Revealing facts arise in new book about EC murder


By Cindy Beamon

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

William Dunstan spent months poring over three old Elizabeth City newspapers in research for his new book "Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox: The Chill of Destiny” with interesting results.

His book focuses on the Elizabeth City murder of Nell Cropsey and conviction of her beau Jim Wilcox that captured national attention in 1901. The story has lots of strange twists, such as the appearance of a mysterious letter telling where to find Nell’s body, a family secret in Dunstan's family that may have pointed to a different killer, and a newly revealed, forbidden romance.

Readers of the book will find new information about the case and learn more about the people who "carried dark secrets to the grave." Dunstan brings into question whether Wilcox was convicted of a crime he did not commit. Before serving his full sentence, Wilcox was pardoned by North Carolina Governor Thomas Walter Bickett. Wilcox then returned to Elizabeth City, his hometown, where he lived as an outcast until committing suicide.

Two years ago, Dunstan arranged a funeral for Wilcox, a century after he died. Near the end of his book, Dunstan names people who participated in the service, including me as the journalist who covered the event. 

The book also contains tons of detail about life in Elizabeth City during the post Civil War era, including racial and political hatred that may have influenced the murder trial.

Here's just a few of those interesting details.

Political conflicts: The editor for the Economist, a Democratic newspaper at the time, openly supported white supremacy with highly offensive language by today’s standards.

Fashion: "The typical dapper gentlemen arriving on a Sunday afternoon wears a derby, long tweed frock coat, vest adorned with a gold watch chain, starched white shirt and high stiff collar, ascot looped under his chin..."

Crime of the Time: An ordinance enacted by the Elizabeth City Board of Alderman in 1903 prohibited people from distributing Valentines within the corporate limits of the city. Violators were fined $5.

Cutting-edge technology: Norfolk Railroad Company, later Norfolk and Southern Railroad, completed a 10-mile gap between Elizabeth City and Norfolk, that opened up new chances for growth. The big occasion was celebrated on May 26, 1881 with the opening of the new Elizabeth City Train Depot, located on Pennsylvania Avenue (later named north Poindexter Street). Next came electricity.

This glimpse into Elizabeth City's past is fascinating, even without the murder mystery. I wonder what people will find interesting about articles in our newspaper a century from now.

Cindy Beamon is editor of the Albemarle Life section of The Daily Advance