Peter Kaufman was working in a cannery in Kodiak, Alaska, in 1973 when he read a book about the Klondike gold rush. It mentioned, in passing, the arrest of a man wanted in Iowa for murder.
The nugget stayed with him. Decades later, Kaufman began six years of research and writing that would lead to “Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America” (University of Iowa Press, 298 pages, $19.95).
It’s a “true crime” book written by an Ohio man about a sensational Iowa murder and manhunt in 1897. Kaufman will be in Iowa this week to read from the newly released book.
“I was surprised to find there had never been a book written about it,” he said. “Very few people even knew about it, even people in Cedar Rapids. It was a terrific opportunity to write about twists and turns. I started digging, like a historical detective. It was a little like gold mining — looking for a pay streak of good information, dealing with blind leads.”
The story begins in Walford, in southeast Benton County, when fire destroys the two-story general store on a cold February morning. A body is found in the fire, presumably the store’s owner, Frank Novak, a well-known, well-liked businessman. But another local man turns up missing the next day. Who’s dead, who’s fled?
The dramatic tale develops from there, with a cross-country manhunt for the ages. It features a rough-and-ready detective, an ambitious prosecutor, an equally ambitious defense attorney and news coverage so sensational it will embarrass or inspire modern-day journalists.
The Benton County murder trial that follows the manhunt is one of the first in the nation to feature forensic testimony and a case based largely on circumstantial evidence.
Kaufman, 63, of Cincinnati, says he “kind of came into writing in a peripatetic way.”
A Cleveland native, he earned degrees in history and worked as a freelance science and medical writer in New York. He married, started a family and moved to Cincinnati to work for a company that makes consumer electronics for automobiles.
“I was always interested in writing but had to allocate the time,” he said. “Sooner or later, it has to come out.”
That meant getting up early every morning to write. His efforts led to “Barometer’s Shadow,” a 2005 novel about a young man who moves from Ohio to Alaska, where he works in a cannery, seeking redemption and love.
After that, Kaufman was searching for another story to tell when he thought of the Iowa case. He did some reading and then came to Iowa with a good friend who was riding in RAGBRAI. They trailered Kaufman’s motorcycle and, while his friend pedaled a bicycle across the state, Kaufman rode around researching the 1897 case.
He would return to the state several times. One of his key finds came in 2009 at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City, where he discovered the 1,600-page transcript of the murder trial. He was photographing each page of the transcript to take back to Ohio when Genalie Swaim, the editor of Iowa Heritage Illustrated asked him to write a short story about the case for the magazine. That article led to the UI Press book contract.
Kaufman’s research also included trips to Alaska and the searching of numerous archives, including ones in Canada, The Gazette and the Iowa State Penitentiary in Anamosa. He also found people who had saved scrapbooks from the time.
“It was a labor of love,” he said. “I so enjoyed, and still enjoy, coming to Iowa. Everyone is so friendly and so helpful. I had wonderful conversations with the people in Walford. They really will do anything for you. I love the land, the history. Iowa’s got a lot of layers.”
What: Peter Kaufman reads from “Skull in the Ashes”