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

Peter Kaufman
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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


“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

About the Author

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

Product Details

  • File Size: 2244 KB
  • Print Length: 307 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1609381882
  • Publisher: University Of Iowa Press; 1 edition (September 15, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,510 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars True Mystery/Trial Story That Reads Like Fiction October 9, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
(A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley.)

True crime stories are among my favorites, and particularly those which have Midwest settings. So when I saw that an Iowa author had written about an infamous case set not too far from my home, I was intrigued. The book is Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a gold rush manhunt, and the birth of circumstantial evidence in America, by Peter Kaufman (University of Iowa Press, 2013).

Kaufman begins with the description of a fire in the small town of Walford, Iowa, on February 3, 1897. After the fire, a body was discovered, which began the mystery, a manhunt, a trial, and a very exciting story. The first question that had to be answered was who had died in the fire; two men were missing, Frank Novak, who owned the dry goods store, and Edward Murray, a local man who had been in the store. Kaufman does an excellent job of explaining the forensics of the day and how forensic evidence was used to identify the body, charred though it was.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the body was that of Edward Murray, and a manhunt was conducted to find Frank Novak, who had disappeared that night. A detective agency was hired by the insurance companies to find Novak, and it was quite a chase. Detective C.C. ("Red") Perrin tracked Novak through the western U.S. and Alaska/Canada and the detective's journal was used to describe the story of the manhunt. This section could have been deleted without damage to the story. Kaufman seemed to feel compelled to include every detail of the detective's journey, and while interesting it wasn't central to the story; I rushed through it to get to what I hoped would be the capture of the fugitive.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Larger Than Life Story and Personalities October 1, 2013
Skull in the Ashes is a great read...from an intriguing murder, to a cross-country manhunt, to a legal thriller, the author provides a riveting account of a case that made headlines across the country. The research is outstanding: period newspapers, trial transcripts, genealogy, and - most interesting - archival records from life insurance companies and detective agencies engaged in the manhunt. The personalities he features are larger than life - self-made men...ambitious prosecutors and defense attorneys...determined private detectives...and more. If the book were just about the case, it would be interesting enough, but the author ups the ante by providing interesting social commentary as well, especially as regards the prison system in the late 19th century, without straying too much from the main storyline. The only drawbacks are that the manhunt narrative did get tedious after awhile, the organization of the bibliography is peculiar, and - most important - he never really delivered on the promise to explain how the case represented the "Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America." Otherwise, this is a great book that will appeal to people interested in Iowa history, 19th century detective and forensic work, prison life, and much more. Well Done. Many thanks are due to NetGalley and University of Iowa Press for the review copy.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A look at early forensic techniques September 16, 2013
ARC provided by NetGalley

On a cold February night in 1897 the general store in the small town of Walford, Iowa burned to the ground. The next morning the townspeople made the shocking discovery of a charred corpse that appeared to be the store's owner, Frank Novak, who had taken to sleeping in the store as a safeguard against burglars. But...doubts soon arose as to whether Frank was really dead and if murder had been committed. Peter Kaufman takes us a wild ride as an ambitious county attorney and private detectives use new forensic techniques to attempt to bring Frank Novak to justice.

Peter Kaufman has clearly done a great deal of research to bring this previously untold story to light and to introduce the modern world, to some of the early forensic techniques and practices of private detectives. He traces each clue, back to its source intricately weaving a tale of how each person in the tale played a part in the story and what their background and future was. More importantly he focuses on three men, Novak, Tobin (the county attorney) and Perrin (one of the detectives in the case) to give us someone to focus on and keep our interest. The one issue that I do have with the book, is that sometimes Kaufman overwhelms us with information and jumps back and forth in time in the same paragraph, such as when he's introducing us to someone new, such as Perrin. Kaufman will tell us about where they presently are in their life, a bit about their background, and then mention something about them in the future, which while interesting throws me for a bit of a loop at times.

All in all though this is a well researched book and a fairly captivating read. I give the book 3 out of 5 stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What an emotional ride January 13, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Great intense read--I a
m from Benton County and knew only names before reading Mr Kaufman "s book. Thank you!!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable January 5, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Growing up in eastern Iowa, many of the places were familiar to me. A very well written and researched story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read January 16, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Kaufman takes the reader on ride stretching from the Iowa plains to the Klondike and back. Written in such a way
as to give you the gritty feel of the late 1800's, with no detail is left to the imagination. The story line moves fluidly. Well researched and beautifully written. Just a great book!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing True Crime
First off I do have to say that if you are unfamiliar with the layout and towns of Iowa, this book might be harder for you to understand. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting cCrime
Being from Iowa and somewhat familiar with the Cedar Rapids area central to the story, I found this a very interesting read. Read more
Published 3 months ago by C. Lantz
3.0 out of 5 stars Fast-paced True Crime Story More Interesting for Its Background than...
As long as you don’t take the “birth of circumstantial evidence” bit too seriously, this is an entertaining true crime book. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Randy Stafford
After discovering a burnt corpse in the ashes it was though it t was a tragic accident but new evidence suggested it was something else. Read more
Published 4 months ago by BLUE FISH
5.0 out of 5 stars History comes alive and lively in this entertaining and informative...
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys non-fiction, American history, Iowa history, Alaskan history, true crime, criminology, law, sociology, mysteries and or adventures. Read more
Published 6 months ago by alanincria
4.0 out of 5 stars A Look at Early Forensics
* I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Lisa
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book
This was a good book, based on a true story of a murder that happened in tiny little Walford, Iowa.
Published 7 months ago by Linda J Wright
5.0 out of 5 stars Crime and Punishment in Late 19th Century Iowa
This is a terrific book centered on a murder committed in a small town in eastern Iowa in the late 1890s. Read more
Published 7 months ago by E. A. Bauch
4.0 out of 5 stars For Investigation Discovery TV Fans
I occasionally wallow in IDTV mysteries & am intrigued by the solution of cold cases, so this book was a no-brainer. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Carol DeChant
1.0 out of 5 stars One that was easy to put down.
There is an abundance of information, but little insight of what it was like to be those characters. More like a book report than a story that draws the reader into itself.
Published 7 months ago by Rural Reader
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