A railroad police officer who was killed exactly 100 years ago will finally receive recognition by having his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., thanks to the efforts of an historian at the Wilmington Railroad Museum in North Carolina. That research also shed light on the wrongful conviction of an innocent man in the murder case.
Museum volunteer Christine Williams discovered that William C. Callihan, an officer for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Wilmington, did not have his name included on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which honors officers who have died in the line of duty throughout American history. She decided to make sure he got the honor he deserved, and now Callihan will be added to the D.C. memorial for the annual ceremony on May 13, during National Police Week.
Williams, a historian and retired police officer from Appleton, Wisconsin, spent months researching Callihan’s story and the crime that led to his death. She presented her findings to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the nonprofit that runs the memorial, and they accepted them.
Williams was volunteering at the Wilmington Railroad Museum by conducting research for an upcoming exhibit on railroad police.
“This has been a big education for me,” she told the Wilmington Star News. “I didn’t even know railroad police existed until recently.”
Callihan’s murder occurred on February 24, 1923, near Fayetteville, while he was working for the ACL. He was thought have been shot by one or more bootleggers while investigating bags of moonshine whiskey hidden in the woods. A man named John Smith was arrested for the crime, but he was released a few days later.
According to Williams, a Native American man named Joel Levy was eventually arrested and charged with second-degree murder. During his first trial, several people testified to having seen Levy in Fayetteville at the time of the murder. Furthermore, a nurse at the Fayetteville hospital where Callihan was treated said the officer told her before he died that Smith was one who shot him. The case ended in a mistrial, but Levy was eventually convicted of second-degree murder. The police investigation was subsequently criticized for being secretive and for potentially framing Levy.
Williams interviewed Callihan’s granddaughter, Barbara Capps of Fayetteville, who remembered hearing her grandmother say, “The Indian didn’t do it.” Williams said she plans to work towards getting Levy pardoned.
Holli Saperstein, executive director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum, expressed regret that it took 100 years for Callihan to be recognized and said the museum plans to feature him in a future exhibit.
“It feels like one of those true-crime dramas,” Saperstein said of the story.
She noted that Callihan is already honored on law enforcement memorials at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh and in Cumberland County, where he lived and was a deputy sheriff in addition to his ACL duties.
The Wilmington Railroad Museum, established in 1979, is located in downtown Wilmington in an old ACL freight office that dates back to 1883. The museum preserves the history of the ACL and the history of railroads in Wilmington and the southeastern United States.