In 1897, two men came to the Klondike not for gold or adventure, but to hunt down a killer. This is the story of Skull in the Ashes, a new book by author/historian Peter Kaufman.
On February 3, 1897, at 1:30 a.m., a store in the tiny village of Walford, Iowa, burned to the ground. Found in the rubble after the ashes had cooled was the body of what was thought to be Frank Novak, a part owner of the store. Further investigation revealed that the remains were not those of Novak, but of Edward Murray, a local farmer.
While his family attempted to collect on the insurance policies on Novak’s life, local officials and some insurance companies became convinced that Novak was still alive, and they pooled their resources to track him down. The Travelers Insurance Company hired the Thiel Detective Agency’s office in New York. The Thiel Agency then dispatched a number of investigators to gather information on the whereabouts of the missing Novak.
The trail eventually led thousands of miles to Juneau, Alaska, to where detective Cassius Claud “Red” Perrin was sent to locate the fugitive. Considering the likelihood that Novak had slipped into Canadian territory, Perrin made an 11,000 kilometre side-trip by boat and train, to Ottawa, where he obtained the necessary extradition papers. Upon his return to Juneau, he purchased an outfit, hired an assistant, and headed for the Klondike.
Word hadn’t yet spread to the world of the great strike, but hundreds of stampeders were already making their way to the new goldfields. Both Novak and Perrin were among them. Novak had a lead of several weeks, but Perrin hoped to catch up to him. The determined detective and his assistant made their way over the Chilkoot to Lindeman Lake, where they joined the 150 others camped there, in the task of building their own boat to take them down the Yukon.
All the while, Perrin was asking questions and searching the faces in the crowd of stampeders, in hope of locating his man. Eventually, they set sail, braving the hazards of the southern lakes, followed by the dangers of Miles Canyon, Whitehorse, Five Finger and Rink Rapids, while enduring voracious hordes of mosquitoes and lack of sleep.
They stopped at Fort Selkirk long enough to scan the 1,200 names that had been entered in the guest book there, before continuing to Dawson City.
The Dawson he encountered numbered 1,800 souls, and was rapidly growing. Tents and crude shacks stretched along the Yukon River for four kilometres, and up the Klondike. The gold rush centre consisted of saloons “running by the score, and dance halls and gambling hells running around the clock.”
For days, Perrin scanned the faces in the growing throng on the banks of the Yukon, and spent two days doing the same on Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks. After 12 days of searching, he found his man, and with the assistance of the North West Mounted Police, he was able to apprehend Novak without incident, and then transport him back to Iowa, where he was put on trial for the murder of Edwards. The highly publicized and controversial trial of Novak was one of the first that relied so heavily upon circumstantial evidence.
Novak was eventually convicted of the murder of Edwards and spent 13 years in prison for the crime.
All of this is detailed in Kaufman’s book, published by the University of Iowa Press last year. The well-researched 284-page book includes 30 pages of end notes, a bibliography, and index, 15 illustrations and a map of the Yukon.
This is an intriguing and fascinating narrative that weaves the account of the original crime into the story of the pursuit, apprehension and prosecution of Novak. Included are the details of his trial, which became a much publicized battle between prosecuting attorney M.J. Tobin, and outspoken defense lawyer, T. H. Milner.
Tobin was a brilliant and tenacious attack dog for justice. Using the newly emerging field of forensic science, he gathered evidence including dental records, handwriting analysis and photography to support his murder charge against Novak. Milner was an able and equally tenacious adversary in the courtroom, and, after Novak was eventually convicted of second-degree murder, he continued to pursue Novak’s release over the next 13 years.
Kaufman, who first became aware of this case more than 40 years ago while working in Alaska, spent six years gathering the information for this fascinating tale of crime, pursuit and punishment. Seeking out records held in institutions in the United States and Canada, and with the assistance of many individuals, some related to the original characters in this story, he has compiled a detailed account of the events pertinent to the case.
An especially pleasing addition to the narrative is the well-balanced use of background research. Kaufman provides details of the main characters before, during and after this case occurred. When he introduces new elements to the story, he provides the reader with the context to make it interesting without distracting from the main storyline. His handling of the Yukon journey is more accurate a description of the country and events than is usually provided by someone not familiar with the details of gold rush history.
This story provides insights into the history of detective agencies from the civil war, through an era of strike-busting. The tale of Perrin’s pursuit of Novak added some lustre to the then tarnished reputation of the private detective agencies. One of the key themes of this book rests upon the new field of forensic science, and how the developing discipline provided important facts pertinent to the case. Also of note is the fact that this is one of the first cases that relied heavily upon circumstantial evidence to gain a conviction.
Kaufman’s description of prison life in the late 19th century and of prison reform added fascinating detail to the account. The photograph of the three grades of inmates, the lowest wearing stripes, the intermediate wearing black-and-white plaid, and the highest plain grey with bow tie, really provided emphasis to this account.
While the Yukon component of the story represents only 40 pages in Skull in the Ashes, it is an intriguing side note to the story of the gold rush, and makes a good read.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org