Robert Eller

It didn’t take long after Hickory became a municipality in North Carolina (1870) for a scandal to attach itself to the town. Following a January snow in 1878, “a party of youths from Hickory, while hunting in Burke County, found evidences of a hasty burial of a woman and child in a secluded hollow.” Who were they and what transpired? For a few weeks the community asked itself those very questions.

A pastor offered a clue. He remembered marrying a couple from Union County almost a year earlier. Hoke Secrest and Mrs. Maggie Stephenson were married by the Reverend J.C. Hartsell. What made the union suspicious was that the clergyman recalled the haste with which he was asked to perform the ceremony and the fact that the wife-to-be/widow had a four year old daughter with her. They fit the description of the deceased right down to the copper-toed shoes the child was wearing. Investigation quickly found that after the wedding Secrest was seen alone, returning to Union County.

The crime scene was gruesome but offered important clues. The bodies were hastily buried. Deterioration suggested they had been there almost a year, possibly just after the marriage took place. Wagon tracks were found leading to the makeshift grave and so were the remnants of a torch. Putting those elements together, law enforcement concluded that the woman and child were killed elsewhere and carted there for burial at night.

The Charlotte Democrat, Charlotte, North Carolina · Friday, July 20, 1883.

The manhunt began for Secrest. The papers declared the crime “the most horrible that ever transpired in the state.” Down in Union County, Secrest was apprehended and brought back for trial. Opinions on him were divided. He was described as “a stout, portly looking man of about twenty-two years of age, and has the appearance of a bold and reckless character.” Another expressed surprise, “and much regret that there should be any suggestion upon which there should be any suspicions upon which to base such a gross charge against this young man, as he comes from a good family, whose whole connection – a very large one, by the way – stand well in this county (Union), and make excellent citizens.”

Because the bodies were found four miles outside of Hickory and just across the line in Burke County, Secrest was not taken to the county seat of Newton. In fact, his first preliminary court appearance was not in Morganton either. It was in Icard. The case moved first to Morganton, then Marion in the effort to get a fair trial, where over two dozen witnesses came to testify against Hoke Secrest.

Testimony revealed that Maggie Ezzell Stephenson was a widow who inherited substantial property from her late husband. Secrest was four years her junior but courted her ardently. Supposedly, they posed as man and wife before the ceremony in Hickory, both telling friends they were headed to Texas. Also revealed was the fact that Hoke Secrest had a fiery temper. One witness overheard Secrest say, “if you say one word about it, damn you, I’ll kill you.” No one knew what “it” was but a woman in Newton said, under oath that Maggie Stephenson cried about the letters her new husband tore up as fast as she could write them. The evidence overwhelmed the jury. They quickly returned a verdict of guilty.

The judge pronounced sentence at the September trial. The convicted man was sentenced to a November hanging. And thus, the end of Hoke Secrest. But wait. The obituary for the perpetrator would not be written for another 23 years. Why did it take so long for justice to be meted out?