Skull in the Ashes
Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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Part One - Fire and Ice
1. Death in Flames
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Walford, Iowa, February 3, 1897. Martin Loder woke up. It was about 1:30 am and someone was shouting at him.“Martin, get up!” she screamed. “The store’s on fire!” The Loders 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 ...
2. The Bohemian Immigrant’s Clever Son
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...was better than anyone else. He was clever and possessed of a mind that churned out intricate moneymaking schemes as fast as a hay baler. Even as a young boy, Frank knew that he was destined for great things, and was determined to do whatever he could to achieve his dreams. But he began his life in humble circumstances. Like so many ...
3. Down on the Ground
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At the end of the initial hearing, Tobin had the physical evidence of the body, the dental bridge and other personal items found under the cot, Louis Hasek’s statement that the skull was not Frank Novak’s, and expert testimony from Dr. Ruml on the condition of the skull, especially concerning what appeared to be a fracture and subsequent clotted blood. He also recorded the statement of Nellie ...
4. Thiel’s Men Move In
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Gus Thiel, president of the Thiel Detective Agency, was an odd little man with brown eyes, dark hair, high cheekbones, and a perpetual deadpan expression. It made sense that he had cultivated this impassive look since he was a man who had spent much of his life keeping his emotions a secret, constantly working in the shadows. Thiel had the furtive appearance of a spy, which was not surprising ...
5. Following the Trail
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...the focus on the chase now returned to Iowa. It was time for someone else to pick up the trail. The next agent would board a westbound train from Iowa City to Omaha to follow the one remain-ing active lead. The new detective on the case was Dr. Charles E. Peterson, Gus Thiel’s right- hand man and the assistant general man-ager of the St. Louis office. An extremely capable and savvy detective, ...
Part Two - Hardships
6. Klondike Madness
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As Perrin made his preparations, hundreds of miles away, the Klondike gold rush was just beginning, for even though the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek had occurred almost a year ear-lier, in 1896, the news had trickled slowly out through the Yukon Ter-ritory and down the Alaskan Panhandle. Now the once- sleepy little town of Juneau was a mad anthill of activity with a surging popu-...
7. Inside, Hell Begins
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Perrin and Knudson’s journey had a rough start as soon as the Taku left Juneau. Lynn Canal, a long fjord that is a thousand feet deep in some places and lined with the gloomy Coast Mountains, can turn from placid to stormy in a matter of minutes. That was ex-actly what happened on their trip: a howling wind attacked the ship By 1:00 am, about eight hours after its departure, the boat had ...
8. Down the Yukon
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After their ride through One- Mile Rapids, Perrin and Knudson beached their boat on the shores of Lake Bennett. The Viking hammered in the loose nails. While they worked, one of them real-ized that they had left some provisions behind so they hired a few Indians to walk upstream to retrieve them, and then they reloaded the Viking and relaunched her at the point where One- Mile Rapids ...
9. The Long Journey Home
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...the vessel that finally arrived was the SS Portland, an aging twelve- year- old steamship that had helped kick off the gold rush only a few weeks before. Although news of the Klondike strike had been trickling out of the Yukon since about February, it took the arrival of the two now- famous treasure ships — the Excelsior in San Francisco on July 15 and the Portland two days later in Seattle — to jump- start ...
Part Three - The Trial
10. Setting the Stage
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...growing season — Frank Novak had been the talk of Iowa. Stories flew around the farms and dusty crossroad towns, at county fairs and downtown courthouses, in the large cities and small villages, from Keokuk to Decorah, from What Cheer to Elkader and out west to the Missouri River valley. Most people believed that Novak had ...
11. Orange Pumpkins and Yellow Journalism
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...arraignment had taken place, the papers’ respective city editors, Wil-liam Holmes of the Gazette and William Ashford of the Republican, tried to outdo the other with hyperbolic articles matched with out-rageous headlines. Holmes worked closely with W. I. Endicott, the latter pacing the newsroom like some linotype Zeus, hurling his hot- ...
12. Inside the Courthouse
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...the old courthouse in Vinton was a mystery to anyone who saw it. Of course, the mystery was why the forty- one- year- old dilapi-dated structure hadn’t collapsed or been razed years ago. The county was one of the more prosperous in the state and served as the home of many wealthy farmers as well as a number of growing businesses. Vinton’s location on the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Rail-...
13. Point and Counterpoint
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As the trial unfolded, it seemed clear that Tobin had done a mas- terful job in organizing the prosecution’s effort. The county attorney had lined up thirty- two witnesses, from townspeople who had last seen Novak and Murray on the night of February 2 to fo-rensic medical experts. Among the early witnesses were Hugh Hum-phrey, a Walford justice of the peace, who testified that the body had ...
14. The Summing Up and Verdict
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...on Saturday, November 20, both sides made their closing ar-guments. The little courtroom was filled once again as every-one listened to the prosecution’s summary while straining to catch a glimpse of Novak’s face. Reporters sat elbow to elbow at a long table, scribbling notes at top speed while courtroom artists sketched each of the principals. Even with the windows open, the rank air ...
15. After the Verdict
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...the people of Vinton had hoped that a small bell in the court-house tower would ring when a verdict was reached, but the bell was silent. Instead, one of the bailiffs visited the hotel where many reporters and lawyers were staying and told several people about the jury’s decision. Curiously, none of the jurors initially spoke about the verdict; later, a few of them later explained that it was a result of a ...
Part Four - The White Palace and the Fort
16. Life in the Colony
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When Novak walked through the massive entrance gates shortly before midnight on December 31, 1897, he entered a state penitentiary that had been under construction for almost twenty- five years — and it was still years away from completion.twenty- four inmates arrived from Fort Madison and started work on what was formally called the Additional Penitentiary. It was given ...
17. The Redemption Dance
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After Novak was imprisoned, his family, which had lost thou- sands of dollars through his poor investments, shady business dealings, and a mountain of legal fees incurred in the case, barely managed to eke out an existence. In 1901, a story broke that Mary Novak was preparing to file a petition for divorce. Struggling to sup-a boarding house, and had allegedly fallen in love with one of the ...
18. Novak’s Second Disappearing Act
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As hard as it was to “do the book”— prison slang for a life sentence — at Anamosa, marking time was much worse at Fort Madi-son State Penitentiary. With cramped, filthy cells and a well- deserved rougher facility than its newer sister penitentiary one hundred tiary in 1839, seven years before Iowa became a state. Known as the oldest prison west of the Mississippi, The Fort was perched on a small ...
19. The Measure of Their Lifetimes
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...of the three literary club members from Cornell College who played a major role in the trial, E. L. Boies, who so ably as-sisted M. J. Tobin, was the first to die, passing away in 1903 at the age of forty- two after a bout of typhoid fever. His death was greatly the Waterloo Daily Courier devoted most of its front page to his pass-ing, calling him a giant in the legal profession, a brilliant man who ...
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In writing a book on a murder case, whether the crime took place last year or a century ago, the author must be prepared to do a considerable amount of detective work. In fact, during the course of my research, one person I interviewed referred to me as a “historical sleuth,” and I suppose that there is some truth to that. For much of the time, I felt I was gumshoeing Novak in ...
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Page Count: 306
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013