Now it’s known, simply, as the Nell Cropsey House. Back in the day, though, this lovely old home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, near the banks of the Pasquotank River, was known as Seven Pines. It was from this house, on November 20, 1901, that a nineteen-year-old girl named Ella Maud Cropsey—called Nell by her family—disappeared after stepping out onto the porch at eleven PM to speak to her boyfriend, Jim Wilcox, and was never seen alive again. Dead is another story altogether.
The Cropseys—father, mother, and at least five children, the two eldest of whom were daughters Ollie and Nell—had moved to Elizabeth City from Brooklyn, New York, in 1898. The two lovely Cropsey sisters were promptly courted by two well-to-do young men from the town: Ollie by Roy Crawford, and Nell by Jim Wilcox, the son of the local sheriff.
It’s thought, possibly, that there was trouble brewing in the relationship between Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox on that November night. They had been “keeping company” for three years, and Nell, at least, seemed to be getting a bit restless. She was getting to an age of wanting to make a home of her own; Jim Wilcox, five years her senior, seemed in no hurry to propose marriage.
Jim Wilcox left Seven Pines a bit before eleven PM on November 20. He told Nell he wanted to speak to her outside, and she accompanied him out onto the front porch, pulling the door shut behind her. Ollie Cropsey would later report that she heard a loud thumping sound from the front porch just after Nell stepped outside, but nothing else. When Ollie’s suitor, Roy Crawford, left some forty-five minutes later, he reported, in answer to Ollie’s question, that he saw no sign of Nell or Jim in the front yard. Ollie—aware, perhaps, that all had not been well between Nell and Jim–was worried enough that she checked Nell’s bed, and found it empty. Still, she didn’t raise the alarm immediately; it was not until a neighbor roused the household a couple of hours later by shouting from the back yard “Cropsey, somebody’s stealin’ your hogs!” (there was a pigpen at the back of the house) that Ollie told her father, who was about to rush out with a shotgun, that Nell and Jim were out there somewhere. Arthur Cropsey, not sure whether he was angrier over the attempted pig theft or over his daughter being out in the dark with a young man not her husband in the wee hours of the morning, searched the premises thoroughly. No pigs were missing.
Nell and Jim Wilcox were.
At least, Nell was. Jim Wilcox was, within minutes of Cropsey summoning the police to search for Nell, rousted out of his bed at his father’s home, where he and his father swore he had been asleep since midnight. Young Wilcox told the police that he had left Nell crying on the front porch about 11:15 PM; he had broken off their relationship, returning her picture, which he had carried in his wallet from the time they met, and she was badly upset. He had gone, himself, to a nearby bar, had a beer with a friend, and was home by midnight.
The chief of police did not like the story the sheriff’s son told him; he had found an umbrella that Wilcox had also indicated he left with Nell, but the picture was nowhere to be found. (Nor was it ever.) He took Jim Wilcox into custody, and kept him there.
And there the matter lay. New information that was coming in indicated that there was far more to Jim Wilcox’s story than he let on, but nothing could be acted upon until Nell was found.
And she wasn’t, for nearly six weeks.
On December 6, a psychic calling herself Madame Snell Newman, from Norfolk, Virginia, showed up in Elizabeth City, leading the police on a merry chase around the countryside as she followed a “vision” she had had; in that “vision” Jim had chloroformed Nell, wrapped her in a blanket, taken her out into the country, killed her (Madame was vague as to the means), and dumped her body in an abandoned well. Despite a thorough search of all abandoned wells within a twenty-mile radius, Nell was not found. Madame’s vision did, however, cement local suspicions that Jim Wilcox had done away with—as she was now almost universally known—Beautiful Nell.
On December 24, an unsigned letter arrived in the Cropseys’ mail. Postmarked in Utica, New York, it indicated that Nell, after Jim Wilcox had left, had gone to investigate a noise she heard at the back of the house, found a man in the act of stealing her father’s pigs, and had been knocked unconscious; the man had put her on a boat and rowed away with her. The anonymous writer included a map of the section of the river adjoining Seven Pines, and marked with an X the place where Nell’s body would be found.
Nell’s mother had been in an awful state since her daughter’s disappearance. She couldn’t sleep, scarcely seemed to live at all. She had searched the riverbank daily—and, when she couldn’t sleep, nightly–for any signs of Nell’s body. Three days after the arrival of the letter from Utica, Mrs. Cropsey spotted something white floating in the water, and sent a man in a boat out to investigate. He came back with Nell’s body—found in almost the exact spot the letter had indicated on the map.
An autopsy revealed that Nell had not drowned; she had been killed by a blow to the head and her body placed in the water afterwards. That circumstance didn’t remind anyone of the story of the pig thief, from the letter; it reminded them that Jim Wilcox owned a blackjack.
Only the intervention of Arthur Cropsey saved Jim Wilcox from being lynched the night the body was found.
Jim Wilcox was tried in 1902 and sentenced to death; that verdict was overturned on appeal, and at a second trial he received a thirty-year sentence for second degree murder.
Nell was buried in a family plot back in Brooklyn, and the Cropseys left Elizabeth City forever following Jim Wilcox’s second trial. Mrs. Cropsey, so the story goes, lost her mind and died in an asylum; sister Ollie became a recluse; a brother committed suicide in 1913. Of all the collateral deaths and misfortunes to strike in the wake of Nell’s strange death, perhaps the strangest was that of Ollie’s former suitor, Roy Crawford; he shot himself to death in 1908—possibly, it’s been whispered, because he had, in fact, found Jim Wilcox standing over Nell’s dead body that night and had helped Wilcox move it to the river, then found himself unable to live with his guilt.
After serving seventeen years of his thirty-year sentence, Jim Wilcox was pardoned by Governor Thomas W. Bickett in 1920. He returned to Elizabeth City upon his release, arriving on Christmas Eve to find that he was ostracized by his former neighbors. He became a recluse and an alcoholic. In 1932, he approached the local newspaper editor, W. O. Saunders, with talk of writing a book about the Cropsey case; Saunders expressed interest, but Wilcox backed out. Two years later, after another talk with Saunders about the case, Jim Wilcox shot himself to death.
If he told W. O. Saunders the truth about November 20, 1901, and the death of Beautiful Nell Cropsey, then Saunders took the story to his own grave; he was killed in a car accident some three weeks after Wilcox’s suicide, without ever committing the story to paper.
Beautiful Nell, so they say, has never left the house known, in her day, as Seven Pines. It’s not known for certain when her silent spirit—she’s seen, but makes no sound–was first reported in the house. What is known is that, for many years now, a lovely girl in a white dress has been seen in what was, in 1901, Nell’s bedroom. She has also been seen in the front parlor, occasionally looking out the window that faces the porch onto which she stepped and vanished.
If only she could talk, perhaps at last the full story of her death would be known, and she could rest in peace.
I first ran across the story of Beautiful Nell Cropsey in John Harden’s THE DEVIL’S TRAMPING GROUND AND OTHER NORTH CAROLINA MYSTERY STORIES (1949). Additional information was found at Creepy NC and in Katherine Ramsland’s All About Psychic Detectives.