The Mystery of Nell Cropsey, Part II

This is the conclusion of a 2-part post about Nell Cropsey. To read Part I, click here! 

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?

 

Nell C

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.

W.H. Cropsey
Nell’s father

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.

“W.H. CROPSEY”

 

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.

found

 

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.

jim wilcox to be lynched

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.

 

brother suicide

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.

Jim Wilcox
Jim Wilcox

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?

nell cropsey

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