the two tower guards via the prison's intercommunication system.

"Sounds good to me," one of the guards answered.

In the boldest gamble of the night, Stewart dressed two prisoners in uniforms found in the control room and sent them out to man the towers.

The changing of the guard that followed was the most devastating in the history of the North Carolina prison system. The tower guards unwittingly exchanged their towers, eight pistols, eight rifles and a sub-machine gun for a prison cell.

Stewart was now in complete control of the prison and he proved a benevolent warden. Every prisoner was given an opportunity to escape.

A few minutes past midnight a truck roared from the prison. It carried Stewart, four murders, one rapist, one kidnapper and 13 of the prison system's most desperate robbers and burglars.

Society In Danger

[At the moment] the truck passed the gate society was in danger -- a danger that increased with each minute the break went undetected.

Not until 4:30 a.m., more than four hours after the prisoners left Ivy Bluff, was the escape reported to prison headquarters in Raleigh. Assistant Superintendent E. N. Pegg sounded the alarm when he arrived for work and discovered the empty guard towers and found the guards behind bars. With the guards in the cells were 17 prisoners who had declined the opportunity for illegal freedom.

North Carolina prison officials called the escape "the biggest breakout of felons to have occurred in the U. S. in many years" and pressed every available man into search. The F.B.I. joined the intensive manhunt that followed on the assumption that the prisoners had crossed state lines.

Radio, television and newspapers warned the public that the escapees had time prior to discovery to travel to Bristol, Tenn., Charleston, W. Va., Norfolk or Washington.

Twenty four hours after the escape only one prisoner had been recaptured and the manhunt was extended to cover the eastern half of the United States.

The extensive search paid better dividends in the next 24 hour period. Eleven more of the fugitives -- including Stewart's accomplices: Christy, Anderson and Strickland --were taken into custody in Ohio and Virginia. Stewart, however, still eluded the police.

Hotel Hide-Away

With every policeman and patrolman in Virginia on the alert for him, Stewart spent the second day following the escape in a Roanoke, Va. hotel located only blocks from a police station.

"My name is Jack Williams," he told the hotel clerk.

Late on the third day, having grown a mustache, as a disguise, Stewart walked from the hotel, stole a car and began traveling toward North Carolina.

At 1 a.m. on the fourth day, a Martinsville, Va. policeman reported a car with out-of-town license plates and decided as a matter of routine to follow it. The driver of the car quickly increased its seed to 70 miles per hour and roared through Martinsville's main street.

[Unfortunately a section of text is missing here due to the deteriorated condition of the newspaper.]

On the outskirts of Martinsville the . . . on a curve . . . a bridge . . . plunged 30 feet into the waters of Smith River.

Stewart crawled from the wreckage, dragged himself 100 yards to a clump of bushes and eluded police and patrolmen for another hour.

When they found him bruised, cut and exhausted, he said: "i would have given myself up anyway. I was going to North Carolina to talk to Governor Hodges . . . I wanted to tell him to do something about Ivy Bluff . . . They treat men like cattle."

Stewart's capture was applauded by North Carolina prison officials, but in Virginia the City sergeant in charge of the Roanoke jail was dismayed. Stewart was to remain in his custody until tried in federal court for crossing state lines in a stolen vehicle.

"This damn coop can't hold me," said Stewart when he saw the city's antiquated jail.

Becomes A Leader

While the city sergeant, Edgar L. Winstead, pressed the federal courts for a speedy trial, Stewart established himself as leader of the prisoners in his cell block and methodically lay siege to the jail.

Acting at Stewart's command, prisoners pried three commodes from the jail's steel walls and stripped the cell block of wiring. Stewart added to the confusion by setting his mattress on fire.

"I really hurts Stewart's pride that he can't break out of this jail," Sgt. Winstead told reporters.

But Stewart was not through trying. He attracted hacksaw blades like a magnet. Constant searching of his cell block yielded 10 blades, a jail record for "blade smuggling."

In desperation, the jailers handcuffed Stewart to the bars of his cell. When they returned hours later, the prisoner was sitting calmly on his bunk. He had twisted the cell bar loose and worked his handcuffs free.

After each escape attempt, Stewart switched on his transistor radio and listened to newscasters tell of his escapades. One radio dispatch announced that members of the Associated Press in North Carolina had voted his Ivy Bluff escape the top news story of the year.

When jailers tried to take the radio from Stewart, he threw it on the cell floor and smashed it with his feet.

Makes A Gun

Convinced now that brute strength wouldn't carry him out of the jail, he turned to a plan that had won him freedom in Wilmington eight years earlier. He collected small bits of soap, melted them with matches and slowly molded them into a scented replica of an automatic pistol.

He was coloring the pistol blue with ink when jailers discovered it.

"The automatic may not have fooled Sherlock Holmes," said a Roanoke reporter, "but with Stewart on the other end it would have scared the bejeebies out of the Thin Man."

After two months and 27 days of battering the Roanoke jail, Stewart left -- in the custody of federal marshals. They transported him to a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. where he was to begin a five year sentence for car theft.

"I didn't draw a decent breath during the whole time he was here," Winstead said as he watched the escape artist leave.

More Worries

But Winstead's worries were not over. Repairs to the cell bars and other "iron work" in the jail cost $3,882 -- a sum the city sergeant had to raise from a reluctant city council. There were other bills, too, for plumbing and wiring repairs and for the mattress Stewart had burned.

Winstead also worried about the state of society today. Other prisoners and many law abiding citizens as well "regarded Stewart as a god," Winstead said. "They though he was really big time, Big stuff."

Today, all of the Ivy Bluff escapees have been recaptured and Stewart is in the most formidable of all prisons -- Alcatraz.

Federal authorities transferred him to the "escape-proof" island, along with the nation's most notorious criminals, soon after he was placed in federal custody" -- Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Yank likes it out there," his brother Anthony told a reporter recently. "He's painting pictures with oil paint and canvas. He did a picture of one of his three daughters and another one of the Lord's Supper and some others of sea scenes and things like that. He never knew anything about painting . . . I guess they taught him out there . . ."

Anthony's wife interrupted him. "He's doing some crocheting too," she said. "Don't forget the crocheting."

End of a series.

CCHA Note: Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart eventually was paroled and spent his last years peacefully in Wilmington, North Carolina. Stewart purportedly owned and operated a service station (possibly at Monkey Junction in or south of Wilmington, North Carolina). Neighbors, friends, and relatives all spoke very highly of him, citing examples of his gentle manner and kindness. Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart, father of three daughters, died in Wilmington at age 79.

Oddly, through the highly publicized escape from Ivy Bluff, Yank Stewart become an instrument for penal reform. At the time of that incident, ordinary guards worked 100-hour weeks, and their pay was so low that, if they had a couple of children, they qualified for public assistance. The state legislature in 1961 approved a larger budget for the Department of Prisons that began the process of raising the salary, training, and competence of correctional officers.

It is interesting to note that eight of the inmates who escaped from Ivy Bluff and were tried in federal court in Virginia asked for the maximum sentence so they would not be returned to Ivy Bluff Prison in Caswell County, North Carolina. Through their attorneys, the eight stated that their life at Ivy Bluff was like "dogs in a snake pit of mistreatment."

1 comment:

  1. Yank Stewrt was my great uncle, being my father’s uncle. Strangely, I was about 13 and living in Roanoke at the time of his capture and imprisonment there. I remember my mother showing my sister, brother and I the local newspaper stories about him and explaining who he was.

    Overbthe years, I’ve read a few articles abou him but some of the info in this article I had not heard before. Thanks for making it available.

    With regard to his brother and father (my paternal grandfather and great grandfather) being executed by the state of NC, they too helped to change the prison system. Their executions in the NC electric chair were so brutal and terrifying that the method of execution was changed shortly thereafter.