Andy Sawyer: A Serious Suspect
By Dr. Edgar V. Epperly
June 10, 1912 was a cool, misty Monday morning, as Russell Lash walked beside the softly breathing locomotive engine in the Creston, Iowa, railroad yard. Russ looked up and there, casually leaning against the tender, was a tall, lanky, raw-boned fellow. Introducing himself as Andy Sawyer, he asked for a job. Lash, a member of Tom Dyer's pile driving crew, took him to the boss. Dyer appraised the stranger as someone who could do a day's work and, when Andy assured him he had experience operating a steam engine, he hired him on the spot.
After a quick breakfast, Dyer sat with his legs dangling out the bunk car door as the stubby little work train chugged west. Sawyer sat beside him cleaning his muddy shoes with a pocket knife. Between 7:00 and 8:00 am they passed through Villisca, Iowa which, for perhaps another hour, would be like all other small town way-stations on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy line. That would soon change with the discovery of the axe murders of all eight members of the Moore family and two Stillinger girls. By then the pile driving crew would have arrived at Red Oak, travelled up the Cumberland branch line, and stopped just outside of Greenfield where a bridge was under construction.
Once their day's work had commenced, Andy quickly demonstrated that his claim of steam engine experience had been a fabrication to get the job. Within an hour Dyer could tell he had never operated a pile driver. Rather than break the machine or kill someone, Dyer shifted his new employee to a simpler task. Both Andy and Russ Lash were set to work sharpening piles so those large poles could be driven more easily into the river muck.
Sawyer proved as skillful with an axe as he was inept running a pile driver. Quick as a cat he enlivened his task by talking to the inert piles as he chopped their ends to a point. Addressing them as if they were alive, he told them he was, "...going to chop off their heads!" Lash was also surprised to observe that Andy's lips were always in motion as he muttered softly to himself. All of the members of the work gang also agreed that their new co-worker had unusual eyes. "Glassy, queer looking and mad all the time," is how Lash described Andy's eyes.
Within twenty-four hours of being hired, Andy Sawyer had alienated the entire work gang. He was unsociable to the degree of being unfriendly. He always sat alone during breaks and ate by himself. He did not ride to and from the job site with the gang, but preferred to ride alone on the engine or tender. Always muttering to himself, he cursed his work mate Lash as they whacked away at the huge pilings. He also seemed inordinately fond of his axe. All gang members agreed he was a skillful axe man, possibly because his axe never left his side. If he was not using it, he was sharpening it. Even at bedtime, he carried it with him to the bunk car. In fact two gang members claimed he put the axe under the covers with him when he went to sleep.
As with several Villisca murder suspects, Andy's eccentric behavior would have been forgotten had it not been for Iowa's worst mass homicide. Dyer's crew learned about the murder late Monday afternoon when they read the Creston daily paper in Fontenelle, Iowa. Andy was especially excited by the murder and talked of little else. He told some gang members that he had been in Villisca the night of the murder and left town to avoid suspicion. On Tuesday the 12th of June, the work train passed through Villisca and Andy pointed out the neighborhood where the murder occurred and described the route the murderer took out of town.
This easy familiarity with the murder, coupled with his appearance in the Creston switch yards early on the morning the murder was discovered convinced the pile driving crew that Andy was the guilty man. Unshaven and wet to the knees when he had signed on, his co-workers accepted his tale that he had been in Villisca and beat his way east after the murder. Russell Lash told boss Dyer he was afraid of Sawyer and would no longer work with him. Dyer, also being suspicious of his new employee contacted Montgomery County sheriff Oren Jackson suggesting that Sawyer was the Villisca axe murderer.
On Tuesday evening June 18th, just over a week after the murder, Sheriff Jackson met Dyer and his crew in the Red Oak, Iowa rail yard after work. The crew had just sat down for dinner when the sheriff called Sawyer out from the dining car. Jackson and another investigator talked with Sawyer for some ten minutes before releasing him. Sawyer was unnerved by this confrontation. He looked scared, was very nervous, and could eat no supper. Muttering, "that's awful," he drank a cup of coffee and left the supper table. In fact, he left the work gang. He quit the next morning asking Dyer to have his time sent to an Omaha address.
Subsequent investigation revealed that he had returned to his wife and children on their homestead claim in Lark, North Dakota. W. S. Gordon who had been assigned to the Villisca case by the Burns Detective Agency was incensed that sheriff Jackson had failed to hold Andy when he had him. In September, 1912, Gordon was convinced the Villisca killer was one of a trio of likely suspects: the lace salesman, Roy Van Gilder or Andy Sawyer.
In mid-September Gordon and Montgomery County attorney W. C. Ratcliff embarked on a long journey to confirm or disprove the story Sawyer had told Sheriff Jackson. First, they went to Burlington, Iowa, where they interviewed Tom Dyer and several members of his pile driving crew. To a man they were convinced of Sawyer's guilt. Then it was off to Lark, North Dakota, where they interviewed Andy, his wife Anna, and his father-in-law Royal Worthing who also was homesteading a few miles away from the Sawyer claim. Andy denied his co-workers' accusations, claiming all his talk about the murder came from newspaper accounts he had read, and knowing Villisca from having grown up in the vicinity. He also carefully traced his itinerary during months of wandering just before the murder. Confident, they could find him if needed, Ratcliff and Gordon retraced his pre-murder travels to see if his alibi checked out.
Their first stop was in Minneapolis-St. Paul where an Uncle, Henry S. Sawyer confirmed Andy had stayed with him. Beyond this, Uncle Henry was not a particularly helpful character witness as he said Andy was a worthless tramp who was brutal to horses. From the twin cities, Andy had traveled on to Missouri, then Des Moines, and finally Chariton, Iowa about a week before the murder. In Chariton he stayed with a cousin, Miss Florence Hall, and left on June 8th for Osceola, Iowa. On Sunday night June 9th, the night the murder was committed, he was in Osceola with another hobo. Stopped by the city marshal, the two were told to hop a freight out of town or be arrested for vagrancy. The vagabonds swung aboard a timed freight at 10:11 p.m. and arrived in Creston between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., Monday morning June 10, 1912.
Ratcliff and Gordon interviewed both Florence Hall and the Osceola Marshal who confirmed Andy's story. Consequently Andy Sawyer joined several dozen others as a discarded murder suspect.
Of the many early suspects, Sawyer seemed the most viable. An anonymous member of the 1917 Grand Jury investigating the case was quoted, "In my mind, his (Andy Sawyer) is the most reasonable clue that has been investigated since the grand jury has been in session. This man was mentally unbalanced." At least one student of the murder offers Andy as the most plausible candidate for this infamous true crime. While her arguments in defense of his involvement are interesting, she was handicapped by not having access to the State of Iowa archives which include the several interviews corroborating Andy's movements prior to the murder.
Andy Sawyer is certainly the only real suspect examined in the summer of 1912. Still, the Osceola Marshal was quite clear in his memory of shooing Andy out of town on the night of the murder. What appears to have happened was that a disturbed young man talked a great deal about the murder. This talk was drawn from his familiarity with Villisca and his retention of newspaper accounts of the unsolved murder. His braggadocio (empty boasting) also frightened and convinced his co-workers that he must be the Villisca killer even though subsequent investigation placed him some 75 miles east of Villisca when the murder was committed.