When Jim Wilcox left Nell Cropsey alone on her front porch on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 20, 1901, it was the last time he saw her alive. Really?
That’s a question author William E. Dunstan asks in his new book, “Haunted: Jim Wilcox Remembers Nell Cropsey.”
The book is Dunstan’s second about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Cropsey. In his new nonfictional account, Dunstan uses research pulled from newspaper articles and other sources to stitch Wilcox’s memoir. The book reads from Wilcox’s perspective and uses facts from Dunstan’s research to shape the scenes and dialogue.
“These conversations may sound exaggerated but they’re nothing compared to the facts that we know,” Dunstan said, while discussing the book during a History for Lunch event at Museum of the Albemarle on Wednesday.
Wilcox was convicted of murder in the death of Cropsey, whose body was discovered floating in the Pasquotank River 37 days after she disappeared that November night.
“This book is so full of mysteries and horrors that it’s hard to believe it’s true,” Dunstan told the audience of more than 50 people.
Wilcox, whose father at the time was the county sheriff, served 16 years in prison before he was pardoned. Following his release, he returned to Elizabeth City, where he died years later after shooting himself in December 1934.
The book is steeped in the post-Civil War political environment of the late 19th century, a period ripe with carpetbaggers and scalawags.
During his presentation, Dunstan referred to a moment shortly following Nell’s disappearance. Wilcox was visiting the Cropsey house, where he soon realized the family sought to blame him for any harm that’s become of Nell.
“And you know who’s going to be blamed,” Dunstan said. “You know who is going to be blamed.”
Dunstan referenced a scene during Wilcox’s visit that shows perhaps others knew more about Nell’s death than they were revealing.
“There were several people sitting in the room together,” Dunstan told the audience. “There was Jim, who is destroyed by the events of the night.”
Also, in the room was Roy Crawford, a man who was dating Nell’s older sister, Ollie.
“Roy Crawford will commit suicide in Oklahoma in 1908 by blowing his brains out,” Dunstan explained.
Nell’s father, William Hardy Cropsey, was in the room. At the time, he was earning a reasonable income by farming potatoes, Dunstan said.
“He will end up in a pathetic state living on Poorhouse Road peddling vegetables from a basket,” he said.
Also present was Ollie, who will eventually become a total recluse, Dunstan said.
“People say she’s gone mad grieving for her lost sister,” he said.
The younger brother, Will Cropsey, was in the room, too, and will meet a similar fate as Crawford’s.
“He will kill himself by drinking poison in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1913,” Dunstan said.
Dunstan read aloud a passage from his book that describes the first time Wilcox encountered Nell Cropsey. Wilcox was walking down Riverside Avenue with his sister Sadie when they passed the home of John B. Fearing, a man of questionable character, particularly with women, Dunstan said. The Cropsey family was renting quarters at the large home, and Nell was outside on the front lawn.
“A slightly plump young woman with wavy brown hair rolls a hoop on the deep, front lawn. She turns abruptly and sees us but focuses her gaze strictly upon me. Her eyes spell danger, for no girl or woman has ever looked at me like this. I desperately desire to run but feel mesmerized and frozen by her shocking, brassy stare.”
Ella Maud “Nell” Cropsey told Wilcox that she was 16 years old, but through Dunstan’s pen Wilcox wrote years later that was not true.
“Unknown to me, Nell and most of the other Cropseys habitually lie about their ages and almost everything else,” the book states. “She has just shaved an entire year from her life and actually will be eighteen in July.”
Dunstan also said that when Cropsey’s body was discovered in the river it was in a state of “perfect preservation.”
“Which is completely impossible,” he told the audience.
Dunstan has previously suggested that perhaps ice was used to preserve the body. Dunstan discussed this theory in interview in 2017 for his first book about the Cropsey mystery, “Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox: The Chill of Destiny.”
During his research, Dunstan discovered that his grandfather had held information that Cropsey’s father had bought an unusual amount of ice following her disappearance. Dunstan questions if the ice was used to preserve Nell’s body till it was found in the river, according to an interview from November 2017.
The grandfather was afraid to report the information for concern over the community’s anger toward Wilcox.
Dunstan’s new book, as well as his first book about Nell Cropsey, are on sale at the Museum of the Albemarle gift shop.