Wednesday, April 23, 1997

An invention behind bars brings fame

Last of a four-part series

By Pat Reese
Staff writer
Gordon Williams was only 7 years old when they brought his brother home to say goodbye.

The youngster crawled under the house, a favorite hiding place when he was troubled or just wanted to be alone. He peeked through a crack and could see the sheriff’s car coming down the road.

Gordon’s brother, Marshall “Marsh” Williams, was sitting in the back seat, his wrists clamped together with handcuffs. He was on his way to Raleigh to begin serving a 30-year prison term for killing Deputy Al Pate four months before.

Sheriff N.H. McGeachy allowed Marsh’s father, J. Claude Williams, to ride along with his son. A couple of deputies were behind the sheriff in a second car. The two cars stopped in front of the house where Williams’ wife, Maggie, and his mother were waiting.

Gordon, who is 82 now, remembers his mother and his brother’s wife didn’t cry when they went into the house with Marsh. He could hear them talking.

“They waited until Marsh was driven away,” Gordon remembers. “They started crying when the car was out of sight and they cried like I’ve never heard people cry. It went on for a long time.

“And later, sometimes Mama would be in the garden or out in the yard and suddenly start crying,” he said.

Gordon, who was to become a politically influential farmer, does not believe his brother killed Pate.

“He would never talk about it,” Gordon said.

Gordon was the youngest of 11 children. J. Claude Williams’ first wife, Eula Breece, had three children before she died during a flu epidemic. His second wife, Laura Kornegay, had eight children. Marsh was the oldest of Laura’s children.

On to Caledonia

Marsh Williams’ prison sentence took him to the Caledonia maximum-security farm in northeastern North Carolina.

The prison captain, H.T. Peoples, soon learned that Williams had a remarkable talent in the camp’s machine shop. He elevated the prisoner to trusty status and even arranged for him to get the tools and materials he needed to build the carbine rifle that was to make him famous.

Peoples was so impressed with Williams that he contacted Remington Arms Co. and allowed Williams to demonstrate the rifle.

Eventually, the Army adopted his carbine as the standard light weapon for jungle warfare. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the armed forces in the Pacific, said the rifle played a major role in winning the war.

Williams was pardoned by Gov. Angus McLean in 1929 and returned home to Godwin where, with the help of a couple of his brothers, he built a workshop to continue his experiments with weapons. He held about 50 arms patents before he died.

The workshop eventually was dismantled, moved to Raleigh and displayed at the state Museum of History.

Movie premieres

The story of Williams’ life, focused mostly on his invention at Caledonia, was made into a movie, “Carbine Williams,” starring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Jimmy Stewart and Wendell Corey.

The premiere was in Fayetteville on April 24, 1952. Stewart played Williams and Corey played Peoples. Actress Jean Hagen, fresh from a leading role in Gene Kelly’s classic “Singing in the Rain,” played Williams’ wife.

Fayetteville Mayor George Herndon declared April 24 “Carbine Williams Day” and the townspeople held a parade on Hay Street, starting at Robeson Street and ending at the Market Square. Fort Bragg military police carrying carbines marched beside the car in which Williams was riding.

The Observer reported on April 25: “A float which showed two soldiers in a foxhole, each carrying a carbine, which was discharged with blank cartridges during the parade, played up the importance of the carbine to the American army in World II and now in Korea.”

Williams held a noon luncheon at the Prince Charles Hotel. His son, David Marshall Williams Jr., unveiled a portrait of ex-Sheriff McGeachy donated to Cumberland County. It hung for years in the Superior Courtroom of the old Gillespie Street courthouse.

Five searchlights provided by the 88th Engineers from Fort Bragg added a touch of Hollywood to Fayetteville’s first and only movie premiere. “The lights bounced off the low-hanging clouds so as to give the theatre a canopy of light,” The Observer reported.

There were so many people clamoring for tickets at the Colony Theatre that the movie was shown twice, at 7:30 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. Stewart and his leading lady didn’t come to Fayetteville for the premiere, but Corey and another actor, Don Gibson, joined Williams in personal appearances on stage before each showing.

A new nickname

It was after the movie premiere that people everywhere started calling Marsh by the name of “Carbine.”

Williams was a familiar figure in Fayetteville through the 1960s. He often wore high-bib overalls when he rode into Fayetteville. For special occasions, he preferred dark suits with a white western-style Stetson. He sported long sideburns.

Williams carried a pistol much of his life after prison. Fayetteville police picked him up once for having a .357-caliber revolver in his overalls pocket, but the judge threw the case out. He said it wasn’t concealed when the officer admitted he saw a couple of inches of the pistol grip sticking out of Williams’ pocket.

Williams’ hard-drinking lifestyle caught up with him in 1972 and he was committed to Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, where he died of pneumonia on Jan. 8, 1975. He was 74.

The body of Marshall “Carbine” Williams was buried in the family plot at the Old Bluff Cemetery near Wade.

A few years after Williams death, the family of the man he was convicted of killing was still angry. Al Pate had died an honorable lawman, but his killer was the one with the fame.

When Ellen Stevens, Pate’s daughter, died in 1978, a telegram sent to the Fayetteville Observer by Dr. J. Lloyd Pate of Fairmont gave some indication of the Pate family rancor: “Mrs. Stevens is the last surviving offspring of former Deputy Sheriff Alfred Jackson Pate, fatally wounded by Marshall ‘Carbine’ Williams who was convicted of second degree murder, later pardoned and most recently had a day in North Carolina set aside as ‘Carbine Williams Day.’ Mr. Williams has received many other questionable honors. That’s the way it is.”