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Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

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by Peter Kaufman

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On a February night in 1897, the general store in Walford, Iowa, burned down. The next morning, townspeople discovered a charred corpse in the ashes. Everyone knew that the store’s owner, Frank Novak, had been sleeping in the store as a safeguard against burglars. Now all that remained were a few of his personal items scattered under the body.

At first, it


On a February night in 1897, the general store in Walford, Iowa, burned down. The next morning, townspeople discovered a charred corpse in the ashes. Everyone knew that the store’s owner, Frank Novak, had been sleeping in the store as a safeguard against burglars. Now all that remained were a few of his personal items scattered under the body.

At first, it seemed to be a tragic accident mitigated just a bit by Novak’s foresight in buying generous life insurance policies to provide for his family. But soon an investigation by the ambitious new county attorney, M. J. Tobin, turned up evidence suggesting that the dead man might actually be Edward Murray, a hard-drinking local laborer. Relying upon newly developed forensic techniques, Tobin gradually built a case implicating Novak in Murray’s murder. But all he had was circumstantial evidence, and up to that time few murder convictions had been won on that basis in the United States.

Others besides Tobin were interested in the case, including several companies that had sold Novak life insurance policies. One agency hired detectives to track down every clue regarding the suspect’s whereabouts. Newspapers across the country ran sensational headlines with melodramatic coverage of the manhunt. Veteran detective Red Perrin’s determined trek over icy mountain paths and dangerous river rapids to the raw Yukon Territory town of Dawson City, which was booming with prospectors as the Klondike gold rush began, made for especially good copy.

Skull in the Ashes traces the actions of Novak, Tobin, and Perrin, showing how the Walford fire played a pivotal role in each man’s life. Along the way, author Peter Kaufman gives readers a fascinating glimpse into forensics, detective work, trial strategies, and prison life at the close of the nineteenth century. As much as it is a chilling tale of a cold-blooded murder and its aftermath, this is also the story of three ambitious young men and their struggle to succeed in a rapidly modernizing world.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Not a perfect crime, but a perfect page-turner by a skilled storyteller.”—Lester V. Horwitz, author, The Longest Raid of the Civil War

“Peter Kaufman has pulled off an impressive piece of historical detective work, digging deep into the archives to uncover a remarkable murder mystery and sleuthing adventure that stretches from Iowa to the Klondike and back. The captivating story opens a window on American life in the beguiling 1890s.”—Robert Loerzel, author, Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897

“From Iowa to the Klondike and back again, Peter Kaufman scatters clues as he draws upon the actual words of dogged reporters and legal aces, a crack detective and a parade of witnesses. Just as the chain of events packed a courtroom a century ago, this real-life crime story will enthrall readers today.”—Ginalie Swaim, State Historical Society of Iowa

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University of Iowa Press
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Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-1-60938-213-1


Death in Flames

Walford, Iowa, February 3, 1897. Martin Loder woke up. It was about 1:30 am and someone was shouting at him.

It was his wife Emma.

"Martin, get up!" she screamed. "The store's on fire!" The Loders lived about one hundred yards down the street.

Dressing quickly, Loder jammed his feet into a pair of boots. At the same time, he sent his brother-in-law to rouse the Novaks, who lived a few blocks away, since their son, Frank Novak, owned the dry goods store along with Charles Zabokrtsky. Loder knew that Novak was in the habit of sleeping in the place. In fact, he had last seen Novak behind the counter about an hour and a half ago, preparing to close for the night and then go upstairs to sleep on a small cot. The store had been burglarized about two years ago and Novak had vowed it wouldn't happen again, so he and his partner, whom everyone called Charley Zeb, had been taking turns sleeping there, guarding the store in case the robbers returned.

Loder ran through the blowing snow to the two-story store, the largest building in the little town of Walford. Twenty-three-year-old Joe Strened had already woken up the Novaks and was right behind him. Both men saw the flames flash brightly, breaking out of the second floor window, and Loder could hear the wood cracking and popping. It was then that Strened yelled to Loder that Frank Novak was still inside.

The whole scene was a nightmare. The tavern owner tried opening the heavy front doors, but they were both locked. He picked up a large wooden plank and worked to pry them open, but the plate glass shattered and the doors held fast. A strong odor of gas poured through the broken glass and drove Loder back. Thinking fast, he ran around to the other side of the building and tried several times to raise a ladder to the second floor. It was then that he noticed something curious. The cellar door was open. This was odd, he thought, since he had always known Frank Novak to keep that door locked. Loder dropped the ladder and made a few attempts to enter the cellar but was driven back by the heat and the fear that the gas-fired boiler might explode at any moment.

Now the spreading fire raced through the rest of the building, burning everything in the general store—shelves full of blue work shirts from the nearby Amana colony, overalls, heavy winter jackets, food supplies, tobacco plugs, and other materials. The flames rose high into the night. As the townspeople gathered, there was little to do but stand and watch. Some of the men brought water from a nearby creek in wooden buckets, but their efforts were in vain as the fire raged with an angry ferocity, tearing through the building as if it were some hungry animal with a life of its own, consuming all of the goods on the shelves and eagerly engulfing the row of coffins stacked neatly in one corner on the second floor.

After a while, the firefighting efforts stopped and the townspeople stood by, helpless, the sloshing water in their buckets cooling as they watched the wood frame succumb to the flames. The south wind blew the fire around to the other side of the building and soon the entire structure was ablaze. Everyone began to move back slowly, as if in a trance, staring as the conflagration burned all night, lighting the sky for miles across Benton County.

No one slept very much during the early morning hours of February 3. Most of the hundred or so residents of Walford watched the flames, while a few men worked to keep the fire from spreading to the other buildings in the town, which consisted of a hardware store, saddle and harness business, a small lumber yard, and a creamery. Through the work of the townspeople, these structures were saved but the store and its adjoining bank building were lost.

In the morning, when the weak slanting rays of the winter sun lit the bleak Iowa countryside, everyone saw that the store and bank were destroyed, with nothing left standing but a portion of a blackened brick wall. Someone had hooked up a small hose and was listlessly playing a stream of water back and forth across the wreckage, but the smoke continued to billow, mixing with the short, staccato puffs of air emerging from the townspeople's mouths, giving them the appearance of little steam locomotives.

And Frank Novak was still missing.

Then, on the afternoon of that day, Lars Norland, an implement dealer from nearby Norway, was hosing down the ashes when he saw what appeared to be part of a human ribcage sticking out from the rubble. Martin Loder, Tom Davin, Knute Sampson, and a few others climbed cautiously over the pieces of still-smoldering wood, picking their way past the drifting snow and ice mixed with a thick layer of ashes as Norland helped clear off the debris with his hose.

The body was a few feet from the boiler, lying on the cot that Loder assumed had fallen from the balcony, since that was where Novak usually slept. The remains were unrecognizable, since the corpse's legs were completely burned off, one arm was gone, and the flesh around the scorched face was missing, leaving only a ghastly grimacing skull.

Despite the poor condition of the body, no one doubted that it was Frank Novak's corpse, especially after the searchers discovered several of his personal items under the cot: a pair of pocket scissors, his penknife, and a small metal identification check—#3522—that matched the one Novak always wore on his suspenders. The men also found a partial dental bridge that apparently had fallen from the corpse's mouth onto the dirt floor. This scattering of personal items confirmed what Martin Loder already knew: that Frank Novak had slept in the store that night, as he often did. They gently carried the remains to a shed about fifty feet away from the burned-out basement.

Everyone else in town and in the county, including Benton County Sheriff Sam Metcalf, also assumed that the disfigured corpse found in the ashes was Frank Alfred Novak. How could it have been anyone else? One newspaper report from the town stated that Novak's father was so distraught that he had attempted suicide.

So it was quite a shock when W. I. Endicott, a city editor for the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, received an urgent telegram from Walford on the afternoon on February 3. A reporter wrote that William Murray, an eighty-three-year-old retired farmer, claimed that his son Edward had not returned home the night before. This was strange, William Murray believed, since he had expected his son back at the farm. He asked many in Walford about Edward's whereabouts, but no one had seen him since the previous evening.

The news that Edward Murray was missing threw the little town into confusion. With the store ruins still smoking, half of the people were convinced that the body was Novak's while the other half now thought that perhaps Edward Murray had died in the fire. The arguments raged all day; some insisted it was Novak because of the four clues found under the corpse and because they knew that he had been sleeping in the store lately; others were positive that the body was Murray's, because the young farmer had been in Novak's store just a few hours before it burned down. A few people were sure that both men had died in the flames, and even fewer believed that the bank had been robbed again, and that the burglars decided to cover their tracks by burning down the bank and the store as well.

Soon enough, the authorities stepped in to investigate the fire and the man it had killed. M. J. Tobin, the thirty-two-year-old newly elected Benton County attorney, hustled down from Vinton, about twenty-seven miles north of Walford. The son of Irish immigrants at a time when they faced significant prejudice, Tobin was self-conscious of his background, and although his name was Michael James, he insisted that everyone called him M. J. to obscure his ethnic identity. Tobin was sharp, streetwise, and stubborn as a terrier. Described as "brilliant" during his years at Cornell College, he had received a law degree from Columbia University several years earlier.

At the scene in Walford, the young attorney had much work to do. He needed to identify the corpse first, but just as important, he also had to determine the sequence of events in the store on Tuesday night.

* * *

Tobin knew he'd have to turn to forensics to obtain these answers. Utilizing "science as it pertains to the law," forensics can include virtually anything pertaining to a crime—from handwriting analysis, bone fragments, and bloody fingerprints to hair samples, shotgun pellets, and DNA. Forensic experts are much more than scientists. They serve as "archaeologists of the near past, who use scientific comparison to recreate plausible scenarios and dismiss implausible ones."

Although the origins of forensic science can be traced back at least 2700 years, it did not begin to be used by law enforcement until about the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1840, during the murder trial of a Frenchwoman named Maria LaFarge, the Marsh Test—used to detect the presence of certain chemicals such as arsenic—was employed, and evidence from this test helped result in a murder conviction of Mrs. LaFarge. It was one of the first times that scientific analysis played such a critical role in a case.

Another invention during that time that had immediate benefits for forensic scientists was Louis Jacques Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot's process of capturing images through use of a polished silver-plated copper sheet with a thin coating of iodine. These daguerreotypes were the forerunner of photographs. The images caught the eye of a young American writer named Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote several essays on this new invention.

One of the first men to advocate the use of photography to identify and apprehend criminals was a Chicago deputy sheriff named Allan Pinkerton, a Scotch immigrant who later founded the famous detective agency that bore his name. Known as "The Eye" because of his constant search for clues, Pinkerton documented the physical appearance of hundreds of suspects—tattoos, birthmarks, and any other obvious characteristics. Other police departments followed his lead, and the use of photographs to identify criminals became more prevalent. In 1859, the United States became the first country to use photographs as evidence in court.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the evolving field of forensic science was becoming more advanced, especially in Austria and France. While some attribute the spread of modern forensics to men like Hans Gross, a scientist and professor of law at the University of Graz in Austria, Dr. Jean-Alexandre-Eugene Lacassagne also was recognized as a pioneer. In 1881, as a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Lyon in France, Lacassagne was one of the first to employ scientific research and specific medical procedures at the crime scene. He discovered that in many criminal cases, "death leaves a signature, and [the students] would learn to read the meaning: a peaceful death versus a violent one, a death by accident, suicide or crime."

Lacassagne understood the significance of bullet strike marks and was among the first scientists to match a bullet with the gun that fired it. He also learned that the pattern of bloodstains could divulge important information. His practice of utilizing scientific methodology at crime scenes became recognized in other countries and by the 1890s, some American forensic experts had many weapons in their arsenal. Among these were handwriting analysis, forensic dentistry, chemical testing, and even photomicrography, the study of photographs taken through a microscope.

* * *

With all of these techniques for amassing evidence available to him, County Attorney Tobin immediately took charge of the scene in Walford. He organized a coroner's inquest, gathering several eyewitnesses while also sending for three more people: a dental assistant from Cedar Rapids who had treated Frank Novak, and two physicians. One of the doctors, Benton County Coroner C. B. Chenoweth, had already come from Newhall to preside at the inquest, which was held in the poolroom of Martin Loder's saloon. The other man, a prominent Cedar Rapids doctor named Wencil Ruml, arrived the following day.

To establish a timetable for the events that led up the fire in the early morning of February 3, Tobin called a number of locals to testify before the coroner's jury, beginning with Loder. The saloonkeeper recalled that he had seen Frank Novak and Edward Murray twice that Tuesday night—first in his tavern at about 9:00 pm and then again in Novak's store at about 11:00 PM. The second time occurred when a couple of farm boys, Jake Haage and Mike Houser, had come into town on a horse-drawn sleigh. They woke up Loder and told him they were having a party and wanted to buy some beer and tobacco. Since Loder did not sell tobacco, he suggested that they all walk over to the general store, where Haage and Houser purchased some chewing tobacco, candy, and cigars from Novak. The boys talked to Ed Murray for a little while and then followed the saloonkeeper back to his tavern, where he sold them a small keg of beer. Loder also thought it was worth mentioning that there was some bad blood between Ed Murray, Murray's brothers, and Frank Novak.

Then Tobin showed Loder a pocketknife, an identification check, and a pair of scissors. The saloonkeeper wasn't sure about the knife but swore that the scissors and identification check belonged to Novak. After examining the corpse's mouth and remains, Loder said that there was absolutely no doubt it was the body of his neighbor.

After a few more witnesses, one of whom testified that the gas boiler in the store's basement had been shut off and probably had not contributed to the fire, Nellie Murray Shea was called before the coroner's jury. A widow who lived on a farm outside of Walford, Nellie Shea was one of Edward Murray's sisters, and she disagreed with Loder about the corpse's identity. Mrs. Shea had been convinced that the body was Ed Murray's as soon as she saw it carried out of the store's cellar on the afternoon of February 3. At that time, she had spotted a scrap of cloth under the corpse's neck and noticed that the color and pattern of the fabric matched that of a shirt her brother often wore. That shirt, she recalled, was blue, made of a drilled material, and had a pattern of stars and crescent moons. She also had noticed remnants of a St. Joseph's cord, a thin white rope worn around the waist by Catholics as a sign of chastity.

Then Louis Hasek testified before the three-man jury. Hasek was only eighteen years old but had already spent four years in Cedar Rapids as a dental assistant for two dentists named Drs. Brotherton and Whelply. Although he had no dental degree or certificate at the time, Hasek had been employed at the practice for so long that he was an expert at plate work and general dentistry. Hasek added that whenever the dentists were busy, he would do the examinations and determine what was needed. The dental assistant also knew Novak well and had been in Walford only two weeks before, having had supper at the older man's house on January 19. At that time, Novak had showed Hasek some bridgework and had asked the young man to repair it for him. This bridge, Hasek testified, consisted of a molar, bicuspid, and two open-faced caps on the upper right side. He also noted that two bicuspids were missing from the left side of Novak's mouth, where he had and placed a new bridge.

Tobin leaned forward intently.

"Doctor, examine this bridgework on which a black thread is tied ... and tell this jury what it is."

Hasek didn't hesitate.

"This is the bridgework of the upper left side, that on the nineteenth day of January I fitted in Frank Novak's mouth," he said, adding that "it was the bridge made to take the place of the two upper bicuspids on the left side."

Tobin next asked Hasek to inspect the skull in front of him. He did so, pausing for a moment before saying, "I now find from an examination of the upper jaw of this corpse, ... which was taken from the ruins of the Novak fire, that it has the two bicuspids on the upper left jaw there." Hasek also stated that "to the best of my judgment as an assistant dentist and one who has examined the mouth of Frank Novak, the upper jaw of this corpse is not that of Frank Novak.... I further find that the bridge which would fit Frank Novak's upper right-hand jaw will not fit the upper right-hand jaw of the corpse before the coroner's jury." Hasek concluded, "From my examination of Frank Novak's mouth on the nineteenth day of January 1897, and the examination which [I] have made on this fourth day of February 1897 of the mouth of the said corpse before the coroner's jury, I solemnly swear that the jaw and head on the corpse before the coroner's jury is not the jaw and head of Frank Novak."

Excerpted from SKULL IN THE ASHES by PETER KAUFMAN. Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Kaufman is the author of the novel Barometer’s Shadow. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
BLUEFISH99 More than 1 year ago
After discovering a burnt corpse in the ashes it was though it was a tragic accident but new evidence suggests it was something more sinister. this book provides insight into forensic detective work, trial strategies, a chilling tale of cold blooded murder?
Reading45215 More than 1 year ago
A crime story, adventure, history lesson, and court drama all in one. The research that went into this story was painstaking and thorough. The resulting tale keeps your attention all the way. 
mysterybook_nerd98 More than 1 year ago
Even though I found the text to be somewhat dry at times; I still found this to be a fun read. As much fun as reading about real life murder can be. The building of the case against Novak and his manhunt were exciting and I enjoyed learning about the early days of forensic science. If you like true crime, then check it out. * I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.