The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse

PrintPrintEmailEmail

To those Kansans who followed the Populists, the Hillmon case was a heroic contest between the wealth of Wall Street and a poor, defenseless widow of Kansas whose cause involved the very good name of the state itself. They had no more faith in the motives and ways of the insurance companies than the companies had in Hillrnon. Wealth had paid the doctors to lose Hillmon’s vaccination scab; wealth had paid Euchan to extort a false confession from Brown and to deceive Sallie; and in everything the hand of wealth and influence was fashioning a crown of thorns and a cross of gold for one poor, weak, bereaved woman. When the insurance companies persuaded one of Hillmon’s old girl friends and his sister and brother-in-law to take the witness stand to testify that Hillmon had a blackened or missing front tooth and not, like the corpse, a perfect set of teeth, those with Populist leanings called the brother-in-law a wretch and the girl friend a spiteful old maid, and accused the insurance companies of buying their false testimony.

Sallie’s lawyers scorned the defense’s accusations. “Such a conspiracy as the defense alleges must [if true] result in lasting separation from his young wife —the blighting of both their lives forever—her lifelong misery and his eternal damnation.” If, they said, the arguments of the insurance lawyers were to be believed, “Hillmon must have been a marvelous man. One of a party of three, traveling through a settled country, camping out, and stopping at houses, he succeeded in concealing one of the party through the entire journey from Wichita to Medicine Lodge. Not only that, but he vaccinated him, made it work, kept the protesting Brown at bay, and succeeds in his conspiracy.” Finally—and mark you—“These insurance companies with boundless wealth and inexhaustible resources at their command, with agents scattered the world over, with … years to operate in, have failed to find Hillmon.… With all their money and all their power they have never been able to find a vestige of Hillmon.”

Defending themselves against this sort of attack, the insurance companies at first hinted that Hillmon’s whereabouts were known to the authorities, and that it would be only a matter of time before he would be produced. When time passed and he was not brought forth, they pictured him as a “typical Western bravo,” and it was “surmised that the detectives are more afraid of him than desirous of getting the reward for his capture.” But no one ever found Hillmon.

Walters never showed up either; but Sallie’s lawyers had no difficulty in explaining that they never had the money and the resources to search for him .

Between 1892 and 1897 two more trials were held (the fourth and fifth of the series) and two more juries disagreed. In 1897, when the Populists were in control of the Kansas state administration, Sallie’s lawyers took a new tack; and Webb McNall, as superintendent of insurance, denied Mutual Life a license to continue to do business in Kansas, because “I am satisfied that your company has not dealt fairly with the plaintiff, Mrs. Sallie E. Hillmon, in refusing to pay the death loss and in the litigation of the same pertaining to her deceased husband.” When this came to the attention of federal judge John A. Williams, who had presided at the fifth trial, he promptly had a federal grand jury bring in an indictment against the superintendent of insurance for interference with the rights of litigants in his court, and on the petition of the insurance company he issued a mandatory injunction against both the superintendent and the attorney general of Kansas, enjoining them from interfering in the insurance company’s transaction of business in Kansas. Apparently no one actually went to prison, but the insurance companies continued in business. By this time New York Life had thought it wise to settle with Sallie Hillmon, but the other two, Mutual Life and Connecticut Mutual, continued to contest the case.

The sixth trial began in October, 1899. In the course of it the trial judge surprised the defense by ruling that Brown’s “confession” of conspiracy against the insurance companies, and Baldwin’s conspiratorial remarks about Hillmon, dead bodies, and insurance, were not proper evidence against Sallie since she was not charged with being a party to the conspiracy. This ruling so weakened the case for the insurance companies that the jury brought in a verdict for the plaintiff. Mutual Life then gave up the battle and paid; but Connecticut Mutual made 108 assignments of error and appealed. The circuit court of appeals affirmed the trial court, but on further appeal the Supreme Court, in 1903, again reversed the judgment and ordered a new trial.

The opinion was written by Justice Henry Billings Brown of Michigan. He had had the misfortune of losing the sight of one eye shortly after he was appointed to the court in 1890, but with his good eye he had no trouble seeing that the “widow” stood to benefit from the conspiracy whether she was a party to it or not, and in his view the whole case was simply one of “graveyard insurance.” (Even the annual premiums of $600 for the life insurance were more than Hillmon had ever earned in a year.) This time, however, the court was not unanimous. Two of the justices dissented—Justice (later Chief Justice) Edward White of Louisiana and Justice David Brewer of Kansas, who had himself presided at the second trial and was presumably more intimately familiar with the case than any of the justices. They wrote no dissenting opinion, but perhaps they agreed with the words of the circuit judge, Amos M. Thayer: