Epperly Returns to Leon for "Villisca Iowa Axe Murders of 1912" True Crime Book Program
Logan Public Library ready for October programming and Epperly Axe Murder Discussion

Looking Back 111 Years Leter: The Villisca Axe Murders and Forensic Science in 1912

Finger print
It was a cloudy, cool morning following a misty night when day Marshal Henry (Hank) Horton stepped out of the City Hall, shortly after 8:00 a.m.  Looking east he saw Ed Selley striding towards him.  Hank immediately knew something was wrong, for Ed, a portly fellow, “was like to running.” 

As he approached, the breathless Selley blurted out “Come on, there’s trouble down at Joe Moore’s house.”

Hank_hortonVillisca Marshal Henry "Hank" Horton.

Hank and Ed hurried the four blocks to implement dealer Josiah Moore’s small, white frame home.  Horton then took a quick tour of the darkened house in which he found eight bodies. All had been killed with an axe. 

Leaving the house, Marshal Horton met Joe Moore’s brother Ross on the front porch and exclaimed, “My God, Ross, there is somebody murdered in every bed.”

It was 8:30 a.m.  Monday, June 10, 1912, and the Villisca Axe Murder, Iowa’s most heinous crime, had just been discovered.

Moore_houseJosiah Moore's home at 508 East 2nd Street in Villisca, Iowa. Eight bodies were found in the small house--all murdered with an ax. (Note the numbers by the windows indicating how many children were found in each room.)

When Marshal Horton left the murder scene to fetch a doctor, he was the tip of the law enforcement spear Montgomery County and the state of Iowa could bring to bear on the murder.  Having been a carpenter most of his life, Hank was ill prepared for the task confronting him.  He had no formal training for police work and was the city Marshal because he was thought to be physically strong enough to collar the occasional drunk, and control rowdy teenagers threatening outhouses on Halloween.

From Hank, the chain of law enforcement stretched first to Montgomery County Sheriff Oren Jackson, followed by William Ratcliff, a young lawyer serving as County Attorney.  This chain ended with George Cosson, Iowa Attorney General.  These three ascending jurisdictions were completely independent of each other. 

Legally, in 1912, each level of criminal enforcement was either elected or hired in its own right and stood autonomous from all other jurisdictions.  One caveat to this absolute autonomy should be noted.  The Iowa state legislature had recently passed the Cosson Law.  Named after attorney general Cosson who had authored it during his service in the legislature, this law allowed the state attorney general to intervene at both the county and local level.  Newly on the books it had not been employed nor tested when the Villisca murder occurred.

During the Villisca murder investigations, the three jurisdictions seemed to function quite harmoniously.  Marshal Horton happily deferred to Sheriff Jackson who in turn was quite willing to follow the directives he received from County Attorney Ratcliff.  Finally, as the investigation developed over subsequent years, Attorney Generals Cosson and Havner also took active roles in the case.

Perhaps the key point to note is that none of these officers of the law and courts had what we would consider minimal preparation in crime investigation.  In 1912, there was no state department of criminal investigation.  No state crime laboratory.  No police academy.  No highway patrol or police radio.  Instead, an  erstwhile carpenter stood alone before the most sensational crime in Iowa history.

Hank’s initial action was to locate a doctor.   Dr. J. Cooper was the first doctor he found. Cooper, a 1902 graduate of the State University of Iowa medical school, was to spend his life as a country doctor in Villisca. 

Arriving at the house shortly before 9:00 a.m. he conducted a cursory survey of the scene.  He did little but confirm the deaths, although he did test for the onset of rigor mortis.  This was accomplished by lifting some of the victims a few inches and letting them fall back.   From this simple test and his visual inspection of the clotted blood, he estimated they had been killed “eight or nine hours ago.”  If his analysis was correct the murders had been committed around midnight.  Neither Dr. Cooper nor doctors later on the scene felt it necessary to take body temperatures to establish a more precise time of death.

With his quick survey complete Dr. Cooper left, estimating he had spent no more than 15 minutes inside the house.  As he stepped onto the front porch he was confronted with a yard full of spectators, the boldest of whom were already on the porch and peering cautiously inside.  Dr. Cooper admonished them, “Don’t go in there boys, you will regret it the longest day you live.” It was pointless advice for Dr. Cooper had not left the front yard before the most audacious bystanders had invaded the murder house. 

An hour later Dr. Lindquist, the County Coroner from Stanton, IA, was examining the bodies and reported, “it was a mad house, with people shouting and running from room to room.” 

This complete breakdown of crowd control resulted from several causes.  First, when Marshal Horton left to call for help, the scene was completely unguarded.  While uptown, he sent his deputy, Henry "Mike" Overman to police the murder scene.  Unfortunately Mike Overman, a young man in his 20s, lacked the gravitas to control the huge crowd that gathered in Moore’s yard.  Secondly, there was no tradition of excluding local citizens from a community emergency.  In 1912, there was not a foot of yellow crime scene tape in all of Iowa and gawkers of all social ranks felt perfectly justified  barging into the murder house to see for themselves what lay inside.

Paola murdersA similar chaotic scene played out during the discovery of the Paola, Kansas murders--which were thought to be connected to the Villisca murders.

This loss of control completely compromised the crime scene and is one of the greatest crime scene differences between 1912 and the present day.   Window blinds were pulled from their brackets, a lamp chimney was broken and the murder weapon was carried from room to room.  In the most egregious example of tampering, a piece of Joe Moore’s skull the size of a cigarette package appeared in a local pool hall a few days after the murder, as a gruesome souvenir.

Crowded or not, other doctors entered the house shortly after Dr. Cooper had left.  Drs. Williams and Lomas had completed their inspection by midmorning as had County Coroner Lindquist.  Authorities immediately suspected this was a sexual murder so these doctors carefully examined the female victims for signs of rape or sexual molestation. 

Mrs. Moore was, in the euphemism of the day “unwell” and wearing a sanitary napkin.  The younger girls were checked for vaginal discharge and found to have their hymens intact.  Based on this examination, the doctors agreed that rape was not a motive.  Unfortunately, they did not publicly comment on how the killer had left the oldest girl in the downstairs bedroom in a clearly sexual pose.

Consequently, it was accepted among the majority of Villisca citizens that sexual motives did not explain the crime.  This serious over-simplification of the crime scene was to have grave implications for the community conflict and fragmentation which was to develop over the next several years.

We know that investigators hired a local photographer to take pictures of the scene sometime on Monday, June 10th. These photographs have either been lost or mislaid, but we are sure of their existence because a bill for photographs of the Moore murder was paid by the County Board of Supervisors in September of 1912.

Order was brought to the chaotic scene in the late morning when George Whitmore, the Sheriff of Page County, arrived and saw that things were out of control. He deputized several men from the crowd and directed them to push everyone off the yard.   Bruce Stillians, who had already toured the crime scene, reappeared this time with a coil of barbed wire which was strung from tree to tree.  With this perimeter established the house was finally sealed, and only officials and newspaper reporters could enter.

Through all this confusion the murder victims still lay where they were found.  This anomaly resulted from County Attorney Ratcliff being two hundred miles away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when the murder was discovered.  Consequently, no officer on the scene was willing to release the bodies to the waiting morticians until Ratcliff returned.

Victims and shocked citizens alike waited through the long afternoon for the arrival of both County Attorney Ratcliff and a pair of blood hounds from Beatrice, Nebraska.  These dogs were everyone’s great hope as it became obvious after repeated failures, that unaided searches of the town and vicinity were futile.  Citizens waited and watched the gray skies for rain which all feared would wash out any traces for the dogs to follow. 

BloodhoundsThe Beatrice bloodhounds leap off of the Moore home porch in search of a killer.

The dogs and their handler arrived on the 8:30 p.m. train and were brought to the murder house by automobile.  Their arrival in the front yard triggered a general rush with officials and spectators alike crowding into the house.  Allowed to smell the murder weapon and a cloth the killer had used to wipe the axe, the bloodhounds led their handler off the front porch into an incredible scene.  

A huge crowd, estimated at two thousand had gathered around the house.  With the dogs straining at their leashes and pulling their handlers up the street the whole mob followed.   In a scene out of a Frankenstein movie virtually everyone in this crowd was armed with guns, clubs, pitchforks, and axes.  Most were on foot but some were in cars and others on horseback.  In a somewhat anti-climactic run, the dogs led the crowd to the West Nodaway River, where the trail petered out.  Twice more, they followed this same trail before they were returned to Nebraska, Tuesday morning.

By the time the dogs arrived, County Attorney Ratcliff had returned from Cedar Rapids, inspected the scene, and released the bodies to Coroner Lindquist.  Unfortunately, Lindquist left with the bloodhounds on their initial run having failed to notify the waiting morticians.  Consequently the victims lay in their beds until the dogs returned shortly before midnight.

Tuesday, June 11, saw the arrival of the only police official formally trained in forensic science.  Realizing they were over matched by such a crime, Montgomery County officials contacted the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS, asking for help.  Mr. M.W. McClaughry, son of Warden R.W. McClaughry , was recognized as a leading expert in crime scene analysis and criminal identification.  He used both the Bertillon system of body measurements and the very new procedure of fingerprinting to identify criminals.

Unquestionably an expert, Mr. McCaughry was also stumbling, staggering, falling-down drunk when he arrived in Villisca.  A disgusted Marshal Horton took him to a local hotel to sober up.  His investigation would have to wait several hours for his head to clear. Once sober, Mr. McClaughry conducted the only systematic analysis of the Villisca murder scene.

First, he fingerprinted all eight victims so he could eliminate them if fingerprints were found.  He then conducted a thorough search of the scene, looking for usable fingerprints.  He paid particular attention to the axe, although one wonders why, since it had been handled by so many since its discovery.  Next he looked carefully at the lamps and lamp chimneys.  All of this was to no avail as no usable prints were found. 

Axe against wallThe murder weapon and lamp found at the Villisca crime scene were thoroughly examined by M.W. McClaughry.

From newspaper accounts, it is difficult to infer just what techniques he employed, but it appears that he had no capacity to lift latent prints.  Instead, he apparently needed clear prints that could be photographed and no such prints had been left by the killer.

Frustrated in his search for fingerprints McClaughry moved on to a careful visual analysis of the scene.  He precisely measured the axe cuts left in the ceilings upstairs.  Joe and Sara had been sleeping under the low gable in their room.  When the killer struck he scored the ceiling plaster.   Similar ceiling cuts had been made in the children’s room upstairs.  Measurements showed that these cuts were 7 feet 4 inches above the floor.  This proved to be an important measurement since future investigations implicated a very small man.  This suspect’s height became a point of contention as his defenders insisted he was too short to have struck the ceiling had he been the killer. McClaughry demonstrated by careful analysis of the cuts and blood spots that had been flung against a wall that the cuts had not been made when the killer struck his victims.   None of these swings would have struck any of the children, therefore, he theorized the killer had been swinging the axe one-handed in the middle of the room while dancing in a frenzy of excitement. Mr. McClaughry also deduced from the angles of the ceiling cuts and the victims’ wounds, that the killer had swung the axe left-handed.

Since the Villisca murder was not to be solved, a common question asked by modern observers is, would we catch the killer today?  Answering this question is, of course, idle speculation, but an entertaining parlor game nonetheless.  Modern forensic analysis might not identify the killer, but it surely would convict or exonerate the two major suspects who were accused of the crime.  Since the murderer spent some time at the scene, detectives today would certainly collect a great deal of physical evidence left by the killer.  Hair, fiber, possibly body fluids, latent fingerprints and DNA samples should all have been left at the scene.

VReview front page_tinted_FWFThe Villisca Review gave the most accurate coverage of the murders over any other newspaper source.

Today’s police, from local Marshal Horton to state B.C.I. agents would all be sufficiently trained to protect the scene.  Therefore, we would be able to examine the murder scene just as the killer had left it rather than trying to disentangle the killer’s actions from the confounding effects of several blundering spectators.  If strands of hair were found today, we could be confident they came from either the victims or the murderer.

We often wave a wand of nostalgia over our memories of the past, but in terms of society’s ability to cope with an event such as the Villisca axe murder, it is obvious that the good old days have been replaced by better ones.


Written by Dr. Edgar V. Epperly

Dr. Epperly was the key consultant and interview in the award-winning  documentary feature film “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” by Emmy award-winning Fourth Wall Films.

Epperly's new true crime book "Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912" is available at Amazon.com and VilliscaBook.com



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