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News :: 'Skull in the Ashes;' Author of local crime history book to visit Vinton Oct. 3
· 7:45pm October 2nd, 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.
Peter Kaufman, an author and historian, has spent six years researching and writing about this case for his new book, "Skull in the Ashes," from the University of Iowa Press.
Kaufman will be discussing his book and signing copies at the Vinton Public Library at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3.
The story about the fire, and Tobin's involvement, continues below:
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.
Praise for Kaufman's book includes the following:
“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
". . . a gripping, absorbing read."—Patrick Millikan, editor, PHOENIX NOIR
“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
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