Nell Cropsey stepped out onto the front porch of her waterfront home in Elizabeth City the cold, damp night of Nov. 21, 1901, and was never seen alive again.
The night Cropsey, 19, disappeared, she had been in the parlor of the house with her boyfriend, Jim Wilcox, as well as her sister, Ollie. As the night came to a close, the couple stepped outside to talk, and Cropsey ended the relationship. Wilcox said that he left her on the porch after she broke up with him, according to a state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources blog.
Her body was found 37 days later in the Pasquotank River.
The autopsy report revealed a contusion on her left temple and that her lungs were ‘free from water’,” Museum of the Albemarle Curator Wanda Lassiter said about the murder.
Wilcox was the prime suspect. “The case, built on circumstantial evidence, was a sensation in its own right. Protesters and mobs interrupted the first trial until the judge declared a mistrial and ordered a new trial in a nearby county,” according to cultural resources.
After being being found guilty of second-degree murder in 1903, Wilcox served half of a 30-year sentence in Raleigh. Wilcox was pardoned by the governor. He eventually made his way back to Elizabeth City, where he died by suicide in 1934, according to the Museum of the Albemarle.
The museum has invited author William E. Dunstan, Elizabeth City native, to discuss “The Woeful Story of Nell Cropsey & Jim Wilcox” for October’s History for Lunch Hybrid at the museum.
Offered in-person or via Zoom, the discussion will begin at noon Wednesday. Register in advance through the museum’s Facebook page or website to receive link to attend the lecture virtually. The virtual program is supported by Southern Bank and Biggs Cadillac Buick GMC of Elizabeth City.
The Elizabeth City museum also has an exhibit dedicated to “Nell Cropsey: 120 Years of Mystery” that features graphics, artifacts from the 1900s, including a bottle found when the current owners renovated the Cropsey House in 2019 as well as the front doors, and photos. Items carved by Jim Wilcox while imprisoned for the second-degree murder of Cropsey are also on display, including a walking stick carved with images referencing death, prohibition, evil vices, war and peace, and biblical references to good and evil. Lassiter wrote the excerpts included in the exhibit.
Dunstan, author of “Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox: The Chill of Destiny” and “Haunted: Jim Wilcox Remembers Nell Cropsey,’” writes and conducts research as a visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Dunstan told Coastal Review that his talk will take place exactly six years and four weeks after the belated funeral of Wilcox, who died by suicide in 1934, in Old Hollywood Cemetery on Sept. 8, 2015.
Dunstan said that many people contributed to the purchase of the gravestone and Twiford Funeral Home placed a tent, carpet and chairs at the grave and directed traffic without charge. Jeffrey’s Greenworld and Florist placed fresh flowers on the grave, also without charge. The Daily Advance ran Wicox’s obituary and Father Chip Broadfoot, the former rector of Christ Episcopal Church, celebrated the rites.
“The mourners included two granddaughters of John Tuttle, who generously provided food and living quarters for Jim Wilcox during his final dismal days in Elizabeth City, in 1934,” Dunstan said.
The mystery of her death remains unsolved to this day but there are many theories on Cropsey’s dead, according to Lassiter. While most assumed it was Wilcox, there were rumors that her father knew more about her disappearance than he admitted. There is also the possibility that there was a second man that visited the Cropsey residence who could have contributed to her murder or disappearance or she could have drowned.