Nell Cropsey (I)
DESCRIPTION: One night Nell's former lover Jim (Wilcox) calls on her. She disappears for three months, then her mother sees her body on the river. Her lover winds up in prison
AUTHOR: credited to Bessie Wescott Midgett
EARLIEST DATE: 1912 (Chappell)
1901 - Murder of Ella Maud(e) "Nellie" Cropsey, presumably by her former lover Jim Wilcox
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
BrownII 307 "Nellie Cropsey" (2 texts)
BrownSchinhanIV 307, "Nellie Cropsey" (1 excerpt, 1 tune)
Chappell-FSRA 61, "Nell Cropsey, I" (1 text)
McNeil-SFB2, pp. 82-84, "Nellie Cropsey" (1 text)
ST MN2082 (Partial)
"cf. The Jealous Lover (Florella, Floella) (Pearl Bryan II) (Nell Cropsey II)" [Laws F1]
cf. "Nell Cropsey (III -- Swift Flowing River)"
NOTES: This song is item dF45 in Laws's Appendix II, but should certainly have been listed higher; he did not know the Brown version.
There are extensive historical notes in Brown, which concur with the song in saying that she was very pretty but list her age as 19, not 16 as in the text of the song.
Chappell has four songs associated by title with Nellie Cropsey, but only two (I and IV) mention her name: This one and the Nell Cropsey subfamily of "The Jealous Lover."
To tell this from the Jealous Lover version, consider this first verse:
On the twentieth of November,
A day we all remember well,
When a handsome girl was murdered,
Of her story I will tell.
This story became the subject of a book, Bland Simpson, The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey: A Nonfiction Novel, University of North Carolina Press, 1993. It looks very un-scholarly, but obviously it is from a university press. Author Simpson was a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, but he was also a professor of creative writing; perhaps it shows. The book includes a photo of Cropsey; she doesn't appear as attractive as all the folklore implies.
Simpson, pp. 165-166, does give some useful dates:
1876 - Birth of Jim Wilcox.
1881 - Birth of Nell Cropsey, fourth child of her parents.
1898 - Cropsey family moves to North Carolina.
Nov. 20, 1901 - Disappearance of Nell, found dead in the Pasquotank river 37 days later.
1902 - Jim Wilcox sentenced to death for the murder of Nell, but the verdict is overturned because of demonstrations during the trial.
1903 - Wilcox retried, convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to thirty years.
1918 - North Carolina Governor Bickett pardons Jim Wilcox.
1934 - Wilcox commits suicide.
Simpson also notes the interesting fact that Roy Crawford, who had visited Nell's older sister Ollie on the night of Nell's disappearance, killed himself in 1908, and that Nell's younger brother Will committed suicide in 1913. Thus there seems to real reason to wonder if Wilcox was the actual murderer.
A somewhat more reputable source is John Harden's The Devil's Tramping Ground, subtitled "And Other North Caroline Mystery Stories," University of North Carolina Press, 1949. His story of the Cropsey murder is on pp. 11-23. His outline of the case is as follows:
In 1898, the Cropseys, New York merchants, move from Brooklyn to the banks of the Pasquotank River in North Carolina (p. 12). Nellie, who was 16 or 17 at the time, is described as being very beautiful indeed. Jim Wilcox, the son of a former sheriff of Pasquotank County, was 25 years old when the Cropseys moved in, and began to court Nell almost at once (p. 13). But, after three years of courting, he had made no move toward marriage. Apparently Nell was getting restless by this time; the two quarreled on the night she disappeared.
Supposedly those involved had a discussion that night about how they would commit suicide if it came to that, with Wilcox preferring drowning and Nell freezing (Harden, p. 23). This would seem rather ironic in hindsight. Nell's sister Ollie said that Wilcox and Nell later went out to talk on the porch. She heard a thud, but apparently she was with her own beau and did not investigate, nor did she bother waiting for Nell to come home (Harden, pp. 23-24). No one really noticed her absence until there was a disturbance in the yard (Harden, p. 24). Then it was noticed that Nell was missing. Her father went off to find WIlcox -- and learned that he had been home for hours, but Nell was not there (Harden, p. 16). Awakened, Wilcox claimed he had left Nell on her father's porch at 11:15. Wilcox claimed that he had broken up with her and then left (Harden, p. 17). Portions of Wilcox's account could be verified -- he had claimed that he had returned an umbrella and photo to Nell, and the umbrella was there but the photo was not. Also, it appears there was a two hour gap on that night between the time he left the Cropsey home and when he reached his own (Harden, p. 18).
A search began. Dogs traced Nell to a boathouse by the river; there was no sign that she had left it. Wilcox was charged with abduction (Harden, p. 18), but in the absence of a body, no murder charge was filed at the time.
Then things really turned strange. A letter showed up, explaining that the commotion among the pigs arose because someone had been trying to steal one of the Cropsey's hogs, and Nell had tried to stop him, and he murdered her and dumped her in the river. Five days later, her body was found near that spot (Harden, pp. 18-19). A lynch mob came for Wilcox, but the Cropsey family begged them to let justice take its course, and the mob relented (Harden, p. 19).
The autopsy of Nell's body showed that she had been hit hard on the left temple by an object such as a blackjack (Wilcox was known to own a blackjack). There was no water in her lungs, meaning that she had not drowned; the blow to her head must have killed her before she was thrown in the river (Harden, pp. 20-21). It was later implied that she might have committed suicide -- but this of course does not explain the blow in the head or the lack of water in her lungs.
The case against Wilcox, as presented at trial, was that he had been the last to see Nell and that he had owned what could have been the murder weapon; the prosecutor argued that he had been tired of her. There seems to have been no direct evidence against Wilcox, but he never took the stand in his own defense. Wilcox was convicted of first degree murder, but the trial had been messy enough that he was granted another. This time, the sentence was second degree murder -- which still sent him to prison. He stayed there until pardoned in 1920 (Harden, p. 21). It is believed that Wilcox had told Governor Thomas W. Bickett some details of what happened that caused Bickett to pardon him. But Bickett never explained, and neither did Wilcox; he lived as a recluse for a years, then committed suicide (Harden, pp. 22-23).
To this day, no one really knows what happened to Nell Cropsey. Wilcox is the obvious suspect, but there seems to be no direct evidence implicating him; the alternate explanation (that Nell found someone raiding her father's pigs, and he killed her) is entirely consistent with the known facts. So Wilcox arguably was wrongly convicted. That's not to say that he was innocent -- odds are that he was guilty -- but we can't prove it. - RBW
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