The exhumation and on-site analysis of the human remains will proceed over a three-day period (or four-day maximum, in the event of unexpected discoveries) as follows.
DAY 1. Exhumation
The grave will be opened by arrangement with the cemetery management. The cemetery manager, Mr. Young, has agreed to provide equipment and personnel for use in removing the top layer of sod; for these services the research team has agreed to compensate the cemetery at the usual rate for a disinterment. If the coffin is intact, then the remains, in the coffin, will be transported to a local facility for analysis. If the coffin is not intact, then the skeleton will be excavated from the grave using standard archaeological techniques and then transported to the analysis facility. Professor Van Gerven has arranged for the use of office and laboratory facilities at the University of Kansas for this purpose. All individual bones will be inventoried, and photographed at the gravesite. Skeletal elements will then be bagged and labeled for transport. Inventory and photography of the skeleton at the gravesite is essential to ensure that no portion of the skeleton is inadvertently lost. Appropriate transportation of the remains will be arranged through a local funeral home, using a hearse. The cemetery manager has advised that he is a licensed funeral director, and has offered to lend his services to insure that the transportation complies with state law.
Appropriate measures will be taken by all parties to minimize the size of the assembly at the gravesite. The research team will notify the City of those whom they expect to attend the exhumation for the purposes of assisting the team. The City may take such measures as it believes necessary and appropriate to exclude others or discourage their presence.
DAY 2 and possibly 3: Analysis
The skeleton will be rearticulated for analysis. Again, all bones will be carefully inventoried and photographed in their correct anatomic position.
Cranial Analysis: If facilities permit, the skull will be x-rayed from three positions - posterior-anterior, sagittal, and superior. The skull will also be photographed to a scale and orientation comparable to the life photographs of the two candidates. The dentition will also be analyzed for attrition (wear), pathologies (such as dental caries) and occlusion (including dental crowding). The x-rays and photos will be subsequently used to match anatomical features of the skull to the life photos. Patterns of suture closure will also be recorded and used later in the estimation of age at death.
Post-cranial Analysis: All long bones will be measured using standard osteological techniques. These measures will be subsequently used to estimate stature of the deceased. Pathologies (such as healed fractures or infections) will also be noted and photographed.
Features of the pelvis (the innominate bone or os cove) will be subject to close analysis. The public symphyses, and auricular surfaces will be analyzed for age changes and matched to forensic standards for the estimation of age at death. Bony changes in the sternal rib ends will also be noted for subsequent estimation of age at death.
The research team agrees to ensure that the remains are reburied within 48 hours of removal.
DAY 3 or possibly 4: Reburial
All remains will be reburied in their grave. Reburial will include all material artifacts including any preserved clothing, personal effects, and remains of the coffin. Reburial will be conducted using cemetery equipment and personnel, compensated at the usual rate by the research team. The research team has also agreed to pay for the cost of a marker for the grave, which is at present unmarked. The City of Lawrence has suggested that it may have stone available for this purpose. In any event, the research team will pay for the cost of inscribing the stone, and acquiring one if necessary. The contents of the inscription will be decided by agreement between the research team and the City, and may depend upon the findings of the team concerning the identity of the remains.
Off-Site Laboratory Analysis and Identification
Following reburial, the further analysis and identification of the remains will proceed at the University of Colorado, Boulder by Professor Dennis Van Gerven.
Cranial Analysis of the Physical Similarity to the Life Photographs: Digital photographs of the skull will be matched to the life photographs of the two historical candidates. Cranio-facial features of particular importance include morphology of the nasal root, inter-orbital distance, facial height from glabella to mention, and bizygomatic breadth. It is anticipated that these features, in combination, will lead to a positive match to one of the candidates with greater than 90% certainty.
Age at Death: There was an approximate decade difference in age at death of the two candidates. Age-related morphological changes in the os pubes and suricular surfaces of the innominate, and suture closure of the cranial vault can produce a reliable estimation of age at death for the skeletal remains. Age changes in the sternal rib ends and dental wear will be considered but are of lesser reliability. The combined criteria should provide an estimated age at death plus-or-minus 5 years. This estimate will produce a highly reliable match to one or the other of the historical candidates
Stature: It is unclear from historical accounts whether the candidates differed in stature. Nevertheless, an estimate of stature from long-bone lengths can be made using established regression formulae, and will be provided for the remains.
Genetic evidence: A genealogical search conducted in preparation for our request for exhumation has led to the discovery of a living descendant of Adolph Walters. Adolph Walters had a brother who produced a daughter who in turn produced a son by the name of Dan Davis. Mr. Davis has volunteered to provide a sample of DNA for comparisons to the human remains. There is a good likelihood that some fragments will be preserved in even small fragments of bone. This antique DNA can be extracted, amplified using standard techniques, and compared to Dan Davis. This comparison can be informative but is unlikely to be conclusive. While statistically Dan Davis should carry one quarter of the genes of his grandfather and also one quarter of the genes of his grandfather's brother (Adolph Walters) but that is only the average probability. If such closeness is observed the weight of evidence would fall against the John Hillmon hypothesis. In reality however, Dan Davis could show no particularly close genetic ties to the remains in the grave (due to what geneticists call independent assortment) and yet the remains are indeed those of his grandfather's brother. That negative outcome cannot be excluded as a possibility. A likely connection to Adolph Walters could be made if both the remains and Dan Davis share some rare trait unlikely to appear in genetic strangers. If such an outcome were to occur the Hillmon argument would be substantially weakened. In short while a close genetic like between Dan Davis and remains could exclude Hillmon as the corpse, the absence of a close link cannot exclude Adolph Walters and establish Hillmon as the corpse.
What will be learned: There are three possible out comes, each of which will add to our knowledge regarding the facts of this case. As has already been noted, there is a good likelihood that the sketetal remains will match either John Hillmon or Adolph Walters. If the remains match Mr. Hillmon then we have a final vindication of Hillmon's wife Sallie and the case she brought so many years ago. Alternatively, if the remains are determined to be those of Mr. Adolph Walters, then the defendants in this case will have at last prevailed. There is, however, a third possibility. The remains may be neither those of John Hillmon or Adolph Walters. In this case history will be served. Perhaps John Hillmon and his partner John Brown did indeed perpetrate a fraud on the insurance companies and a victim we may never know lies in the Lawrence cemetery.
"The exhumation protocol was attached as an exhibit to our petition for exhumation, and so is a public record and perfectly available for your use. We did follow the protocol for the disinterment." -- Mimi Wesson, email to Jerry Ferrin, 30 May 2006.
Exhumation of the 'Hillmon' remains in Grave 555, Oak Grove Cemetery, Lawrence, Kansas, 19 May 2006
From left: Ernesto Acevedo-Munoz, Mimi Wesson (in cowboy hat), Andrea Viedt, Paul Sandberg (in grave),
Katie Jackson, Sarah Garner (in grave) Lee Sarter, Mike Lawrence, Dennis Van Gerven (kneeling by side of grave).
Photo by Mike Brier, used with his permission.
Bones back in Kansas: DNA evidence pending in landmark 1879 case By Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News, May 22, 2006. "Forty-six of the 47 bones exhumed Friday at this city's Oak Hill Cemetery were returned to the earth Sunday in a brief ceremony under cloudless skies. It's the fourth time the same remains have been laid to rest. Just one bone, a section of a man's left shoulder blade, is to be taken back to Boulder, where a geneticist will attempt to retrieve DNA that could prove whether the man buried here 127 years ago is Hillmon, or perhaps another man who was killed in 1879 and buried as part of a $25,000 insurance fraud."
Grave riddle one step closer to being laid to rest: Identity of bones could have legal impact By Sophia Maines, Lawrence Journal-World, Saturday, 20 May 2006. "Will the bones unearthed Friday from an unmarked grave in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery solve a 127-year-old murder mystery? After hours of digging, crews exhumed numerous bits of remains, including teeth and parts of skull and clavicle. DNA tests will now determine who was laid to rest in the grassy plot more than a century ago."
Teeth could help unearth longstanding mystery: Colorado researchers dig up grave in Lawrence to determine who was buried there in 1879 By Tim Hrenchir, The Capital-Journal, 20 May 2006. "LAWRENCE -- Researchers digging up a grave Friday in Oak Hill Cemetery found teeth and bone fragments, leaving them optimistic that DNA testing can prove whether the man buried there in 1879 was actually John Wesley Hillmon. University of Colorado law professor Mimi Wesson said more than 20 small bone fragments were recovered from the grave purported to be that of Hillmon, who was at the center of an epic insurance fraud case that was twice heard by the Supreme Court. Wesson and CU anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven led the team that conducted Friday's dig."
DNA twist to Old West case: CU profs hear from descendant of man they exhume today By Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News , May 19, 2006. "LAWRENCE, Kan. - An answer to the John Wesley Hillmon mystery might be found in the DNA, after all. Work begins early today to identify the coffin's remains at the 127- year-old grave of the man at the center of an epic insurance fraud case. And now, the 11th-hour discovery of a Hillmon descendant could make the job much easier..."
Sleuths continue digging into grave mystery By Sophia Maines, Lawrence Journal-World, Saturday, 19 May 2006. "A bit of bone. That’s all they have for now, and that may be all two University of Colorado professors need to solve the century-old mystery of who was buried in an unmarked grave in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery. After several hours of digging, crews shortly after noon today uncovered what they believe is a piece of shoulder blade."
Professors will exhume body to solve mystery, Wichita Eagle, 05 April 2006. "LAWRENCE - Two University of Colorado professors hope a 127-year-old mystery involving an unmarked grave in Kansas will be solved as soon as next month. A Douglas County judge on Friday gave Colorado anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven and law professor Marianne Wesson permission to exhume a body in the grave at Lawrence's Oak Hill Cemetery. They hope to determine if the corpse is John Hillmon or Frederick A. Walters. Questions about who was buried in the grave eventually led to the creation of an important piece of federal evidence law in the late 1800s."
Petition filed to dig up old grave: City supports project to exhume 127-year-old remains at Oak Hill Cemetery By Sophia Maines, Lawrence Journal-World, Saturday, 02 February 2006. "Two University of Colorado professors want to exhume the remains of a 127-year-old unmarked grave at Oak Hill Cemetery. Anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven and law professor Marianne Wesson both are working on the project. They plan to use forensic evidence to solve a dispute that in 1892 was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court and generated an important piece of federal evidence law."
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."
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.
See current Google search results for Hillmon +Wesson for more information about Mimi Wesson's investigation of the Hillmon 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.
Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon - 145 U.S. 285 (1892)
Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon
Thanks to Shirley Brier for transcribing and sending this document, a copy of which she was given while a spectator at the excavation of the grave on 19 May 2006.
Thanks also to Mimi Wesson for her confirmation that this document is a public record and available for publication on this site!
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