364: Skull in the Ashes by Peter Kaufman

by Gerard


364.1523: Kaufman, Peter. Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2013. 227 pp. ISBN 978-1-6093-8188-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 360: Social problems, services, and associations
  • 364: Criminology
  • 364.1: Criminal offenses
  • 364.15: Offenses against the person
  • 364.152: Homicide
  • 364.1523: Murder

On the night of February 3, 1897 in Walford, Iowa, a fire broke out. Frank Novak’s general store was ablaze and everybody thought he was trapped inside. Instead, a night guard, one Edward Murray, was inside and Novak had fled the scene. No evidence could be found of how  the building caught fire, why Murray was inside and unable to get out, or what part if anything Novak played in the act. It was left to county prosecutor M. J. Tobin and his hired detectives to chase down the fleeing suspect and get some answers. Peter Kaufman’s Skull in the Ashes tells the tale of how they went about the arrest and trial of Novak and how exactly circumstantial evidence could be used in a trial.

The cast of characters here includes Frank Novak, the American-born son of Bohemian immigrants trying to make a name for himself in small-town Iowa; Edward Murray, the unsuspecting clerk who had a penchant for both the drink and helping out people in town; M. J. Tobin, the newly-minted prosecutor who spent months piecing together the events leading up to and following the fire; “Red” Perrin, a rough-and-tumble old school detective who chased down Novak all the way into the heart of the Alaskan wilderness after he flees town; and Tom Milner, the wily defense attorney who tries everything under the sun to protect and free his client. I’ll try not to spoil too many of the details, but let’s just say justice prevails.

The story is compelling and full of twists and turns. Luckily, newspaper and historical accounts of the day have survived and Kaufman does a very good of threading all the information together. He tries desperately to be impartial, but you can tell he already knows how the story will end up and that bleeds into the writing a little bit. Even knowing the outcome somewhat, it was still pretty entertaining. Novak’s machinations while being chased down, tried, and sentenced make one grateful for a diverse and (mostly) impartial legal system. Luckily, this story doesn’t suffer from the burden of being over told; its 200 or so pages are just enough to get everyone’s story out there. It works well as a true-crime legal drama without being overly dramatic. A pleasant read.