The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse


Among causes célèbres the Hillmon case is unique; it was not a criminal case and no famous or notorious persons were involved. Murder may —or may not—have been clone, but there was no murder trial. It was only a young woman’s suit against three life insurance companies, the question being whether she was or was not a widow. Yet it was a political and legal storm center for nearly a quarter of a century, from before the assassination of Garfield until after the assassination of McKinley. It coincided with the rise of the Grangers and the Populists and the coming of the trust busters; and for all of them it was a ready-made and graphic story of the constant struggle of the little people against the forces of big business.

The case began in 1878, at Lawrence, Kansas. John W. Hillmon, aged thirty-three, was a roving cattle herder without visible property or means, currently resident in Lawrence. His most valuable asset was the friendship of Levi Baldwin, who was known in Lawrence as a cattleman with money. In the fall of 1878, Hillmon cemented this friendship by marrying Baldwin’s cousin Sallie Quinn, a pleasant and popular waitress. Bride and groom set up light housekeeping in a room in a lodging house, while Hillmon planned how he might improve his fortune and give Sallie the good things she no doubt deserved. Baldwin let it be known that he would help his old friend and new cousin acquire a stock ranch in the Southwest, if Hillmon could find one. Unfortunately, the Southwest was still prey to Indians, wild animals, and other dangers that a loving bridegroom might want to avoid.

Baldwin advised that before Hillmon set out to seek a suitable ranch he insure his life against these dangers. If this would not save Hillmon’s scalp it would at least protect his wife. Baldwin introduced Hillmon to the proper insurance agents, and Hillmon applied for and received policies for $10,000 each from the New York Life Insurance Company and from the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. Then, in December, 1878, he left for the Southwest in the sole company of a coadventurer, John H. Brown of Wyanclotte, Kansas. They took the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to Wichita, where they hired a wagon and horses. Hillmon returned to Lawrence for a few days in January and in February. While there, lie again saw the insurance agents and obtained a third policy—this one for $5,000—from the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. On the urging of one of the agents, and after some protest, Hillmon allowed himself to be vaccinated against smallpox on February 20. This kept him in Lawrence for a few more days; but about the first of March he went back to Wichita, where he again met Brown, and the two of them headed into the south-Kansas country.

On March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—1879, at a campnre on Crooked Creek near Medicine Lodge, Hillmon was accidentally shot and killed. Or so it was claimed. The three insurance companies, which owed his widow $25,000 if it were so, were doubtful that the dead man at the campnre was Hillmon. They knew of two or three Kansans who had recently tried to fake death for the insurance money that was in it.

In 1879 Medicine Lodge had not yet become famous as the home of Carry Nation, “The Smasher,” or of “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, the Populist leader; but the editor of its new weekly paper, being of a literary and sardonic turn of mind, had made a somewhat lasting commentary on the time and the place by naming his paper the Medicine Lodge Cresset , after the cressets of oil which, according to Milton, were used to light the palaces of hell. The cynicism of that christening was shared by the insurance companies whenever they received an unusual claim from Kansas country.

Sallie Hillmon and Cousin Lcvi Baldwin insisted that the body was Hillmon’s. There was only one actual witness to the truth—Brown—and he told two contradictory stories. After about a year of fruitless negotiation, Sallie Hillmon filed suit for her money. In the next twenty-three years the case was tried six times, before six different juries, and went twice to the United States Supreme Court. For three quarters of a century it has been a “leading case” in the law of evidence.

What aroused the suspicions of the insurance companies from the first was the fact that Baldwin and Hillmon had themselves sought out agents and asked for the policies, whereas all good prospects were expected to wait for agents to seek them out. Later investigations revealed that Levi Baldwin, the reputed cattleman with money, was in fact bankrupt, or at least very hard-pressed by his creditors. One of them he had told—in March, 1879, before Hillmon’s death was reported—that he and Hillmon “had a scheme under ‘brogue’ and that if it worked out all right he was all right.” After Hillmon’s death was reported, Baldwin put oft another creditor by saying that he had arranged to get $10,000 of Hillmon’s life insurance. Worst of all (or, from their point of view, best), the insurance investigators learned that in the summer or fall of 1878, before Hillmon applied for his insurance, Baldwin had allegedly had an odd conversation with a doctor. He wanted to know how long it would take a dead body to decompose after it was buried; and then he had archly asked if it would not be “a good scheme to get insured for all you can, and get someone to represent you as dead, and then skip out for Africa or some other damn place?” All that might have been in jest, but subsequent events aroused a natural suspicion that it was in earnest.