Dr. Isaac “Cam” Anderson, brother of Bristol’s Mayor Anderson, wedded a Gate City beauty named Mary Nelms in October of 1901. He moved to Gate City and became the most prominent physician in the Virginia town. He gained an impressive reputation after successfully treating many lawmen seriously wounded during shootouts with regional outlaws.
Sadly, Anderson was also attacked by a lawless individual, and possibly a number of them. He was found in December of 1906, his body covered in blood. His wife stood behind her family’s claim that it was suicide.
They told an elaborate tale of suicide, complete with Anderson claiming, “I’ll be in hell in 10 minutes.” One of the many problems was that Anderson chose a most bizarre method for self-destruction. Despite his extensive knowledge of the human body, and easy access to dangerously toxic substances, the Nelms assured authorities that Anderson bled to death from a deep, self-inflicted, cut on his upper arm.
The authorities did not investigate before the jury’s verdict. The Nelms family assured everyone it was a simple suicide and their word was taken on faith. That faith grew shaky when the maid cleaned the room where the death occurred. She lifted a carpet and found a surgical instrument with blood encrusted on it.
The case was presented to the coroner’s jury. Everyone believed the jury would return a verdict of suicide. It shocked the region when they returned a verdict of murder, and suspicion fell upon 21-year-old James “Jim” Nelms, Anderson’s brother-in-law. The Nelms family adamantly clung to their story, but it showed signs of wear. They first claimed they didn’t see Anderson at all that evening and didn’t know what he was doing until it was too late. They then saw him, just for a moment. The small details continued to change as time passed.
The authorities initially believed the murderer had the key to Anderson’s pharmacy, where Anderson kept medical supplies and surgical instruments. They assumed the person with the key would be the culprit, and the Nelms family supported it. Of course, none of the Nelms produced the key, and the defense later suggested the lack of a key was a certain sign of innocence.
James Nelms was served with a warrant before the end of December. The defense was stunned when the prosecution presented an unexpected “smoking gun.” Alexander Anderson, the doctor’s brother and mayor of Bristol himself, was among the first people on the scene after the dying man was discovered. Dr. Anderson was still conscious. Alexander testified that his brother revealed, “Jim Nelms stabbed me.” Cam then said Mary, his wife, and her mother held him down so Jim could open the artery in his arm.
The Nelms family encountered unexpected facts several times through the trial. Several medical professionals testified it was physically impossible to inflict such a wound upon oneself. Other witnesses testified that Anderson regularly lived in fear for his life. He’d previously told several close friends he believed his brother-in-law would kill him.
Nelms was found guilty, but only sentenced to one year in prison. Regardless of what he did or did not admit, it was established that Anderson and Nelms fought just before the murder occurred. Perhaps the most baffling element is the family’s persistence in claiming an obvious murder was suicide.