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 quickly gained an impressive reputation after he fixed many injuries sustained by lawmen after raids and shootouts with regional outlaws.
Sadly, Dr. Anderson found himself attacked by a seemingly lawless individual. His bloody and lifeless body was found in December of 1906. His wife and her family declared it was suicide. At least, they told the authorities it was a suicide. Dr. Anderson chose a bizarre method of taking his own life. Despite his extensive knowledge of the human body and incredibly experience, the Nelms family assured authorities he bled to death from a deep, yet self-inflicted, cut on his arm.
The case was presented to the coroner’s jury, and most believed they would return a verdict of suicide. It shocked the region when they returned a verdict of murder and the suspicion fell upon 21-year-old James “Jim” Nelms, Dr. Anderson’s brother-in-law. The Nelms family remained adamant about their story, but it began to show signs of wear. They first claimed they didn’t see Dr. Anderson at all that evening and didn’t know what he was doing, until it was too late.
There wasn’t a great deal of investigation before the jury’s verdict. The Nelms family assured authorities it was a simple suicide and their word had been taken with faith. That faith became shaky after a cleaning lady came to clear the room where the death had occurred. She lifted a carpet and found a surgical instrument with blood encrusted on it.
The authorities then believed the person who committed the murder had the key to Dr. Anderson’s pharmacy, where he kept his medical supplies and surgical instruments. Authorities assumed the person with the key would be the culprit, and the defense supported it. Of course, none of the Nelms had the key, so the defense suggested that not having the key was a sure sign of innocence.
James Nelms was served with a warrant before the end of December. The 21-year-old was to go on trial. Unfortunately, for the Nelms family, the prosecution had an eyewitness. Alexander Anderson, Cam’s brother, was the first person on the scene after he was discovered. Dr. Anderson was still conscious. Alexander told the crowded courtroom that his brother said, “Jim Nelms stabbed me.” He added that Dr. Anderson’s wife and mother-in-law held him so Jim could cut him.
The Nelms family was hit a number of times while in court. Various medical professionals testified it was impossible to inflict such a wound would upon oneself. Other witnesses testified that Dr. Anderson lived in fear for his life. He’d told several close friends he believed his brother-in-law would kill him.
Nelms was ruled guilty, but was only sentenced to one year in prison. Regardless of what the Nelms did or did not admit, it was established that Cam and Jim were fighting before the crime occurred.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect is the family’s attempt to claim the incident was suicide, despite the doctor having easy access to far more efficient tools of self-destruction.