A Death at Crooked Creek

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

Marianne Wesson

NYU Press (publisher)

"This is an
extraordinary and ground-breaking book, a wonderfully creative mix of fact and
theory, imagination and drama. Anyone with an interest in law, history, or, for
that matter, great storytelling will fall in love with A Death at Crooked Creek. 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.

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