This is the first of three entries in a special Halloween-inspired blog series highlighting a collection of ghost stories, legends, folklore, and facts from North Carolina. Like sweet tea and college basketball, folklore is a major part of North Carolina’s cultural heritage. Legends and stories passed down from generations keep the state’s history alive and ultimately help us remember life as it once was.
The Murder Mystery of Nell Cropsey
On November 21, 1901, Nell Cropsey mysteriously vanished from her family home near the Elizabeth City waterfront. Her body was discovered nearby in the Pasquotank river 37 days later, a mere 130 yards from where she was last seen. The first glaring suspect: Jim Wilcox, her suitor. Despite two trials and the subsequent conviction of Wilcox, many questions about her death remain unanswered. Some say her spirit haunts her family home to this day.
The news of Nell’s disappearance and the resulting murder trials soon became a national sensation. Countless stories about what happened to Nell have swirled for over a century. Here are court records describing the incident:
The State introduced testimony tending to show that deceased was at the time of her death 19 years old; that the defendant [Jim Wilcox] met her in June, 1898, and began paying her attentions, he being a young unmarried man; that his attentions were marked by frequent visits, as often as three times a week; that he gave her a number of presents, carried her to ride and sailing and to places of amusement.
In September 1901, defendant and deceased had a “kind of falling out.”
Deceased was to make a visit to New York, intending to leave on Saturday, 23 November. This was known to the defendant.
On Wednesday afternoon, 20 November, 1901, Carrie [a cousin] and one of the sisters of the deceased went to town and came back accompanied by defendant about half-past 5. Defendant indulged in some pleasantry with Ollie [the sister of deceased]. He left in about half an hour. No words passed between him and deceased. He returned about 8 or half-past. Carrie let him in.
Deceased was sitting at table, sewing. She continued sewing until 9:30 o’clock, when she put her sewing up and got some musical instruments. They had some music. Defendant did not speak to her; “just sat there gazing at nothing”; had hardly spoken to anyone.
The members of the family began to leave the parlor to retire, until deceased, defendant, Ollie, and Roy Crawford [Ollie’s friend] were the only ones left. Defendant asked if there was any water in the pump. Ollie got up to get a glass. He said: “I don’t want your glass; I might poison it.” He took his watch out six or seven times.
Defendant rolled up a cigarette and took his hat, saying: “Mamma said I must be in at 11 o’clock tonight.” Ollie said: “Jim, you are getting good.” He made some slight remark, took his hat from the rocking chair and started out. When he got in the hall, the door was partly open. He walked out and said: “Nell, can I see you out here a minute?” She looked at her sister, said nothing, and went into the hall with the defendant. She was never seen alive again by her family.
In a short time, Mr. Cropsey, the father, came downstairs. Sometime after Ollie notified her father of Nell’s absence, family got up and began to search for her. It was a very cold, clear, moonlight night. Father, mother, and sisters looked over premises for deceased and called for her. Could not find her. Before defendant left on the night of 20 November, “the subject of drowning was brought up either by Carrie or defendant.” He said: “That is one thing I would like to do. It is such a pleasant sensation. I would not mind it.” Deceased said: “That is one thing I would never want to do. I would not want my hair corning out straight.” Her hair was in curl papers. She said: “If I die, I would want to freeze to death.”
[Coroner’s Examination Results:] Examination was made about an hour after body was taken out of the water. The condition of the stomach, heart, pleural cavity, and lungs indicate that the deceased came to her death by means other than drowning; that she received a blow which stunned her and rendered her unconscious. Body was not swollen. Body of person drowned usually swollen when taken out of the water. Wound had the appearance of having been stricken before death.
The defendant earnestly insists that the evidence points to the fact that the deceased came to her death by suicide. It is argued that she had opportunity, motive, and time to drown herself. Adopting the well-considered language of the brief of defendant’s counsel, they contend she had the motive—the defendant had for three years been her lover, the only one she ever had; he had been loyal to her and regular in his attentions. Her cousin’s visit to the Cropsey home had attracted the attention of the defendant, his attentions were divided. She began to be jealous and treated him coolly; his continued visits to the cousin made the deceased independent and appear indifferent. She continued to love him, kept his presents, and remained in the room when he was there. She was lively and tried to throw off this feeling; he returned her pictures and parasol. On the evening of her disappearance just before she was to leave for New York, she was overcome by the turn in her affairs, and feeling that it was an easy way to end her troubled life, she rushed without stopping to think to the river, and threw herself in.
The testimony, in respect to the river and shore, all conflict with the theory that she could have thrown herself into the water. That which is most conclusive against the theory of suicide is what may be termed the natural evidence. If she walked out into the river upon the receding shore until she reached deep water, it is impossible to understand how she could have received the blow upon her left temple.
Having reached the conclusion that the theory of suicide cannot be sustained, we proceed to inquire whether there is sufficient evidence to go to the jury connecting the defendant with the death of the deceased. It is urged that he had the motive, the opportunity, the time. In a criminal case where all the circumstances of time, place, motive, means, opportunity, and conduct concur in pointing out the accused as the perpetrator of an act of violence, the force of such circumstantial evidence is materially strengthened by the total absence of any trace or vestige of any other agent. Some motive, temptation, or evil impulse, we may assume, is the source of every crime. Not always can we discover what it is, so that the proof of a motive is indispensable to a conviction.
It is, of course, difficult to the sane mind to understand how, from the conditions by which this defendant was surrounded and the relation which he bore to the deceased, it is possible for him to have taken her life. Yet it must be conceded that the relations between them were such as to arouse his evil impulse. What passed between them after she left her sister in the parlor will never be known.
There is not the slightest suggestion that any one, save the defendant, had either the opportunity or any motive to take her life or do her harm. There is not a suggestion that she had offended another human being. He says that he told her that he was going to quit her; that he gave her back her picture, that she said she knew what that meant; that he walked off and left her crying and did not look back.
His indifference to the fate of the woman towards whom he had occupied the relation of an accepted suitor for nearly two years and with whom he had been trifling for one month, finally giving to her affections and pride a deadly thrust, by telling her that he was going to quit her, is difficult to understand.
Not one word of sympathy or comfort or offer of assistance came from him. When the father makes the final appeal to him, with cold indifference he says: “I have said all that I am going to say and done all that I am going to do.” And when he learned that her body had been found, and the suggestion is made to him that she had drowned herself because of him, he laughs and indulges in levity. But it is said that he did not flee; that although given every opportunity to do so, he remained at home; that he denied knowing her whereabouts, that he said he last saw her on the steps crying. These facts were submitted to the jury and given their proper weight.
“It cannot be said that the verdict of the jury in this case, although founded on circumstantial evidence alone, was without evidence or plainly against the evidence…No man can say with absolute certainty what the very truth of the matter is, but calling to our aid the experience and wisdom of the sages of the law and examining the testimony as it is certified to us, we are of the opinion that it is sufficient to bring the minds of an intelligent and fair-minded jury, under the instruction of a learned, just, and impartial judge, to the conclusion to a moral certainty that the defendant is guilty.”
[Read the full court report online through North Carolina Digital Collections, pp. 792-811.]
The case, built largely on circumstantial evidence, was a sensation in its own right. In March 1902, Wilcox was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to be hanged on April 25. Soon after, a mistrial was declared by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and Wilcox was re-tried in 1903. Wilcox was eventually convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for second degree murder but was pardoned by Governor Thomas Bickett in 1920. Fourteen years later, Wilcox took his own life. Two others in the Cropsey house on the night of the disappearance wound up committing suicide; Nell’s brother Will in 1908 and Roy Crawford in 1911. Another suspicious element that became known later involved Nell’s father, who had reportedly purchased three times their usual amount of ice in the cold month of December. It’s said that her father accidentally shot her after mistaking her for someone stealing their pigs, leading some to suspect that he was using the ice to keep his daughter’s body preserved. However, this theory is difficult to prove based on findings from the autopsy report.
Nell Cropsey’s death continues to remain a mystery, at least for some.
The Cropsey Home is located at 1109 Riverside Avenue in Elizabeth City. This home is a private residence, but is occasionally open to the public on special occasions, including the annual Elizabeth City ghost walk.
Who do you think was responsible for Nell’s death? Was Nell so distraught over the alleged breakup to take her own life, or was the evidence stacked against Jim? Did her father’s hefty ice purchase that month reveal an untold secret? Let us know your theory in the comments below.
Recommended Reading & References
Berry, Marjorie Ann. (2014). Legendary locals of Elizabeth City. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing.
Diagrams illustrating the three theories of Miss Ella Cropsey’s death. (1902, January 7). The News & Observer, p. A2. Retrieved from http://www.universityofnorthcarolinaatchapelhill.newspapers.com/image/75883942.
Nell Cropsey Found. (1902, January 3). The Roanoke Beacon, p. A1. Retrieved from http://www.newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92074055/1902-01-03/ed-1/seq-1.
Roberts, Nancy. (2001). Ghosts from the coast: A ghostly tour of coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, & Georgia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Simpson, Bland. (1993). The mystery of beautiful Nell Cropsey. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
State of North Carolina v. Wilcox. 132 N.C. 792. North Carolina Supreme Court. 1903. North Carolina State Documents Collection. State Library of North Carolina.