The uneasy 127-year sleep of John Wesley Hillmon is about to be disturbed - again. Assuming, that is, that it's really Hillmon lying in the remnants of a simple wooden coffin at an unmarked gravesite in Lawrence, Kan.
University of Colorado professors Mimi Wesson and Dennis Van Gerven are planning soon to dig up whatever may be left of the Kansas cattle dealer and sometimes ranch hand, who was reportedly accidentally shot by his partner on the trail back in 1879.
Their goal is to answer definitively: Who dwells in Hillmon's grave?
Although he died in relative obscurity, Hillmon's demise soon became a frontier cause celebre and today his name is familiar to most law students and legal practitioners.
The epic case of Mutual Life Insurance Co. vs. Hillmon - which generated no fewer than six trials and two U.S. Supreme Court rulings over 20 years - gave birth to an enduring piece of federal evidence law.
The problem is, that law might have sprung from fraud by insurance companies to counter what they suspected was an attempt to defraud them regarding the identity of the man who was killed near Medicine Lodge, Kan., and now rests in the Lawrence graveyard.
"It's a great historical mystery, a window not only onto the law, but onto life in the frontier in the late 19th century," said Wesson, a longtime CU law professor.
And, she might have added, a Wild West murder mystery.
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