The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse


A third and much more formal inquest was held. Brown, Baldwin, Sallie, and about a dozen others identified the body as Hillmon’s. Honest persons at Medicine Lodge and elsewhere who had seen Brown and Hillmon on their trip said the body was Hillmon’s, or at least that of the man they had seen with Brown. But the insurance companies produced two or three dozen persons who had known Hillmon at Lawrence or other places, who said the body was not his. The undisputed facts were that the corpse was wearing HiIlmon’s clothes except for his hat, which had been burned, and his shoes, which were somehow lost. The corpse measured (he feet eleven inches; the face was marred by burns, but a perfect set of teeth was preserved, and there was a vaccination scab on the arm. The measurement corresponded with Hillmon’s height as stated on the insurance policies, but an insurance doctor and some other witnesses swore that Hillmon was actually only five feet nine. (The insurance doctor said he had forgotten to report the shorter measurement to the company until the dispute arose.) There was medical testimony to the effect that Hillmon’s vaccination in Lawrence in February would not have left a scab like the one on the body; but the effect of this was undoubtedly lost on the jury because one of the insurance doctors had carefully removed the scab from the body and never returned it. There was a nose scar that some said they remembered on Hillmon; but there was no sign of other scars and marks that Hillmon was said to have had. In particular there was much testimony that Hillmon had been missing a tooth. Sallic denied that; she said her husband’s teetli were perfect, like those in the dead body. Sallic was not very good at descriptions. Before the body had arrived at Lawrence the insurance men had tried to get her to describe her husband, but she would say only that he had more hair than her questioner, who was bald. The insurance witnesses, on the other hand, were precise in their recollections of Hillmon’s physical peculiarities—considerably more precise, indeed, than they were when cross-examined about the equally obvious peculiarities of other locally well-known persons.

With some of this evidence before them and the insurance lawyers in back of them, the inquest jury brought in a finding that the body was that of an unknown man feloniously shot by John H. Brown. The effect of this verdict on Brown was impressive. Hc went for help to his father, who lived in Wyandotte, and wrote another letter to the “widow”:

Mirs Hillmon i would like to now where Johny is and How that business is and what i shall doe if any thing. Let me now threw my Father.


His father sent him to a locally influential lawyerpolitician named Buchan—the Honorable State Senator W. J. Buchan. Jn the many trials of the case the insurance lawyers liked to refer to Buchan as Brown’s “own attorney”; but what pay Buchan received—some Sfioo or §700—tame from the insurance companies. The court of appeals called his conduct “unprofessional,” but he seems to have thought of himself as an arbitrator. In any event, after discussing Brown’s difficulty with him and his father, Buchan went to see the agents of the insurance companies; returned; discussed the situation again with Brown; and then someone—allegedly Brown—concluded that Brown should turn state’s evidence, and that Buchan should arrange a deal with the insurance companies. Brown would make a complete confession and get Mrs. Hillmon to surrender the policies, while the insurance companies would take no steps to prosecute the Hillmons, Baldwin, or Brown. Buchan prepared the “confession” in the form of an affidavit:

… Along about the ioth day of December, 1878, John W. Hillmon, Levi Baldwin, and myself talked about and entered into a conspiracy to defraud the New York Life Insurance Company and the Mutual Life, of New York, out of some money to be obtained by means of effecting a policy or policies on the life of said John W. Hillmon. Baldwin was to furnish the money to pay the premiums .… Hillmon and myself were to go off southwest from Wichita, Kansas, ostensibly to locate a stock ranch, but in fact to in some way find a subject to pass off as the body of John W. Hillmon, for the purpose of obtaining the insurance money aforesaid. We had no definite plan of getting the subject. …