One of the most interesting, legal cases to ever play out in the state of North Carolina happened between 1884 and 1886.
In Swain County, North Carolina, on December 17th, 1884, a man named Dick Wilson was shot and killed. Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lambert, a miner of Cherokee heritage, was arrested for the crime, tried and convicted. Despite his repeated attempts to appeal the sentence, Jack Lambert was hanged on July 9, 1886. But there’s a lot more to this story than just that.
On July 11, 1886, the News and Observer reported an account of the night Dick Wilson died. Wilson was a painter by trade and well-respected in the community. On the night of his death, Dick Wilson, Jack Lambert, and several others were at a mutual friend’s house drinking blockade whiskey.
“Lambert betook himself to a wagon-bed a few feet from the house, where he laid down in a drunken condition. About dark the deceased came along, inquired for Cannon, went into the house and had a conversation with him. After awhile he left the house and walked out into the yard, accompanied by one of the Jones boys. When they got within six feet of the wagon-bed where Lambert was lying the latter rose up and asked, ‘Who is that?’ The deceased answered, ‘It is us boys.’ Lambert sprang up and exclaimed, ‘Wait until I get out my pistol and I will see who us boys are,’ firing as soon as the last word was uttered. Wilson sank to the ground, shot in the bowels, and died next morning.”
The day before his execution, Lambert gave a letter to his brothers that detailed his version of what happened that night. He had indeed retired to a wagon after getting drunk, but while he was laying there, he claimed that a man named Will Jones and several others stopped by and took his pistol and his money. Will Jones later used Lambert’s pistol to shoot Dick Wilson.
Even as he went to the gallows, Lambert maintained his innocence. “I shall soon have to stand before God to answer for my sins,” he said. “I deem it a duty I owe to myself, my friends, the friends of the deceased, and to God, to tell who did kill Wilson, which I have done. I want it published to the world. I am innocent as a babe. My conscience is clear before God. I say to all men, cease drinking, and seek the Lord… ‘Thou shalt not lie.’ God forbid that I should.”
But despite his assertions that he was soon to meet his maker, Jack Lambert and his brothers had laid rather spectacular plans to the contrary. The July 29th, 1886 edition of the News and Observers reported that
“Among the last requests made by Jack Lambert, at his execution at Charleston… was that the sheriff would attach as short a rope to the gallows as it was possible to use. This, at the time, appeared to be a very strange request. In the light of subsequent events, the reason for the prisoner’s wish is plain. The unfortunate man’s neck, owing to the shortness of the rope which the kind-hearted sheriff used, was not broken by the fall, but the doctors in attendance pronounced him dead by strangulation.”
Lambert’s body hung from the gallows for somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes before it was cut down and handed over to his brothers. The July 31st edition of The New York Times picks up the story from there:
“The two brothers took the body and made such haste to leave town that remarks were made of their eagerness to get away. The body was laid in a wagon and driven out of town up the Tuckasegee River to the mouth of Deep Creek, about half a mile from the place of execution. Here there was a fire and pots full of boiling water, two pairs of heavy woolen blankets, an electric battery, brandy, aromatic spirits of ammonia, and other materials prepared for the effort to cheat the law. The physician was along, as was another imported from Tennessee, who was not at the gallows. The body was quickly taken from the wagon and disrobed, and the work of resuscitation commenced.”
No one besides the men present that day know if the attempts to revive Jack Lambert were successful. But a rumor spread all over the county that Lambert had been seen alive on the Sunday after his execution. The New York Times article ended by saying that:
“The people now demand that the grave of Lambert be opened and the body exhibited. The brothers of Lambert have pointed out the grave and have indignantly refused to disturb the remains and are watching the grave to prevent its disturbance. This refusal to satisfy morbid curiosity has only added confidence to the belief that Lambert is alive.”
Years after Lambert’s conviction, Will Jones confessed on his deathbed that he had killed Dick Wilson. And some members of the Lambert family still insist that all that lies buried under Jack’s gravestone is a “load of rocks.”