nell cropsey.jpg

On the night of November 20, 1901, a young North Carolina woman named Nell Cropsey vanished from her family’s home in Elizabeth City. After a frantic search that lasted more than a month, Nell’s body was discovered floating in a nearby river. She had been brutally murdered – but by who? Her lover spent more than a dozen years in prison, proclaiming his innocence, before being pardoned by the governor. Did he kill Nell? And if not, then who did? And why did he commit suicide soon after getting out of prison? 

The story of Nell Cropsey remains one of the strange tales of murder in the state’s history and perhaps the unanswered questions that still surround the case are the reason why Nell’s ghost still haunts her family home today.

Nell Maud Cropsey was born in July 1882. Her parents, William and his wife, Mary Louise, lived in Brooklyn, New York, but in 1898, left the city for the southern community of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They moved onto a 65-acre farm and William became a judge in Pasquotank County. They happily settled into their new home and Nell and her younger sister, Olive, became quite well-known in the area. They were both beautiful girls and had more than their share of suitors. Olive began a relationship with a man named Roy Crawford, while Nell was courted by Jim Wilcox, the son of the local sheriff. By 1901, they had been together nearly two years and were talking about marriage. 

On the evening of November 20, both Roy and Jim visited the Cropsey home. The two couples spent the evening together and around 11:00 p.m., Jim stood up and asked Nell to join him on the front porch to talk. Everyone else in the house, except for Olive and Roy, was asleep. A half hour passed and Olive assumed that Nell had come back into the house and gone to bed. Roy Crawford left the house, seeing no one outside. When Olive went to the room that she shared with her sister, she saw that Nell was not in her bed. She assumed Nell was still with Jim and went to sleep.

Around midnight, the Cropsey’s dog suddenly began barking loudly. The entire household was awakened and went out onto the front porch to see the cause of the disturbance. There was no one there, but at that point, Olive realized that Nell had never come to bed. Her sister was missing.

Mrs. Cropsey was terrified, but her husband tried to calm her, suggesting that perhaps Nell and Jim had decided to elope. They had been talking about marriage and it was not unusual for young couples to run off and get married, he told his wife. 

By morning, William Cropsey was not convinced that his daughter had run away. Nell had been excited about an upcoming trip to New York. None of her belongings were missing. Her clothing and suitcases were still in the closet. William was sure something was wrong. He went to the home of Sheriff Wilcox to ask questions. Jim had been the last one to see Nell that night; perhaps he had some idea of where she might be. When he arrived, Jim was home – but refused to come to the parlor and speak with Nell’s father. 

Angry and alarmed, William went to see the Chief of Police. The authorities forced Jim Wilcox to return to the Cropsey home and they questioned him for hours. Despite pleas from Mary and Olive, Jim refused to tell them anything. All that he would say was that he had left Nell crying on the porch after a 10-minute conversation. He refused to say why the young woman was crying, what the conversation was about, or where he had gone after he left the Cropsey home. 

A massive hunt for Nell Cropsey began. Law enforcement officers, volunteers, and trained bloodhounds combed the area, searching the forests and swamps. There was no sign of the missing girl. Rumors began to surface that painted an ugly picture of the relationship between Nell and Jim Wilcox. Friends told the police about terrible fights and Nell’s fear of Jim’s violent temper. They had been fighting more than usual over the last couple of months and Mary Cropsey told the police that Nell had recently confided that she planned to stop seeing Jim. 

Weeks passed with still no trace of the missing girl. Jim Wilcox still refused to talk to the police and the Cropsey family began to fear the worst. Then, on December 27, Nell’s body was found floating in the Pasquotank River. The river had been searched many times without success, causing many to surmise that the killer had recently taken the girl’s body from a hiding place and dumped it into the river. 

With no other suspects, Jim Wilcox was arrested. While in jail, death threats poured into the police station, promising that Jim would be lynched for his crime. To make matters worse, he still refused to account for his whereabouts in the house after Nell disappeared. The autopsy showed that Nell had been killed by a violent blow to the left temple. Jim’s temper was said to be violent – could an argument have turned deadly? 

Jim waived his right to a preliminary hearing and he went straight to trial. In March 1902, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to hang. Before he could go to the gallows, his case was declared a mistrial by the North Carolina Surpreme Court. He was tried again for murder in 1903 and this time, was found guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to spend the next 30 years in prison. In 1918, though, Jim received a visit from Governor Thomas Walter Bickett. A short time later, he was pardoned and released.

After Jim got out of prison, he met with famed newspaper editor W.O. Sanders, who was planning a book about the Cropsey case. Whatever Jim had to tell him was apparently so shocking that Saunders made immediate plans to start on the proposed book. But it was never to be. A short time after the meeting, Jim committed suicide with a shotgun blast to the head. Soon after, Saunders was killed in a car accident. 

Whatever Jim Wilcox told Saunders at that meeting will never be known. 

However, it’s just one of the mysteries connected to this case. We will likely never know what happened to Nell Cropsey that night in 1901 and perhaps this is the reason why her spirit refuses to rest. For the past century, those who have lived in the former Cropsey home have reported strange occurrences. Lights go on and off, doors open and shut, water rushes from the sink even when no one turns the handle, and strange cold gusts of air waft through the house without explanation.

Some reports also include sightings of a pale young woman who has been seen walking across empty rooms. People passing by on the street have seen the same pale figure looking wistfully from an upstairs window. One resident claimed to recognize Nell when she awoke and saw the murdered girl standing at the foot of her bed one night. 

Will the enduring mystery of Nell’s death ever be solved? After all of these years, it seems unlikely, which means that the unfortunate young woman is just as unlikely to find the peace that she still seeks. Her lingering presence reminds us that she never truly received the justice that she deserved and because she still walks, she is never forgotten. Her sad story is told over and over as we recall the tragic tale of her ghost. Dead men – or in this case a dead young woman – really do tell tales.