On December 27, a fisherman named J.D. Stillman spotted something floating in the Pasquotank River. He rowed closer and discovered the lifeless body of Nell Cropsey.
Some residents pointed out the river had been dragged a number of times. Why didn’t the body turn up earlier? And Nell’s body had not decomposed, could she have really been dead 37 days?
An autopsy was performed in an outbuilding behind Seven Pines, in full view of curious townspeople. The examination offered some information but it was of a variety that only increased the mysterious nature of her death.
Here are the relevant excerpts from the coroner’s jury:
“The garments showed no mark of violence… There were no external marks of violence on head, body or face…There were no marks upon the front of her neck, except as made by constriction of her dress color. And examination of internal organs showed she was a pure girl. The lungs were collapsed and free from water…one inch above the brow, there was found a dark discoloration of the muscular substance…There was no fracture of the cranium. A thorough examination of the brain showed no evidence of violence.”
The verdict of the corner story was as follows: “Ella M. Cropsey came to her death by being stricken a blow on the left temple and by being drowned in the Pasquotank river. We have not yet investigated or heard any testimony touching as to who struck the blow and who did the drowning. We are informed that one James Wilcox is charged with the same and is now in custody.”
My understanding of drowning is limited to true crime tv but I thought that if there is no water in the lungs, the person did not drown. Indeed, later reports were clear that Nell had not drowned but was killed by the blow to her head. There was no explanation for why her body was not decomposed. The date and time of death were not noted. Nell’s body was sent to New York for interment in the family plot.
Public feeling, already sour toward Jim Wilcox, was inflamed when an empty bottle of whisky was found on the Cropseys’ land on the banks of the river, and a clerk claimed to have sold just such a bottle to Jim Wilcox. This was all the confirmation many people needed to believe what they suspected all along.
A mob, intent on lynching Wilcox, appeared at the jail with torches and a length of rope and demanded the prisoner be surrendered to them. Incredibly, Nell’s father dispersed the mob. He pleaded with them to allow the justice system to deal with the prisoner. For the time being, the crowd honored the bereaved father’s request, but the Naval Reserves had to be called to preserve Jim’s life.
As her father hoped, the justice system dealt with Wilcox. After a mistrial, Jim was retried and found guilty of second degree murder in 1903. He got 30 years. This did not satisfy the restless spirit of Nell Cropsey, nor ease the anxiety of those she left behind. For years, Ollie and William, struggled in vain to recover from their sister’s murder. In 1908, Roy Crawford, Ollie’s young man, had killed himself with a shotgun.
In 1913, a rumor circulated that Wilcox would be paroled. Jim never admitted any involvement in Nell’s murder, and the public’s view of him had by then softened a little. The Cropseys did not share this view. The news of Wilcox’s likely parole was devastating and William gave way to his despair and drank a bottle of poison. Wilcox was not paroled, partly due to William’s suicide.
In 1915, his supporters made a renewed plea when Jim was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The governor was unmoved and refused to allow it, citing Mrs. Cropsey’s feelings and wishes.
Jim was granted an early release, but not until Christmas Eve, 1918. Fifteen years after he had gone away, Jim returned to Elizabeth City to resume his interrupted life, and refused to notice the coolness the town exhibited toward him.
Wilcox kept quiet about the night of Nell’s murder for 33 years. In 1934, he asked W. O. Saunders of The Independent to meet him. They talked a long time, and Saunders came away with a story.
We’ll never know what was said. Wilcox committed suicide with a shotgun shortly after speaking to Saunders and the interview was not published because Saunders was killed in an automobile accident before he could write up the story.
Ollie lived as a recluse until her death in 1944. Her sister’s murder was the defining event in her life, and she passionately regretted allowing Nell to leave with Wilcox. Seven Pines still stands, though today it is only known as 1109 Riverside Ave. Inevitably, the house is rumored to be haunted. For years, occupants of the place claim to have seen a silent young woman, dressed in white. There are unexplained sounds. Lights turn off and on of their own accord.
Is it conceivable that Wilcox was wrongfully accused? Could somebody else have killed Nell, but Jim was imprisoned 15 years to pay for the crime? Or did Wilcox murder Nell on the porch of her family home on a frosty night in late November?
There is no answer.