The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse

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Up to this point the insurance companies’ conclusion that there had been a conspiracy was based on their own natural suspicions, the odd remarks of Levi Baldwin, and the written “confession” of Brown. As late as the summer of 1879 they thought the body was that of one Frank Nichols. who had disaooeared from Wichita; but he turned up. Then perseverance and luck brought them evidence concerning another person whose description might fit the dead body.

In Fort Madison, Iowa, there lived the parents, the sisters, and the sweetheart of a young German named Frederick Adolph Walters. Fred had left that town to seek his fortune about a year before the occurrence on Crooked Creek. During this year he had wandered around Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, spending time in various towns, including Wichita. On the first of March, 1879, a few days before Hillmon and Brown left on their final trip, Walters wrote his sister a letter from Wichita:

I in my usual style, will drop you a few lines to let you know that I intend leaving Wichita on or about March 5th, with a certain Mr. Hillmon, a sheep trader, for Colorado, and parts unknown to me.…

At about the same time he wrote his sweetheart, Alvina Kasten, a longer letter dated March 1, 1879:

Dearest Alvina:

… I will stay here until the fore part of next week, and then will leave here to see part of the country which 1 never expected to see when I left home, as I am going with a man by the name of Hillmon, who intends to start a sheep ranch, and as he promised me more wages than I could make at anything else, I concluded to take it for a while, at least until 1 struck something better. There is so many folks in this country that have got the Leadville [mining] fever, and if I would not have got the situation that I have now, I would of went there myself; but as it is at present, I will get to see the best part of Kansas, Indian Territory, Colorado and New Mexico. The route that we intend to take would cost a man to travel from $150 to $300, but it will not cost me a cent; besides I get good wages. I will drop you a letter occasionally until I get settled down, then I want you to answer it (you bet, honey).

Thereafter time passed without further letters to sweetheart, sister, or family, though previously Fred Walters’ letters in “usual style” had been steady and regular. When his new silence extended into weeks and months, the family became alarmed and began to make inquiries. The inquiries eventually came to Lawrence, and from there someone sent the family photographs of the controversial dead body. These they immediately declared to be pictures of the missing Walters. There was even a mole on the back of the dead body in just the place where the new witnesses swore Walters had had a mole. To be sure, his sister said that he had had a scar on his ankle, received from a dog bite when he was twelve years old; the doctors’ minute examination of the dead body in Lawrence had revealed no ankle scars, but the scar might have disappeared over the years.

The Hillmon case was now popularly reduced to a single question: Was the dead body Hillmon or Walters? There were several difficulties with the Walters theory. All the testimony identifying the body as Walters was based on photographs of a weeks-old corpse with a burned face. Apart from such identification there was nothing to connect Walters with Hillmon and Brown except the letters to his girl friend and his sister. No one was ever produced who had seen Walters with Hillmon or Brown, or who had seen Walters near Crooked Creek or Medicine Lodge. And if Brown’s “confession” is referred to, there is nothing in it that is completely consistent with the Walters letters. If Hillmon hired Walters in Wichita, either he did not tell Brown about it or Brown’s “confession” was not forthright. The name “Berkley or Burgess” which Brown cited in his statement is certainly not “Walters”; “Joe” is not a likely nickname for “Frederick Adolph”; and the travels that Brown ascribed to Joe do not correspond with the known travels of Walters.

So the letters from Wichita were the only real support of the Walters theory. Their genuineness was not questioned, and the inferences drawn from them seemed inescapable in the light of Walters’ complete disappearance. Sallie’s attorneys tried to destroy the effect of the letters in two ways—factually (by pointing out to the jurors that Hillmon was a very common name in Kansas and that the letters did not say “John Hillmon”) and legally (by objecting that the letters were “hearsay” and as such inadmissible in evidence).

For at least two centuries the rule against hearsay has been one of the foundation stones of the law of evidence. Indeed, about the time of the Hillmon case, an Alabama court declared that this rule had been one of the rights guaranteed to Englishmen by the Magna Charta. This was more than a slight historical error, but it showed the reverence that courts and lawyers have had for the rule. Chancellor James Kent, the author of America’s first great law book, gave this reason for the rule against hearsay:

A person who relates a hearsay is not obliged to enter into any particulars, to answer any questions, to solve any difficulties, to reconcile any contradictions, to explain any obscurities, to remove any ambiguities; he entrenches himself in the simple assertion that he was told so, and leaves the burden entirely on his dead or absent author.