Episode 4: Autopsy
The autopsy on Nell Cropsey was conducted on December 27, 1901, the day her body was recovered from the Pasquotank River. Within thirty minutes coroner, Dr. Isaiah Fearing, convened a jury and summoned three physicians to conduct the autopsy. They worked late into the night.
During the first trial of James Wilcox, George W. Ward, solicitor for the State, questioned Dr. Fearing at length. While Fearing had been coroner for Pasquotank County for three years, this was his first autopsy. Citizens, including the police chief, moved the body from the river to an outbuilding on the Cropsey property. Within an hour of recovery, about 11 in the morning, the autopsy began. Citizens were gathered outside the building, but police kept them back.
The autopsy showed that Nell Cropsey was a virgin, had a small amount of undigested food in her stomach, no water in the lungs, and no apparent signs of violence on the body. They stopped the autopsy but reconvened about 3:30 or 4 and did a more thorough inspection of her head. A roundish contusion was found on her left temple which, in Dr. Fearing’s opinion was caused by a blow to the head. He posited that it was “Some padded instrument” a blow from which would have rendered her unconscious. When asked what the lack of water in the lungs indicated, he answered, “Death by not being drowned.”
This statement was met with rigorous questioning by Ward with frequent objections by the defense. Defense attorney, Edwin F. Aydlett, upon cross examination, asked if Fearing had ever done an autopsy on anyone that had drowned, and he stated that he had not. What followed were questions upon questions about the physical evidence found in her heart, lungs and brain. Dr. Fearing maintained steadfastly that this case was different from most other cases because it was “…the winter time, very cold weather, and the body was in a perfect state of preservation and there was no decomposition, except in the brain” (pg. 39). The other doctors, Julian E. Wood and Oscar McMullan, were also questioned. They each had distinctive tasks to perform during the autopsy, Fearing did the operation, McMullen dictated the notes while clerk, John D. Sykes wrote them down. Dr. Wood as the county’s health officer was in charge of the procedure. All the physicians were questioned during the trial.
~by Debbi Blake
Coming up — Episode 5: Conviction