If you are planning to purchase or watch Villisca: Living With a Mystery, you may want to read this detailed account after you watch the film.
The Villisca Axe Murders: A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence
By Edgar V. Epperly
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.
On Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, Josiah (Joe) Moore and his wife Sara took their four children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul to the Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian Church. Accompanying them were Ina and Lena Stillinger, who had asked their parents’ permission to stay overnight with the Moore children.
The Children’s Day service was an end-of-the-year Sunday school program. Sara Moore was a co-director and her children performed their little speeches and recitations along with the other Sunday school members. The service ended with a social mingling that lasted until at least 9:30 p.m. When the parishioners left into a cloudy, damp, cool night, no one suspected that neither the Moores nor their overnight guests would be seen alive again.
They walked home, for Joe, like most Villiscans in 1912, didn’t own a car, and why hitch up a buggy for a three-block trip? Cookies and milk ended the festive evening, and all went to bed. Sometime during the night, probably about midnight, a killer or killers unknown picked up Joe’s axe from the back yard, entered the house, and bludgeoned to death all eight of its occupants.
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.
Seldom has a community been confronted by as devastating or frightening event as was Villisca that Monday morning. With darkness came the fear that a madman was on the loose and might strike again. During the ensuing days, families doubled up with a shotgun guard awake all night. Locks were sold out, windows nailed shut, and dogs “prized about all else.” Rumors blossomed by the hundreds—rumors that were to spread and poison the community when officials were unable to catch a murderer.
On Tuesday M.W. McClaughry, an assistant warden and fingerprint expert at Leavenworth Penitentiary, arrived to investigate the scene. Community confidence in this expert was shaken when he left the train falling down drunk. But when sobered, he made a detailed analysis of the scene. No usable fingerprints were found, but he did carefully analyze blood spots and axe cuts made in the ceiling upstairs. His study of these measurements led him to conclude the killer was left-handed and when striking the children in the south room had been in a frenzy, waving the axe one-handed over his head.
An evidence photo taken in 1912 of the axe and a lamp removed from the crime scene. The axe was found leaning up against the south wall in the downstairs bedroom and the lamp is thought to have been the one found in Joe and Sara's bedroom (Copyrighted photo).
A hundred leads and a thousand rumors directed investigators. It seemed everyone was suggested as a suspect by someone. Out of this volatile mix of fright and rumor came a week of intensive investigation and frantic pursuit down a cold trail.
Until Monday morning, June 10, 1912, Villisca was a typical Iowa agricultural trading center. With a population of some 2000 it was larger than many, but its location in the extreme southeast corner of Montgomery County precluded it from ever becoming the “county capital”. Hence, it was fated to lag behind the more centrally located Red Oak. It did sit on the main line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. The CB&Q or the “Q” as it was known locally, was the main-stem west out of Chicago, providing Villisca superb east-west rail connections. While the division point was 50 miles east in Creston, a north-south branch line leading to St. Joseph, Missouri did originate at Villisca so the railroad was a major element in the town’s daily life.
Villisca and its murder can be seen as a metaphor for the ghastly 20th century. That literary comparison best fits the onset of World War I. In both instances a confident, innocent world was shattered by an unexpected, violent event, never to be reassembled. Before the murder, Villisca believed in a just, ordered world, but it awakened Monday, June 10, 1912 to a world that was inexplicable by conventional standards. As the weeks passed, it became increasingly obvious that this great injustice might never be righted. That would be unthinkable. Wouldn’t the stones themselves cry out for justice if the killer wasn’t found? How could God be in heaven and all be right with the world when the killer of these innocent children lived free and unpunished?
At first, all professional investigators, such men as Lloyd Longnecker from Omaha and Tom O’Leary from Kansas City, assumed the Villisca murder was just another in a string of killings that had begun in the fall of 1911.
The fall of 1911 had seen a spectacular series of horrible murders in the Midwest. Every two weeks that fall whole families were slaughtered in their beds without apparent reason. On Sunday, September 17, 1911 in Colorado Springs, two families—the Burnhams and the Waynes, who lived next to each other—were all killed with an axe as they slept. Two weeks later in Monmouth, Illinois, William Dawson, his wife, and thirteen-year-old daughter met a similar fate. Just as in Villisca, shades were drawn, bodies covered, and the thirteen-year-old Dawson girl seemed to be the only victim who had moved after the killer struck. A length of gas pipe had been the murder weapon.
The next in this suspected series of killings occurred in Ellsworth, Kansas on Sunday night, October 15. Will Showman, his wife, and three children were bludgeoned to death as they slept. The murder axe was found leaning behind the door connecting the tiny house’s two rooms. It had been washed, but remnants of blood and hair still clung to it. As at Villisca, there was a lamp at the foot of the parent’s bed whose chimney was later found under a kitchen chair. All bodies were covered with bedclothes when found.
The final similar murder preceding Villisca happened in Paola, Kansas on Wednesday night, June 5, 1912, just four days before Villisca. Rolland and Anna Hudson, a young couple who had moved from Ohio a few months before, were found murdered in their beds. No weapon was ever found, but it appeared a pickaxe or mason’s hammer had been used. Again, the victims had been covered and no obvious motive was apparent.
Although this serial killer theory dominated the very early investigation, interest in it soon faded until it was largely forgotten. That seems strange, except it was a blind alley. If police accepted the serial killer idea, it became obvious that the murderer was moving in some random, unpredictable fashion. There was not the remotest connection between any of the several murdered families. Rather, it appeared the murderer traveled from town to town, killing whenever the spirit moved him. Consequently, the police had no guide on which to base their efforts, but had to wait until he struck again and hope he left a trail to follow. Such impotence is frustrating to both police and citizens. Investigators are supposed to investigate and “the roving madman” theory left them helpless with no real leads to pursue. In the absence of irrefutable similarities between the murders, it was easier to acknowledge intriguing possibilities in the serial killer theory while pressing on with each independent investigation.
Within minutes of the murder’s discovery, some Villisca citizens began speculation that F.F. Jones, a prominent town businessman, might be involved. F.F. Jones seemed an unlikely suspect. Born in 1855 in New York state, he heeded Greeley’s admonition and moved west to grow up with the country. In 1875 he moved to rural Villisca from Illinois. Frank broke prairie and taught school as he looked to establish himself. Married in 1880, by 1882 he had left school teaching and farming to become a bookkeeper for a hardware and implement firm in Villisca. In 1890 he and a partner bought a hardware and implement stock that started him down the road to a very successful retail career. From this retail base, he moved into banking. In 1895 he joined a five-person partnership, which formed the Farmer’s Bank in Villisca. Ten years later this business was reorganized as the Villisca National Bank. In November of 1903, he won election to the State House of Representatives. He remained in the House until the fall of 1912 when he was elected State Senator from Montgomery County.
Mr. Jones was also a pillar of the Methodist Church. For twenty-five years he served as Sunday school superintendent and certainly was its leading layman in 1912. Why would such a leading citizen be suspected of such a heinous crime? The suspicions against him related to motive. When the doctors on the scene reported no evidence of rape, citizens and local officials gave up sexual motivation as an explanation. They also considered and rejected the possibility of a deranged serial killer. Consequently, they turned to conventional motivation to explain the killer’s actions. That such a murder as was committed in Villisca could be explained by conventional motivation is a bit hard to swallow from the perspective of several decades, but if conventional motivation became the accepted explanation, then F.F. Jones was the best local suspect.
First, F.F. had made more than his share of enemies. He was arrogant, self-righteous and hard in his business dealings. Secondly, Joe Moore, the murdered man, was his bitter enemy, a fact known by everyone in town. In 1901 when Jones bought into a new retail partnership, Joe was already working for that firm. He stayed on and became a crack salesman for “Jones of Villisca.” In 1907 Joe left and opened a competing hardware and implement store. More gulling than that, he took the John Deere Plow Company franchise with him when he left. The business conflict between Frank Jones and Joe Moore had grown so intense that by 1910 they wouldn’t speak and would cross the street to avoid meeting each other.
Finally, Frank and Joe were separated by an issue of jealousy, pride, and passion. F.F. had a son Albert who worked for the firm. Albert was perceived as being dominated by his father. In 1910, Albert married Dona Bentley from Hawleyville, a small town south of Villisca. Dona had come to town as a schoolteacher. She was pretty, vivacious, and in the parlance of the time, a “high stepper.” That is an ill-defined term, but in Dona’s case seemed to refer to her unwillingness to become a quiet, retiring matron after she married.
Within a year of her marriage she was acting in a most indiscrete manner. She was entertaining male visitors in her home when Albert was not there. At least three, and perhaps as many as five, local men visited her un-chaperoned. As the reader might suspect, Joe Moore was among these visitors. In fact, Joe was her most frequent guest. Revealing either extreme naïveté or a disregard for public opinion, Dona arranged these several trysts over the telephone. This was the day of a central operator, so every phone call was bugged as everyone in 1912 knew. Certainly any gossip as explosive as this was sure to spread throughout the town, and it did.
All these reasons combined to give F.F. Jones a better conventional motive for murder than anyone else in town. Gossip was rampant, but there was no public acknowledgment of the community suspicions directed toward a citizen of such prominence as F.F. Jones. There is nothing in the Attorney General’s papers, or statements by local investigators to suggest that Jones was a suspect. The only public record is an editorial in the Villisca Review that chides citizens for spreading ill-founded rumors that even include such preposterous charges that a prominent local citizen was behind the murder. It is very doubtful these community suspicions would have ever officially surfaced had the Moore family not continued to pressure officials for action.
In April of 1914, a Texas land agent, James N. Wilkerson, came to town and set up shop. He worked for several weeks arranging a train trip to south Texas to, as he put it, “get the best farmers in the world to come and buy the best land in the world.” Then one evening he knocked on the back screen of Ross Moore’s drug store. Introducing himself as an undercover operative of the Burns Detective Agency working out of Kansas City, he told Ross he was convinced that F.F. Jones was the money behind the murder. From that point on the accusations against F.F. were common, but not public knowledge. No formal court proceedings were held, no newspaper editorials written, no official interrogations conducted, nor arrests made. Instead, the community boiled with rumors for two years while Wilkerson built his case.
All this intrigue came to a head during the Republican Primary Election in June of 1916. On the Sunday before the Tuesday election several Villisca citizens received an anonymous flyer in the mail, which contained a Leavenworth Penitentiary mug shot of a man named William Mansfield. Under the picture was text that asked if they wanted for their state senator the man whose money had paid this man to kill the Moore family.
Now the accusation was public. Jones lost the nomination to County Attorney Ratcliff, and Villisca wanted to see what would happen next.
William Mansfield was identified as a suspect in the Villisca murders in a Kansas City Post newspaper article penned by Jack Boyle. Boyle dubbed Mansfield "Insane Blackie" and accused him of being a drug addict. Boyle was later arrested in Kansas City on drug charges.
In July 1916 Wilkerson arrested Mansfield at the Cochran Packing Plant in Kansas City, Kansas. He was interrogated in Kansas City, then extradited from Kansas to face a Montgomery County Grand Jury. That jury deliberated a week, and local opinion anticipated Mansfield would be bound over for trial. Instead, the jury returned no true bill and Mansfield was released.
Villisca was thunderstruck and Wilkerson vitriolic in his attacks on Jones and Montgomery County justice. Although grand jury proceedings are secret, he insisted a majority had been for indictment, but Jones had used his political influence to “pack” the jury. These attacks culminated in August when Wilkerson started holding outdoor meetings to rally public opinion against Jones. The first was held in Fryer’s pasture south of town. Wilkerson, who was a stem-winder of a speaker, stood in an open touring car to harangue the crowd. He patted his breast pocket and boasted he, "had the documents to convict 'Blackie' Mansfield of the Moore murders and prove Frank Jones put up the dirty money to pay for it.” When Wilkerson held a second mass meeting in Grant, Iowa, north of Villisca, Frank Jones decided he must act to defend himself. September of 1916, Jones sued Wilkerson for slander, asking for $60,000 in damages.
This suit was argued in November and December of 1916. It was one of the most sensational in Iowa history. The suit quickly became a trial of Jones for murder rather than Wilkerson for slander because Wilkerson admitted saying what he was accused of, but claimed his accusations were true and you can’t slander a man with the truth. The judge’s failure to control the huge crowd that filled the courtroom beyond capacity added to the trial’s raucous atmosphere.
Wilkerson’s case revolved around a series of eye witnesses, most of whom had not come forward until now. First was Vina Tompkins, who in 1916 was living in Marshalltown, but in 1911 had been camping outside of Villisca while her husband worked on the brick paving of Third Avenue. She claimed to have overheard three men talking about money behind the old slaughterhouse just southeast of Villisca during the fall of 1911. She thought one of the men “resembled” Frank Jones, but she could not swear it was him.
The next star witness was Alice Willard. Alice was divorced and living with her father, Mr. Holland, just a block south of Joe Moore’s house in 1912. On Saturday morning, June 8, she saw two strangers walk by the Moore house, then turn south at the corner and come by her house. They frightened her, so she looked at them carefully. Later that night, she claimed to be walking behind the Moore house with a traveling salesman, Ed McCrae, when she saw three men approaching from the south. To hide themselves, she and Ed crouched down in a plum thicket. As the men approached, Alice recognized two as the Saturday morning strangers. They were met by two other men coming from the west. Alice identified these two as Frank Jones and Bert McCaull. Alice first claimed one of these two was Albert Jones, but changed her story to identify Frank Jones. That change led to the conviction of Wilkerson for contempt of court and the trial of Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner for oppressing a witness. But that is another tale for another day. The five men met just in front of the plum thicket. Alice couldn’t hear what they were planning, but she did hear the phrase, “Get Joe first and the rest will be easy.” Alice claimed Ed McCrae was dead by 1916, but authorities failed to locate any record of him, either dead or alive.
The third witness was Ed Landers, a Shenandoah insurance salesman. Ed and his family were staying with his mother just across the street east and up the block north from the murder home in June of 1912. Even though he had testified to the coroner’s inquest that nothing unusual had happened the Sunday night of the murder, he now insisted that as he and his wife walked passed Joe’s house about 8:15 Sunday night, a man, just a few steps ahead of them, turned and “walked right in” Joe’s house. Ed identified the man as Albert Jones.
After hearing several minor witnesses, the jury returned a not guilty verdict and required F.F. Jones to pay court costs. In the minds of the majority of citizens in Montgomery County, this meant that Mansfield was the killer and Jones had hired the murder. While all this was going on, an ambitious young lawyer, Oscar Wendstrand of Red Oak, was running for County Attorney on the platform of convening a new grand jury and finally solving the Villisca Axe Murder.
Oscar was elected and the new grand jury was convened in March of 1917. By now the case had statewide implications, so Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner of Marengo took charge. He brought in Fred F. Faville of Storm Lake as a special prosecutor. Wilkerson was also on the team and provided a one-hundred-fifty page document—the “Dope Sheet”—which identified who should be called as witnesses and summarized what they would say.
This 1917 grand jury toiled in secret for nearly six weeks while community excitement and anticipation steadily rose. Then to everyone’s surprise, the jury failed to indict Mansfield. He was able to conclusively prove he was working in Illinois when the murder occurred, but the general public never knew that because grand jury deliberations are confidential. Many, if not most, of Wilkerson’s witnesses also failed to testify as the “Dope Sheet” said they would. With Mansfield not indicted, the case against Jones was officially over. Unofficially, a large majority of Montgomery County citizens were convinced of his guilt and that he had used his money and political influence to escape justice. To this day many in Montgomery County believe in F.F. Jones’ guilt.
During the children’s day service on Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, a tiny, nervous, bird like man sat toward the back of the Presbyterian Church. Joe Moore sat across the aisle to the north, beaming as his children said their pieces and his wife, Sara, helped direct the show. The strange little man was Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, and he was in Villisca for the first time that night.
Preacher Kelly was born in England. He and his wife, Laura, had arrived in New York City in 1904. Lyn’s father and grandfather had been congregational ministers, and he had been a boyhood evangelist. During adolescence Lyn suffered some kind of mental breakdown, attributed by his mother to excessive study, so he never went to a university.
He came to America to serve the Methodist Church and traveled all the way to North Dakota for his first parish. Between 1904 and 1912, he served a dozen or more Methodist churches. Unable to stay anywhere very long because of poor money management and peculiar ways, Reverend Kelly preached in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. In the spring of 1912 he gave up on Methodists saying, “You can starve working for the Methodists,” and enrolled in the Presbyterian seminary in Omaha, Nebraska. Scheduled to begin classes in September 1912, the seminary president arranged for him to service three open churches that summer. Two of these churches, Arlington and Pilot Grove, served rural parishes northwest of Villisca. Consequently, Reverend Kelly arrived in Villisca for the first time on the murder weekend.
Monday morning, Reverend Kelly left town on No. 5 at 5:19 a.m., some three hours before the murder was discovered. During the next week he became obsessed with the murder. Having been in Villisca Sunday night seemed to bind him to the horror. This obsession resulted in a stream of long, rambling letters. He wrote to state and local investigators, private detectives, and relatives of the victims. On his next preaching visit two weeks later, he arranged to stay over on Monday and persuaded Reverend Ewing to take him to the murder house. As luck would have it, a group of investigators were going through the house at that time so Kelly joined them.
Within a month, his letters started to attract quiet attention among officials investigating the crime. Tom O’Leary, representing the Hays Detective Agency, was particularly suspicious of Preacher Kelly. Tom wrote a coy, flattering letter asking Kelly for details about what had happened that Sunday night. Kelly wrote to O’Leary and several others providing details that seemed either fanciful or incriminating. He claimed to have been out walking and heard the thud of the axe; he claimed the killer had been disturbed by a couple walking by and had stepped out onto the porch until they had passed; he said Mrs. Moore had reared up in bed before the killer struck.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1912, the State Attorney General quietly investigated Kelly. None of this investigation reached the public press, but private conferences were held and reports filed in which it was discussed whether or not there was sufficient evidence to make an arrest. No arrests were made, probably because Kelly’s position as a minister made it hard to picture him as the killer. Also, his obvious mental illness caused authorities uncertainty as to what he had experienced and what he had imagined.
Kelly dropped out of official concern and the Omaha seminary because of bad debts until 1914 when he surfaced in Winner, South Dakota as a preacher and shorthand reporter. Among his other talents, Kelly was a “typewriting fiend.” From Winner, he placed an ad for a private secretary in the Omaha World Herald. A young woman, Jessamine Hodgson, responded and was shocked when Kelly wrote back saying she would do fine, but she must type in the nude. She took his letter to her pastor, who in turn took it to the police. They turned it over to the postal authorities who proceeded to send Kelly a series of dummy letters asking for more details. His letters grew progressively more salacious until the authorities were satisfied with their case and arrested him for sending obscene material through the mail.
Kelly was convinced in May of 1914, and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, but instead transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. There he underwent several months of therapy, during which he wrote Attorney General Cosson expressing fear that he would be arrested for the Villisca Axe Murder. Cosson wrote back assuring him that he was not a suspect and to concentrate on getting well.
During the five years since 1912, authorities continued to speculate on the possibility that Kelly might have been the murderer. As grand jury witnesses failed to corroborate Wilkerson’s “Dope Sheet,” investigators and jury alike decided they should conduct a serious inquiry into Kelly’s guilt or innocence. As grand jury member Scott Smith said after the Wilkerson case collapsed, “We’ve got to look at that crazy preacher over in Nebraska.”
During April of 1917 they conducted an extensive investigation into Kelly’s possible guilt, returning an indictment and issuing a bench warrant for his arrest on April 30, 1917. In an ironic twist, Kelly rode into Red Oak, Iowa on Monday morning, May 14, 1917 on No. 5 arriving at 6:00 a.m. This was the same train he had taken from Villisca on Monday morning, June 10, 1912, nearly five years before. Kelly voluntarily presented himself to Montgomery County Sheriff Bob Dunn that afternoon.
During the summer, Montgomery County and to a lesser extent all of Southwest Iowa, had been in an agitated state. J. N. Wilkerson had formed an organization, the Iowa Protective Association or the Montgomery County Protective Association (both names were used), which collected money for Kelly's defense, and continued to call for F. F. Jones' arrest and trial. Attorney General Havner placed a penwriter in the crowd so that verbatim transcripts from several of these meetings are in the state archives in Des Moines.
In general, Wilkerson used these meetings to reiterate his case against Jones, outline the government conspiracy that was framing Kelly, and collect money. The money collected was to hire a legal defense team for Kelly and fund a continued investigation of F.F. Jones and Bill Mansfield. The defense team was headed by Wilkerson’s lawyer in the slander suit, Ed Mitchell of Council Bluffs.
While these torch light meetings were going on all summer, the state plodded on in its construction of a case against Kelly. By September when he was brought to trial, that case had four essential elements: (1) Kelly’s disturbed mental state including his sexual obsession; (2) a bloody shirt he sent to be laundered the week after the murder; (3) his knowledge and talk about the murder before it had been discovered; and (4) his confession. Kelly was specifically charged with the death of Lena Stillinger. She had been found with her under-drawers removed and thrown under the bed and her nightshirt bunched above her hips. She had been pulled down in the bed with her hip slightly off the bed. A lamp was at the foot of the bed and the state contended the killer (Kelly) had displayed her for visual sexual gratification.
They point out Kelly had been seen peeking in Billy Miller’s wife’s bedroom just days before the murder and had been observed in several towns prowling streets late at night. He had also made specific requests that young women pose nude for him on at least three occasions. Finally, while preaching in Carroll, Iowa less than a year after the murder he had cajoled and pleaded with two thirteen-year-old girls in his parish to pose nude for him. All these actions were offered by the state as evidence that Kelly entered the house, killed its occupants, pulled down shades and covered the glass in the front doors so that he could look at a semi-nude Lena Stillinger to his heart’s content.
M. W. McClaughry thought the killer was left-handed based on his examination of blood spatters and axe marks in the Moore house. In an effort to determine Kelly's preference, his captors asked him if he would like to chop some wood for excercise. Kelly obliged and swang the axe left-handed.
The final leg in the state’s case against Kelly was his confession. He had been interrogated repeatedly throughout the summer, but as the trial drew near, the state officials decided on one final all-out effort to get him to confess. Late in the afternoon of August 30, Kelly was brought into an interrogation room in the Logan Jail and confronted by Attorney General Horace Havner, State Agents O. O. Rock and James Risden, and the Harrison County Sheriff, M.D. Meyers. Thus began a grilling that was to last throughout the night. All big men, they played the bad cop role with the diminutive Kelly, breaking occasionally to return him to his cell. In his cell he now found two “thieves” who assured him from their long criminal experiences it would go easier on him if he confessed. One of these “criminals” was actually a deputy sheriff from Pottawattamie County, G.W. Atkins, and the other a newspaper editor from Missouri Valley.
By about 7:00 a.m. the next morning Kelly broke and dictated a confession. In this confession he claimed to have had difficulty sleeping the murder night, so he went for a walk. While walking down the middle of the street he saw a light in a house and two children (the Stillinger girls) getting ready for bed. He heard the Lord’s voice commanding him to “suffer the children to come unto me.” In a trance-like state, he walked to the back of the house, picked up the axe, went in the kitchen door, and proceeded to kill everyone. He stayed in the house until first light, then let himself out the front door and left town.
Armed with this evidence against Kelly they brought him to trial on Tuesday, September 4, 1917. The trial lasted until Wednesday, September 26, when Judge Boice turned the proceedings over to the jury. The jury deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal and was dismissed Friday, September 28, 1917. A second cursory trial was held in November of 1917 with Kelly being acquitted for all charges.
By the time the trial began in September, a majority of Montgomery County citizens were convinced that Kelly was being framed as part of a conspiracy led by F.F. Jones. In their eyes, Jones had used his money and political influence first to pack the 1916 jury, then called on his crony, Attorney General Havner, to mislead the 1917 grand jury. Now they were framing the poor deluded Kelly.
After the second Kelly trial in November of 1917, the Villisca Axe Murder Case was legally at an end. The grand jury would not indict Mansfield and Jones and the petit jury would not convict Lyn Kelly. There were no other suspects. Although many other murders occurred during the years between 1912 and 1917, the serial killer had not struck again, so that avenue was also closed. Consequently, while the case remained open, it was essentially over, leaving immense frustration on all sides. Family and friends of the victims were thwarted in their search for justice. Havner and most other police officials were convinced that Wilkerson had so poisoned the minds of Montgomery County citizens that they had let the real killer go free. Nothing was resolved as both sides glowered at each other in impotent fury.
That is not to say that there weren’t several minor aftershocks. Between trials, John Warren Noel, Villisca photographer and staunch Wilkerson supporter and important witness in the slander suit, was found shot and dying on the railroad platform in Albia, Iowa. The Wilkerson crowd tried to suggest murder to shut him up, but an Albia coroner’s inquest found it to be a suicide. (Railroad detectives were hot on his trail for an attempt to collect money from the “Q” for preventing an accident they believed he staged.)
In June 1918, James Wilkerson and Mae Noel, John’s widow, were arrested in an Ottumwa, Iowa hotel on the charge of conspiracy to commit adultery. Six months later, their trial jury hung over the question of whether they could convict Jim and not Mae. The judge ruled he didn’t see how they could convict one without the other. During the summer of 1918, Wilkerson was busy running for Montgomery County Attorney. He easily won the Republican nomination and would have certainly won the general election in November, but to get on the ballot he first had to be admitted to the Iowa Bar. His application to the Iowa Supreme Court provoked a dramatic response from Attorney General Havner. Havner collected a long dossier in opposition to Wilkerson’s application and in light of these rather incriminating documents, Wilkerson withdrew his application and returned to Kansas City. The entire dossier is currently in the State of Iowa Archives.
At that point, the court action ceased and all hope of legally solving the case ended. Montgomery County citizens, exhausted and bitter, tried to put the case behind them, but feelings sputtered to life whenever someone new confessed or the Des Moines Register ran a feature article about the case, or one of the principals died. Even though feelings remained and resentment festered, official actions pertaining to the Villisca Axe Murder had ended.
Ambiguity towards the murder best describes Villisca today. It is the defining event in the town’s history; in fact, it gives the town a definition most communities lack, but it was such an evil event that citizens are uncertain how to deal with that history. Many just wish it would go away, while others grope about for a moral way to use the notorious event to slow or reverse the economic decline that Villisca has endured since World War II. Villisca is struggling with the same forces of population, transportation, and economic change that are fast turning Iowa into Nebraska.
The Moore house has been purchased, renovated and opened as a private museum by an entrepreneur. The community has for the past few years held a summer reunion that emphasizes many historical factors in Villisca’s development, but certainly the celebration’s centerpiece for visitors from outside Montgomery County remains the murder. It is unclear how these ambivalent community reactions to the murder will resolve themselves in the future. The murder is a case study in community reaction to moral rather than physical tragedy. As such, it has much to teach the larger society, but it remains a slippery subject to present without seeming to exploit the slaughtered innocents. Whether the community can find a way to extract a moral meaning without exploiting the tragedy is the problem Villisca is struggling with today.
The Villisca Axe Murder is the only Iowa crime that has potential historical literary “legs”. In this sense, it is like the two great murder epics, Jack the Ripper and the Lizzie Borden case. Jack the Ripper, well into his second century continues to provoke controversy while novels, plays, motion pictures, and even musicals based on his crimes spew out into the popular literature markets. Historical studies of this serial killer ranging from serious to fanciful also seem to spring up like mushrooms as the years go by.
America’s equivalent of England’s “Saucy Jack” is Lizzie Borden. There is a veritable cottage industry producing books and television documentaries speculating about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence. There is even a quarterly journal devoted entirely to the Borden murders, and the city of Fall River, Massachusetts is currently embroiled in a controversy about converting the murder house into a bed and breakfast mystery hotel.
Villisca’s murder is over ninety years old and while it has yet to provoke national interest, there are signs that it will remain a viable topic into the 21st century. There is now a novel and a play based on the event and two scholars from Kansas City have a historical study of the murder nearing completion. Fourth Wall Films, a Los Angeles-based documentary film company has produced a feature length documentary based on the murder. The critically-acclaimed and award-winning Villisca: Living with a Mystery premiered in 2004, played in theaters in over 50 cities, qualified for the 2005 Academy Award competition, and was released nationally on DVD. Villisca is cautiously experimenting with using the murder as a means of attracting tourists, and the murder house is now a private museum restored to its 1912 condition.
It seems obvious that murders like Villisca and Lizzie Borden hold great fascination for large segments of the general population. The question becomes, is this just pushpin or are there things to be learned from such events? Study of the Villisca murder reveals how a community reacted to an extreme moral crisis. With no time to prepare and no precedents to consult, Villisca and its rural environ were confronted with a Lord Jim decision. How do individuals and communities respond to such pressure? How are questions of justice and retribution solved when agencies of police and courts are unable to apprehend a killer?
In response to such questions, Villisca developed a full-blown conspiracy theory of history to explain their failure to achieve justice. Like most conspiracy theories, Villisca’s plot seems tortured to outsiders, but it was real to the majority of citizens and therefore determined their beliefs and actions. In this sense, this small event, a horrible murder in a rural village, says something to a nation beset by shadowy conspiracies that are invoked to explain every fallen leader and justify such horrendous events as the Oklahoma City bombing.
Having offered these intellectual justifications, perhaps the most practical reason for studying the murder is that it is a compelling, exciting story.
Dr. Edgar V. Epperly is the author of Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912. It represents the definitive account of the Villisca mystery, and it's a companion to the documentary feature film Villisca: Living With a Mystery.
More about the book HERE.
Dr. Edgar V. Epperly began researching the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders as a college student. In 1955 he traveled to Villisca for the first time with two friends where they interviewed Dr. Cooper, the first physician to examine the victims and the crime scene. Dr. Epperly is a retired Professor of Education at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research into the crime is ongoing. He has written essays, articles, collected and compiled a photographic archive of the Villisca murder case now housed at the Iowa State Archives. He is on the Humanities Iowa Speaker’s Bureau. He is currently the President of the Winneshiek County Habitat for Humanity. Epperly is co-authoring a book with Tammy and Kelly Rundle on the famous unsolved Villisca axe murder and is the primary consultant on the documentary Villisca: Living With a Mystery. Dr. Epperly is considered the foremost authority on the 1912 Villisca Axe Murders.
This overview of Villisca’s complex, tragic story was written by Dr. Epperly in 1996 and originally published in the July 1996 of the Violent Kin! newsletter.