Payne reflects on his past - and where he went wrong
CHAPTER FIVE: LOOKING BACK
Isolated in a small, austere jail cell on Death Row, only a short walk from the Central Prison gas chamber he’d been sentenced to die in, Bill Payne had time to think.
Time to reflect on the lifelong odyssey — including a 16-year life of crime — that had led him to Death Row, awaiting his probable execution. Time to think about the roads he could’ve taken — should’ve taken — but didn’t.
“I took a bad road to get started on,” Payne told a reporter, though it’s also fair to point out he was born into difficult circumstances. His father, Elisha, died in June 1896 — some 2½ months before Bill was born — so the son grew up without that fatherly influence in the home.
Raised on a farm in the Bunker Hill community near Kernersville, Payne and his family moved to High Point when he was still young. As a youth, he worked at Piedmont Hosiery Mill to help provide for the family, then registered for World War I in June 1917. Until that time, he showed no signs of being a bad egg — he didn’t drink or curse, for example.
It was after he returned from the war, when jobs were hard to come by, that Payne began having run-ins with the law, primarily charges of vagrancy. He spent his days gambling in local poolrooms, then got involved in liquor trafficking.
Payne turned to harder crimes in 1921, when he was sentenced to serve 2½-3 years for stealing an automobile in Surry County. He served his time, but it was a long enough sentence to turn him against the concept of jail time. When he was incarcerated for subsequent crimes — mostly bank robberies — he escaped time after time, including his daring prison break from Caledonia.
Meanwhile, a High Point family watched helplessly as Payne bounced from one crime to the next, from one prison to the next, falling ever deeper into a pit of lawlessness. His mother, Emma Payne, ran a boarding house in High Point with Bill’s sister, Minnie. Another sister, Christina, got married and moved to Indiana, but no doubt received family updates on Bill’s troubles.
Payne also had a wife, Wilma Montgomery Payne, whom he married in his early 20s. Though they never divorced, they didn’t live together for very long. They had a daughter, Lucile, who was sent at a very young age to live with her aunt, Christina, in Indiana; and a son, Harry, who grew up in High Point and lives here still. Neither of the children had a relationship with their father.
“My daddy was never in my life, period,” says Harry Payne, now 89. “I have no memories of him at all from when I was growing up.”
He knew who his father was, though, and he remembers hearing about all the trouble he and Wash Turner got into in 1937.
“I was working at the old Leonard Drugstore at the time,” Harry says. “All the papers were full of stories about him every day.”
Harry became a respectable citizen despite his father’s absence in his life. He served in the Marines during World War II — and earned a Purple Heart when he was wounded at Okinawa — then returned to High Point, where he married, raised a family and earned a solid living in the lumber industry.
He rarely spoke of his father to anyone, hoping to protect his family from ridicule. And when his mother died in the early 1980s, he made a conscious decision to bury his father’s existence for good.
“When my mama died, we had an auction at her house, and my wife found this box of stuff — pictures and letters and stuff like that — and she said, ‘Whatcha wanna do with this?’” Harry recalls. “And I said, ‘I don’t care what you do with it.’ So she said, ‘We’re gonna burn it. We’re gonna end this chapter of your life for good.’ So we burned it, the whole box. I don’t even have a picture of my father.”
It’s clear that for most of his life, Harry has given little thought to the father he never knew. One can only wonder, though, whether Bill Payne — sitting on Death Row, contemplating the waywardness of his life and the likelihood of his impending death — gave thought to the son he never knew. Did he regret not being involved in his son’s life? Did he wonder what kind of man his son would become? Did he consider writing him a letter, telling him how sorry he was for abandoning him and urging him not to make the same mistakes he’d made?
What is known is that Payne reconciled with his heartbroken mother after his capture by the FBI. When he was locked up in Asheville awaiting trial, Emma Payne first sent a letter to her son — she enlisted a High Point Enterprise reporter to hand-deliver it to him — and she later visited him. She also maintained a constant presence during the trial and visited her son several times on Death Row.
She held onto slim hope when the N.C. Supreme Court agreed to review Payne and Turner’s appeal, pushing back his execution date. The court ultimately denied the appeal, though, and the executions were set for July 1. Only an intervention by Gov. Clyde Hoey would save them now, and that didn’t seem likely.
Sure enough, on June 22, Hoey announced there would be no clemency for the two prisoners.
“From the time they left Caledonia until they were finally arrested at Sanford, each step carried them logically toward the death penalty that they now face,” Hoey said in a lengthy statement. “They did not merely escape from prison — they really declared war on society.”
Payne received the news calmly, telling a reporter, “I don’t see that anything can be done.”
Nonetheless, on June 28, a delegation of about 30 relatives and friends of Payne and Turner — including Payne’s mother and sister, Minnie — came to Raleigh and pleaded for mercy at a hearing. However, Paroles Commissioner Edwin Gill gave no indication that the executions would be stayed.
July 1 loomed, and the die had been cast.
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