- A Death at Crooked Creek: The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, and the Love Letter by Marianne Wesson
By Marianne Wesson. New York: nyu Press, 2013. xi + 380 pp. Notes, index, illustrations. $29.95 cloth.
Professor Marianne Wesson is both a well-respected law professor and legal scholar as well as a widely read mystery novelist. In this remarkable book she combines her skills as a scholar and as a storyteller to impressive effect.
The subject is the case of Mutual Life Insurance v. Hillmon, a nineteenth-century legal case originating in Kansas that, over more than two decades, took on Dickensian proportions. Although known mainly among lawyers and law students for its evidentiary rule on hearsay, the case was an epic battle between the alleged widow of an insured individual and three national insurance companies. The individual, John W. Hillmon, insured his life for $25,000, a huge sum in 1878, before setting out westward from Lawrence, Kansas, with a friend, John Brown, to establish a ranch. Several months later Brown returned to inform Hillmon’s wife, Sallie, and the authorities that Hillmon had died in a firearms accident near Medicine Lodge, Kansas. The size of the insurance policies, combined with the circumstances of Hillmon’s supposed death, led the insurance companies to suspect fraud. The body was brought back to Lawrence and an inquest was heard.
Thereafter, the dispute as to whether the body was actually that of John Hillmon became [End Page 115] one of the longest lasting and notable American trials of the late nineteenth century. The case went through five trials and two appeals to the United States Supreme Court before it was finally settled in the first decade of the twentieth century. These were populated by a cast of characters including Sally, Brown, and dozens of witnesses, doctors, and dentists. Multiple lawyers were involved—James W. Green, the founding dean of the University of Kansas School of Law; Eugene Ware (better known as “Ironquil”), both a leading Kansas lawyer and poet; Edward Isham, a leading Chicago lawyer and partner of Robert Todd Lincoln; and David Brewer, justice of the US Supreme Court. Among the many mysteries of the case was a love letter from a missing cigarmaker whom the insurance companies claimed was actually the dead man, a steamer trunk belonging to John Brown, which was never opened during any of the five trials to search for evidence, and a missing tintype photograph that could have provided crucial evidence.
Professor Wesson, in her own words, became obsessed with the Hillmon case, and especially with Sally Hillmon. This obsession led her to spend years tracking down clues to discover who the dead man really was and whether Sally or the insurance companies were on the right side.
In this book, Wesson takes readers through all the trial and appeals. Using actual court transcripts, she brings the characters to life with a novelist’s flair. She intermixes historical sections with imagined scenes that show her at her scholarly and novelistic best. It is often difficult to tell one from the other, but she makes these distinctions clear in the notes. A particularly effective technique she adopts is to intersperse her narrative of the Hillmon case with a second narrative in which she describes her quest to reconstruct the facts. This second, personal narrative is as fascinating as the Hillmon case narrative. Wesson traveled to archives and libraries seeking answers, studied thousands of pages of trial transcripts, and read countless newspaper accounts of the trial. She also enlisted the aid of a forensic anthropologist and dna researchers in her efforts to exhume the mysterious body and attempt to use modern scientific methods to solve the mystery at last. And so she did. This is a wonderful book and worth reading. As one of John Hillmon’s contemporaries might well have said, “It is a cracking good yarn.”