From Stratagems and Conspiracies to Defraud Life Insurance Companies: An Authentic Record of Remarkable Cases, pages 173 – 180.
by John Benjamin Lewis and Charles Carroll Bombaugh
The cases of Sallie E. Hillmon against the Mutual Life Insurance Company, the New York Life, and the Connecticut Mutual Life, repeatedly before the courts for a period of thirteen years, have attained a degree of notoriety that could only attach to one of the most desperate legal struggles in the history of jurisprudence. The contention on the part of the companies has cost them more than their liability in the event of satisfactorily proved death, and their stubborn resistance has been due to their belief that Hillmon has been seen alive in various places at different times, that he is still eluding the detectives and covering his tracks, and that it is a duty they owe to honest policyholders, aside from subserving the ends of justice, to resist fraud at any cost.
When the claim was made and resisted, the first trial took place in the United States Circuit Court at Leavenworth, in June, 1882. The jury failed to agree, and in 1885 the case was retried in the same court before Judge Brewer with a like result. A third trial was held in Topeka, in February, 1888, before Judge Shiras, and a verdict was rendered for the plaintiff. The jury gave a verdict against the Connecticut Mutual for $7,530, against the New York Life for $15,060, and against the Mutual Life of New York for $15,060. The defendants entered a motion for a new trial, and Judge Shiras suspended judgement until the June term to allow of the preparation of a bill of exceptions. The grounds upon which the new trial was asked were as follows: First — Misconduct of the plaintiff at the trial. Second — Misconduct on the part of the jury. Third — Because the verdict and judgement are contrary to the evidence. Fourth — Because the verdict and judgement are contrary to law. Fifth — Because of error of law occurring at the trail and duly excepted to by defendants at the time. Sixth — Newly discovered evidence material to the defendants which they could not by reasonable diligence have presented upon the trial of this action. Failing to secure a new trail, the companies carried the case to the United States Supreme Court upon questions of law.
The decision of the Supreme court at Washington reversed the judgment in favor of the plaintiff in the Circuit Court at Topeka, its action being based on errors in the admission of testimony and in the charge to the jury. After this remand the case came up for a fourth trial at Topeka, and ended in another disagreement. On the first trail the jury stood ten for plaintiff and two against; on the second, they stood six to six; on the last trail, seven for the plaintiff and five for the companies.
John W. Hillmon was born in Indiana in 1845, and therefore at the time of his alleged death near Medicine Lodge, Kan., in 1879, was 34 years of age. In October, 1878, he was married to Sallie E. Quinn, the plaintiff in the suits against the companies. Four months afterwards he started for Wichita, in company with his partner, John H. Brown, both being drovers. Near sundown on March 17, 1879, while encamped in a desolate spot on Crooked Creek, a man was shot through the head and killed by Brown. He declared that it was accidental, and had occurred while he was taking a rifle from the wagon. He called upon a farmer in the neighborhood, named Briley, to view the body and assist in burial. He asserted that the body was Hillmon’s, and as the head had been placed near the fire, the features were burned and charred beyond recognition. Afterward when the body was exhumed and taken to Lawrence for identification, it was noted that the corpse had a full set of regular teeth, whereas Hillmon’s were irregular, and one had been lost. Confronted with the dental evidence, Brown broke down, and confessed that Hillmon was alive, that a conspiracy had been formed in December, 1878, between Hillmon, Mrs. Hillmon’s cousin, Levi Baldwin, and himself to defraud the insurance companies. Baldwin was to furnish the money for the first year’s premiums, and Brown and Hillmon were to arrange for the latter’s disappearance. Brown alleged that the man who was killed in order to provide a body to be palmed off as Hillmon’s, was named Joe Berkley. This eventually proved to be false, as it turned out that the dead man was Frederick Adolph Walters, a young German cigarmaker of Fort Madison, Iowa, who had gone to Lawrence in 1878. His remains were identified by his parents and sister. Here then was a plain case of murder in which Brown and Hillmon were principals, and Mrs. Hillmon and Baldwin accessories before the fact.
In a subsequent confession made by John H. Brown before a Notary Public, of Platte County, Missouri, he blamed Hillmon with the shooting. The notary’s record is as follows:
“John H. Brown, of lawful age, being duly sworn according to law, deposes and says: ” My name is John H. Brown; my age thirty years. I am acquainted with John W. Hillmon, also Mrs. S. E. Hillmon and Levi Baldwin, of Douglas County, Kansas. Have known John W. Hillmon for about five years, and have been with him a good deal for the last two years. I was with him last March at Wichita, and on the trip from there to and around Medicine Lodge, in Barbour County, Kansas (where it is claimed that I killed him on the I7th of March, 1879). Along about the l0th 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 Insurance Company out of some money, to be obtained by means of effecting policies on the life of said John W. Hillmon. Baldwin was to furnish the money to pay the premiums and to keep up the policies in case they had to be renewed. Our original arrangement was to get Hillmon’s life insured for $15,000, but it was afterwards changed to $25,000. Hillmon and myself were to go off southwest from Wichita, Kan., 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, but to in some manner get one. The final termination of the matter was the last idea thought of. Our first trip out from Wichita was in the last days of December, while the snow was on. We expected to find a subject that would appear to be Hillmon frozen to death, and that could not be identified except by the clothes and papers found upon it, and so I could pass it off as Hillmon. We went from Wichita to Medicine Lodge; then direct to Sun City; from there to Kinsley; from there to Great Bend, on the Santa Fe Road; then to Larned, and to Wichita via Hutchinson. Hillmon and myself were entirely alone on this trip. Iliff, of Medicine Lodge, saw Hillmon on this trip. We put up at his stable. I then stayed at Wichita until the 4th of March. Hillmon in the mean time went up to Lawrence to see his wife, and to get some more money. He returned about the first of March, and on the 5th we left on our second trip. We went due west to Cowskin Creek, and then west to Harper City, then to Medicine Lodge, on by Sun City, and beyond some miles; then we turned northeast down Medicine River, to a Camp on Elm Creek about eighteen miles north of Medicine Lodge (where Hillmon is claimed to have been killed). We got there about sundown, and stayed in camp until the next evening. We overtook a stranger on this trip the first day out from Wichita, about two or two and a half miles from town, whom Hillmon invited to get in and ride, and he (Hillmon) proposed to hire him to 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 this man would do for a subject to pass for him. I told him and contended with him that the man would not do to pass off for him, giving him various reasons why the man would not answer his description, and complained and objected because his proposition was to take the man’s life, and I protested and said that was going beyond what we had agreed, and was something I had never before thought of, and was beyond my grit entirely. But Hillmon seemed to get more deeply determined, and more and more desperate in the matter. Pains were taken not to have more than two of us seen together in the wagon. Sometimes one and then the other would be kept back out of sight. On his trip up to Lawrence Hillmon was vaccinated. His arm was quite bad. 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, Hillmon first giving him a change of underclothing, then traded suits, the one he was killed in. The suit he was buried in was a suit Hillmon traded with Baldwin for. This man appeared to be a stranger in the country, a sort of easy-go- along 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 that he had been around Fort Scott awhile, and had also worked about Wellington and Arkansas City. I don’t 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. He was taken in charge by Hillmon and yielded willingly to his will. I dreaded what I thought was to be done, and kept out of having any more to do with him than was possible. I frequently remonstrated with Hillmon, and tried to deter him from carrying out his intention of killing the man. The next evening after we got to the camp last named, 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 walked around and saw the man was shot, and Hillmon was pulling him away around to keep him out of the fire. Hillmon changed a day-book from his own pocket to Joe’s, and said to me everything was all right and in shape just as he wanted it, and that I need not be afraid, but it would be all right. He told me to get on a pony and go down to a ranch about three-quarters of a mile and get some one to come up. He took Joe’s valise and started north. This was about sundown. We had no arrangements about communicating with each other. He first proposed to do so, but I told him I did not want to know where he was; that in case I should, I might find out some other way. I have never heard a word from him since that time. At Lawrence Mrs. Hillmon gave me to understand that she knew where Hillmon was, and that he was all right. The man over whom an inquest was held at camp, afterwards at Medicine Lodge and at Lawrence, Kan., was the man Joe Burgess or Berkeley, killed by Hillmon as related above, and John W. Hillmon I believe to be still alive; at least he left our camp and went north, as stated above. After killing Joe, Hillmon said he would assume the name of William Marshall. Baldwin, his wife, and Mrs. Hillmon know all about this.”
The last trial of this remarkable case, which took place in the United States Circuit Court at Topeka, before Judge A. D. Thomas, occupied a period of nine or ten weeks in the early part of 1895. With regard to the question of identity it was shown that while Hillmon’s height was five feet nine inches, Walters’s height was five eleven and a half. There were material differences between the hair, the teeth, and the weight, and one had several distinctive scars. While eight witnesses declared that the body in dispute was Hillmon’s, twenty-one of defendant’s witnesses testified that it was not Hillmon’s, and twenty-six others, including Miss Alvina D. Kasten, who was engaged to be married to Walters, insisted that the body was Walters’s.
Charles Hay testified that he saw Hillmon alive near Leadville in July, 1879, and the following witnesses declared that he was alive after March 17th, 1879, the date at which Hillmon is claimed to have been shot: Richard Helm, of Albuquerque, N. M., J. D. Benton, of New Mexico, and W. E. Northrup of New Mexico, who saw Hillmon alive in 1884 and 1885. The following witnesses who knew Hillmon intimately in the 70’s, having hunted on the plains with him, identified him when arrested and imprisoned in 1889, in Tombstone, Arizona: John H. Mathias, Geo. S. Baker, Chas. W. Hart.
Mrs. Hillmon in 1882 admitted before five witnesses that her husband was alive. Mrs. Geo. A. Nichols (Hillmon’s sister), Geo. A. Nichols and W. W. Nichols (Hillmon’s two brothers-in-law), Mr. S. D. Nixon and Mrs. Maggie Nixon, all testify that Mrs. Hillmon, at the first trial of the case at Leavenworth, went to the Continental hotel, where the above- named parties were stopping, to find out what they intended to testify to in the case, as to the appearance of her husband, and when told that they would describe his defective teeth and the scar on the hand, exclaimed, “If you, his sister, you, his brothers-in-law, and you, his friends, mean to testify to that, then I will go and withdraw my suit, and turn my husband over to the authorities.”
On the 15th of September, 1879, Mrs. Hillmon went to the office of Mr. Wheat, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff, who lived in Leavenworth, and demanded from him the policies, which he then held, stating that she wanted to “back out ” from suing the companies; Mr. Wheat refused to give them up unless he was paid $10,000, claiming a lien to that extent. Mrs. Hillmon finding that she could not obtain the policies to hand back to the companies, executed four releases, the following being a copy of one, and all being identical, except the name of the company, number of the policy, and amount:
LAWRENCE, KANSAS, Sept. 15, 1879 In consideration of one dollar to me in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, I hereby release, surrender and acknowledge satisfaction in full of all claims against the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, by reason of policy No. 195,132, issued by said company, dated December 10, 1878, and for the sum of ten thousand dollars on the life of my husband, John W. Hillmon, and hereby enter satisfaction in full, and order the dismissal of any and all suits or proceedings commenced or that may hereafter be commenced by any person or persons, in my behalf, for the collection of the same. (Signed.) “S. E. HILLMON.” Attest : W.J BACHAN JOHN H. BROWN.
These releases were signed without the payment of one dollar, or the promise of the payment of one dollar. They were signed upon one condition, namely, that the companies should agree of themselves, not to undertake the prosecution of John W. Hillmon, Mrs. Hillmon, Levi Baldwin and John H. Brown; but with the understanding that if the State prosecuted them, the companies would not withhold the evidence which was then in their hands.
The insurance companies claimed that a conspiracy was entered into by John W. Hillmon, Levi Baldwin and John H. Brown, for the purpose of insuring Hillmon’s life; in pursuance thereof securing the body of another man and palming it off upon the companies as that of Hillmon, and then collecting the insurance money upon Hillmon’s life and dividing it among themselves. The companies also claimed that Mrs. Hillmon became a co-conspirator with them at the time of the inquest, and continued to be such from that time on; and that also others, on account of their pecuniary interest, became co-conspirators engaged in the endeavor to collect the insurance money on the life of Hillmon, Hillmon not having lost his life.
In support of this charge of conspiracy, Dr. Phillips testified that Levi Baldwin asked him all about life insurance, the length of time after death before decomposition set in, and the appearance of a man after being buried; and also said, “Doc, wouldn’t it be a good plan to insure some fellow’s life, have him disappear, and go South and get the body of some ‘greaser’ and pass it off on the insurance companies for him?”
Mr. Blythe, an attorney of Tonganoxie, testified that Baldwin and Hillmon came to him one day and asked all sorts of questions as to the manner of collecting.insurance money in the event of death. Baldwin told him that he meant to insure Hillmon’s life, and wanted to know how he should go about it. Mr. Blythe explained that as he was not a life-insurance agent, it would be better to consult those who were engaged in the business. Mr. Selig, Mr. G. W. E. Griffith and Major Wiseman testified that Baldwin and Hillmon went, unsolicited, and made application for $50,000 insurance upon the life of Hillmon, $25,000 of which was issued; that Baldwin and Hillmon repeatedly asked what form of statement had to be made out in order to collect the money in the event of Hillmon’s death. Mr. Carr testified that Baldwin told him in March, 1879, that he and Hillmon were mixed up in a scheme to get hold of “a lot of money.”
As already remarked, the successive suits, the adjudicature of the highest court in the land, the efforts made in tracing the fugitive in Arizona and Mexico, and the employment of all the legal and detective machinery available, must have cost the companies more than $25,000, the amount of the claim. They have never accepted the averment that the man killed near Medicine Lodge in March, 1879, was John W. Hillmon. They have always contended and they are firm in the belief that it was another man who was killed, and that the parties to a criminal conspiracy undertook to palm off the body as Hillmon’s, while they facilitated Hillmon’s escape and concealment. It is now seventeen years since Hillmon disappeared, and if he is still lingering among the living he has well preserved his disguise.. In the event of proof of his death the companies have of course been ready to meet their obligations; but until such proof is complete and satisfactory, or until the courts in their final judgment make payment compulsory, they are justified in resistance.
Comments by Jerry Ferrin:In regard to the Briley to whom the killing of a man alleged to have been John W. Hillman or John W. Hillmon was reported by John H. Brown, an interesting coincidence is that the 26 May 1883 journal entry from The Journal of Samuel Slack, Jr. mentions Scott and Lee Briley of Barber County, Kansas, for having been involved in a jury trial in Barber County with a man named Holcum for the shooting of Holcum on Sand Creek.
Slack was, as you will see from his journal, very poor at spelling, and anyone researching this lead would do well to search for Holcomb as well as Holcum individuals.
Note that John H. Brown’s “confession” stated that Hillmon said he would assume the name of William Marshall after he “disappeared” and that John H. Mathias, Geo. S. Baker, Chas. W. Hart testified that they recognized Hillmon when he was imprisoned in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1889. It would be interesting to know if Tombstone records showed William Marshall having been arrested in that city in that year. However, many or most of the early records for that town were destroyed by water when the mine where they had been stored for safekeeping, presumably from fire, was flooded.
The Hillmon Story by Mimi Wesson.
The Hillman Case, by T.A. McNeal, from When Kansas Was Young, pages 89 – 92.
“The Case of the Anonymous Corpse”, by Brooks W. McCracken. American Heritage, June 1968, Vol. 19, Issue 4.