Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Willis-Hultz Tragedy.

W. C. Hultz left his law office in Sullivan, Indiana at around 8:30 on the morning of December 24, 1893. He did not notice a tramp, with long hair and whiskers, wearing a long, ragged overcoat, a slouch hat and rubber boots in the doorway across the street.  The tramp walked toward Hultz, and when he was about six feet away, he drew a double-barreled shotgun from his coat and fired a charge of buckshot into Hultz’s back. He ran into a livery stable, and the tramp fired the second barrel into his shoulder. Hultz  staggered and fell onto the floor. Luke Lucas, a stable employee, ran to his aid.


The tramp was in disguise. The hair and whiskers were false, but Hultz recognized him right away.


 “Luke, Lem Willis has shot me,” said Hultz. “Turn me over on my left side.”


Luke turned him as requested. Hultz tried to rise but fell back and died. 

Lemuel Willis and W.C. Hultz had, at one time, been good friends and political allies. Willis was a former Sheriff of Sullivan County and had helped elect Hultz to the office of Prosecuting Attorney. But in the previous summer, Willis suspected a “criminal intimacy” existed between his wife and Hultz, and he decided to set a trap for them.

On September 1, he told his wife he would be away that night on business. She took him to the station, and as the train left, he stood on the platform of the rear coach and threw her a kiss. When he got off the train, he took a buggy back to Sullivan, returning that evening. Willis hid outside his house and watched as Hultz went inside. He waited a few minutes, then burst in, finding the pair in bed together. Willis opened fire on Hultz, wounding him once in the side before Hultz jumped out the window, undressed. He broke his arm in the fall but managed to crawl to safety.


Willis began divorce proceedings against his wife, and the decree was granted without opposition. Hultz did not press charges against Willis for the shooting, but Willis sued Hultz for $25,000 damages. He did not expect to receive the money but wanted to publicly discredit Hultz and drive him out of town.


The strategy appeared to be working when Hultz went hunting in Arkansas but did not come back with the rest of the hunting party. Then, in December, Hultz returned to Sullivan and announced he had come back to stay. Soon after, he was shot dead.


There was little doubt as to who murdered Hultz. In addition to his dying declaration, the wig, whiskers, and gunstock were found in a pond between the crime scene and Willis’s house. A pair of rubber boots on Willis’s porch perfectly fit the assassin’s tracks. That morning, a young boy had seen Willis in a doorway, putting on the wig and whiskers. The police arrested Willis, but beyond declaring his innocence, he said nothing.

When Willis caught Hultz in bed with his wife, public sympathy was on his side. But Willis’s premeditated assassination of Hultz while wearing a disguise was viewed as cowardly. The friends of W.C. Hultz had little trouble forming a lynch mob, and they approached the jail with a noose already tied. But the current Sheriff of Sullivan County swore in 50 deputies, armed them, and stationed them around the jail to prevent a lynching.


Willis’s trial for first-degree murder was held the following September in Vincennes, Indiana. His attorneys did not believe he could get a fair trial in Sullivan County, and they were granted a change of venue to Knox County. Both sides spent large sums of money on legal counsel; between 15 and 20 lawyers were employed by the prosecution and defense. Over 300 witnesses were subpoenaed.


Willis's plea was not guilty, and while not admitting to the murder, he also claimed insanity at the time of the crime due to his wife’s infidelity. Many witnesses testified to Willis’s good character, and nine physicians testified that Willis had been temporarily insane.


After two weeks of testimony, the case was given to the jury and in one ballet, they unanimously voted for acquittal. They declared him not guilty by reason of insanity. Willis got up and personally thanked the members of the jury before leaving the courtroom a free man.

 “Daylight Assassin,” Indianapolis Journal., December 25, 1893.
“Disguised as a Tramp,” Evansville Courier., December 26, 1893.
“Have a Rope Ready,” Daily Inter Ocean, December 25, 1893.
“In Cold Blood,” Cincinnati Post., December 25, 1893.
“Killed His Wife's Betrayer,” National Police Gazette, January 13, 1894.
“Lem Willis Indicted,” Indianapolis Journal., January 6, 1894.
“Loophole for Willis,” Indianapolis journal., January 5, 1894.
“Pleads Insanity,” Indianapolis Journal., September 13, 1894.
“Sheriff Willis's Trial,” Indianapolis Journal., September 10, 1894.
“Very Strong,” Cincinnati Post., January 1, 1894.
“Willis Acquitted,” Evansville Courier., September 22, 1894.
“Willis Did It,” Evansville Courier., December 29, 1893.
“Willis is Acquitted,” South-Bend Daily Tribune, September 21, 1894.
“Willis To be Vigorously Prosecuted,” Elkhart Daily Review., January 2, 1894.
“Willis Wants to be tried in Sullivan,” Indianapolis journal., May 2, 1894.
“Willis's Condition of Mind,” Indianapolis journal., September 19, 1894.
“Willis-Hultz Tragedy,” Evansville Courier., January 10, 1894.

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