I really like this photo, from a small antique shop in Santa Cruz, California. It’s labeled Libby and Grace.
It’s difficult to tell much about when and where the photograph was taken. The girls’ hats, dresses, and shoes look like they are from the late 1910s, but they appear to be walking in a very modern-looking subdivision, complete with a roundabout.
Their features aren’t clear enough to see if they look alike, but my first guess was that Libby and Grace were sisters. Libby was the girl in the foreground, and that Grace was the older, more serious sister. Then I noticed that the girl in the foreground (I’ll just call her Libby, and the other girl Grace) is better dressed by far, and this is in an era in which sisters would probably have similar clothes, often handmade. Libby is wearing a pretty dress, button-up boots, and a whimsical hat. Grace is dressed much more casually. Her shoes look like loafers and she is wearing a severe hat. She’s also carrying something, but in an odd way. Whatever it is, she is holding it up and close to her chest.
I had two theories about the girls:
The first theory is that they are sisters or old family friends, and that Libby was the fun-loving charming half of the duo, and Grace was the jealous, contemptuous older sister/friend who spent most of her time repressing Libby. She scowls in the background, as Libby makes a funny face at the camera.
The second theory is that Libby’s expression indicates she really is upset, and Grace is not jealous but angry. They may be strangers, or not. What if Grace caught Libby stealing something and was marching her toward some kind of justice, with the evidence in her hand?
Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold was one of the earliest high-profile missing persons in the twentieth century. The facts of her case are sparse but suggestive of a darker story. Dorothy was the daughter of a Manhattan millionaire. She was 25 years old when she disappeared.
Dorothy enjoyed writing, and aspired to become a novelist. Manuscripts she submitted to publishers were rejected, a fact Dorothy was anxious to hide. She rented a post office box where she kept the manuscripts, away from the prying eyes of her family and their servants.
Privacy was obviously an issue, and Dorothy wanted to live on her own. She was a clever woman with a college degree, she was fluent in several languages, and she was independently wealthy. Yet she lived with her parents in a mansion on East 79th Street because her father forbade her to move out.
Dorothy disappeared on a December afternoon in 1910. She left home on foot to go shopping for an evening dress around 1:30p.m., wearing a long blue coat over a blue dress and carrying about $25. Her mother offered to go with her, but Dorothy said she wanted to be alone.
When her movements were traced, investigators found she had first stopped to buy some chocolate and then went on to a bookstore called Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue, where she encountered a friend. The girls chatted for a few minutes before parting, and Dorothy purchased a book before she left. This was the last time she was ever seen.
Dorothy was not missed at once. Her family assumed she was staying with a friend when she failed to come home that night. It wasn’t until late the following day that they began to ask each other, Where is Dorothy? After phoning Dorothy’s friends, the Arnolds realized something must have happened to her.
Like most of the upper class of the time, Mr. Arnold had a deep aversion to publicity. Calling the police would garner too much attention, he insisted. The family hired private investigators instead, but they turned up few clues. The people she had encountered prior to disappearing said Dorothy seemed to be in good spirits. At the bookshop, she told her friend she was going for a walk in Central Park. Yet a search of the park turned up nothing.
At least one discovery was made, and it was a most unwelcome one for Dorothy’s family: unbeknownst to anyone, she had a boyfriend. His name was George C. Griscom, Jr., and he was a wealthy engineer who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was also 44 years old.
Dorothy’s family was stunned to learn that she had spent a week with him earlier that year, when she claimed to be visiting some friends from college. But Griscom was in Italy when Dorothy disappeared, and he was dismissed as a suspect. He said he had no idea what happened to Dorothy but hinted she was depressed about her faltering writing career.
A full month passed, and the Arnolds finally told the police of Dorothy’s disappearance. Just as Mr. Arnold had feared, the case became highly publicized. The story, and pictures of Dorothy appeared in newspapers as far away as Europe. However, no viable leads were generated.
There were a few theories as to Dorothy Arnold’s fate:
Dorothy’s father began to believe she had been attacked and murdered and her body dropped into a reservoir in Central Park. “The one theory to which I have always leaned is that she was kidnapped and made away with in a short time,” he told a journalist. This theory isn’t outlandish, but it isn’t a slamdunk, either. Dorothy was young and strong and may not have been easy to subdue. Also, no witnesses of an attack came forward. And no viable suspects were put forward by people hoping to gain a reward.
Another theory was that Dorothy had killed herself. Griscom believed this might be the case, and we know that she was very sensitive about the rejected manuscripts. Dorothy did want to go out alone that day, and perhaps she was upset about her writing. No one said she seemed upset though, and it seems strange for her to buy a book before killing herself. And, no one ever found her body.
Some people theorized she had died during a botched abortion, but there was no evidence to back up such an assertion. Hospital records showed no one matching Dorothy’s description had come in or been brought in in the days and weeks following her disappearance.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that she would have staged her disappearance to start a new life somewhere else. It’s worth noting that Dorothy was a secretive person and there were aspects of her life which she kept hidden from her family. That afternoon, she said she was going out to buy a dress, something she never attempted to do. The $25 in her pocket would not last forever, but perhaps she had been secretly saving money and had more with her. Dorothy’s mother, who lived until 1928, never believed her daughter was dead. Was this mother’s intuition… or wishful thinking? Still, at some point, had Dorothy lived, would she not have eventually contacted her family or Griscom?
The mystery of Dorothy Arnold’s disappearance is still unsolved.
November 21, 1901. A search for Nell was launched the morning after she disappeared. Initially, the town speculated that Nell and Jim had eloped, but this theory was quickly disproven when the police interviewed the young man at his parents’ home.
Why did you ask to see Nell alone? people demanded. Where is she?
Wilcox said he told Nell their relationship was over, and returned her picture and the umbrella she had given him. He said he left her crying on the front veranda at 11:15. He stopped to have a beer with a friend before going to his family house, and was asleep before midnight.
The police didn’t believe it, in part because the timeline wasn’t realistic. How was 45 minutes enough time to break off a long-term relationship, have a drink with a friend, walk home, and fall asleep? And if she didn’t leave with Jim, what did happen to Nell? Where was she?
Wilcox was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping. Wild stories began to circulate, as they often do in small towns. One man even claimed to have seen Jim Wilcox carrying the limp body of a woman.
As for Nell, hope was quickly fading. All of her belongings were in the house, and she had no reason to run away.
Any dim hope that existed was dispelled two weeks later, when an open letter from her father appeared in the paper.
The police officials and citizen committee have done all human agency could do to restore my daughter, without success. I never expect to see her this side of the great eternity. I shall always believe James Wilcox instrumental in my daughter’s disappearance. If dead, I believe his hand or his hireling responsible. Some time when this life shall cease and we shall stand before the presence of the Great Judge, I believe we shall learn how and when he murdered my daughter and that the justice he may escape will be dealt with then.
In late December, when Nell had been gone 37 days, a fisherman named J.D. Stillman spotted something floating in the Pasquotank River. He rowed closer and discovered the lifeless body of Nell Cropsey.
Public feeling toward Jim Wilcox soured. An empty bottle of whisky was found at the banks of the river, on the Cropseys’ land, and a clerk claimed to have sold one like it to Wilcox. This was all the confirmation some people needed to believe what they suspected all along. Others pointed out the river had been dragged a number of times. Why didn’t her body turn up earlier? It was very suspicious that she did not appear to have been dead for a month, or even a week.
Incredibly, Nell’s father dispersed a lynch mob intent on killing Wilcox. He pled with them to allow the justice system to deal with the prisoner. The crowd honored the bereaved father’s request, and Naval Reserves were called to preserve Jim’s safety.
An autopsy was performed in an outbuilding behind Seven Pines, in full view of curious townspeople. The doctors said Nell was killed by a blow to the head, and that she was dead before she was put into the water.
Her body was sent to New York to be interred in a family plot. An uncle saw to the funeral details; her family was too shocked and grieved to accompany her body to New York.
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 was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment.
Ten years later, a rumor began to circulate that the Wilcox family were using their connections to parole Jim early. Wilcox had steadily denied any involvement in the murder, and the public’s view had somewhat softened toward him. This was too much for William Cropsey, Nell’s brother. Neither he nor Ollie had recovered from their sister’s murder, and the news that Wilcox would likely be paroled was devastating to him. One evening in 1913 he gave way to his despair and drank a bottle of poison.
Wilcox was not paroled that year. In 1915, his supporters made a renewed plea for his release, noting Wilcox was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The governor was unmoved. He noted “a great many” people were demanding the prisoner’s release, but refused to allow it, citing the feelings and wishes of Mrs. Cropsey.
Finally, Wilcox was granted an early release on Christmas Eve, 1918, after 15 long years in prison.
Apparently, Jim had no qualms about returning to Elizabeth City, where he apparently planned to resume his interrupted life. The town treated him with cold suspicion, but Jim maintained his innocence and remained in Elizabeth City for the rest of his life.
It is strange how a single brief event can have ripple effects that last long after the initial cause fades. Nell Cropsey’s spirit seemed to plague everyone who was present in the house the night of her death.
In 1908, Roy Crawford, Ollie’s young man, killed himself with a shotgun.
In 1913, Nell’s brother William Jr., committed suicide by poisoning himself.
And in 1934, Jim Wilcox committed suicide with a shotgun.
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 for a long time, and Saunders came away with a story. We’ll never know what was said. Wilcox committed suicide two weeks after giving the interview. Saunders did not publish his interview, and he was killed in an automobile accident shortly afterwards.
Ollie lived as a recluse until her death in 1944. Her sister’s murder was the defining event in her life, and she never forgave herself for allowing Nell to leave the house with Wilcox.
Seven Pines is still standing, though today it is only known as 1109 Riverside Avenue. Inevitably, the house is rumored to be haunted. For years, occupants of the old home claimed to have seen a silent young woman, dressed in white. There are unexplained sounds. Lights turn off and on of their own accord. But why should Nell Cropsey’s restless spirit haunt her old home? If she really does, maybe she cannot let go of a life cut short… or maybe she feels justice was never done.
Is it conceivable that Wilcox was wrongfully accused? There were other people who had the opportunity to kill Nell, including her brother William and her sister’s beau Roy. All three men were in the house that night and all three committed suicide in the years following her death.
Could it be true that someone else killed Nell, and went on with his life, while Jim Wilcox spent 17 years in prison to pay for the crime? Or is the most likely explanation – that Wilcox murdered Nell on the porch of her family home on the night of November 20 – the real cause of Nell’s death?