A fire sparked Peter Kaufman’s Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America. On the evening of February 3, 1897, the Walford, Iowa General Store burned to the ground. Among the few recognizable items found in the rubble was a skull detached from a partial male skeleton. The assumption was that it was storeowner Frank Novak, who had been guarding his property following a rash of neighborhood burglaries.
An investigation by county attorney M.J. Tobin resulted in more questions than answers. Novak’s business dealings were precarious to the point of ruin, and several witnesses saw Edward Murray, an itinerant laborer and the town drunk, at the store. Tobin studied handwriting, dental records, and photographs and concluded that Novak murdered Murray, substituting his body for his own—and fleeing Walford. Meanwhile, the possible walking dead man’s insurance company, American Surety, was looking to settle their policy. They put their best man on the case. With only a few clues, detective Red Perrin captured Novak in Alaska in September 1897.
“The Walford Fire,” capture of its suspect, and resulting trial are sensational. Kaufman presents it as a landmark crime; he carefully explains that circumstantial evidence was mostly untried and untrusted at that time. U.S. and Canadian law enforcement provided solid back up (along with warrants was a signed document from President William McKinley guaranteeing cooperation) across the thousand-plus mile pursuit. Perrin does not arrest Novak outright—he takes a handwriting sample and photographs the suspect before and after shaving. By the time Tobin prosecuted the case, he had enough solid evidence to match the discoveries made within the burgeoning area of forensic science. (Ironically, Novak became a prison photographer.)
Kaufman not only recreates the crime but also solidly places it within a town, state, and country on the verge of the twentieth century. Novak is brought to justice by a detective and lawyer who knew mob justice was a strong possibility. Transporting the prisoner back to Iowa was almost as tense a journey as the one to find him.
Then there was the press. News traveled slowly, but word of Novak’s capture spread across the Solon, Iowa County Fair within minutes. The Walford Fire was fodder for the yellow journalism that lives on today in tabloids and the Internet. Mixing fact and faction with incredibly overwrought prose, articles alternatively sympathized with either the Novak or Murray families. Some of this stems not from too much freedom of the press but the then-undefined aspects of the Sixth Amendment, specifically that the accused is “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Amazingly, Novak met with Murray’s family before the trial. Today, the victim’s family may be called to testify as witnesses and are only allowed to address the defendant in court before final sentencing is pronounced.
There is one aspect of Skull in the Ashes that embraces the mythic. Detective Red Perrin is stoicism personified, the living image of the laconic lawman at the heart of the Wild West. Not even a dangerous manhunt leading to Alaska fazes him. “I have followed you a long time but I caught up with you,” is all he has to say to Novak when he finds him. His direct answers during Novak’s trial drive defense attorney Frank Milner nuts, providing the book’s only comic relief. Skull in the Ashes is a satisfying history of murder case solved with hard work.