Are There Actual Photographs of Iowa's Most Infamous Crime Scene?
By Edgar V. Epperly
Editor's Note: When Dr. Epperly first pondered the question of crime scene photographs connected to the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders for this article, he considered writing only three words: "There are none." Like so many aspects of America's greatest unsolved mystery, there is more to the story. As always, you can depend on this blog to present the facts and dispel the myths. In the Villisca murder case, the truth is always far stranger than fiction. -KR
When it comes to crime scene photography, we are spoiled by television. Most TV crime programs open with a murder. While the show's heroes hover around a newly discovered body, an official photographer takes shots from every conceivable angle. Such may be the case today but it wasn't so in 1912 Villisca, Iowa.
The Villisca axe murders produced less publicly accessible photographic evidence than most of the other axe murders that occurred in 1911 and 1912. The Burnham-Wayne murder in Colorado Springs, Colorado is documented by both interior shots of the bloody beds, and exterior photographs of the crowds that gathered after the murder. The Ellsworth Kansas Showman family murder also produced photographs of a blood soaked bed, while a Monmouth, Illinois murder crowd scene photograph has been preserved.
No photographs exist of either the crowd of hundreds that gathered at the Villisca crime scene or interior views of the Josiah B. Moore family home. Nor do we know of any known photographs of the victims, two adults and six children, in-situ. We do know investigators hired a local photographer to take pictures of the scene, before it was cleaned.
These photographs have been either lost or mislaid in the intervening years. We are sure of their existence because a bill for them was paid by the County Board of Supervisors in September of 1912. These original photographs were apparently taken by Tom Churchill, a private practice photographer based in Villisca.
We know this because Churchill sold his studio to a Mr. Anderson in 1913 who in turn resold it to John Warren Noel in 1914. Mr. Noel testified before the 1917 grand jury investigating the murder, that in October 1914 James N. Wilkerson, a Burns detective from Kansas City assigned to the case, came to his studio and asked to see photographs related to the murder.
Mr. Noel further testified that these pictures were of the house, bloody bed clothes, and the bloodhounds leaving the bridge over the Nodaway River. Noel also had negatives that he said were exposed on Tuesday, June 11, 1912.
Since neither, Mr. Anderson or Mr. Noel were in Villisca in 1912, Mr. Churchill must have taken these photographs. Apparently Mr. Churchill included them as part of the business, when he sold his studio. Noel, must have inherited his photographs from Anderson, when he assumed ownership of the business. While in Noel's possession this oft sold business suffered a serious fire and it is possible, if not probable, the crime scene photographs were destroyed.
In addition to these official photographs, there was a second set of photographs secretly taken during the first hours after the murder was discovered. Bruce Stillians, the son of a local druggist, was one of many private citizens who streamed through the house before police gained control of the murder scene. Acting as a stringer for the Omaha World Herald newspaper, Bruce entered the house with a small Kodak box camera. While inside he took pictures of the bodies and bloody scene created by a killer or killers unknown.
Upon leaving the house, Stillians was confronted by Ross Moore, brother of the murdered Josiah. Ross had seen the camera and immediately inferred Bruce's intention. Ross knew his family had suffered an unspeakable assault that day and he was damned sure he wasn't going to let them be further exposed to sensational publicity. Boiling mad, he grabbed Bruce and a scuffle ensued. It was not a fist fight but soon the rather burly Ross had the camera in his grasp. In an instant, it was on the ground, smashed by 200 pounds of righteous indignation.
With the offending film exposed to light, the camera lay in shambles as Ross stalked across the yard. Bruce gathered up the pieces and gave the damaged film to the Herald reporter, but no amount of darkroom magic could coax images from the bedraggled celluloid.
We do have one interior photograph which lays claim to having been taken before the house was cleaned on Thursday June, 13th. It is a shot of the dresser in the downstairs bedroom with its large mirror covered. The crowded closet to the dresser's right seems so similar to descriptions given by those first on the scene that it appears to be an authentic crime scene photograph.
A print of this photograph was collected by Don Brown, an early student of the murder, from the Des Moines Register newspaper. No record was made as to photographer or how it came into the Register's possession, but there is little doubt it was taken shortly after the murder was discovered.
This picture reveals much about the killer's mentality, but that tale is not written in straightforward language. It is a tangled skein that is difficult to unravel. There is little doubt the killer covered the mirror as a conscious act. The skirt he used came from the dresser in the picture. It was found draped across three-fourths of the mirror, as the photograph clearly shows.
Just as he had searched out clothing to cover the glass in the front doors, the murderer extracted a skirt and draped it over the mirror, but there the similarity ends. The door glass had been carefully covered so no light escaped and no peep hole remained.
The mirror had been treated more casually. The killer had thrown the skirt over the mirror caring little whether the mirror was not fully covered. The question becomes, why did it seem important for the killer to even casually cover the mirror? Covering the door glass bought him time and privacy. But, what role did the covered mirror play in his mental state after the murders?
Among the several possible answers to this question, let us consider two. There were Victorian funeral customs that directed the covering of mirrors while a corpse lay in the house. Perhaps the explanation was as simple as our killer being so twisted in his logic that after chopping to death his eight victims, his need to maintain proper death etiquette compelled him to cover the prominent mirror in the downstairs bedroom. If true this would imply the Villisca killer was deeply disturbed with a schizophrenic level of disassociation in his thought process.
A second potential explanation lies in the murder scene itself. The murderer finds himself alone in a darkened house, guilty of the most illicit behavior imaginable, moving within a dimly lit room, the walls of which reflect the flickering light from a chimneyless lamp. To move in front of the dresser is to see one's dim reflection in its mirror. At the very least this ghostly image shimmering in the corner of the killer's eye was a distraction, if not frightening. Frightened or not, it took only a few seconds to extract a skirt from the drawer and blot out his spectral image in the mirror.
A second interior photograph also collected by Don Brown from the Des Moines Register is clearly posed, years after the murder. This reenactment presents a covered figure in bed with the murderer, axe in hand, looming over his victim. It was staged by Detective Wilkerson to demonstrate how one so short as axe murder suspect Rev. Lyn George Jacklin Kelly could not have struck the ceiling had he been swung the axe. Unfortunately, the photograph fails to support the detective's supposition. To avoid striking the low gabled ceiling Wilkerson's diminutive actor had to "choke up" so severely on the axe handle that he looked more like a batter laying down a bunt than a killer laying out a victim.
Although few crime scene photographs from the Villisca murder scene have been found, many photographs related to that event have survived. Portraits of family members, victims, investigators, suspects, political officials, the murder house and the community of Villisca have all been collected and preserved. These numerous period views are most helpful in recreating the Villisca of 1912.
There is one final footnote to the photographic record of the murder. During the week after its discovery an enterprising photographer from Creston Iowa, came to town. This anonymous rogue made a series of lantern slides telling the story of the murder. Using his friends as actors he produced scenes of the community, murder scene, and house.
Packaged as a short feature, he planned to exhibit the series in movie houses. The slides were shown in Creston and Corning Iowa. The firestorm of protests these showings provoked got so hot that the program was pulled from distribution.
Over 50 years later these lantern slides resurfaced in the possession of a middle school teacher in southeast Iowa. He used them in his classroom until they were stolen. Quickly retrieved by local police they were not returned to the teacher because police reported they had been misplaced. Perhaps this interesting set of photographs, and others, will come to light in the future.
More information on the crime scene: http://www.villiscamovie.com/animation_index.htm
Order Villisca: Living with a Mystery on DVD: http://www.villiscamovie.com/dvd.htm