EXCERPT: “Big Love in Little Egypt”

The Latest TWO-DOLLAR TERROR by True Crime Historian

elsiecovercolorIf not for all the gossip, the “Poison Pair” might have gotten away with it. With so much at stake, the little pastor might have been more careful about his attraction to the pretty married parishioner. True, they had developed a set of discrete signals to send little love messages or to make arrangements to meet. But people still saw them together in suspicious circumstances, and it was only a matter of time before small-town tongues started wagging.

 

 


The first wave of gossip began about a wink.

Early in the summer of 1924, the Reverend Lawrence Hight was finishing up services in the tiny Methodist church of Ina, Illinois. He was a circuit rider, and Ina one of four churches he served in the Southern Illinois area known as “Little Egypt,” presumably because it came to a point in Cairo (which, unlike the city in Egypt, was pronounced “KAY-ro” by locals). 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.

American Detective, April 1930.
Anna and Lawrence Hight, American Detective, April 1930.

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 would note. “Their eyes are cold.”

Elsie and Wilford Sweetin, San Bernadino County Sun, December 27, 1924
Elsie and Wilford Sweetin, San Bernadino County Sun, December 27, 1924

After Hight’s arrest for the arsenic murder of his wife, the cold eyes began to see significance in previous actions that did not seem so sinister at the time.

Brother 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, and clear gray eyes that danced when she talked. Her bright white teeth gleamed between ruddy, olive cheeks. She never wore much make-up but had a sparkling, up-beat personality that made her popular in the community.

Elsie had a rough upbringing. She began working at the age of 11 at various odd jobs, and continued to work until she married Wilford Sweetin at age 17. 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.

That began to change shortly after a Sunday service in December, 1923, when Eva Miller introduced Elsie Sweetin to Pastor Hight, the new circuit rider, in the aisle of their tiny country church.

His affection for his wife had already started to wane when he found his “natural mate” in Elsie Sweetin.

“I felt myself slipping,” Hight would later confess, “and I went the way of all flesh. I learned from Mrs. Sweetin and others that she did not love her husband. I did not love my wife. My wife nagged me. She was never satisfied with anything I bought her, and I learned from Elsie that Wilford was indifferent to her.”

Centralia (Illinois) Daily Sentinel, December 17, 1924
Centralia (Illinois) Daily Sentinel, December 17, 1924

The town gossips soon started comparing notes. One had seen the minister perched on top of a pile of railroad ties, waving a handkerchief in the direction of the Sweetin home. After a short time, Elsie emerged from her home and walked to a nearby orchard. The preacher got off the stack of ties and headed in that direction. One lady forget her umbrella in the church and when she went back after it, she saw the pastor talking earnestly to Elsie, her hands cupped inside his own. The taxi driver Ashbury Bumpus, Elsie’s brother-in-law, would sometimes take Brother Hight to a corner near the Sweetin home and drop him off. Bumpus noticed that the preacher would linger on the sidewalk and watch the cab drive out of sight.

Elsie SweetinBecause Anna felt conspicuous about her size, she never accompanied her husband on his circuit, but Elsie Sweetin once rode with him to Spring Garden to watch him preach. Elsie would later say that it was during this trip that the Reverend Hight first expressed his love for her. “I would rather ride with you than anyone I know. I like you,” he told her, then took her by the hand and revised: “I love you.” Gossip had it that the trip, whatever happened, caused quite a row between Elsie and her husband, and that Wilford reprimanded her fairly severely, though no one ever accused him of beating his wife.

Elsie SweetinPeople frequently saw Hight coming out of the Sweetin home on the hard road that ran along the railroad tracks. He told the clucking tongues that he had been praying with Mrs. Sweetin “to bring her the faith” and to convert her.

After hearing the rumors, Elsie’s great aunt, Frances Fisher, tried to give her a word of warning.

“I told her I had heard things and I thought it was my duty to speak to her about it,” she would later testify.

According to the aunt, Elsie broke down and cried, saying that she had troubles the aunt could never understand….

Read more about the true crimes of Elsie Sweetin and Lawrence Hight in “Big Love in Little Egypt,” a Two-Dollar Terror #10

Elsie Sweetin
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1924 0921 tribune hights
1924 0923 Alton Evening Telegraph
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1924 0921 tribune elsie
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1924 0924 Dixon evening telegraph
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1924 0925 huntington press
1924 0925 tribune elsie
1924 0925 tribune hight
1924 0925 tribune thompson
1924 0927 Elsie New Philly OH Daily Times
1924 0929 Warren pa tribune the hights
1924 0929 tribune
1924 0927 wilford altoona pa tribune
1924 0930 harrisburg pa evening news elsie
1924 1025 reading pa times elsie at prelim
1924 1208 hamjn
1924 1213 danville bee specatators
1924 1213 tribune examine
1924 1216 tribune bumpus
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1924 1224 Lincoln Star
1930 04 american detective church
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1930 04 american detective hight
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1930 04 american detective joliet
1930 04 american detective sweetin wedding
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1930 04 american detective sweetin house
Elsie Oakland CA Tribune large
Free Will Baptist Church
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Hight traverse record eagle

Sources:

Elsie after acquittal, Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1927
Elsie after acquittal, Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1927

The (Danville, Illinoi) Bee: Elsie Sweetin Denies Her Guilt, December 19, 1924.

Belvedere (Illinois) Daily Republican: Mrs. Sweetin Takes Stand Today, December 18, 1924.

The Call-Leader, Elwood, Indiana: Little Known of Accused Pastor, September 20, 1924.

Carbondale (Illinois) Daily Free Press: Rev. Hight has Confessed, September 22, 1924; Woman Blames Preacher, September 25, 1924; Poison-Pastor and Co-Plotter Put on Trial, December 3, 1924; Doctor Tells of Poison Working Without Notice, December 10, 1924; Judge Rules Confession of Hight to Court, December 11, 1924; Woman Forced to Confess, Ruled, Call Hight Beast, December 16, 1924; Mrs. Sweetin’s First Break, December 17, 1924; Many Testify Hight’s Actions Have Been Queer, December 20, 1924.

Centralia (Illinois) Evening Sentinel: 2 Pictures Painted of Poison Pair, December 9, 1924; Poison Pair Attorneys Near Break, December 10, 1924; Hight Confession Admitted to Court, December 11, 1924; To Picture Mrs. Sweetin as Vampire, December 13, 1924; Mrs. Sweetin ‘Can’t Recall’, December 15, 1924; Elsie Sweetin’s Confession Barred, December 16, 1924; Ina Gossipers Tell Tales in Court, December 17, 1924; Mrs. Sweetin Denies Poison Charge, December 18, 1924; Ina Pastor Enters Plea of Insanity, December 19, 1924; Central City Woman Witness for Hight in His Plea of Insanity, December 22, 1924; Hight-Sweetin Case to Jury Tonight, December 23, 1924; Hight Gets Life Term; Elsie 35 Years, December 24, 1015; Mrs. Sweetin Proclaims Her Innocence, December 26, 1924.

The Chicago Tribune: Call Mrs. Hight Sacrifice to Age Old Triangle, September 20, 1924; Draws Net of Poisons About Jockey Pastor, by Orville Dwyer, September 21, 1924; Pastor Accuses Woman, September 23, 1924; State Would Hang Pastor, Dwyer, September 24, 1924; Town Demands Hight Hang, Dwyer, September 25, 1924; Saved His Soul, Said Hight at Sweetin Rites, September 25, 1924; Hight Agrees to Quit as Pastor, Dwyer, September 26, 1924; Hight Expelled by Conclave of M.E. Ministers, September 27, 1924; Elsie Condemns Hight, Demands Separate Tria, October 19, 1024; Poison Pair on Trial, Deny They Killed Sweetin, December 9, 1924; Sweetin Died of Poison, Doctors on Stand Insist, Dwyer, December 10, 1924; ‘Confession? Do Not Remember,’ Hight Insists, Dwyer, December 11, 1924; Hight’s Letter of Remorse is Read in Court, December 12, 1924; Wrath of Law Turns Its Fire on Mrs. Sweetin, Dwyer, December 13, 1924; Feared Mob and Confessed Lie, Elsie Testifies, Dwyer, December 16, 1924; Village Gossip Livens Trial of Ina Poison Pair, Dwyer, December 17, 1924; Elsie Will Tell Jury Her Story of Poison Today, Dwyer, December 18, 1924; Elsie on Stand Says Hight Frightened Her Into Lying, Dwyer, December 19, 1924; Daughter Tells Jury of Hight’s Strange Antics, Dwyer, December 20, 1924; Fear Christmas Spirit May Free Hight and Elsie, Dwyer, December 21, 1924; Fate of Hight and Elsie May Be Known Today, December 23, 1924; Jurors Hold Fate of Hight, Mrs. Sweetin, Dwyer, December 24, 1924; Elsie Forced to Sign Confession, Hight Testifies, September 22, 1927; Acquit Me or Give Me Death, Elsie Begs Jury, Dwyer, September 24, 1927; Free Elsie Sweetin of Poison Murder, September 25, 1927.

The Chillicothe (Missouri) Tribune: Rev. Hight Happy Because He Says He “Believes in God’s Love”, October 7, 1924; Entire Jury Panel Rejected at Trial of Poison Pastor, December 5, 1924.

The Daily Chronicle (De Kalb, Illinois): Hight Soon to Testify, September 19, 1927.

The Daily Independent (Murphysboro, Illinois): Elsie Sweetin at Mate’s Grave Denies Guilt, December 26, 1924.

The Daily Journal-Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois): Mrs. Sweetin Makes Plea for Her Life, December 19, 1924.

The Davenport (Iowa) Democrat and Leader: Mrs. Elsie Sweetin is On Stand, December 18, 1924: Doctors Testify for Hight, December 19, 1924.

The Decatur (Illinois) Herald: Demand Noose in Hight Case, December 24, 1924.

The Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review: One of Four Confessions is Allowed, September 22, 1927.

Dixon Evening Telegraph: Sweetin’s Widow Admits His Murder, September 23, 1924; Death Penalty for Poisoners State’s Hope, September 24, 1924.

Edwardsville Intelligencer: One Selected, December 4, 1924.

The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania): Minister Admits Poisoning Pair, September 22, 1924.

The Huntington (Indiana) Press: Seeks Home for 5 Children, September 25, 1924.

Ina Observer: Former Ina Woman Dies in California, November 17, 1960.

The Indiana (Pennsylvania) Gazette: Two Dreams of Two Prisoners, Sonia Lee, December 23, 1924.

Logansport (Indiana) Pharos-Tribune: Main Street’s Gossip About the Poison Pair, September 25, 1924; Alienists as Saviors for “Love” Pastor, December 19, 1924.

Oakland (California) Tribune: Woman Prisoner Turns on Pastor, September 24, 1924.

The Republican-Northwestern (Belvedere, Illinois): Mrs. Sweetin Takes Stand Today, December 19, 1924.

The Rushville (Indiana) Daily Republican: “Simon Legre” Jurors Barred by the Defense, December 5, 1924.

Shamokin (Pennsylvania) News-Dispatch: Minister Quotes Scripture to Answer Murder Charge, by Harry Reutlinger, September 20, 1924.

Sheybogan (Wisconsin) Press Telegram: A Second Confession is Entered, December 12, 1924.

Springfield (Missouri) Republican: Neighbors Gossiped about Hight-Sweetin Affairs, Woman Says, December 13, 1924.

Taylor, Merlin Moore; “The Woman, The Secret and the Minister,” True Detective Mysteries, Metropolitan Fiction, April 1930.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT IN ERROR, VS. ELSIE SWEETIN, PLAINTIFF IN ERROR. NO. 17622. REVERSED AND REMANDED. SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS. OPINION FILED APRIL 20, 1927. WRIT OF ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JEFFERSON COUNTY; THE HON. JULIUS C. KERN, JUDGE, PRESIDING.