The Psychic and the Murderer
On November 21, 1901, a girl disappeared. She was 19, with dark blue eyes and chestnut hair, and her name was Nell Cropsey, although after her death she was always referred to as Beautiful Nell Cropsey. She had lived with her family in a riverside home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and it made no sense to anyone in that city which thrived on the oyster business that she might have just walked away. In fact, she'd been about to go on a trip to see her cousins up north for Thanksgiving. But she vanished.
In The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey, Bland Simpson weaves the tale into narrative nonfiction, using actual accounts to relay what occurred in the ensuing months in a storyteller's manner. Since she was 16, Nell had been Jim Wilcox's girlfriend. Five years older than she, at the time he was the son of the county's sheriff. He was the last to see her, Simpson writes, "and he said she had been crying." He claimed later that he'd left her on the front porch of her house after he'd spoken with her briefly about a "serious matter," and then went home. But her father and brothers insisted that she didn't come in. Her sister, Ollie, who knew that the two sweethearts had soured on each other months before, had seen Nell go out to the porch just after 11 the previous evening. She said that Jim had beckoned Nell to come out for a moment. Ollie had not seen her come back in. She figured that Nell must have slipped inside without telling anyone and gone to bed.
But Ollie did not find her sister there. By midnight, Nell still had not come in. That was odd, even alarming.
Later that night, as the family searched in vain for the missing Nell, her father expected that she had eloped with Jim. He went over to the Wilcox house to find out, brought Jim back to tell the rest of the family what he knew, which wasn't much. He said he'd broken it off with her, since she seemed uninterested anymore, and then he'd gone into town. He thought that she had gone in.
The next day, Jim was arrested for kidnapping and suspicion of murder.
Under interrogation, he gave out several stories, including that she'd thought about suicide and that she'd suddenly stopped acting like his girlfriend. He had little of interest to say, so they let him return to work. He was arrested again to repeat his story, and then turned loose again.
Having searched the area and found nothing, the police brought in a man, Hurricane Branch, who ran bloodhounds. More than 1,000 of the townspeople joined the extensive search, but they noticed that Jim Wilcox did not.
The dogs snuffled at Nell's shoes and socks, leading Branch on a quick chase but found nothing. Rumors formed that Nell had been carried off, kidnapped for ransom, or thrown into the river.
Someone shot a cannon over the river, and there was talk of blasting dynamite to dislodge the body, if there was one, but these efforts went nowhere. A psychic sent word that Nell was alive and had been taken away on a boat. Then another one, a spiritualist from Norfolk, Va., named Madame Snell Newman, said that Jim had killed Nell. He had used chloroform, wrapped her in a blanket, and then driven her out into the country where he'd killed her. Then he threw her into a deep well near an old house.
The townspeople invited her to come to town, and she arrived on December 6 at the Cropsey house. Inside, she sat in a chair, rocked herself, and said that this was where Jim had sat. Ollie acknowledged that he had. Madame Newman mentioned several more accurate details, and then said that Jim had an accomplice. He had helped Jim put Nell into a wagon and had gone with them to where she was murdered. Jim had been jealous, the medium announced, and when Nell announced she was going to New York, he'd decided that if he couldn't have her, no one would.
The committee who had brought Madame Newman there took her in a wagon during that cold day to find out what else she could discern. Like a bloodhound on a different sort of scent, she led a rather large pack of people for miles, down one trail after another. They found two wells, neither of which contained the body.
After 25 miles with no results, they gave up for the day. Then they searched every well in the local area, again with no results. However, Madame Newman's certainty of Jim's guilt helped to seal it in the minds of the community. She had spoken definitively on the matter as she led people from place to place, and since she'd been right on so many details, they tended to ignore the fact that she'd been wrong on others, and they believed her.
But where was the body?
Two days after Christmas, a pair of fisherman found Nell floating in the river. An autopsy showed that she had not drowned and that she had a bruise on her forehead indicative of foul play. Based on confusing medical symptoms and hearsay rumor, the coroner's jury decided that Nell had been murdered, and though he professed his innocence, Jim was arrested, tried and convicted for it. Sent to prison, he was pardoned after 15 years, but later in life, a despondent drunk who couldn't find work, he used a shotgun to blow off his head. Supposedly he'd revealed something to a newspaper editor, but that man died in an accident, taking any information he had about the incident to his grave.
In this case, a well-known and confident psychic fanned the flames of community fear and anger. There was no physical evidence that tied Jim Wilcox to Nell Cropsey's death. There was just strong public sentiment, based partly on the fact that the psychic was uncannily accurate about some of the details of Nell's last moments. Had she read those in the papers or had Ollie Cropsey tipped her off with unconscious clues? The skeptics and the psychics would have opposing explanations for these events, each claiming this case in support of their particular views.
Let's look at the various ways that people claim to be able to "see" events that can assist law enforcement with unsolved cases.