Century-old murder mystery provides practical application for law students

Kylie Gilstrap

The Washburn University Law School’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy hosted the presentation “Adventures with an Anonymous Corpse” Friday, Nov. 3.

The presentation included three speakers: Katie Jackson, associate attorney for Morrison, Frost, Olsen and Irvine LLP in Manhattan, Kan.; Marianne Wesson, best-selling author and professor of law at the University of Colorado; and Dennis Van Gerven, anthropologist and professor at the University of Colorado.

“Washburn Law School has always been good at bringing in people who teach us about how we will apply the law in our own careers,” said Mary Olejniczak, law student. “This was just one more effective example of that.”

“Adventures with an Anonymous Corpse” discussed the Hillmon case, which is a more than 120-year-old mystery concerning the identity of a corpse. The mystery corpse was found at a campground in Medicine Lodge, Kan, in 1879.

Sallie Hillmon, a young waitress, claimed the corpse was her husband, John, whose life had just been insured for $25,000 by three Wall Street insurance companies. The companies claimed the corpse was not her husband but instead a man who had been killed by John Hillmon.

The insurance companies believed John and his friend lured this man into the campground and killed him, so Sallie could claim the life insurance. Sallie sued the insurance companies, and the battle continued for 25 years going through six trials and two appeals to the United States Supreme Court.

The Hillmon murder mystery led to one of the rules of evidence all American courts now abide by. It is known as the “state of mind” hearsay exception.

“The presentation was very informative about the ‘state of mind’ exception to hearsay and how it is applied in an actual case,” said Olejniczak. “As a law student, it’s always interesting to see how the theories and rules that we learn about are used in the real world. In the classroom, it’s easy to forget the impact laws have on real people’s lives.”