Let Us assume the Villisca Axe Murderer was a Serial Killer
By Edgar V. Epperly
This assumption has been a viable theory since the earliest hours after the murders were discovered. While there are competing explanations, this analysis will attempt to bolster the proposition that a serial killer was at work in Villisca, Iowa.
Ignoring dozens of other candidates, this discussion will be limited to three murders in 1911 and two in 1912.
The 1911 murders are the holy trinity of this serial murder theory. Occurring during the autumn months of September and October in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Monmouth, Illinois; and Ellsworth, Kansas; the violent crimes are strikingly similar.
These three homicides are joined by two murders that occurred in June of 1912: one in Paola, Kansas; and the other in Villisca, Iowa.
The Paola, Kansas murder of Anna and Rollin Hudson has been strangely neglected, but a close look at its crime scene suggests it has the credentials to be included in the series.
When trying to link murders together, crime scene comparison is the researcher’s primary stock in trade. Random killings with no agreement in weapons, methods, time and locale provide little reason to suspect a serial killer. Therefore, to strengthen the case for Villisca being a serial murder we must look for elements that are repeated in the other murders.
Every student of the 1911-1912 murders has noted several similarities. The murders all happened on a weekend. A weapon of opportunity was used in each case. The murder weapon was left at or near the crime scene in all but the Paola murder. Victims in each murder were found in bed and covered with clothing or bed clothing. They were all killed by blows to the head, administered in the middle of the night. Considering this list of similarities it is easy to suspect the brutal crimes were committed by the same person.
More interesting than these common physical elements are two psychological features that these murders share. These two seldom-mentioned features seem particularly significant because they point to a similarity of psychological need within the mind of the killer. That an axe was used in three of the murders is intriguing, but perhaps only reflects availability. On the other hand, if the murder scene contains elements that reveal psychological and fantasy needs driving the killer, our confidence grows that the same person was behind each of the murders.
The first of these elements is the weaker of the two. It is the suspicion that the murderer was not satisfied by his initial assault. In all the cases but one, newspaper evidence suggests that the killer made at least a halfhearted attempt to attack a second set of victims. At Colorado Springs he was successful. After murdering three in one house, he crossed a connecting back yard, entered another house and killed three more victims.
Two weeks after the Colorado Springs murders of the Burnham and Wayne families, the killer struck in Monmouth, Illinois. It is not clear that he prowled around the neighborhood looking for further victims, after hacking William and Charity Dawson and their twelve-year-old daughter, Georgia. Records describing the Monmouth scene and events during the murder night are sketchy but there is no definitive evidence that a second family was approached by the murderer.
In Ellsworth, Kansas there is evidence the killer again prowled the neighborhood close to the Showman family home. Deputy Marshal Merritt was disturbed that night by a noise at the back of his house. Upon investigation he found a window screen had been removed and the back door screen had also been damaged.
In Paola, Kansas, a second family had a harrowing experience that night. Mrs. Joseph Longmeyer and daughter Sadie were awakened about midnight by the sound of breaking glass. Sitting up in bed Mrs. Longmeyer saw a man standing in the dining room. He had just dropped a lamp chimney. He turned and fled out the back of the house. This midnight visitor in his haste dropped a kimono which was later identified as belonging to murder victim Anna Hudson. This man had entered the Longmeyer house by removing a screen from a back window.
In Villisca there was also a hint that even eight victims were not enough to satiate our roving murderer. At 2:10 a.m. on June 10, 1912, Xenia Delaney, night operator at the Villisca telephone exchange, was awakened from a light sleep. She had been disturbed by the creak of the cast iron stairs leading to the second floor exchange. Lying on her cot in a tiny room, lit only by a dim night light, she listened to the soft footfalls approaching. First up the outside stairs, a cautious opening of the outside door, a quiet mounting of the three inside steps, then she watched the knob turn as her midnight visitor tried the locked door. Frustrated by that lock, Xenia heard the intruder retrace his steps down to the street. Some dismiss her experience as a coincidence, while others suspect a suitor might have been looking for a midnight tryst. But Xenia noted that never before or since the murder night did she have a midnight caller.
If in fact a serial killer found himself so unsatisfied by his initial actions that he went looking for additional victims, it would seem to be a point of significant similarity among the several murders.
A second point of agreement linking these murders psychologically is the obvious sexual motivation of the killer. People studying these murders continue to attribute absurd motivations to the murderer. Business conflict, family quarrels, cuckold spouses are in no way reflected by the scenes the killer left. These scenes were created by a psychotic or psychopathic killer, not a disgruntled neighbor.
Support for the contention that the Colorado Springs murders were sexual in nature comes from work done by “Inspector Winship” and reported on his blog Getting the Axe. The inspector points out that the coroner’s inquest concluded “we further find that the killing of the above named persons was done with felonious intent.” Knowing more about the law than most, Inspector Winship observes that this wording denotes the murder occurred as the result of another felonious action. The Inspector then states that such motives as robbery, kidnapping and several other felonies were ruled out by circumstances found at the scene. Consequently, we are left with the strong suspicion the felony referred to was sexual in nature even though the newspaper accounts of the coroner’s inquest does not report such a crime.
In Monmouth the young female victim was left in an exposed position that was a near carbon copy of how twelve-year-old Lena Stillinger was left in Villisca.
The Showman murder scene in Ellsworth, Kansas contained unequivocal evidence that the killer was driven to commit a deviant sexual attack. Mrs. Showman was found with two toy pistols inserted into her rectum. It is not so clear that sexual needs motivated the Paola killer. No precise description of the bodies when found, are available. It should be noted that just as in Colorado Springs the coroner’s inquest concluded, “Rollin and Anna Hudson came to their death some time during the night of June 5, 1912, by means of being willfully and feloniously killed.”
In Villisca it seems so transparently clear that sexual needs drove the killer. Lena Stillinger was found with her undergarments removed and thrown under the bed. Then her nightgown had been pushed above her waist. Lying on her back she was rotated at the waist with one leg drawn up to expose her genitalia.
To circumstantially prove that these five murders were the work of a single person, it is to the psychological similarities (like these two examples) that we should turn.
Dr. Edgar V. Epperly is considered to be the foremost authority on the unsolved 1912 Villisca axe murder case with his research spanning over 55 years. He has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, serves on the Humanities Iowa Speaker's Bureau and is completing a book on the Villisca story. He was the primary historical consultant on the award-winning documentary film Villisca: Living with a Mystery produced by Emmy-nominated filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Fourth Wall Films.
"Villisca: Living with a Mystery" can now be streamed via Vimeo video-on-demand at:
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Another excellent resource for accurate information on the Villisca axe murder mystery and the other 1911-1912 axe murder cases, visit http://gettingtheaxe.blogspot.com/.