- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
[On the 5th of March] we left [Wichita] on our second trip. … We overtook a stranger on this trip, the first day out from Wichita, about two or two and one half miles from town, who Hillmon invited to get in and ride, and who he (Hillmon) proposed to hire to herd and work for him on the ranch as proposed to be located. This man was with us during all this trip. Hillmon proposed to me that the man would do to pass off for him. I contended with him that the man would not do to pass off for him … and I protested, and said that was going beyond what we had agreed, and something I had never before thought of, and was beyond my grit entirely. But Hillmon seemed to get more deeply determined.… Pains were taken not to have more than two of us seen together in the wagon.… Hillmon kept at the man until he let him vaccinate him, which he did, taking his pocket knife and using virus from his own arm for the purpose. He also traded clothes with him.… This man appeared to be a stranger in the country, a sort of an easy-go-long fellow, not suspicious or very attentive to anything. His arm became very sore, and he got quite stupid and dull. He said his name was either Berkley or Burgess, or something sounding like that. We always called him Joe. He said he had been around Fort Scott awhile, and also had worked about Wellington or Arkansas City. I do not know where he was from, nor where his home or friends were. I did not see him at Wichita that I know of. I had but very little to say to the man, and less to do with him. … I frequently remonstrated with Hillmon, and tried to deter him from carrying out his intentions of killing the man.
The next evening after we got to the camp last named [on Crooked Creek], the man Joe was sitting by the fire. I was at the hind end of the wagon, either putting feed in the box for the horses or taking a sack of corn out, when I heard a gun go off. I looked around, and saw the man was shot, and Hillmon was pulling him away around to keep him out of the fire. Hillmon changed a daybook from his own coat to Joe’s, and said to me everything was all right, and that I need not be afraid. … He told me to get a pony … and get some one to come up. He took Joe’s valise, and started north. … I have never heard a word from him since.…
I make the above statements in the Hillmon case as the full and true facts in the case, regretting the part I have taken in the affair.
Brown executed and swore to this affidavit on the fourth of September, 1879. At the same time he gave Buchan written authority “to make arrangements, if he can, with the insurance companies for a settlement of the Hillmon case, by them stopping all pursuit and prosecution of myself and John W. Hillmon, if suit for money is stopped and policies surrendered to companies.”
Then began a period of correspondence and visits between Brown and Sallie Hillmon. He first had a midnight rendezvous with her at Baldwin’s house, told her what he had done, and got her to meet Buchan. She did so on several occasions—and once stayed at Buchan’s home at Wyandotte for three weeks. She was always in need of funds, and did not hesitate to ask him for train tickets or money that she could not get from Baldwin. In September she wrote Buchan from Ottawa, Kansas, that:
… it will never do for you to come to my sisters. I will tell you the reason when I see you.… I will be obleged to ask you to send me enough to bye my Ticket to your city. … I did write that letter to Riggs & Borgholthaus [her attorneys] have got no answer and don’t want any.
I will be on the Wendsday’s Train without something offle happens.
In September, 1880, Sallie gave Buchan a full “release” of all her interest in the insurance policies; but she did not have the policies themselves. They were in the hands of Baldwin’s lawyer, who refused to give them up, saying he had a lien on them for $10,000. Buchan showed her Brown’s statement and the agreement of the companies not to prosecute him; but then, somehow—perhaps at her insistence—Brown’s statement got torn up and dropped into a stove. (Later, when negotiations with her finally broke off, it was remembered that the stove was unlighted, and the pieces of the statement were fished out and preserved.)
The situation grew more and more puzzling. Despite all her friendly visits with Buchan, Sallie evidently never made any statements of fact that were inconsistent with her previous claims, or contrary to any of her testimony in the case. If she had, Buchan was not the man to have kept it secret. Indeed, it may be just as likely that Sallie was playing a game with Buchan as that he was spinning a web for her. The fact is that Buchan got no further results. The policies were not surrendered. Sallie’s “release” had no legal effect. Only Brown’s statement, rescued from the fireless stove, took its place among the mass of evidence served up to six juries. But soon after Sallie filed her suit and it became clear that he was in no real danger of criminal prosecution, Brown—can it surprise you?—repudiated his “confession” and reverted to his original story. With not unreasonable caution, Sallie’s lawyers took Brown’s deposition before the case came on for trial, and had him repeat his original story of how he had accidentally shot Hillmon. The insurance lawyers cross-examined him for nineteen days, but they were unable to get him back to the tale he had told in his written “confession.”