THE PRAIRIE HISTORIANS
Volume 20, June 1990, Issue 1
HIGHT-SWEETIN MURDER CASE
1924 Ina Illinois
BY SUZANNA NORTON
The Hight-Sweetin double murder case was one of the most sensational to ever hit
Jefferson County and even though it occured over 65 years ago is still well remembered.
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.
I had some old clippings concerning the murders, but not enough, to complete this story
until Herb Newell loaned me the old newspapers his father had saved and Eleanor Hodge
gave me a 1977 "Illinois" magazine which contained an article about the murders.
As proof that Elsie is still remembered, the As You Were column in the Mt. Vernon Register
News on April l6th of this year, 1990, said that 60 years ago today Mrs. Elsie Sweetin of
Chicago visited in Mt Vernon.
On July 16, 1924 Wilford "Jack" Sweetin, who worked at Nason Mine, sustained a slight injury
to his arm when some mine timbers collapsed. 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 cola and a dish of ice cream
and where they purchased a sack of candy and some peanuts. On the way home Wilford got sick at
his stomach and after they arrived Elsie said she wasn’t feeling, well either and that she was
going to lie down whi1e 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.
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 death bed and he gave his soul to God." He concluded the
service by saying that he felt unworthy to preach 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, tool 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, but 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 6th, 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 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 home town,
for burial in Mi11er 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 which 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
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 that he didn't know what all the fuss was about, that
he had bought the arsenic to kill rats with.
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
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."
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 A.M., a reporter ran
to get a bible, Hight was ready to confess.
He 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 Reverend Hight might
be having on his flock, Reverend C.C. Hall of Mt. Carmel, Supt. 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 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 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 and 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.
EXERPTS FROM HER 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 l6th 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 at 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
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 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 me and was holding
my 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 with out me and if there
was no other way he would get rid of his wife and marry me. I thought 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,to 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 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
he 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 all 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 cant 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
their 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 Rackaway, 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 the two prisoners were to be arraigned, the court room was
packed and hundreds were turned away. Spectators began to arrive at 6:45 A.M. 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 Berger. 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 murmurings of the
spectators. During the opening arguments one woman fainted and had to be carried from the court
The trial was not scheduled until December 3d, 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 preconcieved opinion
on the case. Finally, after examining over 60 prospective jurors, eight were selected and by the
end of the week 12 had been impane11ed and sequestered until trial resumed December the 9th.
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 trail, 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 thatmany 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 A.M. 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 elgible 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 he 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 opportunity to protest
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 adultry and divorce,
but 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 it’s decision and granted
Elsie a new trial on the grounds that she should have been tried seperately 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
Although Charlie Birger was gentenced 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 somehat
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 court room and again, many brought a basket lunch,
expecting the trial to last all day. At 1:45 P.M. 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 acquited. 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
Following the trial, Elsie moved to Chicago and was remarried twice. Lawrence Hight
was released on parole March 28th, 1952 after serving 27 years in jail. He returned
to Mt. Vernon and died there May 6th, 1959 at age 84 and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery.
Note-- 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.
A folk song, was written, both words and music, by George W. Bean. Arranged by
T. Otto McPerson Music Co. in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, in 1925. Sylvia Bean Shelton,
George's grand daughter, gave me a copy of the sheet music. Hight's picture
was on the front and the price was 60 cents.
The Methodist conference sent me here, a preachers place to fill
I brought with me my darling wife, my hearts desire did fill
But here I saw another one I loved far better still
The devil put it in my head, my lovely wife to kill
Come all you men who have such thoughts, don't let them with you dwell
They rob you of your liberty and send your soul to hell
Farewell, farewell, I bid you all adiew,
Farewell to Sweetheart Elsie-- It's all for loving you
I bought some arsenic poison and her coffee I did fill
I told my wife to drink it and twould help cure her ill
I saw her drink this awful cup and not a word I said
For it was my intention to know that she was dead
I thought whenever this was done, that I woul;d be at rest
But the awful pain of hell did seem, to lodge within my breast
Now I would give ten thousand worlds, if I could once more be
The honored, trusted Reverend Hight, and if my mind were free
The Sheriff came and taken me, I saw my awful state
I could have been a different man, but now it was to late
The awful crime that I have done, Ive told the reason why
and for it I must pay the price, in prison till I die.
Submitted by: Stacey Jones