Behind the Carbine Williams Story

Past Times – by T. Leonard

Visitors to the NC Museum of History who view the workshop of inventor David Marshall “Carbine” Williams get only a glimpse of the colorful character who died 37 years ago this month.

Raleigh Times staff writer D.I. Strunk described some of the story in Williams’ obituary.

He was a colorful backwoods man turned inventor-genius. But he also was a man who lost his freedom and then regained it, in a sense, with guns.  

In 1940, in 14 days, he developed the weapon that became the M-1 Carbine. He was honored by the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who praised the weapon Williams invented as “one of our strongest contributing  factors to our victory in the Pacific.”

A motion picture, “Carbine Williams,” released in 1952 and starring Jimmy Stewart, was based on Williams’ life. 

It was a life that grew out of a large family of 11 children on a plantation in the backwoods country close to Godwin. But the first crucial event in Willams’ life came when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy during a raid on Williams’ still.

He served his time in Caledonia State Prison, where he made his first real gun, a .22 rifle. He made the gunstock by hand from a walnut fence post and the barrel from a discarded Ford axle.

It was an improvement over the guns he had fashioned as a boy on his father’s farm.

Those early guns were made from the reeds that people also used as fishing poles. He would wind his mother’s sewing thread around the reed give it a coat of shellac and repeat the process several times until the gun barrel was made. 

He would whittle the stock out of juniper wood and fasten the firing hammer to the stock by a shingle nail. It all operated by rubber bands. 

His fascination with guns continued to grow. After quitting school in the seventh grade, he began to roam.

At 15 he lied about his age and joined the Navy. He was discharged, but his military experience inspired him to enroll in a military institute in Virginia.

This soon palled and, at 17, he married his school sweetheart, Margaret Isabella Cook, and took a job on the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad as a section hand.

But the railroad paid only $1.40 a day, and he quit after a year to become a bootlegger.

Then, on the morning of July 22, 1921, came the sheriff’s raid on his still in Cumberland County and the killing of the deputy. To his dying day, Williams denied he killed him.

Initially, Williams was far from a model prisoner. He gained a bad reputation from several attempts to escape. He was sent to Caledonia and there met the man who provided the turning point of his life.

That man was Capt. H.T. Peoples, in charge of Caledonia prison, who encouraged and helped Williams in his experimental work with rifles.

His work eventually gained attention in the press. In September of 1929, four years after developing a .30 caliber rapid-fire rifle that was a forerunner of the Carbine, Williams was pardoned by Gov. Angus W. McLean. — The Raleigh Times 1/8/1975

Carbine Williams describes prison conditions in the 1920s.

Williams became something of a folk hero, especially after the release of the movie. This 1952 press release breathlessly described its local premiere.

David Marshall Williams of Autreyville will return to Central Prison tomorrow.

This visit will be a lot different from the one he made 31 years ago, however. On November 21, 1921, Williams — then 21 years old — walked through Central Prison’s gates on the losing end of a 30-year sentence for second degree murder. Tomorrow “Carbine” Williams, a millionaire inventor, will walk through those same prison gates as the hero of a story that makes Horatio Alger’s yarns sound about as exciting as a Mother Goose rhyme.

Williams will be on hand … for a special showing of the M-G-M motion picture of his life. The picture was premiered at Fayetteville last night, and tomorrow’s showing to North Carolina “big house” occupants will be the second.

The picture tells how Williams was making the best corn liquor in Cumberland County when a raiding party paid his still a visit. In the ensuing row, a revenuer was killed, and Williams — protesting his innocence — was convicted of the death and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Williams served part of his time at Central Prison, while now Assistant Prisons Director H.H. Honeycutt was assistant warden there. Then he was transferred to Caledonia Prison Farm, where Captain H.T. Peoples let him design his famous carbine while working in the blacksmith shop. Williams … had his sentence commuted … and walked out of prison a free man on September 29, 1929.

Arms manufacturers gobbled up Williams’ patents and ideas, particularly that of his rapid-fire, lightweight carbine. Uncle Sam was interested, too — so much that some 8,000,000 of Williams’ carbines were used in World War II and now is the most widely-used weapon by United Nation forces in Korea.

Williams became wealthy, but his story remained untold until his son came home one day wanting to know if it was true he had been in prison. The inventor called in his old friend, Captain Peoples, to tell the story to his son. Fayetteville writer-photographer Fay Ridenhour heard and wrote about “Carbine” Williams for a nationally -circulated magazine, then Hollywood and M-G-M stepped in.

The result is the picture “Carbine Williams” starring Jimmy Stewart… which will be shown at central Prison to the prisoners tomorrow afternoon.

Invited guests for the prison showing of the picture include Captain Peoples, who played a leading role in the rehabilitation of Williams; Assistant Prisons Director Honeycutt, and, of course, Williams.

Tomorrow, when he walks through the Central Prison gates, David Marshall Williams … undoubtedly will remember a trip through the big house gates 31 years ago when he was Convict No. 17758 with 30 years to go. — release by NC State Highway and Public Works Commission

In 1971, Williams’ workshop and part of his firearms collection were donated to the state history museum. The General Assembly honored him in a joint resolution congratulating him “for overcoming misfortunes which might have broken weaker men.”

Photos courtesy of NC State Archives

But Williams’ life continued to be controversial. He died at Dorothea Dix Hospital in 1975, having been a patient in the geriatrics ward there since 1972. Following his death, a Hollywood actress claimed to have been his mistress in the 1950s and threatened to publish a book about him, which Mrs. Williams criticized as “a smutty idea.” The family of Al Pate, the sheriff’s deputy Williams was convicted of killing, continued to resent the notoriety Williams enjoyed in his later years.

In 1952, Williams’ side of the story was published in The Charlotte Observer.

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