We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

A Death at Crooked Creek

The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, and the Love Letter

Marianne Wesson

Publication Year: 2013

"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 Wesson is 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 including Render 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. 

Published by: NYU Press

Cover, Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (195.1 KB)
pp. 1-9


pdf iconDownload PDF (75.5 KB)
pp. ix-x

Important Characters in the Story of the Hillmon Case

pdf iconDownload PDF (79.4 KB)
pp. xi-xiii

Timeline of Events Important to the Hillmon Litigation

pdf iconDownload PDF (88.5 KB)
pp. xiv-xv

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (102.8 KB)
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...

read more

1. A Winter Journey Leads to an Inquest: 1879

pdf iconDownload PDF (238.5 KB)
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...

read more

2. The Parties Ready Their Cases for Trial: 1879–1882

pdf iconDownload PDF (298.8 KB)
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...

read more

3. The Hillmon Case Is Tried before a Jury: 1882

pdf iconDownload PDF (289.1 KB)
pp. 82-136

Sallie thinks she has acquired some patience over the last two years, a quality she now sees she had not properly valued in her youth, but even so she finds the waiting difficult, as well as the continual announcements and predictions about when matters will occur in the courthouse, not one...

read more

4. The Case Is Tried Twice More, and a Surprising Objection Is Made: 1884–1888

pdf iconDownload PDF (203.3 KB)
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...

read more

5. The Supreme Court Hears a Case of “Graveyard Insurance”: 1892

pdf iconDownload PDF (650.1 KB)
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...

read more

6. John Hillmon Is Reported to Be Alive as the Arduous Fourth Trial Proceeds: 1893–1895

pdf iconDownload PDF (285.7 KB)
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...

read more

7. The Fifth Trial Progresses Briskly but Ends Inconclusively, and New York Life Capitulates: 1896–1899

pdf iconDownload PDF (205.1 KB)
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...

read more

8. The Hillmon Case Is Tried for the Last Time: 1899

pdf iconDownload PDF (280.0 KB)
pp. 259-304

The sixth and last trial of the case of Hillmon 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...

read more

9. The Century Turns, and the Hillmon Case Is Concluded: 1900–1903

pdf iconDownload PDF (421.2 KB)
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...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (89.6 KB)
pp. 333-335

If I named everyone whose advice, encouragement, reflection, and labor went into this book, the list would go on nearly as long as the work itself. If you’re not here but you contributed in one of those ways, I haven’t forgotten you. You belong in the karass, whose membership...


pdf iconDownload PDF (217.5 KB)
pp. 337-359


pdf iconDownload PDF (1008.8 KB)
pp. 361-378

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (56.6 KB)
pp. 379-406

E-ISBN-13: 9780814784570
E-ISBN-10: 0814784569
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814784563
Print-ISBN-10: 0814784569

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2013