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A Death at Crooked Creek

A Death at Crooked Creek: The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, and the Love Letter

MARIANNE WESSON
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 405
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfctw
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    A Death at Crooked Creek
    Book Description:

    "This is an extraordinary and ground-breaking book, a wonderfully creative mix of fact and theory, imagination and drama...The startling origin of the complex 'intention exception' to the hearsay evidence rule becomes canvas on which a grand and marvelously detailed tale is told. This is modern narrative at its best: a marriage of spectacular writing and hard, documented truth presented by a brilliant author who doubles as a gifted and fastidious legal scholar and historian." - Andrew Popper, American University One winter night in 1879, at a lonely Kansas campsite near Crooked Creek, a man was shot to death. The dead man's traveling companion identified him as John Hillmon, a cowboy from Lawrence who had been attempting to carve out a life on the blustery prairie. The case might have been soon forgotten and the apparent widow, Sallie Hillmon, left to mourn - except for the $25,000 life insurance policies Hillmon had taken out shortly before his departure. The insurance companies refused to pay on the policies, claiming that the dead man was not John Hillmon, and Sallie was forced to take them to court in a case that would reach the Supreme Court twice. The companies' case rested on a crucial piece of evidence: a faded love letter written by a disappeared cigarmaker, declaring his intent to travel westward with a man named Hillmon. In A Death at Crooked Creek, Marianne Wesson re-examines the long-neglected evidence in the case of the Kansas cowboy and his wife, recreating the court scenes that led to a significant Supreme Court ruling on the admissibility of hearsay evidence. Wesson employs modern forensic methods to examine the body of the dead man, attempting to determine his true identity and finally put this fascinating mystery to rest. This engaging and vividly imagined work combines the drama, intrigue, and emotion of excellent storytelling with cutting-edge forensic investigation techniques and legal theory. Wesson's superbly imagined A Death at Crooked Creek will have general readers, history buffs, and legal scholars alike wondering whether history, and the Justices, may have misunderstood altogether the events at that bleak winter campsite.Marianne Wessonis Professor of Law and President's Teaching Scholar, University of Colorado Law School. She is the author of best-selling and prize-winning legal novels includingRender up the Body, A Suggestion of Death, and Chilling Effect. She lives in a Colorado mountain valley with her husband, llamas, dogs, and visiting wildlife.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8457-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. IMPORTANT CHARACTERS IN THE STORY OF THE HILLMON CASE
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  4. TIMELINE OF EVENTS IMPORTANT TO THE HILLMON LITIGATION
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  5. PROLOGUE
    (pp. xvii-xxvi)

    It’s not yet eight in the morning, but even so heat rises in shimmering waves from the grass-carpeted floor of the graveyard. The earlier months of this spring brought drenching rains to eastern Kansas, and the saturated green of the cemetery hurts my drought-accustomed Colorado eyes.

    The neon color scheme extends to a coffin-sized rectangular outline of Day-Glo orange that glistens on the grass amid a jumble of old headstones. The grave that interests us has no stone or monument, but Mitch Young, the cemetery supervisor, has marked its boundaries with spray paint. Even after all these years, he is...

  6. 1 A WINTER JOURNEY LEADS TO AN INQUEST: 1879
    (pp. 1-46)

    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 saysHillmon, the name that has been hers for such a short time.

    Then there is another ground for worry: she ironed the calico dress, her...

  7. 2 THE PARTIES READY THEIR CASES FOR TRIAL: 1879–1882
    (pp. 47-81)

    The mill owner Fulton has a daughter Polly, a bitty freckled girl too young for school who runs all over the place like a wild Injun, and it is she who comes to tell John Brown that there is a man at the office to see him. He doesn’t see her coming because his attention is elsewhere: he is straining to load a bundle of four-by-fours onto a wagon that is hitched to a balky mule. The animal has already startled once, spilling the load, and so he is using language not suitable for even such an unruly child to...

  8. 3 THE HILLMON CASE IS TRIED BEFORE A JURY: 1882
    (pp. 82-136)

    These celebrated insurance cases will be called up to-morrow, and if they proceed to trial, which it is almost certain they will, they will occupy all of two weeks with night sessions as almost a certainty. It is calculated that it will take almost a week to read the depositions, beside the testimony to be taken. It was stated yesterday that during the course of the trial Judge Foster would hold night session from 7 to 11 o’clock each night. Pity the judge, the jury, the lawyers, the spectators, and the—newspaper man.

    Sallie thinks she has acquired some patience...

  9. 4 THE CASE IS TRIED TWICE MORE, AND A SURPRISING OBJECTION IS MADE: 1884–1888
    (pp. 137-167)

    In 1884 Gleed and his brother Willis formed their law firm, Gleed, Ware, and Gleed. Their first partner was Eugene Ware, a former member of the Kansas Legislature. In that same year Judge David Brewer, after many years of service on the Kansas Supreme Court, was appointed to the United States Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit. The Hillmon case was eventually assigned to Judge Brewer’s trial calendar. In 1885 the firm of Gleed, Ware, and Gleed was joined by George Barker, just in time for the retrial.¹

    The case ofHillmon v. Mutual Life Insurance Company et al. was...

  10. 5 THE SUPREME COURT HEARS A CASE OF “GRAVEYARD INSURANCE”: 1892
    (pp. 168-185)

    Four years were to pass before the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the companies’ appeal. During this interval, Kansas occupied the center of remarkable political events that both reflected and created the tides of sentiment on which Sallie Hillmon’s lawsuit rode. The People’s Party, the organized wing of the populist movement, roared to success in Sallie’s home state in the 1890s. In 1890, the year of its organization, the People’s Party won control of 96 of 125 seats in the lower house of the Kansas Legislature, and captured five of Kansas’s seven congressional seats. The populist candidate for United...

  11. 6 JOHN HILLMON IS REPORTED TO BE ALIVE AS THE ARDUOUS FOURTH TRIAL PROCEEDS: 1893–1895
    (pp. 186-226)

    Although the Hillmon case enjoyed an audience from its inception, it gained even more widespread fame after it had been decided by the Supreme Court in 1892 and sent back for retrial. One Kansas journalist with a taste for classical allusion characterized the first retrial, in 1895, as a “final Titanic contest.” The prediction of finality proved optimistic, but the other adjective may have been more apt. Even the national press began to employ similar encomia in describing the case: theLos Angeles Timesreferred to the case as “famous,” while theChicago Daily Tribunedescribed it as “celebrated.” The...

  12. 7 THE FIFTH TRIAL PROGRESSES BRISKLY BUT ENDS INCONCLUSIVELY, AND NEW YORK LIFE CAPITULATES: 1896–1899
    (pp. 227-258)

    It had not been easy to acquire permission to exhume the remains buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery. Once Dennis told me that exhumation might allow us to identify the man in the grave recorded as John Hillman’s, I contacted the Lawrence City Attorney’s Office, for the grave rested in that city’s municipal graveyard. After months of back-and-forth, their answer was no. No, we could not exhume; no, it would not be helpful for me to travel to Lawrence to discuss the matter; no, there were not any conditions or contingencies we could satisfy to change their minds.

    By then...

  13. 8 THE HILLMON CASE IS TRIED FOR THE LAST TIME: 1899
    (pp. 259-304)

    The sixth and last trial of the case ofHillmon v. Mutual Life Insurance Company et al. was called to order on October 8, 1899, at Leavenworth, under the gavel of Judge William Cather Hook. President McKinley had appointed Hook to the federal judgeship held by Judge Cassius Foster following Foster’s retirement the previous January from a quarter century on the federal bench. Until his appointment, William Hook had maintained a private practice of law in Leavenworth. He would be the first Kansan to preside over a Hillmon trial since David Brewer, fourteen years and four trials earlier.

    A new...

  14. 9 THE CENTURY TURNS, AND THE HILLMON CASE IS CONCLUDED: 1900–1903
    (pp. 305-332)

    The new century, although ushered in with a bout of harsh winter weather, seemed to mark the country’s progress toward easier, less hazardous, more comfortable lives for Americans. Science and technology produced wonders, like Henry Ford’s invention, which flew over the icy streets of Detroit in the new century’s first February. A railroad train was reported to reach a speed of over one hundred miles an hour (on a downhill grade, it is true). Electricity transformed cities like New York, where it ignited incandescent lamps and powered trolleys. Rural residents would have to wait for the electric lines to reach...

  15. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 333-336)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 337-360)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 361-378)
  18. ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    (pp. 379-379)