Monday, April 13, 2020

The Hickory Nut Hunters - A Brutal Murder Beside the Maymont Fence Remains Unsolved After a Hundred Years


Major Dooley's estate beside the
grid of the streets of Randolph and Riverview.


On a Thursday afternoon, October 21, 1915, a group of vultures lazily floated in the air above the Kanawha Canal where it passes below Maymont, the estate of Major Dooley and his wife. From their vantage point the birds could see the rocks that broke up the river flow, the quiet canal paralleling the railroad tracks stretching into the distance, and below them, Major Dooley’s new Japanese Gardens. The skyline was broken only by the conical roofs of Maymont itself to the north. The vultures’ attention, whoever, was focused on something far smaller: a spot of color glimpsed in the woods below, the pervasive odor of decay, and the promise of carrion.

Three young men from the nearby Randolph neighborhood watched the vultures circling nearer and nearer the ground in the distance and decided to find what attracted the birds.  John Rowe, Thomas Sanders, and George Martin were in the area ostensibly hunting hickory nuts in the largely undeveloped area at the end of Meadow Street, next to the river. It was Fall and with cooling weather a good time to gather and roast the nuts.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 21, 1915.

What they found was the body of fifty-one-year-old painter from Knoxville named William Hamilton las he lay in shade below the towering hickories, his body practically touching the board fence that ran down this edge of the Maymont grounds.  He had been beaten to the point his brains were scattered around his shattered head, wounds so awful an arc of blood was found thrown onto the nearby plank fence.  In addition, Hamilton had been stabbed several times in the neck with a large pocketknife which was later found in the bushes nearby.  Despite his head and chest being a broken, bloody mess, some determined individual had bent over him, pried William Hamilton’s jaw open, and shoved a handkerchief so far down his throat it couldn’t be seen in his mouth. 

In chilling contrast to the fury that had been unleashed on Hamilton, his body was carefully arranged, legs straightened out, clothes put in order and arms arranged neatly folded across the dead man’s chest.  The tidiness of the body’s staging and the dreadful rage on the part of the killer was a paradox that hinted at best some relationship with the killer or killers, and at worst, the work of a homicidal maniac on the streets of Richmond.

The three men were aghast at the discovery of the bloated and bloody mess they discovered and ran off down Meadow Street until they reached the house of A. L. Ford, who had a telephone in his home and so summoned the police. 

Hamilton’s battered body was removed and examined by City Coroner William Taylor, who noted on the death certificate that Hamilton died of “homicidal blows on his head and other homicidal injuries.” In addition to the crushed skull and neck wounds, Hamilton was found to have a shattered left wrist, perhaps a defensive wound to ward off the blows that killed him.  So firmly jammed in the victim, the cloth or handkerchief that was in Hamilton’s throat had to be removed by the Coroner with a pair of pliers. The body was eventually removed to Oakwood Cemetery where it was buried in an unmarked grave in a section for the indigent. 


One of the theories put forward by the authorities to explain the extreme violence of William Hamilton’s murder.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 26, 1915.

The police were frustrated by bewildering clues as to who murdered William Hamilton and first spoke with Bertha Nemee, who was not only the dead man’s landlady but also claimed to be his half-niece. She said Hamilton had been staying at her house on Taylor Street for several months since she was notified that her husband, a German soldier, had been killed in the war in Europe. Nemee said she had not seen Hamilton since the previous Sunday, when he was asked to go downtown to pick up a prescription for paregoric, a small vial of which was one of the few things left in Hamilton’s rifled pants pockets. She said he was in the habit of carrying a large amount of money around and Hamilton also owned a pocket watch, all of which was gone from the crime scene. 

Coroner Taylor was of the opinion that Hamilton’s death was not a case of simple robbery and murder, but rather a case of jealous rage – only rage could explain the viciousness of  Hamilton’s many and varied wounds, and the handkerchief jammed down his throat was proof positive of the mindset of the killer. The Coroner believed only this degree of berserk jealousy would yield such horrific wounds on the victim.  Richmond police, on the other hand, theorized that a gang of “hoodlums” had followed Hamilton into the woods and killed him for the money he was known to carry, maybe in the course of a craps game. Part of this reasoning was the fact Hamilton was a large, muscular man who would have taken more than one assailant to overcome. This still did not explain the unnecessary violence on the body, as the Coroner found either the head or neck wounds would have killed Hamilton and he was already dead when the cloth was forced down his throat.

By October 26, little progress had been made.  The police issued a statement that the instrument used to bash in Hamilton’s head was actually a piece of the Maymont fence, found broken and covered with blood.  Police described the splash of blood on the fence itself, maybe from the knife wounds to the neck.  Another report was circulating that Hamilton had been shooting craps with other individuals, and in that context had been assaulted and robbed of the $65 he was known to have on him when he left the house on Sunday.  The investigators had to concede that “the fact that considerable brutality was shown in murdering Hamilton is regarded by the police as the only weak part in the robbery theory.”

From Richmond-Times Dispatch, October 28, 1915.


Two days later an article ran in the Times-Dispatch: “Was Hamilton’s Death Caused by Insane Man?” The motive of jealously was by then ruled out, replaced by the theory that only someone criminally insane would kill with such fury and yet take the time to arrange Hamilton’s body neatly before they left. This paradox was first thought to represent the presence of more than one killer – one who actually murdered Hamilton and another person who performed the tidying up of the scene. “However, it is pointed out, that such actions are entirely possible in the case of a maniac…” The police remained without much more to go on, other than pure speculation as to Hamilton’s killer or killers who were either homicidal maniacs or robbers who left no witnesses.

…. And then the story ended. The years closed around the death of William Hamilton and his blue-collar Randolph neighborhood where he once lived moved on. No suspect was brought forward and all possible leads settled into silence and William Hamilton was quickly forgotten. Hickory trees along the bank of the James produced their annual crops, but few those who gathered them in this quiet and largely undeveloped part of Richmond may have recalled the shocking murder. 

While Randolph itself and further south the neighborhoods of Harvietown and Riverview were largely blue-collar workers like Hamilton, the painter, there was an undercurrent of low-grade crime that continually furnished items for the local newspaper, some of which were the same group that discovered Hamilton’s body. In July 1915, George Martin, one of the “hickory nut gatherers” was back in the news as one of the occupants of a stolen car that wrecked at a gate of a Richmond cemetery. The following July, Martin faced two charges for selling cigars in the street. In 1917 Martin was arrested for stealing bottles of milk, and when examined by the police was found to have bootleg whiskey in his pockets. 

One of George Martin’s contemporaries was Carlisle Noel, who was born in Richmond in 1894. Carlisle and his brother Leon were among the rough-and-tumble residents of Randolph with various brushes with the law.  Married in 1916, by 1920, Carlisle was listed as a bricklayer who lived in his parent’s house on Taylor street. He first appears in court in Richmond in January 1916, when Carlisle and Frick Alfren were charged with robbing a house on Cary Street.  His older brother Leon also got in trouble, jailed for several instances of burglary and assault before finally going in the army.  In 1918 the flu epidemic arrived, killing more than a thousand Richmonders. The epidemic and the European war overwhelmed the memory of the unsolved murder in 1915 and the dead man in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery. By 1930, the national census finds Noel Carlisle a prisoner in the City Jail in Shockoe Valley for an unspecified crime.

The prosperity of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and 1933 was near the depth of the economic despair in Richmond. That summer the memory of readers of the Richmond newspapers was tested by the announcement that an arrest had been made in a murder they probably hardly recalled. George Martin, one of the “hickory nut hunters” who had been with his friends who found the body and who had now acquired the nickname, “Crusty,” was charged in the murder of William Hamilton.  Martin was picked up by the police July 18, 1933. 


Standing in front of Judge Haddon’s bench in Richmond Hustings Court, from left to right:
Richmond Detective-Sergeant Fred Bosquett, Carlisle Noel, George “Crusty” Martin, and Martin’s attorney, L. Gleason Gianniny. July 19, 1933.

A newspaper photograph taken at the arraignment of George “Crusty” Martin the next day find Noel and Martin both standing in front of the judge’s desk in the Hustings Court room on the second floor of what we now call Old City Hall.  The two men stand between a Richmond policeman and Martin’s lawyer in short sleeves and open shirts, indicative of the heat of July in Richmond. The caption reads, “Martin, who is 50 years old, was arrested after information had been given to the police by a friend of Carlisle Noel (second from the left), to whom the latter is alleged to have said that he witnessed the killing.” Perhaps because of his own shady record, Carlisle Noel was also put in jail as material witness.

The authorities held the pair for ten days in the City Jail, trying to figure out what had really happened. Martin vigorously denied that he was responsible for the murder, and Noel stated he wasn’t responsible for what he said when he was drunk at a party. Justice Haddon was unable to hold them any longer and officially left the case “continued,” effectively dismissing the charges against “Crusty” Martin.  The two men, the accused and the man who was supposed to be the star witness against him, were released from jail.  The murder of William Hamilton in 1915, admitted the Richmond newspaper, “remains a mystery.”

…And it still is.  Nobody else was ever arrested, let alone tried for the murder of William Hamilton. Carlisle Noel must have had some other motivation to accuse Martin of killing Hamilton and there had to have been some kernel of truth in the story. The authorities must have found something compelling about the story told by Noel to arrest the two men.  Why among the “nut hunters” was Martin singled out as the murderer?  Was the spot where Hamilton was killed a regular meeting place for the idle and unemployed among Randolph’s scruffier residents?  Who had such a deep, mortal hatred of Hamilton to kill him so savagely? 

The fate of George “Crusty” Martin is unknown, but his accuser Carlisle Noel seems a central figure in this tale of the shadier side of Randolph. As time goes by, Noel is found in the 1940 census still living with his wife and six children in the neighborhood, employed as a bricklayer. Noel states he is unemployed on his 1942 draft card. He worked as a bricklayer though the 1950s and died in 1979 at the age of 84, taking whatever knowledge of what really happened to William Hamilton with him. Noel is buried in an unmarked grave in Riverview Cemetery, not far from his former home in Randolph and not far from the scene of Hamilton’s murder. 

This level area beside the fence of Maymont Park may have been the site of the murder of William Hamilton in 1915.  The modern Maymont fence is to the right.

Was the murder of William Hamilton an unusually violent robbery, a dice game gone badly, or did the particularly viscous wounds indicate something deeply personal and the work of an enraged maniac? Our City’s history is long and complex, the lies and the years cloud and erase the truth, and not all our secrets are knowable. Richmonders were, and are, regularly killed playing dice, and the woods beside the Maymont fence was a good one to have a discrete game, or to meet to drink and party. 

Particularly likely is an area of level ground just below the crest of the hill near the intersection of what is now Hampton Street and Kansas Avenue. Hickory trees still abound on this hill overlooking Dooley’s Japanese Garden, and they shade this flat spot surrounded by rocks just beside the Maymont fence.  With a little imagination, the visitor to the location can visualize the dead body of a man in the dappled shade, neatly arranged but head and chest covered with a shocking, gory sheen. Looking up, in the mind’s eye, the hickory leaves are turning the red and yellow colors of an autumn a hundred and five seasons ago, and far above the trees, the black birds tirelessly circle, and watch, and wait.

- Selden.








2 comments:

Susan MK said...

Fascinating story!

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