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Three years in a freezing lake turned a woman’s flesh to soap, but her thug husband didn’t get away with his crime

E.L. Hamilton

In the summer of 1940, a woman’s body floated to the top of the cold and deep Lake Crescent, in Olympic National Park, in the northwest corner of Washington State. The body had been wrapped in blankets and encircled with heavy ropes. When a young medical student examined the remains, he noted that her face, nose, and fingertips were missing and that her flesh had turned into a putty-like substance resembling Ivory Soap.

Before her identity was determined, she was known locally as “The Lady of the Lake.” It took authorities just over a year to figure out who she was—thanks to a dental plate—and to arrest her killer.

Hallie Latham Illingworth was born in 1901 on a farm in Kentucky. From her late teens to her early 30s, she moved around the country in search of better jobs and a better life. By the time she took a job as a barmaid at the Lake Crescent Tavern, in Port Angeles, Washington, she was a 35-year-old, two-time divorcee.

At the Tavern, she met Montgomery “Monty” J. Illingworth, a beer-delivery truck driver. The two were married in June 1936.

Monty was a charming ladies’ man; he was also a brute. Hallie came to work with bruises, scratches, and black eyes. He choked her, and broke her teeth. Their arguments were so loud and punishing that police were called into break one up not even five months into the marriage.

Just before Christmas in 1937, Hallie disappeared. Though he was under suspicion, Monty told people that Hallie had run off with another man. In 1938, with no body to prove otherwise, Monty was granted a divorce. He promptly moved to California with another woman.

It was almost three years later when two fishermen discovered the body floating on Lake Crescent, in July of 1940.

A young medical student named Harlan McNutt who conducted the post-mortem noted the soap-like appearance of her flesh. The process is known as “saponification.” Minerals in the lake had interacted with fats in the woman’s body, according to the Washington State historical website Historylink. The cold lake had basically refrigerated her corpse.

McNutt was able to determine that she’d been badly beaten and strangled. The case captured the public’s imagination; reports of the discovered Lady of the Lake made headlines in newspapers around the country. Which helped solve the mystery of who she was.

A distinctive upper dental plate proved to be the key clue to her identity. According to Historylink, an astute dentist in South Dakota recognized the plate as one he had fashioned for Hallie years before.

Authorities tracked down Monty and arrested him in Long Beach, California, in October 1941. A sensational trial followed in Port Angeles. The nine-day trial of the thug husband attracted such a large crowd that it spilled out into the hallway, as Historylink reported.

Three pieces of evidence sealed Monty’s fate: the dental plate, which brought the South Dakota dentist to the stand for convincing testimony; the clothing that the corpse wore and that Hallie’s friends recognized; and the rope that had bound her body, the fibers of which matched rope that Monty had “borrowed” from a storekeeper in Port Angeles.

Later, investigators theorized that Monty may not have intended to murder his wife. The couple probably had fought, and when she died, Monty attempted to cover up the crime by burying her in the lake, wrapping her in blankets, tying her up, and weighing her with an anvil. He didn’t count on the ropes wearing away over time, and her body resurfacing, tangible evidence of a passion gone badly wrong.

Related story from us: At his coronation, King Pedro I of Portugal dug up the body of his dead wife, placed it on a throne and demanded that his vassals kiss her hand

Monty Illingworth was convicted of second-degree murder in just four hours. Sentenced to life, he served nine years before being paroled in 1951. He died in 1974 in California.