Ella Maud Cropsey, known to her friends and family as Nell, was born in July 1882 in Brooklyn, New York to William and Mary Louise Cropsey. Nell was the second of nine children, and she was especially close to her older sister Olive, who was nicknamed Ollie.
In 1898, the family moved from New York to North Carolina, where they purchased a large, rambling house by the Pasquotank River. They named their new home Seven Pines.
Nell soon had a beau, a local man named James Wilcox, who was the son of the sheriff. They were an odd couple: Nell was beautiful and eager to get married. Jim stood at an unimposing 5’2, and was seemingly uninterested in marriage, even though he was five years older than Nell.
Over time, this difference began to strain their relationship and by 1901, they were seeing less of each other. Wilcox still appeared occasionally at Seven Pines, but things had undoubtedly cooled off.
On the evening of November 20, 1901, Ollie, Nell, and their brother William were hosting a number of guests at Seven Pines. Mr. and Mrs. Cropsey were home and asleep upstairs. Around 11 p.m., Jim Wilcox rose and bid the group good-bye. In the doorway, he turned and asked 19-year-old Nell to accompany him to the porch.
Today, this would likely appear to be an innocuous request. Nell was an adult, of course, and Jim Wilcox was her beau–or recently had been. But it was a conservative time, and Ollie–being a year older than her sister–was unofficially Nell’s chaperone. But Ollie saw no harm in Nell having a word in private with Jim. She made a fateful decision to allow Nell to go outside with him
A few minutes later, as Ollie was saying good night to her beau Roy Crawford, something banged against the house. Ollie was a little uneasy, and Roy promised to tell Nell to come inside when he left. A few moments later, Roy called back softly that Nell was not on the porch.
Ollie was ill at ease, and quickly ascended the stairs to the room she and her sister shared to look for her, but Nell was not there. Ollie did not raise an alert and it seems clear she didn’t think there was a sinister reason for Nell’s absence. Maybe she thought her sister was still talking to Jim or that she wanted to be alone. She may have feared that alerting her parents would cause them unnecessary worry, or get her sister in trouble. Any number of reasons would be plausible. So Ollie lay down and went back to sleep.
A few hours later, the sound of shouting outside awoke the family. A neighbor yelled that someone was stealing the family pig. Ollie sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. She looked over at her sister’s side of the room and in the dim moonlight she saw Nell’s bed was empty. Not just empty; it had not been slept in.
Ollie dressed hurriedly and ran downstairs. In the midst of the confusion, she told the family of Nell’s disappearance. A frantic search immediately ensued, but Nell was nowhere to be found.
The only sign of she or Wilcox was an umbrella propped beside the front door. The Cropseys recognized it. It was a gift Nell had given Jim, several months earlier.
But where was Nell?