True Crime: The Lady of the Lake

  • By Mavis Amundson
  • Posted 6/05/2008
  • Essay 8599
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The "Lady of the Lake" is a true story of the disappearance of Hallie Latham Illingworth. The tale of murder, a body that turned to "soap," and the hunt for a killer has absorbed readers and storytellers for generations and is one of the most enduring legends on the Olympic Peninsula. Eventually, the investigation circled back to an obvious suspect: her husband, Monty Illingworth. 

Grisly Discovery

The story began in the summer of 1940 when a woman's body floated to the surface of Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. The woman was wrapped in blankets and hog tied with heavy rope. She had been strangled. The case was especially macabre because of the condition of the body. The woman's face was unrecognizable, but her body had not decomposed. In a bizarre chemical transformation, the flesh had turned into a soap-like substance that could be scooped away like putty. The public's imagination was caught by the grisly discovery, and the murdered woman became known as the "Lady of the Lake." It was a fitting appellation for a mystery woman who had emerged from Lake Crescent, a cold, deep lake that had a reputation for never giving up its dead. 

The Lady of the Lake was Hallie Latham Illingworth, a Port Angeles waitress who was married to Montgomery "Monty" J. Illingworth, a beer-truck driver and a known ladies' man. Hallie had been missing since shortly before Christmas 1937. She had arrived on the Olympic Peninsula about three years earlier after two failed marriages. She was born on January 8, 1901, to a farm couple in Greenville, Kentucky. As a young adult, Hallie repeatedly moved west searching for a better life. She wound up working at the Lake Crescent Tavern (now Lake Crescent Lodge) where she met Monty Illingworth, who became her third husband on June 16, 1936. 

The two had a volatile marriage. Five months into it, the couple got into a pre-dawn fight that was so fierce the police were called to break it up. Hallie showed up for work at a Port Angeles restaurant with bruises on her face and arms. Sometimes she had black eyes. Then as the holidays approached in 1937, she disappeared.

A Three-Year Mystery

After the night and morning of December 21-22, no one saw Hallie Illingworth again. Monty told friends that his wife had run off with another man. But as months went by, Hallie's closeknit family had no word from her. Monty moved to California with a woman he had met in Port Angeles – a woman whom, reportedly, he was seeing romantically before Hallie's disappearance. And then on July 6, 1940, almost three years after Hallie disappeared, two fishermen spotted the body of the woman – The Lady of the Lake – floating on the surface of Lake Crescent. 

The body was taken to Port Angeles, where a young medical student, Harlan McNutt, examined it. He noted that the upper part of her face, her upper lip, and her nose were gone. Because her hands had been exposed, the tips of the fingers were gone. There was no way to get fingerprints, and no way to tell what the woman looked like. And then there was the unusual state of the corpse. The dead woman's flesh had turned to something like Ivory Soap, McNutt said later, describing a condition known as "saponification." The soap-like condition resulted from minerals in the lake interacting with the fats in the woman's body. The lake's near-freezing temperatures had virtually refrigerated the corpse for years.  

A visual inspection of the body and a subsequent autopsy showed that the woman met a violent death. Her neck was bruised and discolored, and her chest showed evidence of extensive hemorrhage. She had been beaten and strangled. Though there was little with which to make an identification, the body had a distinctive, upper dental plate. It proved to be the clue that led to her killer. Authorities identified the woman as Hallie Illingworth, thanks to an alert South Dakota dentist who identified the dental plate as one he had made for her years before. 

Finding the Killer

Investigators closed in on Monty Illingworth, living in Long Beach, California. On October 26, 1941, he was arrested and taken into custody by Los Angeles sheriff's deputies. Not long after, he was charged with murder. He was brought back to Port Angeles and put on trial for Hallie's murder in Clallam County Superior Court. The trial began on February 24, 1942, and was so sensational that it competed with news from the front lines of World War II. Trial developments were splashed daily across the front pages of local newspapers. Spectators arrived early. Homemakers, teenagers and curiosity seekers converged on the courtroom for the nine-day trial.  

Monty's defense was that the dead woman wasn't Hallie, and he swore she was still alive when he last saw her. But the dentist from South Dakota was a credible witness, and he insisted the dental plate found on the murdered woman belonged to Hallie. Moreover, Hallie's friends identified clothes worn by the dead woman as belonging to Hallie. The key evidence was the rope used to tie up Hallie before she was dropped into Lake Crescent. Monty had borrowed 50 feet of rope from a storekeeper at the lake, and the store still had remnants from the rope. The fibers matched.  

It took the jurors four hours to reach a verdict. On March 5, 1942, the jury found Illingworth guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He served nine years in prison and was paroled in 1951. He died on November 5, 1974, in Los Alamitos, California. 

A Terrible Fight

A contemporary of Hallie's later observed that her murder was most likely not premeditated, that Hallie and Monty probably had a fight in their apartment that December night in 1937. The fight took a violent turn and Monty brutally beat and strangled Hallie to death. Hollis Fultz, a criminologist with the Washington State Attorney General's Office who helped investigate the murder, maintained that Monty tried to conceal the crime by placing his wife's lifeless body in the trunk of his car and driving to Lake Crescent. Monty then stopped in the vicinity of the present-day Log Cabin Resort, where he wrapped his wife’s body in blankets and tied the bundle with a rope. Monty put Hallie's body in a rowboat, attached weights to the bundle, and rowed into deep water. He then dropped the bundle into the dark water. Rumors circulated during the murder investigation that Monty didn't act alone, but no one other than Monty was charged with the crime.


Mavis Amundson, The Lady of the Lake, (Port Angeles: Western Gull Publishing, a division of the Peninsula Daily News, 2000); Paul J. Martin, Port Angeles, Washington: A History, Vol. 1, 1983 (Port Angeles: Peninsula Publishing, Inc., 1983); Hollis B. Fultz, “The Corpse That Came Back,” True Detective magazine, 1942, on file at the Port Angeles Branch, North Olympic Library System;  Port Angeles Evening News (now Peninsula Daily News), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, February 24, 1942-March 6, 1942; The State of Washington v. Monty J. Illingworth; Case No. 1075 (Clallam County Superior Court, 1942); Interviews by Mavis Amundson with Dr. Harlan McNutt, Petrus "Pete" Pearson, and Norman Brooks, all from Clallam County, Washington; Laura Burke Latham Dunbar, Daytona Beach, Florida; and Gayle Carver, Greenville, Kentucky, 1995-1996.

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