Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of "Skull In the Ashes: Murder, A Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America," by Peter Kaufman

Review of

Skull In the Ashes: Murder, A Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America, by Peter Kaufman ISBN 9781609381882

Five out of five stars

 I have been through Walford, Iowa many times, sometimes passing through and other times doing construction work and eating in the cafĂ©. Until I encountered this book, I had no idea that an event that took place in 1897 put that small town into the limelight. When the general store owned by Frank Novak burned down it was of course a major event. It took on even more significance when a badly burned body was found in the ashes.

 At first, the belief was that it was the remains of the owner Frank Novak, but after a bit of investigating, the conclusion was that it was Ed Murray, a man known to have been with Novak earlier in the evening. This result was based on dental records as well as scraps of clothing that somehow survived the fire. Once this conclusion was reached and Frank Novak was nowhere around, a nationwide search for him was initiated. Novak was finally tracked down in the booming gold fields of the Yukon by detective Red Perrin, he was captured and brought back to Iowa to stand trial. The only way to get to the Yukon was to go to the west coast of the United States, then up to Alaska by boat and then upriver to their destination.

 In an era where people got their news from newspapers and their thrills from dime novels, this was better than the fiction they were reading. The story captured the imagination of the public and led to a legal precedent, where a series of linked events were used to construct a convincing circumstantial case for Novak having murdered Murray.

 The story is one where fact is truly more unusual than fiction. For Perrin traveled thousands of miles by boat and rail in order to find Novak, utilizing the slimmest of clues. It is a great tale of persistence, luck and sensational events that would challenge the most talented of fiction writers.

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