Sometime during the night of Sunday, June 9, 1912, a person or persons unknown entered a modest house in Villisca, Iowa and bludgeoned to death the eight people sleeping there. These killings, known thereafter as the “Villisca Axe Murders," is easily the most notorious murder in Iowa history. The murder spawned nearly ten years of investigations, repeated grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit, and murder trial, and numerous minor litigations and trials. It made and broke political careers. Legislation was written in response to the murder, including the establishment of the current State Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s predecessor. In addition, the murder proved an unmitigated tragedy for Villisca.
June 10, 1912 ~ Monday.
By 7:30 a.m. on June 10th, Mary Peckham, an elderly neighbor to the west, became concerned that the Moore house seemed quiet and deserted. She called Joe’s brother Ross, a local druggist, who arrived at about 8:00 a.m. to look around. His cautious inspection of the downstairs revealed two figures covered with a sheet in the back bedroom, and he also saw blood on the bedstead. Ross beat a hasty retreat and called Joe’s hardware store telling his employee, Ed Selley, to fetch Marshall Henry “Hank” Horton, for something terrible had happened.
Hank arrived about 8:30, went through the house, and found, as he told Ross when he came out, “somebody murdered in every bed.” The partially cleaned murder weapon was left leaning against the south wall of the downstairs bedroom where the visiting Stillinger girls were found. The killer had added two bizarre touches to the murder scene. The first was a four-pound piece of slab bacon leaning against the wall next to the axe. The murderer had also searched dresser drawers for pieces of clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and the glass in the entry doors.
During this murder day people were convinced that the killer must be a deranged tramp. They expected to find him “drenched in blood” and hiding in a barn somewhere. Toward that end repeated posses were formed to ride out of town in all directions on horseback and in autos. They returned empty-handed. Similar gangs surged up the streets and down the alleys searching every barn, shed, and privy in town. They too failed to find anyone.
By evening a lethargy had settled on the crowd as it became evident the killer had escaped. Everyone waited now for the arrival of bloodhounds being shipped from Beatrice, Nebraska. The crowd waited anxiously because the atmosphere was heavy with the threat of rain that everyone feared would wash away any scent. The two bloodhounds and their handler arrived on the 9:00 pm train and were brought the eight blocks from the depot to the murder house in Bert McCaull’s car. Given the scent from the axe (even though perhaps a hundred people had handled it since the killer) and the cloth he used to wipe it clean, the dogs set off, followed by a huge crowd. Estimated at two-thousand, this mob pursued the dogs on foot, horseback, and in cars. It seems foolish to think the dogs could follow a trail so contaminated and cold, but they ran through town and ended at the west fork of the Nodaway River. They made a second run down the same trail, not finishing until after midnight. They retraced their route for a third time in the morning and then were returned, failures, to Nebraska.
During all these hours of excitement, search, and depression, the bodies lay just as they had been found. This grotesque neglect was because the county coroner, Dr. Linquist from Stanton, refused to release the bodies until authorized to do so by County Attorney Ratcliff. Mr. Ratcliff was visiting in Cedar Rapids when he was notified of the murder. He was on the westbound train that arrived Monday evening within minutes of the bloodhounds. By the time he had authorized the victims’ release the coroner had set off with the dogs without releasing the bodies to the undertaker, so they lay in their deathbeds until after 11:00 p.m. Monday night.
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Dr. Edgar Epperly, a retired professor of education at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, began researching the Villisca crime in 1955. He interviewed hundreds of key figures connected to the case and has given numerous lectures and presentations on the subject. He has appeared on national television and radio, and was the primary historical consultant on Kelly and Tammy Rundle’s Villisca: Living with a Mystery. The documentary film premiered in 2004, enjoyed a limited theatrical release in over 60 cities including Los Angeles where it qualified for the 2005 Academy Award® competition. Villisca continues to be broadcast on PBS and is available nationally on DVD. Epperly is co-writing a book on the Villisca case with the Emmy®-nominated Rundles.