Chapter One


A Winter Journey Leads to an Inquest

lawrence, kansas | april 1879

Sarah Ellen Quinn Hillmon pronounces exactly those four words, practicing. She has had very few occasions to say all the names together and stumbles slightly. Regarding herself reproachfully in the cloudy glass she tries again, this time with more success. She is certain she will be asked at the very outset to state her name and does not wish to be flustered by the task. Nor will she allow herself to weep when she says Hillmon, the name that has been hers for such a short time.

Then there is another ground for worry: she ironed the calico dress, her only fine one, into crisp respectability the night before, but already the damp air has softened its finish and left it limp. It really should be black under the circumstances, but she owns no dress of that color, and the ancient bombazine Mrs. Judson offered to lend her was far too large and smelled of mothballs. Turning, she attempts to see how the dress looks from behind, but the glass is too small and the light too dim to reveal much. Being in the Judsons’ chamber makes her anxious anyway, as she rarely visits this room at the rear of the house, despite her friendship with the couple and her tenancy of the second floor bedroom. It is kind of Mrs. Judson to allow her to come in to inspect her appearance this morning.

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Outside the window five or six girls, the same ones who congregate on the sidewalk nearly every day, are jumping rope. Sallie has even jumped with them a few evenings on her way home from the hotel where she works, enjoying their cries of admiration for her still-nimble movements. The girls have a new chant, Sallie realizes as she listens.

John Wesley hill-a-man

Said that he might Kill-a-man

Is he a corpse now

Or do you think he’s still-a-man?

Sadie Quinn hill-a-man

Says he wouldn’t kill-a-man

Will she tell the truth now

And is her love a killer man?

Little savages. What do they know? She’s never gone by Sadie; it’s common. And the name doesn’t end with man, although the newspapers keep getting it wrong.

With her forefinger she worries the burn on her thumb, a souvenir of her inexperience with the Judson’s heavy flatiron. She hopes it will not blister. Waitressing is hard enough without a raw thumb, and her mother will be annoyed if she does not appear at the hotel’s dining room tomorrow in time to help serve breakfast.

Sallie knows that her mother was not overfond of John Hillmon. Candice Quinn thinks herself a shrewd judge of male character from her many years in the restaurant business, and by the time she met Hillmon she had fed too many cattlemen to be impressed with one who had no ranch of his own. When Sallie told her that she and John were to be married, the older woman said only, “I reckoned I had taught you better.”

Sallie has indeed learned much about men from her mother, including the concealment of her feelings and the maintenance of an air of indifference to gibes and compliments alike. Moreover, she can spot a lecher or a rake quicker than most. She was sure at the time that her mother was mistaken about John, whose only shortcoming as Sallie saw it was a lifelong partnership with mildly bad luck.

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Mrs. Judson looks into the room, her straw hat already askew. “Ready to go, Sallie? Arthur has brought the wagon around to the front.”


Sallie is thankful for the pressure of Mrs. Judson’s gloved hand on her own as they share the splintery backseat. Mr. Judson drives the team himself, as a driver would be an extravagance. The Judsons are not much better off than she and John are (were, she corrects herself; she must learn to speak of him in the past tense), but they have always been generous. The wagon’s sudden sway nearly robs her of balance on the narrow seat, and she looks at Mrs. Judson with surprise as the conveyance swings onto New Hampshire Street.

“Isn’t the inquest at the courthouse?”

“Yes, my dear, but Arthur thinks that you ought to go by Bailey and Smith’s before. To take a look at the body.”

Sallie shakes her head quickly. “It’s no use. They wouldn’t allow me to see it yesterday.”

She has never before seen Mrs. Judson’s motherly gaze grow so flinty. “Who prevented you?”

“That Mr. Selig from the insurance company, and the other. Griffith. They said I should remember him as he was. Anyway, I know it’s him. Arthur says so, and he knew John as well as any man. I don’t want to see him in a coffin.”

Mrs. Judson holds her hand even more tightly and Sallie flinches; her friend has unknowingly rubbed the burn. “You must, Sallie. You will insist on being admitted. Arthur has learned that numerous persons have been let into the room to view the body. He was your husband and you have a right to see him. I am sure Arthur is right that it is John, but if you do not see for yourself they will say it’s because you know it isn’t John but have not the gumption to tell a lie.”

After a moment’s reflection, which takes in the jump rope chant, Sallie can see that this is true. She nods; it will have to be done.1


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Sallie would have been astonished at this early moment to learn that her name would be given to one of the most famous and lengthy pieces of litigation in American law, a lawsuit sometimes described as an American Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. That fictitious lawsuit at the center of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House consumed its parties like a succubus; countless babies were born into it, and for generations its unhappy litigants could escape only in death. Sallie’s suit was not quite so long, nor quite so fatal. Nevertheless, a nation of observers attached their own loyalties and opinions to the dispute, and its duration spanned at least one generation; it supplied plenty of epic drama in its time, drama quite suited by its subject and parties to stand in for the struggles that preoccupied its spectators when they weren’t watching or reading about the Hillmon trials.

Kansas, at the edge of the American frontier in the years of Sallie Hillmon’s lawsuit, harbored disputation from the beginning of its written history. The former Territory of Kansas had been admitted to the Union as a free state on the eve of the Civil War, after a decade of bloody struggle, and by the seventies the worst violence occasioned by the slavery question lay in its past. But the bitter conflicts that had once earned the Territory the label “Bleeding Kansas” lingered in collective memory, as the old resentments were reinvested in new divisions: urban against rural, agricultural versus mercantile, prohibitionists against their opponents, white settler against Native American, the religious against the freethinker. The controversy over the Hillmon case took root in this troubled ground.

John Wesley Hillmon, who was born in Indiana in 1848 and served in the Union Army as a very young man, moved with his parents and siblings to a Kansas township called Grasshopper Springs in the late 1860s. This northeastern portion of Kansas close to the Missouri border was more thickly settled and easily traveled than the outlying sections, where the weather was harsher and the land less fertile. It was also safer than the lands farther west and south, where bloody battles took place well into the 1870s between the settlers, backed up by their military protectors, and the native peoples they saw as their enemies.2

Even after the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867, a few bands of the plains tribes resisted the peace that agreement sought to impose on the region. They suffered much loss of life from both privation and assault,

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and their warriors sometimes took revenge on settlers as well as soldiers. Indeed, mere weeks before John Wesley Hillmon first applied for life insurance, a band of Northern Cheyenne people seeking to return from Indian Territory to their homeland in Montana clashed with Kansas homesteaders; there were many deaths among both groups.3

Nevertheless, thousands of homesteaders from the eastern and middle Atlantic states braved the dangers and the elements to stake out their one hundred sixty acres and hunker down in sod houses or rude cabins, hoping to endure long enough to acquire title, make enough money to pay for their claims, and become what they never could have been where they came from: landowners. Homesteaders who learned enough to survive their first hazardous winter found that if they could manage to raise a crop of any size, they could use the newly built railroad to ship their produce to distant markets where it would command a good price. For a time after the Civil War the partnership of farmers and railroad was a happy one, with enough profit for both, although later this alliance would unravel in bitter fashion. But the cultivation of food crops was always difficult in Kansas, especially as one moved westward into the arid regions, because of the harsh weather and uncertain precipitation. Many men instead tried to make a living in the livestock business. Cattle were raised in great numbers in New Mexico and Texas and driven via the great Santa Fe and Chisholm Trails to the cow towns of western Kansas, often trampling some homesteader’s fields along the way. From thence they could be loaded onto railroad cars and transported to the markets back east.

Like many young soldiers released from service after the Civil War, John Hillmon tried out various occupations. He worked in 1874 as a foreman at the Quartzville mine near what is now Fairplay, Colorado, and then moved on to Central City, where he worked in both mining and brickmaking. But before long he drifted back to Kansas, and into the cattle business. Hillmon was skilled on a mount from his time in the military, so he worked as a cowboy for men who bought and sold cattle, sometimes investing in his own small herd. Occasionally he dealt in buffalo hides; he was one of the many hunters and traders responsible for reducing the great bison hordes of the plains from a population of millions in 1870 to near extinction by 1890. His cattle dealing took him to Texas and back, and not everyone who dealt with him had praise

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for his business ethics: in 1879 the sheriff at Lawrence reported darkly that he had received “inquiries” from parties in Texas who had business complaints against Hillmon.

In the mid-1870s Hillmon worked off and on with a cattle rancher named Levi Baldwin who owned property in Tonganoxie, not far from Lawrence. Baldwin was sometimes Hillmon’s employer, sometimes his partner in certain ventures. The rancher had a cousin named Sarah Quinn, called Sallie, whom he introduced to Hillmon during this time. Sallie and John Hillmon were married after an acquaintance of several years, in October 1878, and the couple thereafter set up housekeeping in a Lawrence, renting a room in the home of a couple named Judson. John was thirty at the time; Sallie was several years younger.4

An ambitious cattleman like John Hillmon might reflect that a Kansan who could find the land on which to raise his own livestock, as Baldwin had, would enjoy a great advantage in proximity to the new train lines and thus to the markets. But the land around Lawrence was mostly occupied by the time John Hillmon started to speak of staking out his own claim. For homesteading one had to go farther south or west, where the government was selling land, much of it available as the result of broken treaties. The price was $1.25 to $2.50 an acre if one would settle on the land for six months (and in some places cultivate it, although that requirement was not much enforced). Land was available for purchase from the railroads in some places as well, for they had been granted outright several millions of acres as right of way for their roads, and were free to sell any acreage they had no need to use. Their prices were often as cheap as the government’s, for they saw every trackside settlement as a source of endless future shipping and travel revenues.

There were plenty of buyers, too, especially as the idea took hold that “rain follows the plow.” This early version of a belief in human-induced climate change proposed that cultivation activity could literally modify the weather, and that the skies west of the hundredth meridian thus would be made to shed moisture onto the ground by the farmers who moved westward, turned the soil, and transformed the plains into fields. It was an appealing notion; many aspiring homesteaders were persuaded. But later events would not bear out the idea that rainfall followed human settlement, and it would prove the undoing of many.5

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Even without cultivation, the native grasses could provide some nourishment for livestock, but for most of the nineteenth century cattle ranching, as distinct from cattle driving, had been practically impossible in western Kansas. The difficulties included not only the hostilities between the would-be ranchers and the native peoples who lived in the plains, but also the unavailability of the materials needed to create enclosures for cattle: there was no stone, and insufficient hardwood timber for sawed boards. The 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge, however, imposed at least a theoretical peace on the prairie, and the invention of barbed wire in the 1870s solved the fencing problem. Homesteading a ranch on the prairie, somewhere between Wichita and the Territory of Colorado, had become by 1878 a possibility to which a reasonably enterprising man could aspire.6

John Hillmon told Sallie shortly after their wedding that he was planning to set out on a journey, accompanied by a man named John Brown. Brown was an old sidekick of his; Hillmon had supervised him at the Quartzville mines and knocked around Colorado with him a bit. The two men had run into each other again by accident at the Kansas City train station in 1876, and Hillmon had recruited Brown on the spot to join an expedition to Texas to hunt buffalo and carry on some trade in the hides. But according to Sallie, Hillmon promised her that the trip he was about to embark on with Brown in 1878 had a purpose more suitable to a married man: he would look for a place where he might start a ranch of his own. It is not known how or whether he explained his reasons for departing in the bitter midst of a Kansas winter, but Sallie Hillmon’s lawyers would later argue that it was necessary because cold-season feeding of cattle was a great expense, and a place would bear consideration only if, upon inspection, its winter range appeared sufficient to the sustenance of a herd.7

Thus the two Johns, Hillmon and Brown, set out for the first time shortly before Christmas 1878, taking the train as far as Wichita and then procuring a wagon and team of horses. The pair got as far as the frontier hamlet of Medicine Lodge, where they stayed for a few days and met several of the local men before striking out westward, But within a day or two, cold weather drove them home—back to Wichita together, and then Hillmon back to Lawrence and his wife for a time.

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Hillmon left Sallie a second time to try the venture anew in late February 1879, traveling through Wichita to pick up Brown and heading southwest from there. After passing through Medicine Lodge again the two men camped out on the night of March 16 near a place usually called Crooked Creek—although some locals called it Spring Creek.8

After dark on the evening of March 17, John Brown found his way to the home of a rural neighbor named Philip Briley (or Brierly) and reported that his traveling companion, John Hillmon, had been shot dead at their campsite. The neighbor summoned the coroner from Medicine Lodge, who came to Crooked Creek and inspected the scene of the death. The next day the coroner, George Paddock, convened an inquest. John Brown testified that he had accidentally shot and killed John Hillmon when the rifle he was unloading from their wagon discharged and the bullet flew into Hillmon’s head. The coroner’s jury deemed the death to have been a misadventure—an accident.9

Violent accidental death was not uncommon on the prairie, and ordinarily this verdict would have been the end of the matter, except for burial. But it developed that there was money at stake—a great deal of money for the time—for John Hillmon, aided by a loan from Sallie’s cousin Levi Baldwin, had taken out $25,000 in life insurance shortly before his departure from Lawrence. This sum, equivalent to nearly half a million early twenty-first-century dollars, was so great that no single company would issue Hillmon a policy for the entire amount; there were four policies from three different companies, one for $10,000 and three for $5,000. The three insurance companies, New York and Connecticut corporations, employed representatives in Lawrence, and once word of the death made its way back to that city their agents reacted with swift suspicion. Within days the companies had taken the position that they would not pay out on any claims against John Hillmon’s life insurance policies because the dead man was not John Hillmon but someone else. Within a few months they claimed to have discovered the identity of the corpse: a young Iowan named Frederick Adolph Walters.

More than a century later, the mystery of the dead man’s identity remained unsolved. I had become obsessed with it in 2003, ordering up hundreds of pages of photocopies, documents, and microfilmed newspaper accounts to pore over. One postprandial evening at home, as I mounted the steps to my paper-strewn office, my husband observed

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gently that it was a bit difficult to compete with a fellow who’d been dead for over a hundred years.

“I think she’s the one I’m interested in, actually,” I said.

“What, the wife?”

I nodded. “Sallie. But I can’t figure her out unless I know what happened to him.”

Ben knew the story. “I can see that,” he said, his voice carefully neutral.

“Perhaps someday you can help me with all this,” I suggested.

“I don’t see how, exactly. Unless you want me to dig the guy up for you.”

I laughed. “I don’t think they’d let us do that. But thanks for the offer. Look, I’ll be back down in an hour or so.”

Ben nodded and went back to his newspaper.


oak hill cemetery | lawrence, kansas | may 19, 2006

I walk over to Dennis, who is watching serenely, ready to begin digging by hand once the backhoe and its metal teeth have removed a couple of feet of soil. The old newspaper accounts I’ve shown him do not leave him confident that the remains were necessarily buried six feet below the surface; it’s not unusual, he has told me, to find that the gravediggers cheated a bit, especially if the ground was hard or the dead man poor. Ben, Paul, Ernesto, and the rest of the crew stand calmly nearby, all prepared to pursue their tasks, but it’s not clear what mine is. My hands are restless, insufficiently occupied by periodic efforts to hold back the untidy hair that keeps falling across my face and obscuring my vision, as I seem always to be looking down. This old section of the graveyard is so crowded that it’s impossible to avoid walking on some other grave. I’ve been stumbling all morning over the tombstones that lean this way and that like crooked teeth. On many of them the inscriptions have been effaced by time and weather; some are unreadable.

Dennis appears utterly at ease, a man who knows what he’s about and has no doubt he commands the right skills to perform his task. But there is nothing useful for me to do. It is painful to feel so superfluous and I turn away, barely avoiding stepping on a stone set flush

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to the ground: Capt. Wm. Murch, born May 8, 1800, died Dec. 6, 1881. The inscription on this stone has survived much better than most, as has the small anchor carved above it. Captain Murch must have been pretty sturdy, too: he enjoyed a very long life for those times. He outlived John Hillmon by two years—unless the insurance companies were right.


There is a brief stir as Sallie and the Judsons enter the courtroom an hour later, many heads turning in their direction. Sallie surveys the large room, taking in the scene quickly. Of the six men in the jury box she knows only one, the grocer E.B. Good. He does not return her nod, but he wears spectacles; perhaps he cannot see so far as the back of the courtroom, where it is dim anyway. The man seated behind the high judge’s bench applies a gavel timidly to the wooden surface before him. He looks ill at ease up there, an unsteady captain trying to command his ship from the crow’s nest.

“What is the judge’s name?” Sallie whispers to Arthur Judson.

“He’s not a judge, Sallie, he is the coroner, Dr. Morris. This is not exactly a trial. It is a coroner’s inquest.”

Morris gavels the bench again and says, “Let’s get on with it, Mr. Green.” The six men in the jury box return their attention to the man on the witness stand. It is Brown, she can see, miserably attired in a tattered coat that he must have borrowed, for it is much too small for him. If he was going to borrow a coat, he could at least have borrowed a respectable one, but John Brown never was one to reflect on how folks would take him. When he dined once with the Hillmons, Mrs. Judson had to ask him to wash his hands. Today he holds a dirty hat in his crooked fingers.

An elegantly dressed bald man of about her John’s age seems to be asking the questions. “And so, Mr. Brown, this stranger you mentioned, where did he join up with you and John Hillmon?”

Brown clears his throat before speaking. “Outside a Wichita, like I said. Matter of a few miles.”

“And would you describe him please?” The bald gentleman seems to be enjoying himself.

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“Who is that man asking the questions?” Sallie whispers again. The coroner frowns in her direction.

“That’s Mr. J.W. Green, the County Attorney,” says Arthur. “Come now, we must be seated.”

Once she and the Judsons are settled in the third row, Sallie has a chance to note the other spectators. The public gallery is nearly full, mostly with gentlemen. She feels the pressure of a hand on her shoulder and turns to see her cousin Levi Baldwin. “Levi!” she whispers with relief, experiencing the reassurance that his solid presence always seems to generate.

“Morning, Sallie,” he says, taking the seat next to her on the other side from Mrs. Judson, nodding at several of the men seated in the row behind. “Don’t worry about all this folderol. It’s just the insurance boys putting on a little show for their bosses back east. I reckon these jurors will do the right thing when the time comes.” Sallie notices for the first time that another man has come in behind her cousin and seated himself to his left. “This is Mr. Borgalthaus, Sallie. I asked him to be here to keep an eye on things for us.”

The man extends his hand and Sallie takes it, reaching across Levi’s chest. She does not altogether understand what there is to keep an eye on, but she does not care for the manner of the man named Green and is glad to have another ally.

Brown continues his account of the stranger, prodded by Mr. Green’s questions.

“Would you have us believe, Mr. Brown, under oath as you are, that this stranger joined you three or four miles outside of Wichita, traveled with you another three or four miles, said he was looking for work, and that the three of you camped together there about eight miles outside of Wichita for three days, and then once you were on the move again, he took his leave of you, and further that in all this camping and discussion and the like, you never once learned his name or where he was from?”

It is clear to Sallie that Brown cannot not keep track of the twisting and turning of this question, but in her experience he never could admit to being confused, and today is no exception. Instead he twists his soiled hat in his hands and says, “More or less the case, sir.”

“Well, what part more and what part less, Mr. Brown? This jury is entitled to your truthful testimony, no more and no less.”

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“That’s about right. Best a my recollection.” He lifts his gaze from the hat and his eyes find Sallie, then slide away.

Sallie has grown irritated during the halting colloquy. “What is the point of all these questions about some stranger?” she asks Levi softly.

“It is merely Mr. Green trying to confuse the jurors,” her cousin replies.

“But why? I mean to what end?”

“I am not sure, but I believe he means to make something sinister out of John’s allowing an occasional stranger to travel alongside them for a time,” says Levi. “Now hush, Sallie, and listen.”

Sallie does, and decides that she definitely does not care for Mr. Green; his questions have an insinuating lilt to them, playing with Brown as though everyone finds the witness’s awkward attempts at language as amusing as he does. She knows that John Brown is not a man of pretty words, for she once had a letter of him. She remembers every word of it.

Medicine Lodge, Kan. March 19, 1879

Mrs. S.E. Hillmon: Am sorry to state the news that I have to state to you. John was shot and killed accidentally by a gun as I was about to take it out of the wagon, about fifteen miles north of this place. I had him dressed in his best clothes and buried in Medicine Lodge graveyard. I shall wait here until Mr. Morris hears from you. If you will leave me to take charge of the team, I will dispose of them to the best advantage, and take the proceeds, and when I get back to Lawrence I will relate the sad news. Probably you have heard of it before you get this. Yours truly,

John H. Brown

“Are you all right, my dear?”

Sallie starts, then nods at Mrs. Judson’s anxious face and turns her attention back to the courtroom, where Green is speaking again.

“And this stranger, was he the last stranger that you and Mr. Hillmon took into your traveling party after leaving Wichita?”

“No, sir. There was the one other.”

Green sketches a satisfied grin, seemingly for the benefit of the jurymen. “Please tell the jury about this other stranger.”

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“He were a small man, sandy complected. Not near as big as the first one. Said he’d been herding cattle up to Salt Creek, and he stayed with us just the one night, not too far from Medicine. Didn’t catch his name neither. We never did see him again.”

“I take it by ‘Medicine’ you mean Medicine Lodge?” A nod. “So, after leaving this second mysterious stranger behind, where did you and Mr. Hillmon next make camp?”

“I guess the place is called Crooked Creek, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was just a place to camp. I could draw it for you if you want. Like a map I mean.”

Green aims a look of vast entertainment toward the jurors, two of whom grin back. “If you would be so kind, Mr. Brown.”

The little man who is taking notes below the coroner fetches a piece of paper and pencil for Brown, who applies himself to the task with what seems like relief. Green’s assistant then displays Brown’s drawing to the jury. Then there is a rustling and, to her surprise, Borgalthaus is rising to his feet.

Doctor Morris,” he says, loudly enough to be heard by the coroner, who looks back toward him in annoyance, squinting into the darkness that prevails in the spectator section. “Might it be possible for me to have a look at the exhibit?”

“And who might you be, sir?” says Morris irritably.

“A.B. Borgalthaus, sir. A citizen of Douglas County and member of the Bar.”

Green, standing in the well of the courtroom, inclines his head toward the jurors. “Ah, so the lady has come to this inquest with an attorney.”

“I do not represent the lady today,” says Borgalthaus, walking through the swinging gate into the well. Sallie turns toward Levi again, confused, but he looks forward and with a slight pressure of his arm against hers seems to suggest that she do the same, so she does. “I represent the citizens of this county,” the lawyer continues, “some of whom object to this proceeding as an unnecessary burden on public monies, sir. But surely Mr. Green is not suggesting that there would be something untoward about Mrs. Hillmon being represented, under the circumstances. His clients are, after all, trying to deprive her of a large sum of money to which she is apparently entitled.”

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It is J.W. Green’s turn to be angry, or to pretend to be. “My clients! My only client is the County of Douglas, sir, and my only interest is in the truth. A man is dead, and it is incumbent on the authorities to ensure that no crime goes unanswered within our purview.”

“I am surprised, Mr. Green, if you are correct about your true client, that it has any interest at all in this matter, as the death happened within the jurisdiction of the authorities at Medicine Lodge, Barbour County, to be precise. Moreover, I believe they satisfied themselves that the death resulted from misadventure, and no crime.”

The coroner looks at Green inquiringly. “Sir,” Green says, “the inquest conducted at Medicine Lodge was an ignorant and shockingly managed affair, and rendered its over-hasty verdict without a thorough examination of the many facts that have since come to light, chiefly the circumstance that John Hillmon contracted for twenty-five thousand dollars in life insurance a short time before leaving home for the mysterious journey on which this witness accompanied him. As the deceased was a resident of Lawrence and the body is now located in this county, it is altogether correct that the inquest you quite properly convened here, Dr. Morris, should go forward without any more interruption!”

Morris looks as though he is about to say something but Borgalthaus speaks up again. “I am most apologetic, Mr. Green, for this interruption, but did I understand you to say that the deceased was a resident of Lawrence?”

Sallie looks quickly at Green, but he is unembarrassed. “I said claimed deceased,” he pronounces. But he didn’t, she is sure of it.

Borgalthaus smiles, and this time it is he who looks at the jurors, although they stare back at him stonily for the most part. “I take it there is no dispute that there is a deceased that is the subject of this inquest,” he says. “May I inquire where your client says the deceased came from?”

Morris bangs the gavel hard this time and stands up, the better to see over the tall bench. “Sit down, Mr. Borgalthaus. You are out of order. I have convened this inquest and I will see it conducted properly. You may examine the witness’s map if you wish, then return to your seat.”

“And may I make objections, sir, if called for, on behalf of myself and other citizens with an interest in this proceeding?”

“What sort of objections?” says Green, before the coroner can speak.

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“Why I don’t know, Mr. Green, for it will depend on you and your witnesses, and whether you do anything objectionable.” Borgalthaus makes this sound quite reasonable, Sallie thinks, but Green is plainly annoyed.

“What d’you mean? Like hearsay, for example?”


Green shakes his head with disgust and looks toward the coroner, who bangs the gavel one last time before resuming his seat heavily. “There will be no objections, Mr. Borgalthaus. This is not a law court, and we’ll have no quarreling in here about hearsay this and that. Sit down, sir, and do not try my patience.”10


Even in settings where the hearsay rule was enforced (as it was not in Dr. Morris’s inquest), the law of the nineteenth century recognized many exceptions to the rule—about twenty to thirty, depending on how one counted. Unless an exception could be found to apply, however, the hearsay rule prohibited the use of written as well as spoken statements—it could apply to, among other writings, a letter. If the coroner had been enforcing the rules of evidence, then the letter that Sallie Hillmon received from John Brown, for example, would have been inadmissible if it had been offered into evidence—at least inadmissible to prove that the account it gave of John Hillmon’s death was true. But it seems the coroner was not enforcing the rules, possibly because he was no lawyer and could not be expected to understand them. And in any event, Brown’s awkward message of condolence was not offered at the inquest.

As we now know, it would be another letter altogether that would make the Hillmon case famous. But that would be later—years later. The companies had a different strategy in mind during the early weeks of the Hillmon affair, a strategy that they hoped would discourage Sallie Hillmon from pursuing her claims in a court of law. Their plan depended on the inquest, and the effect they expected its outcome would have on John Brown, and in turn on Sallie.


© New York University Press, 2013