Post by Graveyardbride on Mar 19, 2015 22:54:06 GMT -5
March 19, 1969: Money and Murder in Texas
Texas is known for cattle, oil wells and money. Books, movies and television shows often depict Texas men as loud, rich braggarts in Western-cut suits and cowboy hats. The stereotypical Texas woman is a brassy, big-haired gal dripping with jewels and furs who can out-cuss and out-drink most men. And if you listen to Texans, everything in the Lone Star State is bigger, better and more sensational – even scandals and murders – and no scandal or murder case in Texas has generated more copy and speculation than that involving Houston socialite Joan Robinson Hill and her husband, Dr. John Hill. Even though most of the principals in this piece of Texas gothic are long dead, the case is still a subject of conversation, women in Houston still attend Halloween costume parties dressed as “Joan Robinson Hill” and the case remains the subject of newspaper/magazine articles, books and TV shows.
The golden girl .... Joan Olive Robinson, born February 6, 1931, was adopted as a baby by millionaire oilman Ash Robinson and his wife, Rhea. There were rumors – never substantiated – that Robinson had either gotten his secretary pregnant, or paid a young woman to have his baby, and talked Rhea, who could not have children, into adopting the girl. But whatever the circumstances of her birth, both parents doted on their beautiful daughter and she wanted for nothing. She expressed an interest in horses at a very young age and was taking riding lessons by age 3. She won her first blue ribbon at 5-years-old. Within a few years, she was an accomplished equestrian, winning first prize in horse shows throughout the country. Following high school, she attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Her grades were average, but her social life was nothing short of spectacular. She had blossomed into a real beauty and there are rumors that after an MGM talent scout saw her in a theatrical production, she was offered a screen test, but Ash would have none of it, believing predatory men in Hollywood would take advantage of his innocent young daughter. Shortly thereafter, she married a Navy pilot called Spike Benton, but the marriage lasted no more than six months. Following her divorce, she immediately married Cecil Burgess, a New Orleans lawyer she had known since childhood, but this marriage, too, was over within six months. Ash did not approve of either of her husbands and many blame him for the breakups of his daughter’s marriages.
Back home in Texas, Joan continued competing in horse shows and Ash bought her a beautiful prize grey mare called Beloved Belinda. Joan quickly ordered a new riding habit in pearl grey to match the pale grey in the gleaming coat of her dappled horse. She won somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 trophies with Beloved Belinda and her other show horse, Precious Possession. It was during this time that she bleached her golden ponytail a lustrous silver blonde and went on the prowl for husband number 3. She met John Robert Hill at a party in late 1956 or early ‘57 and found herself immediately attracted to the handsome young medical student. Unfortunately, the two had little in common and Ash didn’t much like the man. Hill was from a small town near the Mexican border, the son of a hen-pecked father and Bible-thumping mother, who had instilled a love of music in her three children. By the same token, Myra Hill (John’s mother) was less than thrilled about twice-divorced Joan Robinson. Nevertheless, what Joan wanted, Joan got and on September 28, 1957, she married John Hill in a big, flashy Texas wedding, courtesy of her father.
For the first six years, while John was finishing his studies to become a plastic surgeon, the couple lived with Ash and Rhea. During his residency, Hill accidentally perforated the bowel of a patient during surgery, but instead of doing the decent thing and repairing the damage, he simply stitched up the man, who died of peritonitis. He was severely reprimanded and should have been dismissed from the program because his actions were deliberate, but, for reasons unknown, was allowed to continue his residency.
On June 14, 1960, Joan gave birth to a son, John Ashton Hill, whom Ash immediately nicknamed “Boot.” Joan had hated being pregnant and following her son’s birth, announced there would be no more children. The year 1963 was an important and busy one for the Hill family. First, Dr. Nathan Roth offered John a partnership, which he accepted. It wasn’t long, however, before Roth regretted his decision when Hill failed to advise a patient a drill bit had broken off while he was repairing a fractured jaw. When confronted, John apologized and because Hill’s homosexual brother, Dr. Julian Hill, had just died of an overdose of barbiturates in an apparent suicide, Roth decided to overlook the mistake. But it wasn’t just Hill’s recklessness that gave him pause, he considered the younger doctor a pretentious status-seeking buffoon. Hill began collecting what he called “art” to decorate his office and Roth observed the only genuine work of art in the room was a black and white photograph (above) of Joan Hill astride her grey horse with storm clouds in the background – a photograph which John left on the floor leaning against the wall. Shortly after going into partnership with Roth, John and Joan purchased a nondescript, two-story house on McArthur Drive, where they lived the next three years. During this time, in addition to financing Joan’s horse shows, Ash was still paying practically all the couple’s expenses.
A cursed mansion .... In 1966, Dr. Hill found a house befitting his position as self-proclaimed “plastic surgeon to Houston’s elite” and convinced his wife they should purchase it. The dwelling, built in 1935, was a sprawling Southern-style mansion on a .62-acre lot at 1561 Kirby Drive in the swanky River Oaks section of Houston. Although Ash agreed to the purchase of the property and made the down payment on the $80,000 residence, he had misgivings because the place had what he considered a “dark history” and it was John, not his daughter, who wanted it. One of the previous owners died of cancer in the master bedroom, a couple who owned the home had become embroiled in a nasty divorce battle and another occupant had attempted suicide. But John wanted the house, Joan wanted to please John, and Robinson could never say no to his daughter. A year later, Roth, growing exasperated by John’s constant requests that he cover for him so that he [Hill] could participate in music recitals, dissolved their partnership and Hill established his own practice. After purchasing his dream home, Hill proceeded to add an enormous music room addition and poured all his money into it while Ash Robinson continued paying many of the household bills. By the time it was finished, the total cost of the room was approximately $100,000 (almost $700,000 in today’s currency).
One doctor later recalled an incident in the mid-60s in which Hill jokingly advised a group of young physicians on the best method of becoming successful by telling them to marry a rich woman. But was he joking? Or was it part of what Ash Robinson came to call his son-in-law’s “master plan”?
Hill became increasingly critical of his wife and before long, he was complaining about everything she did from her smoking, to her cursing, to the way she smelled – when she returned from the stables, he complained that she “smelled like a goat.” At one point, Joan admitted to her mother that John had not touched her in eight months. Wanting desperately to hang onto her husband, Joan embarked on a self-improvement program in which she attempted to quit smoking and improve her appearance. But John was having none of it and filed for divorce in the late summer of 1968. Around this time, the Hills made an out-of-town trip to pick up Boot from summer camp and there, Hill met lovely, thrice-divorced Ann Fairchild Kurth (born August 24, 1930), and became immediately smitten with her beyond all reason. The stunning, dark-haired beauty was fetching her three sons (whom she referred to as “The Brothers”) and another catalyst was thrust into the lives of Joan and John Hill.
From this point forward in this incredible tale of money, murder and human frailties, much of the information comes from Ann Kurth’s 1981 book, Prescription: Murder. Many dismissed Ann’s self-serving account as an attempt to portray herself as a victim of Dr. Hill rather than one of the perpetrators in this sorry saga. A torrid affair had been going on between Hill and Ann Kurth (which she readily admits in her book) for some time prior to Joan’s death. Hill was still attempting to divorce Joan in order to marry Ann when Ash Robinson intervened, threatening to jerk the financial rug out from under his adulterous son-in-law, telling him he would lose his family, his home – including his ostentatious music room – and everything else if he didn’t work things out with Joan. As a consequence, Hill put Ann off, yet again, and went home to Joan, but it was a marriage in name only.
Mysterious illness and death .... In March 1969, Joan Robinson Hill became ill with what everyone assumed was a bout of “flu.” Two out-of-town house guests, Diane Settghast and Eunice Woolen of Dallas, friends of Joan’s and members of the horsey set, were visiting at the time. Later, the women recalled a strange “pastry” ritual in which Dr. Hill brought home pastries for after-dinner dessert – strange because instead of allowing the ladies to choose their own pastry, he personally served them. Joan was served a chocolate eclair, John had a cream puff and the two guests had tarts of different flavors. The following morning, Joan was sick and over the next few days, Hill gave her an injection of “something.” It was during this time that Ann Kurth would later recall finding petrie dishes in the apartment Hill had rented for himself while carrying on with Ann. She also recalled John’s saying, “I want Joan Robinson out of my life.”
Joan’s condition deteriorated and on Tuesday morning (March 18, 1969), the maid found her mistress lying in bed on pads soaked in watery diarrhea because she was unable to get to her feet and walk, unaided, to the bathroom. Dr. Hill instructed the woman to “Clean up Joan’s mess” and left for work. Concerned that Mrs. Hill was dying, she called both Hill and Rhea Robinson and John finally returned home to take his wife to the hospital – but not to the nearest hospital, nor the famous Houston Medical Center, but to Sharpestown Hospital. Rhea Robinson accompanied Joan and during the drive to Shapestown, which was some distance from Kirby Drive, she recalled John “drove like a snail” and seemed unconcerned about Joan’s condition, insisting she walk down the stairs on her own when she was barely able to stand. Additionally, Dr. Hill had claimed Sharpestown was “geared up” to treat Joan, but when they arrived, no one knew they were coming. At 3:55 a.m. on March 19, 1969, less than 24 hours following admission, Joan suddenly sat up, screamed, “John!” and fell back onto the bed. Joan Robinson Hill was dead at the age of 38. A nurse and friend of Joan’s arrived sometime later and discovered Joan’s corpse covered in blood which had gushed from her mouth. Her body was so swollen she barely recognized the woman she’d known for years. She later told of how she “cleaned up” Joan and prepared her for the undertakers. Because she died within 24 hours of being admitted to the hospital, there should have been an automatic autopsy, however, Dr. Hill arranged for the body of his wife to be transported to the funeral home and immediately embalmed. Thus, her blood was removed and washed down the drain, carrying with it whatever killed her.
A father’s rage .... On June 6, 1969, just a little more than two months following the death of the healthy, active, very athletic Joan Robinson Hill from a bout of flu, or “pancreatitis,” or “hepatitis,” Dr. John Hill married Ann Kurth. By this time, Hill was a successful plastic surgeon in his own right, but still owed everything he was and everything he owned to a dead woman. Many agreed with Ash Robinson that Hill had a master plan and once he had everything he wanted from Joan, unceremoniously dumped her for another woman. Ann Kurth was also socially prominent, but neither she nor her family had a fortune comparable to that of oilman Ash Robinson.
Following his marriage to Ann, Hill’s life at first seemed idyllic. He was settled with a new wife and family and undisputed master of his River Oaks mansion with its elaborate music room. He had successfully removed Joan Robinson from his life and many believe she wasn’t the first obstacle he had “removed.” There were those – and Ash Robinson was one of them – who believed John had something to do with the death of his brother Julian, who was proving an embarrassment to the social-climbing doctor. But Hill’s happiness was short-lived and his black moods returned. According to Ann, during one of his tirades, he had gone through the house, grabbing the trophies Joan had won in the riding ring, photographs and anything else reminiscent of his first wife, after which he burned them on a huge bonfire in the backyard. Hill had contacted his attorney, claiming it was Ann who, in a fit of rage, had removed Joan’s possession from the house. Unfortunately, neither Ann nor Hill were known for their veracity, so it’s a toss-up as to which was telling the truth.
In the meantime, Ash remained devastated by his daughter’s death and openly accused Hill of murder. He was furious and vowed revenge against anyone and everyone involved in Joan’s untimely demise and no one doubted he was capable of making these threats come true. He swore out a vendetta against Hill and the doctor’s new wife. In turn, Hill refused to allow Boot to see the Robinsons, however, Ann Kurth, to her credit, did arrange a few surreptitious meetings between the boy and his beloved grandparents. Joan’s mysterious death remained at the forefront of Houston gossip and Dr. Hill and his new wife – who wore her hair in a ridiculously “big” bouffant – were stared at and whispered about everywhere they went.
Cruel and diabolical events .... Prescription: Murder is Ann Kurth’s account of her life as the second wife of Dr. John Hill. She describes her husband’s idiosyncrasies, his intense passion for music – he was a pianist and huge admirer of Rachmaninoff – and his manic tendencies. The music room Hill had added to the Kirby Drive house contained two pianos, one a Bösendorfer (purchased by Joan for her husband), and a state-of-the art sound system. When in one of his petulant and withdrawn moods, Hill would retreat to his special room, lock the doors and turn up the sound to deafening levels. After marrying Ann, Hill began to play Rachmaninoff constantly and became even more strange and moody. He also had recording equipment on which he had recorded some of his conversations with Joan. Ann later accused him of playing recordings of Joan to frighten her into believing his first wife was haunting the mansion.
On one memorable occasion, Ann recalls John’s falling off one of the motor scooters they had purchased for Boot and the Brothers and breaking his collar bone. Hill refused to allow Ann to drive him to the emergency room, insisting instead on treating himself. Apparently, John was terrified of being sedated and Ann believed this was because he was afraid he might reveal the truth about Joan’s death while under sedation. Later, when Hill offered to submit to a truth serum test regarding his wife’s demise, Ann caught him injecting himself with what she believed was some sort of drug that would counteract the effects of the sodium pentothal.
Then on the night of June 30, 1969, while Hill and Ann were out driving around Houston, they passed Chatsworth Farm (Joan’s horse farm) and (according to Ann), her husband said, “There’s where someone lived who doesn’t live anymore,” after which he admitted killing Joan, contending he had injected her with all manner of bacteria and she “threw up everything but her toenails.” He also admitted to having been involved in his brother’s “suicide,” his father’s “heart attack,” and dispatching at least two others to the Great Beyond. (In addition to the murders Hill admitted, Ann and others also suspected he had killed a man named Jack Ramsey, who had once dated Ann and asked her to marry him. Ramsey was in excellent shape and health when he checked into the hospital for an insurance physical, but didn’t come out alive.) Both Hill and his mother were known to say, “There comes a time when some people are no longer meant for this world.” Following these startling revelations, Hill attempted to kill Ann by crashing the passenger side of his car into the railing of a bridge. Once the automobile came to a stop and Ann did not have so much as a scratch, he allegedly took out a syringe and attempted to inject her with what she believed was a drug that would make it appear she had somehow died in the accident. However, she was able to evade her husband’s deadly syringe and when he saw approaching headlights, he threw it out the window. Prescription: Murder includes a plethora of intriguing information pertaining to the death of Joan Robinson Hill as seen from the “other side of the coin,” i.e., from the viewpoint of the other woman. From the book, it is apparent Dr. John Hill was, without doubt, a psychopath, a very self-centered and evil man with no concept of right and wrong.
Whether one chooses to believe the story as reported and written in Blood and Money or Ann Kurth’s recollections in her book, is a matter of choice. There are many similarities in the two accounts for there is no denying (whatever one chooses to believe) that the murder and subsequent events following the death of Joan Robinson Hill are some of the most mysterious and diabolical in the annals of Texas crime history – or anywhere else for that matter. The indisputable facts are: In 1971, Dr. John Hill went on trial, not for Joan’s murder, but for “death by omission,” i.e., for failing to take Joan to the hospital until it was too late. He hired famous Texas criminal lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes and the trial was just beginning when Ann Kurth, ever the drama queen, blurted out on the stand that Hill had admitted killing Joan. Haynes requested a mistrial and it was granted.
On September 24, 1972, while he was awaiting his second trial, Dr. Hill was murdered in front of his third wife, Connie Loesby (whom he married June 17, 1971), his mother and Boot, in the entryway of the River Oaks mansion after supposedly returning from a trip to Las Vegas. His murder occurred 2½ years after Joan’s death and many believe Ash Robinson ordered the hit. A convict named Bobby Wayne Vandiver (along with an accomplice) are believed to have done the job, but unfortunately, Vandiver was shot and killed by police in Longview, Texas, in an unrelated incident, before he could be brought to trial. Two others – Lilla Paulus and Marcia McKittrick – were tried and convicted as accomplices. McKittrick was paroled, and Paulus died of breast cancer in 1986. The hit was never traced to Ash Robinson and because John Hill was scheduled to be tried again for Joan’s death, some questioned Robinson’s involvement. Hill’s new wife, Connie, and his mother, Myra Hill, filed a wrongful death suit against Ash Robinson and in August 1977, it was determined Robinson had no part in John Hill’s death.
Exhumations and tombstones .... When Joan Robinson Hill died, two friends went to the River Oaks home to pick out something for her to wear on her last journey. The women chose a flashy, gold, sequined evening dress (shown in the photo above) that Joan had impulsively purchased after discovering her husband had bought a pair of lizard pumps and matching purse for Ann Kurth. One of the women called John, told him which outfit they had chosen and asked if he wanted her buried with any rings or other jewelry. He replied, “No, the dress is enough.”
Ash Robinson, desperate to discover the cause of his daughter’s death, hired Dr. Milton Helpern, the well-known and highly skilled Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, to conduct a second autopsy. August 16, 1969, the day Joan was exhumed, was like something straight out of a horror movie and one of the observers later recalled, “The day was written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was weird and frightening.” As thunder rumbled across Houston, the coffin was opened and Helpern exclaimed, “There is dried mud inside this casket,” an indication someone had already disturbed the rest of Joan Robinson Hill. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that approximately three days following Joan’s burial, her husband had obtained a permit to open the coffin to remove a ring from his wife’s finger. (As a physician, Hill would have known that opening a sealed coffin and exposing the corpse to the air would hasten decomposition.)
Joan’s silver-blonde hair was still full and in the ponytail she had worn even to the grave. The facial features were mostly intact, with the exception of an abundant growth of black mold creeping unchecked over the cheeks and nose. The nose itself was dehydrated and beginning to crumble. Blackish-green mold spread in tendrils across the torso and covered one hand. The fingers were dehydrated and mummified, causing the nails to appear extra-long and the silver nail polish gleaming through the webs of mold was macabre. Everywhere the flesh was deteriorating and would soon pull away from the bone and disappear. It was some time before Dr. Helpern completed the report of his findings and sadly, he could not determine the cause death.
Once John Hill was dead and Ash realized his daughter’s death would remain forever unsolved, he and Rhea left Houston, relocating to Pensacola, Florida. Boot reconciled with his grandparents in the early 1980s. Ash died of natural causes February 14, 1985, at age 87. Rhea died June 21, 1987, also at age 87. The Robinsons left their considerable estate to their grandson who became a lawyer and has, for many years, worked as a senior state’s attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland. His daughter, like his mother, is an accomplished equestrian.
The book Prescription: Murder was turned into a TV movie called Murder in Texas in 1981, and the script was written by John McGreeney and Ann Kurth. Katherine Ross portrayed Ann, Sam Elliott (a poor choice in the opinions of many) assumed the role of Dr. John Hill, the part of Joan Robinson Hill was played by Farrah Fawcett and Andy Griffith starred as Ash Robinson.
The marriage of John Hill and Ann Kurth lasted less than a year (somewhere in the neighborhood of nine months) – but for her, it must have seemed a lifetime. She continued to live with him in the River Oaks mansion for a period of time after she claims he attempted to kill her, until she could assure the safety of herself and her children. She lived in constant fear, not only after leaving Hill and during the ensuing divorce, but even after his death. Ann never believed it was John Hill who was killed in September 1972. He was known to perform plastic surgery on prisoners and Ann believed the man killed was a lookalike the doctor had created and arranged to stand in for him on that particular night – of course, the stand-in did not know he was going to be killed. Although many scoff at some of Ann’s claims, oddly, after shooting Dr. Hill, the assassins took time to wrap his face in duct tape and no one denies John Hill was diabolical enough to do just about anything. (However, the duct tape may have been to ensure he would smother to death in case the gunshots did not kill him.)
Ann Kurth filed a $3-million lawsuit against Tommy Thompson and his publisher for describing her as a “provocatively dressed, heavily made-up woman,” in Blood and Money. She alleged the remarks were derogatory and, therefore, constituted libel. The court agreed the remarks were, indeed, derogatory, but because they were true, her case was dismissed.
Until her death in 1990, Mrs. Kurth continued to believe John Hill was alive. And she wasn’t the only one. Some years following Hill’s “murder,” two Houston women traveling in Mexico were detained by a motor vehicle accident and when the nearby “doctor” arrived, they both insisted the bearded man was the spitting image of John Hill. Ann also claimed she would answer the telephone at night to hear Rachimanioff playing at the other end. She was convinced the calls were from Hill. Despite her concerns, the coroner in Houston said he was certain the man autopsied was Dr. John Hill. But how could he be sure?
Joan Robinson Hill is buried in Houston’s Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery. John Hill placed a small, inexpensive marker at his wife’s grave, as though it were something of an afterthought. Later, Ash Robinson placed a monument more befitting her status as an accomplished horsewoman at his daughter’s final resting place. Dr. Hill – if it is Dr. Hill – is buried five miles away at Memorial Oaks Cemetery.
Where is Dr. John Hill? .... Ann Kurth feared John Hill for the remainder of her life. The following is a direct quote from Prescription: Murder wherein Ann writes in the first person after her friend (one of the women who saw the John Hill lookalike in Texas) told her of their encounter in Mexico:
“At first, Joyce said she couldn’t put her finger on what disturbed her about the incident. The man had been pleasant enough. He was rather tall with a heavy beard, and his hair was almost white, although he appeared to be only in his forties. Then she realized that it had been his eyes. At first, there was a flicker of recognition, then he kept his glance averted, focusing his attention on the injuries. He said very little before he hurried off.
“‘Ann,’ Joyce told me, ‘that man has haunted me ever since. I could swear it was John.’ I have been unable to forget that conversation. If anyone were able to make the change, John was the one who could have done it. He certainly had the opportunity, and he needed a new identity if anyone ever did. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
“According to their statement, his (John’s) alleged killers were unable to find the doctor in Las Vegas, where he was supposed to be attending a medical convention and where the hit was supposed to take place. Could it be John was elsewhere, creating a lookalike? Someone he would send to his home on some pretext, only to have him killed? Maybe John set up the entire thing. Maybe he had himself killed. He was suicidal at one time. After all, he was facing a second trial in just a few weeks, an ordeal Ash Robinson would hardly have wanted him to miss. (Ash Robinson wanted Dr. Hill tried and convicted, so why would he have had him killed in lieu of standing trial?) What a perfect Prescription for the doctor to fill for himself.
“I was caught in a reverie about the various possibilities that came to mind when the telephone rang. (This happened after John Hill’s supposed death.) I listened, but there was no voice, just music playing – Rachmaninoff’s Concerto.”
This was John Hill’s way of scaring and torturing Ann during their separation, divorce and months thereafter. She would answer the telephone and hear the music – no one would speak, and it terrified her. Assuming Ann was being truthful and she was still receiving the calls after Hill’s death, who was at the other end of the line?
Ann Fairchild Kurth (she went back to her former name after the divorce and never used “Hill” again) operated an original clothing design shop in Wimberly, Texas, until her death from an aneurism January 13, 1990, in St. David’s Hospital in Austin, Texas.
Also mystifying are the yellow roses on the grave of Joan Robinson Hill. Her favorite flowers were yellow roses and when she died, so many friends and acquaintances sent yellow roses to her funeral that flower shops as far away as New Orleans completely sold out. Who places the roses on Joan’s grave? Ash and Rhea Robinson are long dead. Some have suggested her son Boot ensures his beloved mother’s grave is always adorned with her favorite blooms, but this has never been confirmed.
Sources: Blood and Money by Tommy Thomas; Prescription: Murder by Ann Kurth; Harris County Clerk of Court; The Houston Chronicle; Texas Monthly; Diane Settegast; and Angela Blair.