The courtroom was packed. Everyone wanted to see the actors in the grim drama that had played itself out in Lima Township, Grant County, Wisconsin. Everyone had a theory and no one knew the truth. The circumstances were both bizarre and tragic. A young bride, Emily Bickford Sisley was dead, her body found in a field the morning after a charivari, shot four times with her clothing partially burned. The confusion and astonishment was palpable. How could this have happened? Her body was there, but an answer was not. No one saw anything, heard anything
Lima Township in 1878. The area where Emily Sisley died is shaded in blue. Neighbors in yellow testified.
or did anything in the little house hidden in a valley in what was then called “the badlands” because a number of crimes had occured there. The area where the new bride met her death is about four miles north of Platteville, where Crosscut Road now meets Badland Road.
John Lewis Sisley (called Lewis or "Lew" by friends and family) lived on a small farm he owned. He lived with his mother, Olive Stout, and half brother George then about twelve. He was in the process of selling the place to Robert and Emma Hamilton. For the time, they all shared the small log house that sat on the edge of a ravine, in a valley that the editor of the Grant County Herald described after her death:
“As the party approaches the house all is silent. The very house-dog slinks away without his usual challenging bark as if aware of the uncanniness which seems to hang over all. Notwithstanding the genial efforts of the sun to peep forth, the whole scene has that gloomy air so aptly described as the silence of desolation. A horrid presence seems brooding over all within whose hideous wings the secrets of that fatal morn lie hid.”
Lewis and Olive left home on a buckboard on Sunday morning, June 11, 1882. They told no one where they were going. When they returned home on June 13th, they had with them Emily Bickford, now Emily Sisley, Lewis’s new bride. They had married at the home of Hiram Bickford, her father, a wealthy farmer who lived nearby. They planned to establish a life for themselves by moving to the plains or the far west to farm, but for the present they had to stay in the home Lewis and his mother occupied with the Hamilton’s.
On the night of June 13th, Lewis and Emily went to bed. Emily complained of a headache. Lewis borrowed Robert Hamilton’s seven shot .22 revolver, and took it upstairs to his bed. He later told the authorities that he expected neighbors to chiaviri them, and he planned to use the gun to add to the noise. That night, Hamilton gathered a group of friends and neighbors and headed toward the house. Sisley's mother, Mrs. Stout, and Mrs. Hamilton walked out to meet them. They told the party that “they had not better go down as Lew threatened to shoot if they did." Hamilton brushed off the threat. Lewis, after all, had invited them to come, promising the customary monetary treat to the revelers. They marched around the house despite Sisley's repeated threat. They then entered the house, where Lewis and Hamilton argued. Lewis said that he was angry with Hamilton for affording the newlyweds a "cool reception."
The next morning, June 14, 1882 the household was awakened by Lewis's hysterical shouts: "Mother, mother, she is killed! She is killed!" Sisley's mother and Hamilton ran to the spot where he stood, about 100 yards from the house. There beside him at the edge of the woods lay Emily Sisley's body, hands at her side, with the seven shot revolver in her lap. The front of her dress was burned off from the waist to her collar. Her sleeves were burned around her wrists. Her shoulder was badly burned; “baked solid” as a neighbor who examined her body put it. Doctors later testified that they believed the shoulder burn was post mortem, because there were no red streaks radiating from the burned area. Dr. George W. Robertson was called to the scene. Upon examination four bullet wounds were found in her stomach and chest. After he examined the body, Dr. Robertson told a neighbor: "It’s a black deed. She could not have shot herself."
After finding her body Lewis collapsed into his mother arms saying "Oh mother, what have I done; Oh my God mother, what have I done...How could she have done this?". He said that he had awakened to find that Emily was not in the bed. She was not downstairs either. He started a fire and went to the springhouse to get water. Not finding her, and thinking that as the morning was sultry and she might have gone outside to get a breath of fresh air, he went outside again and began looking for her. He found her dead in the condition previously described. He could not account for her death. They had not argued, he said. Sheriff Lane and those who examined the body did not believe it was suicide. She had left no note.
The doctors were agreed that she could not have shot herself four times. Robertson was a Civil War veteran, having worked in hospital no. 2 at Vicksburg. He had seen bullet wounds and the effects of those wounds on the human body. Robertson and Drs. Baxter, Mitchell, and Cronin who performed the autopsy agreed that the shock from the initial shot would have rendered her unable to fire three more. They believed the first shot fired had penetrated her heart, killing her instantly because there was very little bleeding from the wounds or the mouth as there should have been if she had lived, even for a few moments. The doctors at the autopsy determined that she had not been pregnant.
After the funeral Lewis had stayed with his father in law, Hiram Bickford, who initially refused to accept either suicide or the possibility that Lewis Sisley could have murdered his daughter. Bickford soon began to suspect Lewis, and the other occupants of his house. The behavior of Sisley's mother and sister at the funeral had been too dramatic he thought. He believed their loud mourning was an act. Being a spiritualist, he contacted a medium. He said he had been visited by Emily's spirit. He said her words on being shot were "My God, has it come to this! Oh father,help me!" He had been made aware, he said, by the spirit of his daughter that Lewis Sisley had murdered her. “My blood,” Emily communicated to Bickford “is upon my husband.” Based upon this communication from beyond, Hiram Bickford swore out a complaint of murder and conspiracy against Sisley and the other residents of the home.
Sheriff Lane arrested Sisley, his mother, and the Hamiltons. An examination in the courtrooms at Lancaster began that went on for weeks. During these procedings dozens of witnesses were called, mostly neighbors and doctors. The county spent the unheard of amount of $3,000.00 in conducting the investigation and legal inquiry. In the end, all charges were dropped. Defense lawyers called Dr. E. W. Halleck of Juneau Wisconsin who cited the case of John H. Wyman, who shot himself four times in the left breast on May 19, 1882. Dr. Halleck stated that he witnessed the suicide of Wyman. If it was a homicide there was no witness or physical evidence to determine who might have comitted the act. The burn on Emily Sisley's shoulder was inexplicable. The process by which her cotton clothing was burned only in limited areas was not understood. Perhaps the close range powder flash had set the fire in the area of the wounds, but what about the wrists and lower arms? Motive - unknown. Means - unknown. There has been no further elaboration by spirits. It is all a mystery, and any answer that might have been given has gone to the grave with that generation.
A postscript: On July 11, 1891 The Milwaukee Journal ran an article stating that “Old Mrs. Sisley” (presumably Olive Stout) on her deathbed had confessed to killing her daughter-in-law during a quarrel, and then dragging her body into a field and leaving the gun with her. They reported that her son, Lewis was aware of her act and shielded her, but would not live with her. Subsequently, on January 13, 1892 the Mitchell South Dakota Daily Republican carried this story:
Mrs. Stout Wants Damages
“Madison Wis., Jan 13- Mrs. Olive E. Stout of Iowa has begun a suit for $20,000 against the Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin for publication of a statement that she had made a confession that she murdered her daughter-in-law. Mrs. Stout's name was previously to her last marriage Sisley. Her son was married at Lancaster Wis., and soon after the wedding his wife was found dead with seven bullet holes in her body. Mrs. Sisley was suspected and arrested but released after a preliminary examination.”
Lewis Sisley married Isabel Graves on July 9, 1888 in Grant County. They had one son. Sisley continued to live in Grant County. He died on July 14, 1937 at Lancaster, Wisconsin at the age of seventy-six. He is buried in The Burton Cemetery.