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.”
Tag Archive for Illinois
In 1924 Elsie Sweetin got away with murder. Her accomplice/lover, the Rev. Lawrence Hight, wasn’t as lucky.
Without a doubt, Benjamin Gibons and his wife, Sybil, loved their adopted daughter whom they named Jacqueline.
Unable to have children of their own, they brought Jacqueline into their home rather late in their lives — when both were in their 40s. However, it was clear their daughter was the center of their lives. Throughout the Gibons’s home there were photographs of the heavy, cross-eyed wirey-haired girl from infancy through her teens. A Chicago Tribune writer described her story in 1985 as “a twisted tale of two parents who gave everything to a daughter to whom everything was not enough.”
Jackie, as she was known, was somewhat hard to love.
Born in 1962, she was described as a bright child who could read and write her numbers before she entered kindergarten, but throughout her formative years, she found it difficult to make friends. She often lashed out at the other kids, kicking and punching them for no apparent reason. She was expelled from preschool for biting and in kindergarten stabbed a fellow student with scissors when he took a sheet of paper from her. By the time she was 10 years old, she was stealing money from teachers and lunches from other students.
Like so many other violent youngsters, what caused Jackie’s mean streak is a mystery. Once again, the age-old question of nature-vs-nurture arises. An EEG performed when she was a pre-teen revealed no brain abnormalities, but her birth family history reportedly shows that her mother was barely able to care for herself. Sybil told friends that she was haunted by images of Jackie’s birth mother.
In the early 1970s, Jackie was diagnosed as a teen with a passive-aggressive personality disorder, a chronic condition where a person paradoxically responds to the needs of others, but acts out aggressively against those needs.
Psychologists would later express concerns about her violent fantasies and “gruesome stories.”
“Her various hostile fantasies indicate strong, chronic, underlying anger,” one wrote.
During Jackie’s formative years, Benjamin was frequently away at work for long hours and Sybil was a strict mother with high expectations. Her parents were private people, the Tribune reported, and as a result Jackie rarely played with other children. During her childhood, Sybil’s elderly mother, a soap-opera fanatic and devout Jew who was, the Trib claimed, “by all accounts disturbed” lived with the family and was openly hostile to her granddaughter, whom she referred to as “garbage” for not being a “real Jew.”
When she was 10 years old, Jackie was placed in the first of many residential facilities for emotionally troubled girls.
She improved over time, but as a young teen she began experimenting with drugs and became sexually active. Then, as a 17-year-old, she met Barry Wilson who was 21 at the time. Two-thirds of a lethal trio was now assembled.
Wilson was an 8th-grade dropout whose mother considered him a chronic prevaricator and thief. He had a record for petty, nonviolent crimes. In December 1980, he convinced Jackie to hang some paper and she was arrested and jailed for writing bad checks.
Benjamin and Sybil had to take up a collection from friends to post her $1,000 bail.
Over the next two years Jackie lived with her parents with little motivation or direction in life.
She was a bomb waiting to explode and in the summer of 1982, Wilson, with the help of another low-life named Robert St. Pierre, 19, lit the fuse.
In early 1982, Barry Wilson began to complain because Benjamin and Sybil had taken away her bank books and charge cards so that she could not provide him with money. Wilson reportedly told Jackie that he wanted them killed and that he had bought a gun and “knockout drops.”
The Skokie, Illinois police were summoned to the Gibons’s home on July 27, 1982 to take a report about an attempted break-in. The detectives spoke with Benjamin, Sybil and Jackie. The 20-year-old girl told authorities that Wilson was responsible for the break-in. Benjamin agreed to come to the police station the next day to swear out a complaint against Wilson.
He failed to show up and the detective called the home on July 29. He spoke to Jackie who told him that her father was out and that she would relay his message. The detective heard nothing and called back on July 31. This time, Jackie told him that both her mother and father were out for dinner.
At approximately 2:45 p.m. on August 2, the detective went to the Gibons’s residence after a call from Sybil’s sister, Harriet Metrick. She called the police after the couple’s employers informed her that they had not been to work in several days.
Fearing the worst — that Sybil and Benjamin were the victims of foul play — the detective had probable cause to enter the home without a warrant. It was apparent that an incredibly violent attack had occurred in the home. Inside the residence, he observed bloodstains in several rooms of the house and cleaning fluids and blood-soaked rags and towels scattered about. In the kitchen he found a bloody pair of gloves and Benjamin’s wallet. Holes had been cut in the living-room carpet, and in the master bedroom a large hole was discovered in the closet wall which led to the garage.
In the basement were more bloody towels and sheets, as well as a pair of blood-soaked gloves. An inspection of the garage revealed garbage bags containing bloodstained sections of carpeting and towels, a hammer covered with masonry dust and a bloodstained newspaper, dated July 29, 1982.
What police later discovered was a grotesque murder-for-hire plot targeted at Benjamin and Sybil.
On July 27, 1982, Jackie approached Wilson and told him that she wanted her parents murdered and that she would “pay good money” — Wilson later claimed $10,000 — if he would do it. After their conversation they went to the Gibons’s residence on Karlov where Wilson broke through a window, entered the home and took some bologna and cheese from the refrigerator.
On July 29, Wilson, St. Pierre — who had been released from prison just a few weeks before — met Jackie in an alley where they planned the murders. St. Pierre told Jackie that he wanted to hear her say she “wanted it to go down.”
“Yeah, she wanted it done,” he later told police she responded.
St. Pierre agreed that he would kill Benjamin and Sybil for $500 up-front for each murder and $2,000 later (although as much as $ 10,000 was discussed).
St. Pierre then suggested they use a blackjack but Wilson disagreed and told him to use a hammer. Jackie went back to work, and St. Pierre and Wilson picked up a 12-pack of beer. After drinking the beer, they went to a bar and had a couple of more drinks before taking a train to Skokie. At a restaurant a couple of blocks from the home of the Gibons, Wilson gave St. Pierre a phone number where he could be reached before St. Pierre left for the house.
When St. Pierre arrived at the house, Jackie let him in and introduced St. Pierre to her father. After Gibons walked into the kitchen, Jackie gave St. Pierre a hammer and he followed Gibons into the kitchen. There he confronted Gibons and repeatedly struck him about the head (11 times, which means he ignored 10 opportunities to stop) with the hammer until he stopped breathing. He then handed Jackie the phone number he had obtained from Wilson and told her to call him.
Wilson arrived five minutes later, and for the next hour they attempted to clean up the spattered blood in the kitchen using rags and towels. They tied the body with tape and rope, wrapped it in plastic and a blanket, and placed it in the master bedroom. St. Pierre stated that before they moved the body he reached into the pocket of Benjamin’s pants and took out his wallet, which contained many $20 bills. He kept a $20 bill and gave the wallet to Wilson.
Sybil phoned her home and told Jackie that she wanted to be picked up at the train station. Jackie left in the family car, and in the meantime, Wilson and St. Pierre continued drinking. When Jackie and her mother arrived, St. Pierre was waiting in the hallway. As Mrs. Gibons walked through the front door, St. Pierre struck her a number of times on the head with a hammer.
Sybil’s last words were to Jackie, asking, “How could you do this to me?”
They then tied the body with tape and rope, wrapped it in a blanket and plastic, and placed it in the master bedroom. Because of the amount of blood that had soaked into the living-room carpeting, they cut out the stained section of carpeting and placed it in a trash bag. St. Pierre, Wilson and Jackie then took her parents’ and went for a “cruise” with Wilson driving. He dropped St. Pierre and Jackie off at a hotel and left.
“I did this all for you,” Wilson told Jackie. “I can’t believe I did it, it’s done.”
The next evening they returned to the crime scene. St. Pierre and Wilson broke through the wall in the bedroom closet that led to the garage and the bodies were passed through and placed in the trunk of the car. St. Pierre later told police that he noticed that the tip of one of Sybil’s fingers was missing. He said that either Wilson or Jackie must have cut the finger in order to remove her wedding ring.
For a second time they took the family car, and Wilson dropped St. Pierre off at a gas station and told him that he would be back at 10 p.m. He also told St. Pierre that when he returned they would drive to Arkansas to dispose of the bodies. Wilson, however, never returned and St. Pierre went home.
On August 10, 1982, the bodies of Benjamin and Sybil Gibons were found in a remote area near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The bodies were wrapped in blankets and plastic and tied with rope and tape. A forensic pathologist testified that she performed an autopsy on each body and that both exhibited several skull fractures and torso injuries. She also stated that the end of one of the fingers on the body of Mrs. Gibons was missing, although she could not determine whether its absence was the result of injury or decomposition.
At the crime scene, police found a belt belonging to St. Pierre, bearing his name and prison identification number. The next day the police questioned Jackie Gibons and she gave the police a statement about the murders. The police then apprehended St. Pierre; Wilson was later arrested in Arizona.
Jackie was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison along with Wilson.
St. Pierre was tried and convicted of the murders in Illinois state court in 1983. On direct appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial based on the admission of an improperly obtained confession. On remand, St. Pierre accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty to the two murders in 1989, rather than face another trial.
He was sentenced to death, but was taken off death row when Governor George Ryan granted blanket clemency to the state’s condemned prisoners.