DNA analysis may have failed, but University of Colorado researchers believe they've solved a century-old murder mystery simply by examining old photographs.
"This evidence can never be as strong as DNA," CU anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven said. "It can never be as strong as the evidence would be if we had a preserved skull to compare to the photos."
But Van Gerven said in-depth study of old photographs is leading him to conclude that the man buried in Lawrence is exactly who it was supposed to be: John Hillmon.
"I'm saying we're 80 percent there," Van Gerven said. "What we're doing now is we're being our own worst skeptics."
Van Gerven and CU law professor Mimi Wesson led an expedition to Lawrence in May to unearth the remains of an unmarked grave in Oak Hill Cemetery.
Their aim was to conduct DNA analysis on the bones to determine whether the grave held John Hillmon or Frederick A. Walters.
Scam or truth?
A long dispute about the identity of the dead man led to a lengthy court battle that was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court two times and led to the creation of an important piece of federal evidence law.
In 1879, Hillmon bought a $25,000 life insurance policy and headed west from Lawrence to find ranch land. He met companion John Brown in Wichita. But something happened on the journey.
Not long later, Brown showed up at a house near Medicine Lodge and reported he'd accidentally shot Hillmon.
Suspecting insurance fraud, insurance companies pointed to Walters and said they believed the men had killed Walters and passed him for Hillmon to collect on the $25,000.
A court battle ensued. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court created an exception to the hearsay rule, permitting as evidence a letter from Walters' fiancee stating his intentions to travel with Hillmon.
Solving the mystery
After years of teaching students about the case, Wesson decided the mystery was too interesting to ignore. So she set out to solve it.
The researchers had hoped to find an intact skull - a plus when attempting to accurately identify the corpse.
But when crews dug into the grave, they uncovered only tiny bits of bone and teeth. With the aid of other CU faculty, the researchers attempted to extract human DNA from the bones, to no avail.
Comparing photographs of the corpse and the two men - items the researchers had all along - was a final effort to use when DNA analysis failed.
"These photographs are old," Van Gerven said. "They were not taken for scientific purposes."
Still, Van Gerven and others have attempted to scale and rotate the images and conduct point-by-point comparisons of standard anatomical features.
They measure the distance between the base of the nose and the upper lip, for example, and study the bridge of the nose.
"We're getting an appreciatively stronger match with Hillmon than with Walters," Van Gerven said.
More about the HIllmon grave mystery
- 6News video: Old photos solve century-old mystery
- Mystery of who's buried in Oak Hill grave still unsolved (10-17-06)
- 6News video: Excavation brings no leads on mystery grave
- Researchers face setbacks in solving 127-year-old mystery (08-15-06)
- Grave riddle one step closer to being laid to rest (05-20-06)
- Professors receive right to exhume body in 127-year-old unmarked grave (04-01-06)
- Petition filed to dig up old grave (02-02-06)
Wesson, who has researched the cases for a book she is writing on the topic, said her research has led her to believe that the corpse was indeed Hillmon.
One of the more convincing elements, she said, was testimony from a man who owned a cigar factory in Leavenworth. He testified in the last trial that he had employed Walters in his factory two months after the body was found.
"If this man's testimony was true, the corpse could not have been Frederick Adolph Walters," Wesson said. "And there was no reason that I could discern why this man who had no apparent relation to Sallie Hillmon (Hillmon's wife) or anyone else in the case should have lied for her. He also had documentary evidence."
Wesson said the most convincing evidence to the contrary was the letter to Walters' fiancee. Up to the time of the case, such letters would not be admissible in court. But the Supreme Court made an exception to the hearsay rule to permit the letter as evidence.
Wesson said she believes the court invented the exception to the rule to make the case come out right as the court saw it - for the jury to determine that Hillmon had killed Walters to collect on insurance money.
"I now have come to believe that court got the story wrong - that the dead guy was Hillmon, which leads me to wonder whether this rule ought to be re-examined," Wesson said.
But as Van Gerven continues work on analyzing the photographs, he said he understands that the conclusions will not be as durable as those arrived at by DNA analysis.
"There's always going to be room for doubt, but I'm trying to reach reasonable professional certainty," he said. "I think we're going to be able to reach some degree of closure."