The Lawrence Milton Hight and Elsie Sweetin double murder case was one of the most sensational to ever hit Jefferson County, Illinois. Newspapers all over the country sent reporters to cover the case, folk songs were written about the illicit love affair and resulting murders and special trains carried spectators to the trial.
Early in the summer of 1924, the Rev. Dr. Lawrence M. Hight was finishing up services in the tiny Methodist church of Ina, Illinois. He was a circuit rider, and Ina was one of four churches he served in the Southern Illinois area known as “Little Egypt,” presumably because it came to a point in Cairo (pronounced “KAY-ro”). When he closed his Bible and stepped down from the pulpit, Hight took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. Under the cover of the hanky, he quickly winked at the attractive 31-year-old mother of three in the front row. Elsie Sweetin, looking away from the pastor, raised her right hand and rested it over her heart. The pastor lowered his head in an almost imperceptible nod and hurried to take his place at the front door to shake hands with the departing congregation.
The wink and the nod, subtle as they were, did not go unnoticed. Tongues began wagging. Ina was a small village, not more than 400 souls, with a railway station and a few ramshackle one-story shops. The Methodist church was the only place of worship in town. It was, in short, the kind of place where a clandestine love affair, especially one involving the sole clergyman, could not remain a secret for long. The people were of old pioneer stock who crossed the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone. “The Ina villagers are a people strangely taciturn and unemotional,” the Chicago Tribune noted. “Their eyes are cold.”
Hight was small in stature. He once raised horses in Johnson County, Illinois, and rode as a jockey until the Lord called him to the pulpit. He was a fiery preacher with penetrating blue eyes. Sometimes at revivals, when the spirit truly got hold of him, he would laugh hysterically, and the laughter was contagious. He would soon have the whole gathering giggling like children, but no one louder than the firecracker preacher. He and his wife, Anna, had recently taken up residence in Ina’s parsonage with two of their three children. They also had a married daughter. The minister’s wife was a large woman, weighing more than 200 pounds, sensitive about the appearance she made standing next to her jockey-sized husband, so they were seldom seen together in public.
Elsie Sweetin was of medium height and weight, neither stout nor slender, the papers said, “more average than pretty.” Her features were regular: a square chin, a straight, distinctive nose, bright white teeth, and clear gray eyes. She didn't use much make-up but had a sparkling, upbeat personality that made her popular in the community.
Elsie had a rough upbringing. She began working at 11 at various odd jobs and continued to work until she married Wilford Sweetin at 17 years old. They lived and worked on a farm for a while, then Wilford took a job at a mine in Mason, over an hour’s drive away, and moved his wife and three boys into the village, renting a small yellow cottage alongside the railroad tracks. A loyal wife and a loving mother, Elsie’s reputation was spotless.
Wilford "Jack" Sweetin, who worked at Nason Mine, sustained a slight injury to his arm when some mine timbers collapsed on July 16, 1924.
The following day, being off work, he accompanied his wife Elsie on a trip to Benton, Illinois, to do some errands. Elsie did the driving. While in Benton, they went to a drug store where they each had a Coca-Cola and a dish of vanilla ice cream, then they purchased a sack of candy and some peanuts. On the way home, Wilford got sick to his stomach, and after they arrived Elsie said she wasn't feeling well either and that she was going to lie down while Wilford drove on to Nason to have his arm looked after.
Later that same day, Elsie went to the store and returned to find her husband in bed and very sick. She called Dr. I. A. Foster and, when Wilford didn't get any better, called Dr. S.D. Harper, the mine doctor from Sesser. After being told that they had both eaten ice cream and chocolate candy, both doctors agreed that Wilford was suffering from ptomaine poisoning.
The term Ptomaine Poisoning is caused by any of various amines formed by putrefactive bacteria. Today the illness is called food poisoning.
When Wilford continued to vomit and suffer great pain, Elsie called Dr. John Clinton of Whittington, their family doctor, who gave him morphine shots for pain. A week later. Wilford was still not improving, and Dr. Sam A. Thompson: was called in. He, too, believed it to be ptomaine.
By Sunday, July 27, ten days after the trip to Benton, Wilford was in critical condition. Frantically, Elsie called Doctors Clinton, Harper, Thompson and Hamilton. The Reverend Lawrence Hight was there also, offering prayers and words of comfort, but on Monday morning at 3:15, Wilford died, at age 41, leaving Elsie a widow with three small children.
The four attending physicians performed an autopsy, observed that Wilford had an enlarged liver and decided that he had probably died of cirrhosis.
Following a memorial service at the Methodist Church conducted by Rev. Hight, Wilford was buried at Kirk Cemetery the following afternoon. The body was not embalmed.
Brother Hight preached a great funeral service, proclaiming that Wilford had died a saved man, a Christian. "I converted him on his deathbed, and he gave his soul to God." He concluded the service by saying that he felt unworthy to preach at the funeral.
Gossip had been going around for some time about Elsie, and the Reverend and neighbors noted on the morning of the funeral that Reverend Hight while sitting with Elsie on her porch swing, was comforting her by rubbing her face, her arms and her breasts.
After Wilford's death, Elsie clerked in a store, took care of her three boys, and still found time for her church work. In August, she stayed at Bonnie Camp Meeting for a few days. Reverend Hight and his wife Anna were there too. Brother Hight, who had served several churches in Southern Illinois, was much in demand as a speaker. Still, despite his religious fervor, people in Ina continued to wonder about his relationship with Elsie, the beautiful 32-year-old widow woman.
On Saturday, September 6, after Reverend Hight and his wife returned from a camp meeting at Eldorado, he went to the store and purchased some minced ham to make sandwiches for dinner. He wasn't very hungry, but his wife, who weighed about 200 pounds, had a generous portion. Before long, she and the children began complaining of indigestion.
By Sunday, she began vomiting and having severe stomach pain. When she was no better by Monday, Hight sent for Dr. John Clinton, who had treated Wilford Sweetin. By Tuesday, Anna was paralyzed from the neck down, and by Thursday was vomiting blood. Dr. Walter Alvis of Benton was called in for a consultation, and both doctors agreed that she was suffering from ptomaine poisoning.
On September 12, 1924, Anna Windhorst Hight, age 44, passed away. She and Reverend Hight had been married 26 years and had three children. She was then taken to Metropolis, Illinois, her hometown, for burial in Miller Cemetery, near the village of Round Knob.
Hight returned to Ina to find that his wife's death had created quite a stir. Jesse A. Reese, Jefferson County Coroner, had ordered an investigation that would include an analysis of the contents of Mrs. Hight's stomach. When the report came back from a Chicago laboratory several days later, Reese issued an order for the arrest of Lawrence Hight, charging him with the murder of his wife Anna.
Hight was taken into custody by Jefferson County Sheriff Grant Holcomb at Tamaroa, Illinois, where he was visiting, and later that same day, Holcomb, Reece and States Attorney Frank G. Thompson searched the Ina, Illinois Parsonage for evidence and a box of arsenic was found.
At the Mt. Vernon Jail, Hight told newsmen, "I know of no reason why arsenic should be found in my wife's vital organs. If she ever thought of suicide I don't know it. As for the arsenic in my house, I think we have had some in the house ever since I have been Married; we always used it for rat poison. And so far as Mrs. Sweetin is concerned, I never talked to the woman alone in my life."
A jury was quickly assembled, and on September 18, two months after his death, the body of Wilford Sweetin was ordered exhumed. All of Ina waited anxiously for the results to come back from the same Chicago Laboratory.
The following day Anna Hight's remains were disinterred and certain organs removed to make a more complete case.
Even though it had been discovered that Hight had purchased poison on three different occasions, twice in Mt. Vernon and once at Benton, he remained very composed through hours of questioning. He said rats were just awful around the parsonage and explained, "They carried off young chickens right in front of our eyes, and I was forced to resort to something stronger."
Wilford Sweetin's body was exhumed on September 20, 1924, and the vital parts were sent to Dr. McNally for examination, and this appeared to be the minister's only worry. Hight said, "If arsenic is found in that body, I'm afraid I am done for."
Hight whiled away his time in jail singing religious songs, though some folks said he was far too worldly and enjoyed telling risque stories far too much for a man of the cloth. When questioned about his attentions to women, he replied, "I have never had a lustful thought about a woman since I was married.
The report from Dr. McNally's laboratory in Chicago confirmed everyone's Suspicions, Wilford Sweetin had died from arsenic poisoning, not from ptomaine. Armed with this evidence, Slates Attorney Frank Thompson spent several hours questioning his prisoner. Finally, at 3 am, a reporter ran to get a bible, and Hight was ready to confess.
Hight admitted responsibility for both murders. explaining that he did it to put them out of their misery; he denied that romance between him and Elsie had prompted the murders, saying that there had never been anything between them except that she was one of his flock and a good Christian.
"I killed my wife," he said to end her suffering. She was dying of ptomaine poisoning, and I only wanted not to see her in such anguish."
After hearing Hight's confession States Attorney Thompson told the press he felt he owed it to the church not to ask for the death penalty, that life imprisonment should be sufficient."
Since the church leadership was having serious doubts about the impression Rev. Hight might be having on his flock, Reverend C.C. Hall of Mt. Carmel, Superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church, called on the self-confessed mercy killer to request the return of his clerical credentials. When admitted to Hight's cell, Rev. Hall urged him to make a full confession for his "spiritual benefit." This had an effect on Hight because he shortly confessed his sins, and this time he implicated Elsie in the murder of her husband.
Elsie was arrested the next day but adamantly refused to admit any part in the "love pact" She said, "I can't explain why Hight: named me as the murderer of my husband. He must be a coward, anxious to share guilt with whoever" might be a plausible suspect. His statement about me is a terrible lie."
She told the newsmen. "This talk of a clandestine love affair is untrue. He came to our house occasionally with milk, but he never showered any attention on me."
"Once, however," she added self righteously, "in talking to me, he put his hand on my knee, and I rebuked him for it." "Yes," she said, with injured innocence, "I thought he was a good man, sanctimonious and sincere in his church work and spiritually a good man."
When he was unable to shake Elsie's confidence, Thompson decided to place Hight together in a cell by themselves and to eavesdrop on their conversation.
Thompson and Sheriff Holcomb heard Hight say, "Elsie, Sweetheart, I am now standing in the light of sanctification. You did your killing first, then I did mine. I have admitted mine and am happy." Then he whispered, "You know you are guilty, I don't think I should take all the blame."
She replied by gallantly offering to take care of his children while he was in prison.
No, Elsie," he answered, "I want you to bear this burden with me." Kissing noises were heard from the cell, and as Thompson led Hight away he broke down and said, "I love that woman, and I think she reciprocates that love."
Something reached Elsie, for within the hour, she confessed to her husband's murder. She showed little emotion as she told the following story in a signed confession.
LAWRENCE HIGHT'S JAIL CELL CONFESSION TO REV. C.C. HALL ON SEPTEMBER 22, 1924, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:"I make this statement to the Rev. C.C. Hall. Mrs Elsie Sweetin and I fell in love and intended to get married. We made arrangements to put her husband, Wilford Sweetin, and my wife, Anna, out of our way. She, Elsie, asked me what to get, and I got arsenic. I brought it it in Benton on July 22. I gave it [the poison] to Mrs. Sweetin. I never gave her husband any arsenic. I said I did because I didn't want to give her away; and after his death it was up to me to put my wife away, according to our pact. I did not intend to do anything until after we moved, but she, my wife, got sick and I did. Lawrence M. HightImmediately after this, Sheriff Holcomb was reached on the telephone at Ina. He at once placed Mrs. Sweetin under arrest.Sheriff Holcomb and Coroner Reece, seated outside the office of the state's attorney, were called in and signed as witnesses. "Now can I sleep?" "Not until you tell us about Sweetin. You killed him, too, didn't you?"Agitation was registered plainly on the face of the shrinking clergyman."The Sweetins would kill me if I admitted I poisoned Wilford," he cried. "There sits the sheriff," replied Mr. Thompson. "He will tell you, as I tell you, that not on man in this county will put a finger on you. You will answer for you crime only to the court." Hight seemed relieved at the assurance."Yes, I killed him," he admitted. "Tell us about that, too. Then you can sleep for a week, if you want to."A SECOND LAWRENCE HIGHT CONFESSION, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:
"I, Lawrence M. Hight, of my own free will voluntarily, without threat or promises, and having been fully informed of my rights, that what I say may be used against me, make the following statement, that on Sunday morning, July 27, 1924, at the home of Wilford Sweetin, at Ina, Jefferson County, Illinois, I placed some arsenic in a glass of water and gave it to Wilford Sweetin, who drank it. I did it to ease his pain. Elsie Sweetin knwe nothing of this and there was never anything between her and myself in any way." Lawrence M. Hight
The two confessions were followed by a third, in which the pastor blaimed Mrs. Sweetin for her husband's death.
HANG HIM, SAYS PASTOR, DETROIT, MICHIGAN, SEPTEMBER 23, 1924:
Detroit, Mich. — [Special]
The Rev. Ames Maywood, pastor of Trinity Methodist Episcopal church, had the following to say today concerning the confession of the Rev. Lawrence M. Hight, Methodist pastor of Mount Vernon, Illinois, to the killing of his wife and Wilford Sweetin and to the state's attorney statement that he would not ask for the death penalty because of the cloth. "Hang the Rev. Hight by all means. The state's attorney in absolutely wrong for showing discrimination because of the church. Rev. Hight or any other murderer is a menace to society and society must be protected. If any discrimination is to be shown, let the Almighty God show it when Hight faces his maker. Maudlin sentimentality is influencing our courts and increasing crime tenfold. The Hight case should set the example the Franks case failed to."
Bobby Franks, 14, was murdered by two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, in May 1924.
URBANA DAILY COURIER, SEPTEMBER 25, 1924 HEADLINES:
- Rev. Hight's Flock Blames the Devil.
- Church Folk Insist That Satan Caused Their Pastor to Murder.
- Others Say "Sex," the Jefferson County Authorities claim.
DAILY ILLINI, DECEMBER 25, 1924:MRS. SWEETIN CONVICTED OF MURDER.MT. VERNON, Dec. 24— Bitterness, hate and sorrow remained in the heart of Mrs. Elsie Sweetin as she was led from the courtroom today after hearing a jury pronounce her guilty of the murder by poison of her husband, Wilford Sweetin, and sentenced her to 35 years in prison. Her codefendant, Lawrence M. Hight, received a life sentence.
EXCERPTS FROM ELSIE'S CONFESSION
"I noticed in April 1924 that Lawrence Hight had affection for me. My husband had for some time been treating me with lack of love, and about three months ago, Reverend Hight suggested that he get some poison to give my husband, and he would do the same with his wife."
"At first, I was horrified, but I had such confidence in him that it seemed the right thing to do, and we finally agreed. A week or so before my husband was hurt in the mine at Nason, Lawrence Hight gave me a paper bag with some poison in it and told me to give some to Wilford. Wilford was hurt on the night of July 16, and we went to Benton the following day. While we were there we went in the drug store and had ice cream and a Coca-Cola, and on the way home, I gave him some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison Hight had given me."
"Wilford became very ill but later seemed better, so on Tuesday, I gave him some more poison in oatmeal. He seemed to grow a little better again, and after Dr. S.A. Thompson waited on him on Friday, July 25, I gave Wilford the final dose of poison in some tomato soup. He grew much worse and died on July 28th. Every time Mr. Hight came to the house during Wilford's illness, he encouraged me to give "Wilford more poison."
"I don't know when he poisoned his wife, but she became ill and died, and I supposed that he had poisoned her. Until I became infatuated with Mr. Hight I had always led a blameless life and had been a true wife and mother. That is the truth, so help me, God."
Following their confessions, Elsie was taken to the Marion County Jail and Hight to the Washington County Jail in Nashville, Illinois.
When a delegation of three ministers visited Hight in the Nashville Jail he said, "I'm guilty, Elsie Sweetin walked down the church aisle toward me, and power came over me I could not resist."
Hight also wrote his daughter at Tamaroa and confessed to her how he and Elsie had arranged their clandestine trysts.
Elsie, also in the mood for confessions, talked to a reporter, and what she said was later used against her. "I wanted love," she said, "and Wilford Sweetin didn't give me the kind I wanted. He was like a g1acier cold and had no words of affection. I married him when I was only sixteen. My family was very poor. And my father left my mother when I was just a few months old and went to Colorado, forgetting all about my mother, my brother Earl and me. We went to Ewing, where Mother took in washings."
"I was two years old when Mother married again. There were six children, and I was alone. Mother didn't have much time for me. When I was twelve, I had to quit school and go to work as a housemaid. Then I met Wilford and married him."
"I loved him, and he loved me. The children came, and they were dear. But something was missing. I had been religious, and again I sought to regain that communion with God."
"God," what a life. Sweetin made good money, $40.00 or $50.00 a week, working at the mine, and he would come home and just go to bed. I wasn't happy."
"About a year ago, Hight came to town. He was our preacher, and he won my confidence from the start and later won my heart."
"Several months later, there was a revival meeting, and Rev. Hight took me and my cousin Eva Milliner who lived next door. When Eva ran back to get her shawl, he said that he loved her and was holding her hands. I went home after the meeting and didn't know what I was doing. When he began winning, my confidence and I began to love him too. But I always remembered that I was married to another man. He told me his wife didn't love him and that he didn't care for her. He was like God to me, and when he told me I didn't love Wilford and that Wilford didn't love me I believed him."
"At dusk one day, standing on the church steps) he said he couldn't live without me, and if there was no other way, he would get rid of his wife and marry me. I thought of divorce. I prayed to remain a good wife and mother, and God forsook me. I became his slave, and he a king. I worshipped him and thought he could do no wrong."
"Another night in church, he said that we had to get rid of them, we had to kill them. I ran down the road. It was terrible, too terrible to think about. The more I tried to forget it, the more it persisted. Then it seemed like I just had to do what he told me, so when he gave me the poison, I put it in my husband's food. It didn't seem terrible anymore. Love was the most important thing no matter what the world said."
When Sweetin died I wasn't sorry at all, and Pastor Hight preached a good sermon. We had $1,000 insurance, and I paid that on the house and went to work clerking for $6.00 a week, and my family helped out with the boys."
Then I began to think how much I loved my husband and how good he had been to me. We had been married for sixteen years. I was afraid Hight would poison his wife, and I didn't want him to do it. I didn't want to marry him then. He wasn't God to me anymore, and I got tired of him. My mind came back to me, and I knew he wasn't as good as I thought he was. He was a preacher and should not have put sin in my mind and murder in my heart. I just wanted to think about my children."
States Attorney Frank Thompson apparently agreed that Hight should have been more of a gentleman, for he changed his mind and told the press that he was going to ask for the death penalty.
While Elsie was downstairs making her confession. Hight told reporters that when he was introduced to Elsie at the church, he felt himself slipping, and I went the way of the flesh.
I sinned and went so far as to commit murder. I do not know what had possession of me unless it was the great love we had for each other.
I learned from others that Mrs. Sweetin did not love her husband. I did not love my wife. She was never satisfied with anything, and I learned from Elsie that her husband was indifferent to her.
I am just a human being, after all, but since my confession, I am sanctified, and in harmony with God once more, I am happy today.
I was never a wicked man and committed no great sin until I came to Ina. I've been a preacher for fourteen years, and I have saved 2,500 souls. 134 were saved last year."
I sincerely regret that I killed my wife and that Mr. Sweetin was killed, but that can't be helped now, and if I must go to the scaffold, I will go like a man."
Elsie and Rev. Hight both told States Attorney Thompson that passionless married lives drove them together and led them to the plot to poison their mates so they might marry.
Rev. Hight said, "There is a lesson in this. Marriages must have passionate love as a basis, or there is no happiness." Had I met and married Mrs. Sweetin, our lives would have been unutterably happy. But she married a cold man, and I married that kind of woman.
Hight declared his passion to the press in terms that left little to the imagination. She was hungry for the love I gave her, It was fated, I couldn't help it and neither could she. We met in the little grove behind her house. Night after night, we would go there, and for hours she would lie in my arms, and we would forget everything but each other.
One day Elsie's father-in-law, Lum Sweetin, who was 66 years old and getting too old to rear Elsie's children, accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and Edwin Rockaway, publisher of the Mt. Vernon Register-News, to the Salem jail to see Elsie. When he asked her if she had given his son poison. Elsie answered, "Yes, I did."
No case had ever attracted so much attention in the press or held such a fascination for local people. On October 17, the day the two prisoners were to be arraigned, the courtroom was packed, and hundreds were turned away. Spectators began to arrive at 6:45 am, and women brought picnic lunches and their babies prepared to spend the day.
Both Hight and Sweetin entered not-guilty pleas. Elsie was represented by Robert E. Smith of Benton, who later served as council for Charlie Birger. Hight was represented by Nelson Layman of DuQuoin. Judge Julius C Kern of Carmi agreed to grant Hight a sanity hearing and ruled that the two must stand trial together.
Court proceedings were hard to hear above the noise of crying babies and the murmurings of the spectators. During the opening arguments, one woman fainted and had to be carried from the courtroom.
The trial was not scheduled until December 3rd, Thompson had decided not to run for States Attorney again but was retained by the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors to assist the newly elected States Attorney, Joe Frank Allen.
Selecting an impartial jury was difficult because everyone seemed to have a preconceived opinion of the case. Finally, after examining over 60 prospective jurors, eight were selected, and by the end of the week, 12 had been impaneled and sequestered until trial resumed on December 9.
The Mt. Vernon Register News estimated that there was a crowd of 1000 people trying to gain entrance to the court house and Thompson had 75 witnesses lined up, ready to testify if necessary. Among the witnesses were; five different physicians who had treated Wilford Sweetin, Dr. William McNally, the Chicago toxicologist who discovered arsenic in Wilford's body, the drug store clerk who had sold Hight arsenic and two friends of Wilford's who were there when Elsie insisted he drink tomato soup. Elsie's attorney put her on the stand in her own defense.
During the trial, the village of Ina was almost a ghost town. Many of the 400 residents were either scheduled to appear as witnesses or were spectators. They testified to things they had observed or heard concerning the relationship between Hight and Elsie. The testimony of Columbus "Lum" Sweetin had the greatest impact when he said that Elsie had confessed to him that she had poisoned his son on three occasions, killing him.
Hight's attorney entered a plea of insanity and had obtained the services of several "alienists' or physicians, who specialize in legal problems of psychiatry, Dr. G.W. Walker. Hight's cousin of Creal Springs remembered how Hight had fallen from a hay loft on his head, and he had suffered abuse from his father. Dr. Charles Anderson, who had been head of Anna State Hospital for 7 years, had given Hight an intelligence test and determined that Hight's intelligence was on par with a child of 10 years and 3 months. In his opinion, Hight was insane and that it might have been hereditary" Dr. Walker recalled that many of their relatives had been of unsound mind.
Despite the efforts of Hight's well-meaning cousin, the State contended Hight was perfectly sane and knew right from wrong, backing it up by producing a psychiatrist of their own, Dr. Frank Fry from St Louis, who had examined Hight and declared him sane.
Thompson wound up his arguments on December 23, 1924, and the 12 male jurors marched out to begin their deliberations. At 8:35 am. on Christmas Eve, they returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. Only two voted for the death penalty, and therefore he would receive a life sentence. Elsie was sentenced to 35 years in prison and would be eligible for parole in 11 years.
The sensational three-week trial was over. The day after Christmas, Sheriff Grant Holcomb and Constable Ed Clinton drove Elsie to the Benton Jail, where she would be held until sentencing. On the way, she asked permission to visit the grave of her husband at Kirk Cemetery. The sheriff agreed, and the so-called "Woman of Iron" threw herself in the snow across her husband's grave and, even though she had been convicted, hysterically cited that she was innocent.
Holcomb asked her to get up, and when she didn't, he picked her up bodily and carried tier back to the car.
Elsie had become such a celebrity that the Benton jail was thronged with curious spectators. The crowd grew so large Sheriff Henry Dorris hired his wife and two extra deputies just to direct traffic past her cell. The visitors were cheerfully greeted by Elsie, who took the opportunity to protest her innocence.
On January 3, Rev. Hight was sentenced to life imprisonment and Elsie to a term of 35 years.
In his many years on the bench, Judge Kern said he had heard many cases of adultery and divorce. Still, he couldn't understand how a minister could arrange to murder a man, then go ahead and convert him and even preach his funeral.
On the way to Menard Prison in Chester, the day of sentencing, crowds assembled at every depot along the way, hoping to catch a glimpse of the notorious clergyman. Hight seemed pleased at the attention and would stand up at the train window so they could get a better look at him. There was a crowd waiting at the prison gates as he entered.
Elsie's lawyer had entered a motion asking for a new trial, but Judge Kern refused the appeal. She was accompanied by Sheriff Holcomb and his wife on her trip to Joliet. They arrived at Union Station in St. Louis at 8:35 A.M. January 7, 1925, on the L&N Railroad. After talking with reporters there, still proclaiming her innocence, they caught the Chicago and Alton train to Joliet.
At the prison, another group of journalists was on hand, and Elsie said, "Someday, the truth will come out, and I will be free."
With money contributed by friends and well-wishers from many states, her attorney appealed to the Supreme Court of Illinois and on April 20, 1927, the court returned its decision. It granted Elsie a new trial on the grounds that she should have been tried separately in the first case.
On May 10, 1927, two and a half years after entering prison. Elsie returned to Jefferson County for a new trial, accompanied by Sheriff Hal Smith and his wife.
Elsie's appeal for release on bond was denied, and she had to wait in county jail in Fairfield until the date of her trial. Her attorney. Robert Smith was serving as counsel for Charlie Birger, who was being tried for the murder of the Mayor of West City, so Elsie's trial didn't take place until September.
Although Charlie Birger was sentenced to hang in Benton. Franklin County, Illinois, no one had ever been sentenced to death in Jefferson County. but prosecutors Joe Frank Allen and Frank G. Thompson planned to ask for the death penalty.
It was Reece who discovered that Reverend Hight had purchased his wife's cemetery plot in Metropolis, Illinois, three weeks before her death.
The trial opened on September 13. After examining 111 prospective jurors, a jury of 11 farmers and one garageman had been selected by the end of the third day. Much of the testimony presented by the prosecution was similar to that used in the first trial. Judge Pearce's decision "was somewhat different than that made by Judge J.C. Kern during the first trial. He ruled out the written confession Elsie had signed but accepted the oral confession Elsie had made to Lum Sweetin and to Sarah Lewis, a reporter.
Again, Elsie denied any guilt and proclaimed her innocence, but the jury did not seem to be unduly impressed with her protests.
Most of the Village of Ina was present in the courtroom, and again, many brought a basket lunch, expecting the trial to last all day. At 1:45 pm. The jury filed back into the almost deserted courtroom. They would have been back sooner, one explained, but they decided to have lunch first.
The foreman of the jury, Robert Peters of Bluford, handed the decision to Judge Roy Pearce, explaining that they had reached a unanimous decision on the first ballot. The verdict was "not guilty. Elsie Sweetin was acquitted. Elsie embraced her three sons, her mother, Laura Lemke, sobbed with happiness, and there was hand clapping and cheers from a crowd of well-wishers who surrounded Elsie.
Following the trial, Elsie moved to Chicago and was remarried twice. Lawrence Hight was released on parole on March 28th, 1952, after serving 27 years in jail. He returned to Mt. Vernon, died there on May 6, 1959, at age 84, and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery.
Nela Peterson Place told me she was at Elsie's second trial and that most people there felt in their hearts that Elsie was guilty. She also told me that our Uncle Cleve Hester was one of the friends who sat up" with Wilford Sweetin prior to his death. Perhaps he was one of those who saw Elsie feed him the arsenic-laced tomato juice.
Ina Observer, Thursday, November 17, 1960.
We are informed that Mrs. Jack Turley, of San Diego, California, died there on October 31. She was about 70 years old. Mrs. Turley will be remembered as Mrs. Elsie Sweetin. She is survived by three sons: Byford Sweetin of Chicago and Stanton and Harry Lee Sweetin, both residing in California. Funeral services and burial took place in San Diego, California.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.