Petition filed to dig up old grave

City supports project to exhume 127-year-old remains at Oak Hill Cemetery

The city will support an unusual request to unearth the remains in a century-old grave at Oak Hill Cemetery.

“We think it’s to the public interest to find out who is buried there,” City Manager Mike Wildgen said.

Two University of Colorado professors want to exhume the remains of a 127-year-old unmarked grave at Oak Hill Cemetery. Anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven and law professor Marianne Wesson both are working on the project. They plan to use forensic evidence to solve a dispute that in 1892 was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court and generated an important piece of federal evidence law.

A petition to exhume the remains was filed Wednesday in Douglas County District Court, said Mackenzie Murphy-Wilfong, an associate with Spencer, Fane, Britt and Browne, a Kansas City, Mo., firm that is doing pro bono legal work for the project.

Though Wildgen said the city supports the project, which he said is being done with care, a judge ultimately will decide.

Mark Thornhill, partner with Spencer Fane, said the request was unusual.

“There’s not a whole lot of cases around the country dealing with exhumations,” he said.

The professors hope to conduct their work in March.

The site could hold the remains of either John Hillmon or Frederick Adolph Walters. In 1879, Hillmon set off from Lawrence with a companion, John H. Brown. Later, Brown appeared at a home outside Medicine Lodge, southwest of Wichita, and said he accidentally shot Hillmon while unloading his gun.

But insurance companies that had underwritten life insurance policies on Hillmon suspected fraud. They believed Hillmon and Brown killed a third man, not Hillmon, to collect on insurance. That man was Walters, who reportedly sent his girlfriend a letter announcing his plans to travel with Hillmon.

The case was tried six times and taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The court’s first ruling created an exception to the hearsay rule known as the “state-of-mind” exception, dealing with statements describing the intentions of the speaker or writer. The court said the letter should have been allowed for evidence in a case because it met this description.

Jim Mielke, a KU professor of anthropology, said he and another KU faculty member have known Van Gerven for years and when the CU professor asked for assistance, they agreed to help. The remains will be taken to a space in Fraser Hall for the forensic work.