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Frontier Justice

In March, of 1879 there was a tragedy on Spring Creek, 14 miles northwest of Medicine Lodge. A Country Justice, George Washington Paddock, acting as coroner, had held inquest over the supposedly dead body of John W. Hillman. Hillman, a farm laborer of Douglas County, had, at the instance of one Levy Baldwin, taken out life insurance in various companies totaling $25,000.00. No cash had been paid for the initial premiums on the policies. Note, endorsed by Levy Baldwin had been accepted by the agents. That a man in Hillmanís financial circumstance should take out so much insurance on his life, was to say the least, remarkable. In those days the farm laborer was paid small wages and the annual premiums on that amount of insurance would equal the probable earnings of a man like Hillman.

A man by the name of Brown reported the killing of Hillman. He said that in drawing a gun out of the wagon it was accidentally discharged, the bullets striking Hillman behind the ear and passing through his brain. The verdict of the coronerís jury was based on the supposed facts. The body was buried in Medicine Lodge. His wife did not come to the funeral, and all together there seemed to be a rather remarkable indifference displayed on the part of his relatives and friends. Ten days afterward a representative of one of the insurance companies arrived at Medicine Lodge and had the body exhumed and shipped to Lawrence for identification. Then commenced one of the most celebrated cases in the history of life insurance.

The claim of the insurance companies was that the whole thing was a conspiracy concocted by Baldwin and Hillman to defraud the insurance companies out of $25,000.00. They declared that a victim by the name of Walters had been employed by Baldwin and Hillman to accompany Hillman and Brown down to Barber County, where Walters was to be murdered and his body buried for that of Hillman. Hillman, of course, was to disappear. Some months after the killing, Brown made a confession in which he declared that his first statement to the coronerís jury was false and that, as a matter of fact, Walters had been murdered by Hillman at the camp, after which Hillman had disappeared and Waltersí body had been buried in his place.

The attorneys for Mrs. Hillman produced several reputable witnesses in Medicine Lodge, who declared that Hillman had visited the Lodge several weeks before the killing, and was detained there during a storm which lasted several days. These witnesses declared that the man who visited the Lodge on the prior occasion and the man who was shot were one and the same. These men were well-known for their honesty, and it is hard to believe that they were mistaken. Pictures of the missing man, Walters, and of Hillman did not show any marked resemblance between the two. On the other hand, the circumstances were exceedingly suspicious, the taking out of $25,000.00 life insurance by a common laborer, the burial of the body in an unmarked grave, with apparently no intention of removing it to his home at Lawrence, the giving of notes instead of cash for the payment of the first premiums on the policies, the confession of Brown all tended to make a strong prima facie case for the insurance companies.

For a quarter of a century the case dragged its way through the courts, up to the Supreme Court of the United States and back again and again to the Supreme Court. Some of the ablest attorneys, not only of Kansas but of other states were engaged on one side or the other. Finally, the case got into state politics, when the state insurance commissioner under Governor Leedy, ordered the New York Life to pay the Hillman policy or get out of the state. The cases were finally compromised, the companies concluding that it was better to pay what they considered a wrongful claim than to fight the matter longer.

If Hillman was not killed, he was never heard from again. If the man who was killed was not Walters, then there was another remarkable disappearance. There was little doubt that taking out the policies of insurance was part of a conspiracy to defraud the insurance company but the failure of the plan, at least so far as Hillman was concerned, is that he was really probably killed at the lonesome camp on Spring Creek. T. A. McNeal, When Kansas Was Young.