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 they called Seven Pines.
Nell started seeing 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 though he was five years older than Nell, he was seemingly uninterested in marriage. Their relationship grew strained and by 1901, they were seeing less of each other – though Wilcox still appeared occasionally at Seven Pines.
November 20, 1901. Wilcox and several other guests were at Seven Pines in the evening, calling on Nell, her sister Ollie, and her brother, William. Mr. and Mrs. Cropsey were home, but asleep upstairs. Around 11 p.m., Jim Wilcox rose and bid the group good-bye. Then he turned and asked 19-year-old Nell to accompany him to the porch.
Ollie was only a year older than her sister, and they were both adults. Still, it was a conservative time, and Ollie was unofficially her sister’s chaperone. She made a fateful decision to allow Nell to go outside to see Jim off.
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’s not clear why. Maybe she thought Nell was still talking to Jim or that she was outside alone. She may have also feared that alerting her parents would get she and her sister in trouble. It didn’t seem to occur to her that anything was seriously wrong. Ollie lay down, and went to sleep.
A few hours later, the sound of shouting outside awoke the family. A neighbor called that someone was stealing the family pig. Ollie sat up in bed and looked over at Nell’s empty bed in alarm. It was obvious that it had not been slept in.
Ollie dressed and went 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. Nell had given it to Jim as a gift, several months earlier.