Sunday, August 05, 2012

Ivy Bluff Prison: Escape of Yank Stewart

The Escapes of Yank Stewart

Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart (1906-1985) certainly knew how to get himself into prison. He also knew how to escape, which he did many times. He was especially adept at escaping from North Carolina prisons. Seven times he was locked away in North Carolina, and six times he escaped. In 1964, the warden at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, considered Stewart the lockup's "number one tough guy":
We're not taking any chances with him. He's very belligerent and thinks everyone is against him. He is taken out of his cell two or three times a week and permitted to have exercise.
This warden, K. B. Bailey, certainly knew of what he spoke. In 1959, Yank Stewart and James Edward Cristy escaped from Central Prison by sawing their way out of a prison ward. They slid down a rope made of bed sheets, taking improvised ladders with them. The two ladders, taped together, were used to scale the eight-foot wall topped with four feet of barbed wire.

And Yank Stewart was the ring leader of the largest prison break in the history of North Carolina. After escaping from Central Prison in 1959 Stewart was transferred to a newly constructed maximum-security facility in Caswell County, North Carolina, Ivy Bluff Prison. This state-of-the art prison was described as "escape-proof"! Not only did Yank Stewart escape from Ivy Bluff Prison in December 1959, he took along nineteen of his inmate friends! So much for "escape-proof."

Stewart was so notorious that after the Ivy Bluff escape was declared an "outlaw" in the State of North Carolina. [Thought incorrect. It was his 1954 robbery that resulted in the outlaw designation.]

Yank Stewart was born Charles Willis Stewart February 19, 1906, in Virginia. His parents were Charles William Stewart and Susan Beckleheimer, who had a family of four boys and two girls. It appears that his parents were married in West Virginia and eventually moved to New Hanover County, North Carolina. They must have spent some time in Virginia, as that is where Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart was born.

The Stewarts eventually ended up in Brunswick County, North Carolina, in the southeast portion of the state. That Stewart's ability to run afoul of the law came naturally is borne out by the fact that his father and at least one of his brothers apparently were bootleggers. In 1925 Charles Willis Stewart and his son William Elmer Stewart (born c. 1902) were electrocuted in Raleigh, North Carolina, after being found guilty of the murder of Detective Sergeant Leon George of the Wilmington Police Department and Deputy U. S. Marshal Sam Lilly in an ambush shooting at Bob's Branch, North West Township, Brunswick County, North Carolina. Family tradition tells that the judge who handed down the death sentences was a good moonshine customer of the Stewarts. Earlier, another son, Oscar Stewart (1893-1915) was killed in a Ferris wheel accident at the California World's Fair.

The history of the Blanch Correctional Facility began in the late 1930's when the State of North Carolina purchased a tract of land from Caswell County resident John Mitchell. The property was on high ground above Country Line Creek, and locally was referred to as Ivy Bluff, which was the first name given to the prison eventually built on the property. In the 1950's the State purchased more land from John Mitchell, resulting in a site of approximately 58 acres. The prison site is on what today is named High Rock School Road in northeast Caswell County.

In July 1956, Ivy Bluff Prison began operation as a maximum-security prison for inmates deemed too difficult to be handled in Central Prison (Raleigh, North Carolina). The prison buildings were red brick, with flat roofs and concrete slab floors. In the center of the main building were the administrative offices, which were separated from the area that housed the inmates. There were two cell blocks separated by a central corridor. Correction officers observed activity in each wing of the prison from a control room above the administrative offices. It also was from this control room that cell doors were opened and closed. Inmates worked in a rock quarry about a quarter mile from the prison grounds.

This was a state-of-the-art maximum-security prison described as escape-proof in 1956. However, in December 1959 these claims were proved incorrect when Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart led twenty maximum-custody inmates to freedom. The escape attracted national attention.

In 1963, Ivy Bluff was renamed Blanch Prison and its mission changed to medium security, housing inmates whose health problems prevented them from normally assigned prison work.

In 1966, the prison population was again changed to medium-custody inmates who were assigned to road-work squads.

In 1971, the North Carolina Department of Corrections (through an entity called Corrections Enterprises) opened at the Blanch Prison a metal-products plant that produced stainless-steel and black-iron wares for State facilities. It was named the Blanch Metal Plant. Seven Corrections Enterprise employees and five Blanch Prison custody staff supervised medium-custody inmates from the Caswell Correctional Center and minimum-security inmates from the Dan River Prison Work Farm.

Substantial renovations were made to the facility in 1967. Only inmates working on the renovations were housed at the prison during this period. A second floor was added to the main building and the entire operation was converted to single cells. When it reopened in October 1973 as a close-security prison it was the only single-cell facility in North Carolina.

In October 1983 the personality of the prison changed again. It was converted to a youth facility, Blanch Youth Institution, to house inmates aged 18-21 who were discipline problems at other prisons. The prison had 96 single cells, 20 segregation cells, and eight two-man special-quarters cells for the 16 inmates who worked in the kitchen or as groundskeepers.

The prison, finally called Blanch Correctional Facility, was decommissioned and closed for good August 31, 1999. The last Superintendent was G. J. Haynes, with J. J. Hamlin Assistant Superintendent. Some 92 employees once worked at the prison. The Blanch Metal Plant continued operation for a while, but it too now is closed.

The abandoned prison grounds are located approximately five miles north of Yanceyville. From Yanceyville drive 4.5 miles north on NC 62 North, turn right onto High Rock School Road at Hamer. The prison is two miles down this road on the left.

The following is from The Daily Times News (Burlington, North Carolina) (October 5, 1963):

Remaining Escapee Is Apprehended. Raleigh (AP) -- The last of the 20 inmates who made their way out of Ivy Bluff prison on a bleak December day in 1959 is back in a North Carolina cell.

How long he will stay there there nobody knows. The prisoner is Yank Stewart, one of the most daring escape artists in North Carolina prison history. After the Ivy Bluff escape, Stewart spent almost three years in a variety of federal prisons, including now-closed Alcatraz.

But Stewart returned on a sour note. Prisons Director George Randall said that Steward "spit in the warden's face" in the Pennsylvania prison where he awaited transfer to North Carolina. [Lewisburg Prison?]

Earlier, according to Randall, guards found a knife in a bar of soap in his room. They also found a handcuff key hidden in his dentures.

But North Carolina prisons have never been too good at holding Stewart. He has escaped from them in six of his seven trips over the wall.

Yank Stewart was so notorious that he is one of the few people in modern times actually declared an "outlaw" under North Carolina law, and this resulted from his 1954 robbery.

Not since October 25, 1969, has an escape been engineered at the 30-year-old Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the predawn hours of that day Charles Willis (Yank) Stewart and James Edward Cristy staged an incredible break over the high wall. But their freedom was short-lived.

Today, Stewart, 58, languishes in a Central Prison maximum security cell. Cristy works in one of the prison shops. Stewart, regarded as the prison's "number one tough guy," is kept in a cell because of his ability to get out of prison. He has escaped seven times. The slippery New Hanover County native was returned to North Carolina last year after completing sentences at federal prisons in Atlanta and Alcatraz for crimes committed following his escape from Ivy Bluff Prison in Caswell County in December, 1959.

Stewart and Cristy escaped from Central Prison in 1959 by sawing their way out of a prison ward. They slid down a rope made of bed sheets, taking improvised ladders with them. The two ladders, taped together, were used to scale the eight-foot wall topped with four feet of barbed wire.

"We're not taking any chances with him," Warden K. B. Bailey said. "He's very belligerant and thinks everyone is against him. He is taken out of his cell two or three times a week and permitted to have exercise."

Stewart has sentences totaling 23 years to serve.

Source: The Daily Times News (Burlington, North Carolina) (2 March 1964) ("Central Prison Escape List is Small One," by Reese Hart)

C. W. Stewart married Susan Beckleheimer in West Virginia, moving south and east to Brunswick County, North Carolina in the early 1900's. Their son Oscar was killed in San Francisco, California Worlds Fair (1907?) Ferris wheel accident. He was in US Army. C. W. Stewart and his son William Elmer were electrocuted in Raleigh, North Carolina for killing two Revenue Agents (BATF) (1925?). Other sons Anthony Dewitt Stewart, Charles Willis (Yank) Sewart, who did prison time at Alcatraz for car theft. Daughters: (1) Elsie G. Stewart married Roy Noring, W. J. Cottle; (2) Lorenna(?) Stewart married R. Squires, B. Golden. Source: Stewart Message Board, 10 April 1999 message posted by C. L. Noring.


North Carolina Death Collection, 1908-1996
Name: Charles Willis Stewart
Death Date: 1 Oct 1985
Death City: Wilmington
Death County: New Hanover
Death State: North Carolina
Death Age: 79
Burial Location: Cremation in state
Birth Date: 19 Feb 1906
Birth Location: Virginia
Residence County: New Hanover
Residence State: North Carolina
Father: S
Gender: Male
Race: White
Marital Status: Married
Social Security Number: 239461037
Autopsy: No
Institution: General Hospital
Attendant: Physician
Source: NC Department of Health. North Carolina Deaths, 1983-87

Dec. 24, 1959

A Watauga County man who was one of 20 convicts who escaped from the Ivy Bluff Prison in Caswell County gave himself up to Watauga County and FBI officers in late December 1959, the Watauga Democrat reported.

Law enforcement officers had been searching for the man and two other convicts who were still at liberty since Dec. 8. The prison break resulted in the dismissal of several prison officials, including the superintendent, the newspaper reported.

The Watauga County man was reported to have gone to West Virginia after the break, where he hid out in barns, before stealing a station wagon in Virginia and heading back to North Carolina. Sheriff’s Deputy Emmett Oliver and FBI Agent Bob Moore found the man in a station wagon on a rural road, and when Oliver tapped on the car's window with his gun and ordered the man to come out, the man reportedly put the car in reverse in an attempt to run over Moore and escape. Moore shot through the rear window and the escaped convict surrendered without reaching for the loaded .38 pistol in his right jacket pocket, the newspaper reported.

"The pistol was identified as one stolen from the prison during the mass break," the article stated.

Ivy Bluff, according to a 2017 feature in the Raleigh News & Observer, was once called "Little Alcatraz" and, with steel walls, steel doors and concrete walls, was thought to be "escape proof." But that was before Charles "Yank" Stewart, who had already escaped confinement six times, led the group of 20 felons through the gates at Ivy Bluff — "a breakout still unequaled in state history," the News & Observer article stated.

"In December of 1959, he sawed through three bars with a smuggled hacksaw, passing the blade to a fellow prisoner. As the blade made its way down the row of cells, Stewart called a guard for some toilet paper. When the guard passed, he squeezed through the hole he had cut and grabbed the guard by the feet, forcing him into a cell as the other freed inmates joined in," the newspaper recounted.

"With the guard's keys, the prisoners passed through three more doors, then jumped two more guards to pass through two more. Using three captured guards as a bargaining chip, the escapees forced a sergeant to call the officers manning the towers down for a cup of coffee. And once Stewart found himself in charge of the entire prison, he invited every inmate to leave. A truck carted 20 prisoners away," the story continued.

Stewart was found a few days later, and would spend another 12 years behind bars, "including a stint in the real Alcatraz, where he painted landscapes and the Last Supper. He finished life as an elderly gardener for the city of Wilmington, tending roses until he died in 1985."

Source: Oakes, Anna. "This Week in the Archives," Watauga Democrat, 26 December 2019.

No comments:

Post a Comment