Here Is Where: Caledonia Prison Farm

By Andrew Carroll
1/31/2014 • American History

A Carolina Moonshiner Helps Win WWII

SEVERAL SHOTS SEEMED to come out of nowhere. One bullet whizzed past Sheriff N.H. McGeachy’s face, almost nicking his nose, and another clipped Deputy Bill West’s ear. McGeachy had seen at least three men with guns scurry toward a wooded area when he drove up to David Williams’ Godwin, N.C., moonshining operation in July 1921, but they had all disappeared into the trees before opening fire. As McGeachy and West dropped to the ground, Deputy Al Pate, still standing, suffered a direct hit and died within seconds.

Williams turned himself in, though he claimed innocence. Indeed, the evidence against him was weak and mostly circumstantial, but his legal 
team advised him to plead insanity. They even enlisted his brother, the Rev. J. Mack Williams, to testify that David was clinically paranoid and his “mania” for guns could be traced to his childhood days hunting in the backwoods of Godwin. It was a risky legal strategy (Williams himself wasn’t too pleased about being called unhinged) but a single juror remained stubbornly convinced that Williams was insane, and the judge declared a mistrial. Williams agreed to lesser charges and received a 30-year sentence. He maintained his innocence but knew that if he had attempted a second trial and lost, he could have faced life in prison or the electric chair.

“[David Williams] was a sandy-haired, broad-shouldered youngster, his light-blue eyes hard and unsmiling,” wrote Captain H.T. Peoples in a lengthy 1951 article about Williams and his time inside North Carolina’s Caledonia Prison Farm. Peoples was the prison’s superintendent, and he remembered Williams well. “In the first month I don’t believe young Williams spoke more than twenty words to anyone.”

Williams kept mostly to himself, failing even to correspond with his parents. When Peoples nudged him to send a letter to his distraught mother, Williams opened up for the first time and told him that he “didn’t want to write home from a prison postmark.”

A week later Williams requested a pencil and some paper, which Peoples gladly provided. When he caught Williams scribbling away after the other prisoners had gone to sleep, he saw that Williams was doodling instead of composing a letter. Peoples was disappointed at first but then noticed “the hard, bitter eyes were softening. Whatever he was doing, it was making him a little happier.”

Williams’ knack for fixing hopelessly broken-down machines earned him a coveted job running the metal shop. One night Peoples walked in on him slaving away with draft instruments; drawing boards and sketches were scattered everywhere. Williams made no effort to hide his handiwork, and the two men looked at each other for a moment.

“It’s…a new kind of gun,” Williams said. Then he broke into a rare grin. “Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with an escape. I wouldn’t try to escape now if the gate was wide open. I’ve got too much work to do, and this is a good place to do it.”

Superintendent Peoples not only encouraged Williams to keep at it but allowed him to pick through the prison junkyard for parts. Williams plunged in, collecting old tractor axles, Ford drive shafts, walnut fence posts and other scrap items that he filed down, pieced together and manipulated to construct half a dozen rifles. Guards stopped by to have Williams work his magic on their guns, too, whenever they needed repairs.

And it was at Caledonia that Williams constructed the prototype of what would become his most influential innovation: the short-stroke piston. In early models of semiautomatic carbine rifles, the entire barrel kicked back almost four inches to hit the breech mechanism. Williams cut that to one-tenth of an inch without losing substantial firepower. “You know how you can hit one croquet ball a long distance by holding your foot on another ball and transmitting the shock of the mallet?” Williams explained to Peoples. “It’s the same idea.” This alteration alone led to the production of a shorter, lighter and more dependable rifle: the M1 carbine.

“I didn’t know it then, of course, but what this young prisoner was telling me that night would one day be considered by firearm experts one of the most revolutionary advances since Browning’s development of the machine gun,” Peoples later wrote.

The notion of a cop-killing inmate assembling a small arsenal of handmade weapons behind bars didn’t sit well 
with some folks, and Peoples was summoned before the North Carolina prison board in Raleigh to explain himself. According to one report, Peoples stated that he was so confident Williams wasn’t plotting to break out that he offered to serve the remainder 
of Williams’ sentence if he did.

That wouldn’t be necessary. Newspaper articles and word of mouth soon transformed the young, self-taught engineer into something of a local hero. By the late 1920s, a number of influential figures had joined Peoples in lobbying Governor Angus McLean to release Williams early: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Sheriff McGeachy and reportedly even Deputy Pate’s widow. On September 29, 1929, almost eight years after his conviction, David Marshall Williams was pardoned.

The Winchester Repeating Arms Company hired Williams after he was released, but corporate life proved almost more arduous to him than prison. Paranoid that his colleagues would steal his ideas and feeling stifled in the bureaucratic environment, Williams became a raving hothead who stormed out of meetings and threatened his colleagues when he felt ignored or underappreciated. Winchester considered firing him but recognized that, despite his tantrums, Williams was a genius.

When the U.S. Ordnance Department requested designs for a “light rifle” prototype, Winchester submitted a semiautomatic carbine that incorporated Williams’ short-stroke piston concept, making the rifle more compact and reliable.

On October 1, 1941, Winchester officially received word that it had won the contract for the M1 carbine. During World War II and the Korean War, an estimated 8 million M1s were produced, more than any other American small arm, and the rifle was widely considered one of the strongest contributing factors in the Allied victory in the Pacific.

By the time Williams died at age 74, he had been credited with dozens of patents and earned numerous awards and tributes. In 1952 the feature film Carbine Williams, starring Jimmy Stewart, was released, and a state marker was erected near Williams’ Godwin home that says: “1900–1975, ‘Carbine’ Williams, designer of short-stroke piston, which made possible M-1 carbine rifle, widely used in WWII.” And, to top it all off, in 1968, ex-felon David Williams was made an honorary deputy U.S. marshal.

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