Found  /  Explainer

A Murderous Gravestone Grudge Carved a New Law Into Stone

When murder won’t rest in peace.

Up a gravel road running behind the Nelson’s Chapel church in Lenoir, North Carolina, sits a small cemetery. For about 50 years, one of the stones, marking the grave of twenty-five-year-old Lawrence Nelson, had a remarkable inscription beneath his name: “Murdered and robbed by Hamp Kendall and John Vickers, Sept. 25, 1906.” It’s not every day that a tombstone accuses people of murder.

Hamp Kendall and John Vickers had initially been imprisoned for Nelson’s killing—but it turns out both men were proven innocent. After their 1907 convictions, a fight followed over the next few decades about the men involved, the murder itself, and the accusatory epitaph that attempted to seal the blame in stone.

It turns out words carved onto a tombstone do matter. The fight surrounding this gravestone and the repercussions that followed have echoed far beyond the grave—and into the legal system today.

It all started in 1906, when young Lawrence Nelson, member of a prominent family, went missing. A few months later, someone came across the body. Charles Hampton “Hamp” Kendall, a local barber’s assistant, and a man named John Vickers had both shared a roominghouse with Nelson.

At the 1907 trial, the chief witness against Kendall and Vickers was a 14-year-old girl named Omah Grier (variously spelled). “Grier claimed that she and her friend, Maggie Lewis, had been paid by Kendall and Vickers to lure Nelson to a designated spot in the woods,” wrote Meghan Cousino, Executive Director of the National Registry of Exonerations Foundation, on the registry’s website. She then said that while the young women were fleeing, they heard gunshots. Kendall took the stand to deny his involvement, but both he and Vickers were convicted of second-degree murder and received sentences of thirty and twenty-six years, respectively.

Lawrence’s father, the Rev. John Hugh Nelson, who ran the church where his son was buried, had the gravestone inscribed with the accusation shortly thereafter. “Most cemeteries would not allow that,” says Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest Law School, North Carolina and co-author of the legal text Cemetery Law—whether or not it was considered legal at the time. The Rev. Nelson likely had a “conflict of interest,” Marsh says, since being both the father of the victim and the owner of the graveyard added an extra complication to what was allowed on the gravestone. The reverend died in 1915.

Then in 1917, Governor Thomas Walter Bickett granted pardons to Kendall and Vickers, expressing grave doubt of their guilt. Omah Grier, he said, was an unreliable witness. Other eyewitness testimony contradicted Grier’s, and the girl’s mother had confided to the governor that Grier had admitted lying at the trial.