WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — A railroad police officer who was murdered a century ago will be honored in Washington, D.C., this year thanks to research done by a Wilmington museum.
Holli Saperstein, executive director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum, said the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., recently notified her that William C. Callihan’s name will be added to the memorial during a ceremony scheduled for May 13 in Washington.
Saperstein said that in the course of doing research on railroad police for an upcoming museum exhibit, a volunteer, Christine Williams, discovered that Callihan, who was a police officer for the Wilmington-based Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL), did not have his name included on the memorial.
Callihan is already honored on law enforcement memorials at the state capitol in Raleigh and in Cumberland County, where he lived and was a deputy sheriff, in addition to his ACL duties. He was killed near Fayetteville on Feb. 24, 1923.
Williams is a “historian and retired police officer who spent months researching and documenting the crime and Callihan’s story,” Saperstein said. “She made it her calling.”
A resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, Williams began volunteering at the Railroad Museum in January of 2022 when she spent the winter in Wilmington, where her husband works.
“This has been a big education for me,” Williams said, in that while she’d volunteered for museums and done historical research in Wisconsin, she’d never delved into railroad history specifically. “I didn’t even known railroad police existed until recently.”
She presented her findings to the nonprofit that runs the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which accepted them. The names of several ACL police officers killed in the line of duty are on the memorial, but Callihan’s wasn’t. Established in 1984, the memorial honors more than 23,000 U.S. law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty throughout American history.
A tragic tale
The story of Callihan’s murder is a tragic one, a tale of multiple lives needlessly ruined by violence, greed and possibly racism and a wrongful conviction.
“It feels like one of those true-crime dramas,” Saperstein said.
According to a Fayetteville Observer article from 1980, Callihan, a special deputy for the ACL’s railroad police, was in the woods with two friends when he saw two men drive up, get out of the car and hide several large bags in the woods. Those bags turned out to be filled with jars of moonshine whiskey.
Prohibition was in effect in 1923 and possessing or consuming alcohol was outlawed. The manufacture, distribution and sale of illegal alcohol, known as “bootlegging,” was a potentially lucrative and risky pastime, both for those who engaged in it and those who tried to stop it.
While Callihan was investigating the hidden bags, the bootleggers returned and one of them shot Callihan, who died four hours later in a Fayetteville hospital. A man named John Smith was quickly arrested for the crime.
Things then took a turn. A few days after his arrest, Smith, who was white, was released and a man named Joel Levy, a Native American descended from the Croatan tribe that once inhabited Cumberland, Sampson, and Harnett counties, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
During Levy’s first trial, several people, including a police officer, testified to having seen Levy in Fayetteville at the time of the murder. In addition, a nurse at the Fayetteville hospital where Callihan was taken said the officer told her before he died that Smith was the person who shot him.
That trial ended in a mistrial, but the second time he was tried Levy was convicted of second-degree murder. Smith was never prosecuted.
According to The Fayetteville Observer story from 1980, the paper in 1923 “was sharply critical” of the police investigation of the shooting, “accusing the (department) of cloaking their inquiry with unexplained secrecy.”
One of Levy’s defense attorneys, a man named J. Bayard Clark, who would later be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, said publicly that “Joel Levy was brought into court by one of the most diabolical frame-ups ever hatched in Cumberland County.”
Williams interviewed Callihan’s granddaughter, Barbara Capps of Fayetteville, in the course of her research. (Newspaper accounts of the day spelled the slain officer’s name as “Callahan,” which is how it’s spelled on the memorials in Raleigh and Cumberland County. Capps spells the family name “Callihan.”)
“My next step I would like to take would be to work with someone to try to get Levy pardoned,” Williams said. The Wilmington Railroad Museum, established in 1979, preserves the history of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and the history of railroads in Wilmington and the southeastern United States. It’s located on Nutt Street in downtown Wilmington, in an old ACL freight office that dates to 1883.
“We’re going to definitely feature something about” Callihan in a future exhibit, Saperstein said. “It’s too bad it’s taken 100 years.”