John Hillmon (left) and Frederick Walters.
National Archives and Records Administration, Kansas City, MO.
Photos courtesy of Marianne Wesson.
Is John Hillmon (left) the man buried in a Lawrence cemetery, or is it Federick Walters? A forensic investigation may yield answers.
A 127-year-old Barber County mystery could soon be put to rest. A petition to exhume the body of a man who was shot in 1879 north of Medicine Lodge will soon be filed in the District Court of Douglas County, Kansas, on behalf of Colorado University-Boulder faculty members who plan to use forensic science to determine his identity and discover whether or not the Supreme Court invented an important legal rule for the wrong reasons.
The project was inspired by an investigation into the origins of a Supreme Court decision in the Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Hillmon [some sources spell the name "Hillman"] case of 1892 by Law Professor Marianne Wesson. The case is important to scholars of American evidence law because it invented one of the most important exceptions to the hearsay rule, known as the "state of mind" exception.
The case began in 1879 when a ranch hand named John W. Hillmon left his home in Lawrence, accompanied by a man named John Brown, in search of land.
The pair ended up on Spring Creek, 14 miles northwest of Medicine Lodge -- close to Elm Mills. Shortly after, Brown appeared at a home on the outskirts of Medicine Lodge, reporting that he had accidentally shot and killed Hillmon while unloading his gun from their wagon.
1886 map of Barber County, Kansas.
A country justice, George Washington Paddock, was acting as coroner and ruled the death an accident. Hillmon was then buried in Medicine Lodge.
But suspicions were raised over life insurance -- totaling $25,000 -- that Hillmon and a man named Levy Baldwin had purchased shortly before the trip. It would have been unusual for a ranch hand to purchase such a large amount of insurance -- especially considering that his earnings may not have covered the annual premiums.
The companies that had underwritten policies were suspicious of fraud. They claimed that Hillmon and Baldwin had conspired to kill another man and pass off the body as Hillmon’s so that his wife, Sallie, could collect the insurance proceeds.
According to the book When Kansas was Young, contemporary author Tom McNeal -- who visited Medicine Lodge a couple of weeks after the incident -- revealed his own suspicions in his The Hillman Case essay:
"I think his wife did not come to the funeral," wrote McNeal, "and altogether there seemed to be a rather remarkable indifference displayed on the part of his relatives and friends. Ten days afterward a representative of one of the insurance companies arrived at Medicine Lodge and had the body exhumed and shipped to Lawrence for identification."
Later, the companies located Miss Alvina Kasten of Ft. Madison, Iowa, who testified in a deposition that a letter marked "Wichita, March 1, 1879" was from her long-lost fiancé, Fredrick Adolph Walters. The letter said that Walters planned to leave Wichita soon with a "man by the name of Hillmon" and confided that he had been "promised more wages than I could make at anything else."
Largely on the evidence of the letter, the insurance companies argued that the body belonged to Walters. When they refused to pay her claims, Sallie Hillmon filed a lawsuit -- a case that ended up being tried six times and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court twice.
The first two trials resulted in hung juries. In the third trial, in 1888, the judge kept the "Dearest Alvina" letter from the jurors, ruling that it was "hearsay." The jury voted unanimously in favor of Sallie Hillmon.
The companies filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the case reached the court, the justices created an exception to the hearsay rule -- for statements describing the intentions of the speaker or writer -- and said the letter should have been allowed as evidence because it met this description.
Two additional trials also resulted in hung juries. In a final trial in 1899, the jury found in favor of Sallie Hillmon. Again, the insurance companies appealed and the Supreme Court overturned the verdict.
"For many reasons, I think the man who died at that campground was John Hillmon after all," said Wesson, who has researched the case extensively. "I also think that the insurance companies probably located Frederick Adolph Walters alive, got him to write, backdate and sign the ‘Dearest Alvina’ letter and persuaded Kasten to lie about when she received it."
Wesson believes that only an examination of the remains, which are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, can possibly provide a definitive answer.
Wesson recruited Anthropology Professor Dennis Van Gerven to help her solve the mystery. Van Gerven, who is widely known for his work exhuming more than 400 Nubian mummies in Sudan, will oversee the exhumation and conduct a series of tests to determine the corpse’s identity at a lab on the University of Kansas campus.
"If the skull is preserved, we’ll be able to use digital photography to superimpose the image of the skull with photos we have of Hillmon and Walters." says Van Gerven. "All faces are structured differently with the area right at the top of the bridge of the nose, between the eyes, being unique to each individual. So we know that the nose has to be in the right place to have a match."
In addition to looking for limb bones for use in estimating the stature of the body, Van Gerven hopes to find pelvic bone remains, which will help him estimate the age of the body at the time of death. Hillmon was seven years Walters senior, so this may prove to be an essential clue.
"If all three -- facial structure, stature and age at time of death -- indicate a single identity, there is good cause to believe that we’ll have a positive identification," says Van Gerven. But he is also careful to point out that there is no way to predict how well the body will be preserved after being buried for more than 100 years in the Kansas climate.
"We may open up the grave and find only fragments of wood from the coffin or splinters of bone," he says, "in which case a positive identification may be difficult to make." Once the petition to exhume is approved, Wesson and Van Gerven will arrange to travel to Kansas to conduct the exhumation.
John W. Hillman: A Collection of Contemporary News Articles about the Hillman/Hillmon Case.
The Hillman Case by Thomas Allen McNeal, from When Kansas Was Young.
Marriage License: John W. Hillman and Sadie E. Quinn, dated 3 Oct 1879, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas.
Benjamin Hillman Family, 1860 Census, Grasshopper Falls, Jefferson County, Kansas.
Benjamin Hillman, father of John W. Hillman/Hillmon. Obituary from the The Oskaloosa Independent, 27 Nov. 1869. Jefferson County, Kansas.
Map of the Location Where John Wesley Hillman Was Shot and Killed
(All of the following hyperlinks are to off-site pages and will open a new browser window.
TheHillmonCase.com See this website by Marianne "Mimi" Wesson for a fascinating overview of her research and analysis of the evidence in the case.
The Case of the Anonymous Corpse, by Brooks W. McCracken.
Gravesite in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery might hold clues to the mystery of Crooked Creek, By Charlie Brennan - Special from Rocky Mountain News, Lawrence Journal-World, January 30, 2006. Includes a photo captioned: "University of Colorado professors Dennis Van Gerven and Mimi Wesson hold pictures of a body believed to be John Wesley Hillmon, who died in 1879. Van Gerven and Wesson plan to ask Lawrence officials for permission to exhume Hillmon’s body, supposedly buried in Oak Hill Cemetery."
Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon - 145 U.S. 285 (1892)
Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon
The Hillmon Case: An Exercise in Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching - Dennis VanGerven and Mimi Wesson with Jim Curry, moderator. "The Wisdom of Practice in Teaching and Learning", Fall 2005 Retreat, University of Colorado President's Teaching Scholars Program.
Marianne "Mimi" Wesson, Author and Law Professor. See current Google search results for Hillmon +Wesson for more information about Mimi Wesson's investigation of this case; see Google search results for Marianne Wesson for more information about her writings and career.
Dennis Van Gerven, PhD - Director, Honors Program, University of Colorado at Boulder. See current Google search results for Hillmon +Gerven for more information about Dennis Van Gerven's investigation of this case; see Google search results: Dennis Van Gerven for more information about his writings and career.
Death resulting from the accidental discharge of a firearm being taken from a wagon was not an uncommon occurence around the time John Hillman/John Hillmon was killed. Other examples from the Barber County area are Tom Brown of Barber County, who died in 1901, Willie Richardson, of neighboring Comanche County, in 1907, and Forrest Tatton, also of Comanche County, in 1919.
Thanks to author David Fasgold and to publisher Kevin Noland, of The Gyp Hill Premiere, Medicine Lodge, Kansas, for permission to republish the above "Tales From The Crypt" article from their newspaper.
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