Guilty as charged?
CourtTV will soon be called truTV. The venerable cable and satellite channel is shifting its focus from legal programming to so-called "reality" entertainment. With ratings improving in response to this change, "Haunting Evidence" (HE) is the shape of things to come on the network. (HE publicity/press photo of John J. Oliver, Medium.)
If the recent HE episode examining the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murder case was typical, viewers might want to keep one eyebrow raised (and have a "grain of salt" within easy reach) while watching any of the shows produced as part of this series. Yes, the episode was entertaining (if you are unfamiliar with the case). No, its conclusions did not correspond to known historical fact.
For those who saw the program featuring an examination of the 1912 Villisca ax murder story, here are the discrepancies that we detected along with a few observations regarding historical, technical, and editorial matters.
I want to commend the producers for presenting a fairly straight forward summary of the story at the beginning of the show. But after that, the show turns away from the history and squarely toward the sensational.
As the cast arrives in the Villisca cemetery, the narrator proclaims that psychic profiler Carla Baron and psychic medium John J. Oliver were told only the names of the victims and the date of their demise. They do not say when the duo was given this information, and whether or not they were allowed to conduct their own advance research into the case. In addition, as they reveal their psychic observations, both historian Roy Marshall and Villisca Axe Murder House owner Darwin Linn give them additional story details that they incorporate into their final conclusions.
I spoke with Villisca axe murder historian Roy Marshall earlier today, and he indicated that although he enjoyed working on the program, he was somewhat disappointed in the direction the show seemed to be taking during production. He anticipated a segment more focused on the evidence and history surrounding the case. He also said he didn't watch the show when it aired last week.
Contrary to the assertions of a comment received on this blog, the program did lay the murders squarely at the feet of William "Blackie" Mansfield (pictured) who, as noted in a previous blog, was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the murders. The show suggested that Mansfield met with Senator Frank Jones, in Jones' home, to seal his contract to kill Josiah Moore. There is no evidence of any kind that Mansfield was EVER in Villisca. He had an alibi in Illinois verified by multiple witnesses, was never charged with the murders, and was never considered a serious suspect by local or state authorities.
The commenter also suggested that if the psychics didn't receive advance information on the details of the case, that their observations must be coming from a witness to or victim of the crime. Applying a similar line of logic, if the psychics are in touch with someone with intimate knowledge of the case, the information they receive should (at the very least) not contradict the known historical record (see Hit & Myth and scroll down to "Suspects").
When we interviewed forensic expert and former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler for our documentary "Villisca: Living with a Mystery" he categorically stated that the crime scene evidence indicated a sexual motive, and that it was definitely not a murder-for-hire, as asserted by the producers of HE. Victim Lena Stillinger, who the psychic said was haunting the Moore house, was sexually posed after death by the killer. There is no evidence, as the show claims, that she "did not die right away" or that she saw her killer. Or that Lena had a defense wound on her arm and was, "the only person that took a blow any place above the chin," according to axe murder house owner Mr. Linn (In Darwin's defense, this statement was edited and compressed and he likely didn't say it exactly the way it was presented in the show).
Marshal Hank Horton testified in the 1917 Grand Jury that Lena had no wounds on her arm. All victims lay as they were sleeping when struck by the axe. Another forensic expert we worked with (a medical doctor) theorized that Lena's apparent movement in the bed was the result of an involuntary reflex in response to being struck in the head.
Ressler (pictured on the left as we interviewed him), and other forensic experts we worked with, examined 400-500 pages of grand jury testimony by multiple witnesses detailing the crime scene. They were not provided with any additional details about the victims, the suspects, or any other facts prior to the presentation of their findings. Ressler, who coined the term "serial killer", also provided a profile of the likely killer that we included in our film.
The program provided no new insight (as the narrator claims), and the victims and those accused falsely deserve better than this "Haunting Evidence" episode offered.
Do we have a bias that favors historical, scientific, and psychological analysis of the Villisca crime over the findings of psychics and paranormal investigators?
Unlike William Mansfield and F. F. Jones, we are...guilty as charged.
Additional Notes: Crime scene photos featured in the show were speculative recreations and were not based on grand jury testimony. Only one photograph related to the crime scene is known to exist. It's a photo of the axe used in the killings and a lamp found in the Moore's upstairs bedroom that we used as our movie poster.
At one point the narrator states that John Oliver and Roy Marshall are going to "...retrace the path the victims took from the church to their home that fateful night." Then suddenly they are shown walking near the Jones house. This suggests (visually) that the Jones house is "on-the-way" from the Presbyterian Church to the Moore house. It's not. The F. F. Jones house is one block North and one block West of the Josiah B. Moore home.
The assertion that Mansfield was at the Presbyterian church on the night of the murders, and left early to enter the Moore home and hide in a closet, is a garbled version of a fact related to a different suspect. George Lyn Jacklin Kelly, the only suspect tried in the axe murder case, was present at the Presbyterian Children's Day service and did observe the Moore, Stillinger, and other children as they performed.
The notion that the killer was hiding in a closet in the Moore house is based on a rumor that circulated around Villisca in 1912. If memory serves, Minnie Moore, a relative of the victims, floated the unfounded and disproved theory to an over-eager newspaperman hungry for any new angle on the sensational story. In short, Grand Jury testimony confirmed that the downstairs and attic closets were too full of clothing, papers, and other personal items to accommodate an axe-wielding killer (or, indeed, even one without an axe). It strains credulity to imagine the killer emerging from the tiny upstairs closet covered in hangers and ladies dresses, swinging the axe, and casting hat and shirt boxes in all directions. Now that I think of it, the vision conjures up Anthony Perkins in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."
(Jeepers! How can there be this many discrepancies in a show that only lasted about 20 minutes? More below...)
"One of the suspects, he worked in the slaughter house some and he preferred the job of killing the animals," said Linn. Darwin is referring to William Mansfield, but Mansfield was a member of the Sausage Workers Union, not the Meat Packers Union. The former indicates that he wasn't working on the killing floor at all. In fact, Mansfield was detained for questioning while working in the sausage-making room of Swift & Company in Kansas City, Kansas. Later in life, Mansfield worked full-time as a union organizer and his Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1950s obituary praised his many contributions as a union man. As you might imagine, his relatives are horrified each and every time he is newly accused of being a mass murderer.
The medium in HE describes Jones (pictured) meeting Mansfield in a "downstairs smoking room". Jones was a member in good standing of the Methodist Church, was the Sunday school superintendent, didn't smoke, and was proud to state that liquor had never touched his lips. Detective James Wilkerson falsely told people that Jones had been seen drinking a beer in a room above Bert McCaull's pool hall. Jones was nearly as appalled by that accusation as he was of being accused of hiring the murder of former employee Joe Moore.
One possible explanation for the appearance of electromagnetic fields in a house without live wiring: the infamous structure is less than half a block from an electrical substation.
"Haunting Evidence" kept referring to the Moore house as a "farm house." The house is located within the town of Villisca, and I suppose the description indicates that the producers' aren't aware that in 1912 people kept horses and other farm animals within city limits. There were three structures behind the Moore house in 1912: a coal shed, an outhouse, and a barn (the building recently erected on the property does not resemble the Moore's original barn).
Finally, the Moore house (pictured as it appeared in 1994) became known as a "haunted house" for the first time when ghost hunters visited the scene in 1998. Every resident in the house since the 1930s told us, and/or the local newspaper, that the house was not haunted during their respective sojourns. The house has been restored with replacement furnishings to appear as it did in 1912 (though not all the furniture and artifact placement is consistent with grand jury eye witness testimony), and the house is a "must-see" for anyone interested in one of America's greatest unsolved mysteries and Iowa's worst mass homicide.
There's only one film dedicated to telling the true story of the 1912 Villisca axe murders: "Villisca: Living with a Mystery." We invite you to purchase or rent a copy. You could make this stuff up, but why bother to embellish when the truth is so compelling?