Many pages of history have been recorded from old epitaphs of tombstones which frequently reveal not only a person’s death but how and whether the end was peaceful. Some inscriptions often comment on the deceased’s virtues, or lack thereof, of local natives in the community. When foul play is involved, the victim’s tombstone may name the murderer and calls on the passerby to associate that name with the viciousness that resulted in a person’s death.
Henry Lawrence Nelson’s tombstone located in Nelson’s Chapel Cemetery in Lenoir, North Carolina stood in mute accusation of an innocent man for nearly half a century.
Henry Lawrence Nelson (December 16, 1880 – September 25, 1906) was tragically murdered when he was just 25 years old. He mysteriously disappeared one day after work only to be found two months later when a hunter discovered his skeletal remains in a shallow grave. His grief-stricken father, Rev. John Nelson placed an advertisement in the local newspaper for a $100 reward for information leading to Nelson’s death. His roommate, Charles Hamilton “Hamp” Kendall and his friend John Vickers were suspected of the murder because they were the last two people seen with Nelson. The circumstantial evidence showed that Kendall and Vickers were absent from work that day which led police to become suspicious of their involvement.
It was the damaging testimony from two teenage girls, Omah Grier and Maggie Lewis, who claimed the two men paid both of them to lure Nelson to a designated campfire in the woods. After the two women left, they claimed to hear shots fired and so they ran away from the area. They claimed that both of the men were jealous of Nelson. She stated that the two men warned her that if she testified against them that they would murder her too. Other witnesses came forward and stated they saw Nelson, Kendall and Vickers walking together the morning Nelson disappeared.
Both of the accused men denied any involvement in the death of Lawrence Nelson but were convicted of murder in the second degree in March 1907. Kendall was sentenced to 30 years in prison and Vickers was sentenced to 26 years. Vickers sentence was less because the court took into consideration his previous honorable service in the Army. Both men appealed the conviction but it was denied.
Nelson’s father had his tombstone inscribed with the phrase “Robbed and murdered by Hamp Kendall and John Vickers”. It would be years later that those inscribed words would cause just as much gossip as the crime itself!
Both men spent the next 10 years in prison until Omah’s guilty conscious got the best of her. She confided in her mother that she lied on the witness stand and gave false testimony. Further investigation was conducted into the case of Nelson’s death which led to the arrest of Sam Green, a night watchman, and his cousin Omah Grier were tried for Nelson’s murder but were acquitted of the charges in 1908.
In 1917 another investigation ordered by Governor Thomas Walter Bickett concluded that, although Green and Grier had been acquitted, Sam Green had murdered Lawrence Nelson and Omah Grier had assisted Green in framing Kendall and Vickers. Kendall and Vickers were then released and received full pardons from Governor Bickett on April 3, 1917. Vickers died shortly after his release. Five years after Kendall and Vickers were granted pardons, Green confessed to the murder of Nelson and then committed suicide.
Although Hamp Kendall was an innocent man and his reputation had been repaired, the years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit could never be restored. Kendall heard about the tombstone while he was in prison. After his release, his friends took him to see the grave and he was heartbroken. Kendall had considered Nelson one of his best friends. Kendall approached the authorities of Caldwell County to have the tombstone taken down because he was innocent of the crime and the inscription was slanderous to his reputation. But county officials took no action regarding his request.
Kendall then wrote a letter to Governor Gregg Cherry protesting against the epitaph. But the Governor replied to Kendall that he was powerless to do anything and that relatives of the deceased would be the only parties who could take action. Kendal spent many years following his release seeking to have his name removed from Nelson’s tombstone.
In 1947, Kendall received $4,912.56 in compensation from the North Carolina legislature as a result of a bill introduced in the General Assembly by Senator Max Wilson. With the help of Senator Wilson, a bill was passed by the NC General Assembly that would make it illegal to erect or maintain a gravestone bearing an inscription charging anyone with the commission of a crime. This forced the cemetery to remove the tombstone to avoid criminal charges.
The bill was passed as a personal favor for Hamp Kendall who was 74 years old at the time. He passed away in 1969 at the ripe old age of 91 and hopefully now rest in peace knowing his reputation was restored.
By Hope Thompson
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