Took His Life But Saved His Soul


In 1924 Elsie Sweetin got away with murder. Her accomplice/lover, the Rev. Lawrence Hight, wasn’t as lucky.
By her own admission the 32-year-old mother of three gave her coal miner husband, Wilford, three doses of arsenic which had been provided to her by her lover.
“(After) my husband was hurt in the mine Lawrence Hight gave me a paper package which he told me contained poison, and he told me to give some of it to Wilford in anything,” she told authorities after she was arrested. “I gave Wilford, my husband, some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison. He became very ill but seemed later to grow better and on Tuesday I gave him more poison in oatmeal.
“On him Friday, July 25, I administered the final dose of poison and he grew worse and died July 28, the final dose having been mixed in tomato soup,” she testified. ” Every time Mr. Hight came to the house during Wilford’s illness, he gave me a note of encouragement to give Wilford more poison.”
Before Wilford died the Rev. Hight converted the dying man and after presided at his funeral.
“I saved his soul, friends,” Hight told the congregation. “I sat by his bedside as he lay dying and fought the Good Fight. And I won! It was the best sermon I ever preached,” Hight later told parishioners.
On the way home from the cemetery Hight turned to Sweetin and said: “Well, that’s over. I just wish the rest of the job was off my mind.”
Hight and Sweetin met in the small Illinois 400-person village of Ina when Hight, a circuit-riding Methodist Episcopal minister began preaching at Sweetin’s church.
Soon after he arrived, Hight stopped Mrs. Sweetin in the aisle of the church after a service and professed his love (or at least lust) for her. Sweetin’s marriage to Wilford was troubled and with just a little convincing she was open to new adventures.
“I wanted love and Wilford Sweetin didn’t give me the kind I wanted,” she told reporters. “He was a glacier, cold, no words of affection.”
By contrast Hight, who raised racehorses before finding religion, knew the proper things to say.
“He was our preacher and he told me later that he loved me the moment he saw me,” she continued. “He won my confidence from the start — and later my heart.”
There were several impediments to the couple being together, not the least of which was that they were both married. So Hight came up with the plan that Sweetin would murder her husband and he would kill his wife, Anna.
“It was on another night and again in church that my pastor told me that I belonged to him and that he was mine,” Elsie told reporters after she was arrested. “‘We’ve got to get rid of them,’ he said, ‘We’re going to kill them.’ I ran down the steps and down the road. It was terrible, too terrible to think about. I went home and dropped to my knees and prayed…The more I tried to forget what Hight had said, the more it persisted In my mind.
“And then, it just seemed that I had to do what he told me … It didn’t seem terrible anymore.”
The plan almost worked, but in small towns like Ina there are no secrets.
Wilford Sweetin died first and the doctors simply assumed it was a result of his injuries from the mining accident. Two months later, Anna Hight became ill from what the doctor thought was ptomaine poisoning. However, she failed to improve and on September 12, 1924, she died.
Even before the murders Sweetin and Hight were the subject of gossip. Hight was seen lurking outside Sweetin’s home and signalling to her after Wilford left for work. The fact that the pair spent a great deal of time together before and after church services and even had adjoining cabins at a revival set tongues wagging.
“Elsie just couldn’t see enough of him,” one citizen told a reporter.
It wasn’t long before the town druggist, John Webster, heard the talk and became suspicious. He consulted his poison registry and sure enough, found the entry where Lawrence Hight bought a large amount of arsenic. “To kill rats,” the minister said. Webster went to Sheriff Grant Holcomb and prosecutor Frank G. Thompson, who, six days after Anna was murdered, ordered her body disinterred and autopsied.
The results clearly showed that arsenic, not ptomaine, killed the minister’s wife. An autopsy of Wilford showed the same method of death.
Arrests followed quickly and the Rev. Hight was the first to crack, admitting that he poisoned Anna and gave Sweetin arsenic to kill Wilford.
Elsie was not so fast to crumble and it took an all-night course of the third degree by officials and reporters — along with a plea from Hight to come clean — before she admitted she poisoned her husband. As with so many other cases where lovers murder together, the affection the pair felt toward each other disappeared quickly.
“I gave him a pure heart and I got back a sinful one,” Elsie said. “I was a good woman and now I am bad.”
Anger in Ina toward the couple was so bad that the sheriff was forced to move them out of the county to avoid a lynching.
Since this was the 1920s, the trials happened quickly and each was convicted of the murder of his or her spouse. Among those testifying against Elsie was her father-in-law, who said she had confessed to him in prison.
Because he was deemed the director of the plot, Hight was given a life sentence. Elsie was ordered to serve 35 years.
Hight and Elsie Sweetin disappeared into their respective prison cells until 1927 when the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that Elsie be retried. She had asked to be tried separately from Hight but her motion was denied by the trial court. The state high court ruled that was a reversible error and in September 1927, she went back on trial.
At the second trial Elsie claimed her confession to reporters which proved to be the evidence that convicted her had been coerced. She claimed that “relays of reporters hurled accusations at her,” and that the reporters “became drunker and drunker and more threatening” as the night wore on.
Eventually Hight was brought into her cell, she testified, and urged her to confess.
“Hight told me to confess to anything — anything to get away from the mob he said was waiting for us outside the jail,” she said.
The confession printed by the papers was false, she said. A second confession made to her father-in-law, “Uncle Lum,” was misunderstood. At the end of her testimony she gave the jury an ultimatum: “Either give me death or send me back to my children.”
It took the all-male jury just one ballot to find Elsie not guilty.
Prosecutors sought to have Hight testify to her role in the crimes, but the preacher-turned-prisoner had already adapted to life inside and refused. Prison etiquette prevented him from talking against Elsie.
“I would not have a friend inside if I gave evidence to convict anyone,” he said from the stand.
Reporters said he looked hale and hearty, as if prison life agreed with him. He told them that his only complaint about prison was the food.
“It’s not like home cooked,” he said. “It’s just not seasoned enough.”