They called it “Little Alcatraz,” an escape-proof prison with steel walls, steel doors and concrete floors – a lockup so secure that no one guard carried all the keys.
Then in 1959, a lifelong jailbird from Wilmington who’d already escaped confinement six times, once by dangling out a 60-foot-high window on a string of bedsheets, busted loose from North Carolina’s toughest fortress.
Charles “Yank” Stewart, 52 at the time, led a gang of 20 felons through the gates at Ivy Bluff, a breakout still unequaled in state history. This ill-famed achievement stands as the greatest pulled off by a jailhouse Houdini who hacksawed his way through bars and overpowered guards with guns made out of soap.
And now, 58 years later, North Carolina will sell this once-famous slammer to the highest bidder. Closed since 1999, renamed Blanch Correctional, the crumbling Caswell County penitentiary 75 miles northwest of Raleigh stands riddled with asbestos and lead paint. A 2015 appraisal done for the state described the property as having no market value and suggested hunting land or an all-terrain vehicle park as a potential use.
But by folklore’s measure, the 23-acre property is priceless – an unmarked monument to one of the greatest criminal capers the state has seen and, amazingly, got nobody hurt.
“I’ll escape again,” Stewart once taunted, “the first damned chance I get.”
Stewart’s family came to Wilmington from West Virginia in 1911, seeking fresh air and the abundance of coastal life. More fish than you can catch, the father promised a young “Yank.”
But C.W. Stewart fell into moonshining, lured by fat profits of Prohibition days. Sugar sold for 4.5 cents a pound, and a batch of white lightning brought $10. The otherwise pious patriarch fell so heavy into illegal booze traffic that in 1924, he and his elder son Elmer shot a Wilmington revenuer and a deputy U.S. marshal – a crime that earned them the death penalty despite a jury’s vote for mercy.
Seeing his father and brother die in the state’s electric chair sent “Yank,” a fourth-grade dropout, down a troubled road.
“It’s because the public can be so nasty,” his sister Gertrude told The N&O in 1962. “I think he is condemned more on his father’s account more than anything else.”
The strangest thing about “Yank” Stewart’s criminal history is it contains so little violence. The man the state prison called its “number one tough guy” mostly robbed grocery stores and stole cars, never causing a serious injury. “He wasn’t a drunk, either,” added his first wife, “Tiny.”
Throughout the 1930s, he broke out of a New Hanover County prison camp, a Virginia prison and a road gang in Wayne County. He fled a crew hoeing corn in Halifax County and took two bullets from guards, one in the stomach and one in the thigh. He darted out a cell door while a delivery man dropped off heating oil.
“He never did like to be tied down,” said his brother Anthony.
Then in September of 1959, “Yank” and another inmate sawed through the bars of the infirmary at Central Prison in Raleigh and lowered themselves down from a 63-foot window. They dyed their bedsheets purple to blend in with the brick walls at night, coloring them with a salve used for bruises. They carried a pair of bunk bed ladders, taped together to help them climb over a 7-foot wall. None of the guards saw them until they were nearly at the fence, and one guard was too busy drying his pants after stepping in a puddle of water.
“Desperation and devil-may-care courage,” wrote N&O columnist A.C. Snow, then of the Raleigh Times, “... and a sheer life-or-death gamble.”
“Yank” Stewart was captured 10 days later at a gas station in Guilford County, landing him in Ivy Bluff. Built in 1956 to house the toughest of the tough, it took only 30 to 40 prisoners out of 10,000 statewide and placed them in a far-flung corner of the state, not far from the Virginia line along the Dan River. Even today, the appraisal notes, Caswell County remains so rural that only 22 percent of its residents work inside the county.
Nine steel doors separated Stewart from freedom. Inmates worked in a nearby rock quarry, and they were strip-searched each time they left and came back. Inside its walls, Stewart threatened a hunger strike. He slammed his hand in his cell door to earn a trip to the hospital. He called himself “the most persecuted prisoner.”
And 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.
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 might have a better ending if Stewart had stayed at large. But he lasted only a few days before wrecking a stolen car in Virginia, where he told authorities, “I was going to North Carolina to talk to Governor (Luther) Hodges ... I wanted to tell him to do something about Ivy Bluff. ... They treat men like cattle.”
Stewart passed 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.
Ivy Bluff got a new name in 1963 and a facelift in 1967, adding a second story. The inmate population changed, too, first to prisoners too sick to work and then to youth offenders. A metal processing plant got added in 1971, and it remains on the property in poor condition.
But whoever buys the property, with the paint peeling on the bars and the wasps infesting the guard towers, will inherit the legend of a man who would not stay caged, no matter how thick the steel.
Want to buy it?
Bids on the Blanch Correctional property will be received until the end of Jan. 31. They may be delivered to the State Property Office, Room 4055, Administration Building, 116 West Jones St., Raleigh, N.C., 27603-8003 or mailed to Director, State Property Office, Administration Building, 1321 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-1321. For more information, go to www.ncspo.org.