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Skull in the Ashes

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

Peter Kaufman

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

Part One - Fire and Ice

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1. Death in Flames

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pp. 3-11

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...

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2. The Bohemian Immigrant’s Clever Son

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pp. 12-24

For as long as he could remember, Frank Alfred Novak, the oldest of John and Anna Novak’s four children, believed that he 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...

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3. Down on the Ground

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pp. 25-38

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...

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4. Thiel’s Men Move In

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pp. 39-49

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...

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5. Following the Trail

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pp. 50-60

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 remaining active lead. The new detective on the case was Dr. Charles E. Peterson, Gus Thiel’s right-hand man and the assistant general...

Part Two - Hardships

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6. Klondike Madness

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pp. 63-66

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 earlier, in 1896, the news had trickled slowly out through the Yukon Territory and down the Alaskan Panhandle. Now the once-sleepy little...

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7. Inside, Hell Begins

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pp. 67-75

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 exactly what happened on their trip: a howling wind attacked the ship...

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8. Down the Yukon

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pp. 76-93

After their ride through One-Mile Rapids, Perrin and Knudson beached their boat on the shores of Lake Bennett. The Viking was no longer seaworthy, so the two men resealed the seams and hammered in the loose nails. While they worked, one of them realized that they had left some provisions behind so they hired a few...

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9. The Long Journey Home

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pp. 94-98

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...

Part Three - The Trial

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10. Setting the Stage

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pp. 101-119

For the past seven months — from the blustery winter winds in early February through the stifling summer heat of the corn-growing season — Frank Novak had been the talk of Iowa. Stories flew around the farms and dusty crossroad towns, at county fairs

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11. Orange Pumpkins and Yellow Journalism

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pp. 120-126

By late 1897, the two competing Cedar Rapids newspapers had given extensive coverage to the Novak case. Now that Novak’s arraignment had taken place, the papers’ respective city editors, William Holmes of the Gazette and William Ashford of the Republican, tried to outdo the other with hyperbolic articles matched with...

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12. Inside the Courthouse

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pp. 127-137

The old courthouse in Vinton was a mystery to anyone who saw it. Of course, the mystery was why the forty-one-year-old dilapidated 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...

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13. Point and Counterpoint

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pp. 138-155

As the trial unfolded, it seemed clear that Tobin had done a masterful 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 forensic medical experts. Among the early witnesses were Hugh...

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14. The Summing Up and Verdict

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pp. 156-163

On Saturday, November 20, both sides made their closing arguments. The little courtroom was filled once again as everyone 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...

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15. After the Verdict

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pp. 164-178

The people of Vinton had hoped that a small bell in the courthouse 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...

Part Four - The White Palace and the Fort

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16. Life in the Colony

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pp. 181-193

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...

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17. The Redemption Dance

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pp. 194-205

After Novak was imprisoned, his family, which had lost thousands 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...

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18. Novak’s Second Disappearing Act

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pp. 206-219

As hard as it was to “do the book”— prison slang for a life sentence — at Anamosa, marking time was much worse at Fort Madison State Penitentiary. With cramped, filthy cells and a well-deserved reputation for draconian punishment, the old prison was a much...

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19. The Measure of Their Lifetimes

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pp. 220-228

Of the three literary club members from Cornell College who played a major role in the trial, E. L. Boies, who so ably assisted 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...


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pp. 229-232


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pp. 233-264

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 265-274


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pp. 275-284

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382131
E-ISBN-10: 1609382137
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381882
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381882

Page Count: 306
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: paper

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Subject Headings

  • Homicide investigation -- Iowa -- Walford.
  • Trials (Murder) -- Iowa -- Walford.
  • Evidence, Circumstantial -- Iowa -- Walford.
  • Novak, Frank -- Trials, litigation, etc.
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