One hundred years ago in Villisca, Iowa, a family of six and two little farm girls on a sleepover were bludgeoned to death in their beds. The crime became known by the name of the town that it would forever stain, and by the weapon that the mysterious assailant used to work his evil: The Villisca ax murders.
It was — and remains — Iowa's largest mass murder.
Who killed eight people on that moonless Iowa night? Even now, no one knows.
Part One: The Murders
By Christopher Burbach / WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
VILLISCA, Iowa — On June 10, 1912, neighbors of Josiah and Sarah Moore began to wonder what was wrong next door when the curtains were still closed and nobody was stirring by 7:30 a.m. It was too warm to leave the windows down.
Josiah Moore should have been heading downtown to his hardware and implement store. And Sarah Moore and the children should have been among the other early risers of Villisca, even though they had been up late the night before for a special Sunday children's program at the church.
Something was beyond wrong in the Moore house. Read more/Read less
The neighbors, the town, the nation and then the world soon discovered that behind those window shades lay horrors beyond imagining. The Moores, their four young children and two little farm girls on a sleepover had been bludgeoned to death in their beds. The crime became known by the name of the town that it would forever stain, and by the weapon that the mysterious assailant used to work his evil: The Villisca ax murders.
It was — and remains — Iowa's largest mass murder. It traumatized the town for years. It divided Villisca for decades. It produced some of the most dramatic trials in Iowa history. It helped lead to the creation of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
One hundred years later, the town may finally be making its peace with how to remember what happened that night, although the curtains still are down on deep dark secrets — who committed the crime, and why — and may forever be so.
When people in Villisca talk about it — and it still comes up these many years later — they often call it “the tragedy,” said Edgar Epperly of Decorah, Iowa. He began studying the crime and investigation as a college student in 1955. He hasn't stopped, even now as a retired Luther College professor of education.
“It's amazing how many times you'll hear a local citizen say it changed the town — ‘The tragedy changed the town,' ” Epperly said.
Villisca bustled with commerce, culture and prosperity in 1912. It served as a center of agricultural and retail service and trade in the corn, cattle and hog country of southeastern Montgomery County. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad carried passengers and freight to and from Villisca, situated at the origin point of a branch line of the railroad. An opera house brought in famous singers from afar. The town was building a new armory, which would be home to Villisca's renowned Company F.
The town was home to about 2,000 people. The evening of June 9, 1912, many of them attended the annual Children's Day service and program at the Presbyterian Church. The Moore children — Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; and Paul, 5 — sang in the program. So did Lena Stillinger, 11, and her 8-year-old sister, Ina.
The throng in the pews included a strange little itinerant preacher, the Rev. Lyn George Kelly, and a leading citizen of Villisca, business owner and State Sen. F.F. Jones.
The services went late, until about 9:30 p.m. It was dark. There was no moon. The town's streetlights were off because of a dispute involving the municipal power plant. The Moores called the Stillingers' farm to ask if Lena and Ina could stay overnight. An older sister granted permission.
The next morning, next-door neighbor Mary Peckham became alarmed by “a terrible stillness around the Moore home,” as the local newspaper, the Villisca Review, reported at the time. As 8 a.m. approached, Peckham knocked on the door and received no response. The chickens and horses had not been fed, nor the cow milked. She called Josiah Moore's brother Ross Moore. He went to the two-story house. Finding the front door locked, he fished a key from his pocket, and he and Peckham entered.
They discovered the bodies of the Stillinger girls in a blood-soaked bed in a downstairs bedroom. They didn't go upstairs to the other bedrooms. They summoned the town marshal.
The marshal found Josiah and Sarah Moore and their children dead upstairs.
It appeared all had been killed as they lay sleeping.
“The bodies were all found in repose,” Epperly said. “The blood was at the head(s) of the bed(s). The covers had been pulled up over the victims.”
Bedcovers or articles of clothing had been placed over the victims' faces.
A bloody ax was propped against a wall in the room where the Stillinger girls had slept.
Word of the tragedy began to spread as the marshal hurried to fetch a doctor. Later, when the doctor emerged, a crowd was beginning to form and press toward the house.
“He admonished them, ‘Don't go in there, boys; you'll regret it until the last day of your life,' ” Epperly said.
Crime scene management then was not what it is now. The marshal went to find the county coroner and left a young deputy in charge. The deputy could not keep the people out.
“When the county coroner came, he said it was a madhouse,” Epperly said. “People were running from room to room and shouting.”
Dozens of people tramped through the house. They even moved the ax. Hundreds more gathered outside.
“People dropped whatever they were doing,” Epperly said. “The businesses all closed. They all went to the murder site.”
People began flocking in from out of town. There were reports that, in the days that followed, trains to Villisca were packed with the curious.
No motive or suspect immediately leaped to mind as the investigation began. It wasn't a robbery. Neither Sarah Moore nor the girls had been raped. The Moores were known to have no enemies — at least none with enmity deep enough to move them to such atrocities.
A team of bloodhounds from Beatrice, Neb., was brought in with their handler. The dogs led officials and gawkers on a trail that went to the nearby Nodaway River, then stopped.
A deputy warden from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. — a pioneering fingerprint expert — rode the train to Villisca to examine the crime scene.
“He arrived four sheets to the wind, as they say,” Epperly said.
Once the expert sobered up, he made an exhaustive analysis of the crime scene. He took note, as earlier witnesses had, of cloth draped over a mirror in the house; ax gashes in one of the ceilings; and a kerosene lamp, its chimney removed, at the foot of the bed where the Stillinger girls were killed.
He did not find usable fingerprints. That was not a surprise, given the number of people who had been through the crime scene and the state of fingerprint science in 1912, Epperly said. Even if there had been fingerprints, they might have been of little use in searching for a killer, because few fingerprints were on file at the time.
Eventually a Kansas City private detective hired by the state with help from the victims' families developed a theory of the crime that ruined a political career and split the town for decades.
Detective James Newton Wilkerson of the Burns Detective Agency promoted the theory that Sen. Jones had hired an Army deserter from Illinois, named William Mansfield, to kill Josiah Moore and his family. Jones' supposed motives: He and Moore, a former employee, were business rivals, and it was rumored that Moore was having an affair with Jones' daughter-in-law.
For four years, Wilkerson's theory about Jones bubbled barely beneath the surface, along with other theories, rumors and speculation. But authorities made no move to charge Jones, presumably because they had no evidence against him.
Then, in 1916, Wilkerson went overtly public with his theory. Wilkerson arranged dramatic public meetings. He told crowds that Jones had done it, and that he had witnesses who could help prove it.
Fliers accusing Jones were mailed to prominent people in Villisca. Wilkerson's theory of how Jones had hired “Blackie” Mansfield (a nickname a reporter made up for the white man) found its way into newspapers. Wilkerson arrested Mansfield and tried to get him to confess by having men hang him by his feet from a bridge.
A grand jury in July 1916 considered the case against Mansfield but refused to file charges. The biggest reason was that Mansfield was working in Illinois when the murders occurred — and had the pay records to prove it, Epperly said. Jones sued Wilkerson for slander.
Wilkerson and his attorney, Ed Mitchell of Council Bluffs, took an interesting approach in the slander trial.
“They didn't deny that Wilkerson had accused F.F. Jones of murder,” Epperly said. “They said ‘We're going to argue that the accusation is true.' ”
The slander case, he said, essentially became a trial of Jones.
“The trial went on for a month, and then the jury ruled that Jones hadn't been slandered,” Epperly said.
Many in the public then concluded Jones had hired Mansfield to carry out the killings. A second grand jury was convened. It considered Wilkerson's case against Jones and Mansfield. Wilkerson's case fell apart, Epperly said. Some 150 witnesses testified, and repeatedly witnesses didn't say what Wilkerson had said they would. So the grand jury refused to charge Jones and Mansfield.
“But the public didn't know that, because grand jury testimony is secret,” he said. “A lot of them felt that Jones had used his money, power and political connections to thwart justice.”
So the bitter division in the town — between supporters of Jones and supporters of the victims' families and Wilkerson — continued. They remained divided as the one actual criminal trial in the case took place: against the itinerant preacher, Rev. Kelly. A Peeping Tom who was busted for trying to hire a nude stenographer by mail, Kelly was considered a lunatic. He confessed in 1917 to the ax murders, though under duress, saying that God had directed him to do it.
Kelly was charged with killing the older Stillinger girl. Prosecutors thought it a sexual crime, because her underwear was removed and her body positioned toward the lamp. Besides being mentally unbalanced, Kelly also was a very small man, and jurors had trouble believing he could have done it. Kelly was tried twice. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, which voted 11-1 for acquittal. The second jury acquitted him.
That was the end of official action in the case. Although similarities had been noted between the Villisca murders and a string of other killings in the Midwest, the investigation never went far down the path of pursuing a drifting serial killer.
In Villisca, the town's division was so strong that there were separate entrances at the theater, even at church, for people from either side. That began to fade in time. Mary Hansen, president of the Villisca Historical Society, said many people just avoided the topic entirely.
“My family just didn't bring it up,” said Hansen, 73, who returned to Villisca after a career in Omaha and elsewhere as a minister. “It was painful to the Moore family that was still living here.”
In the late 1980s, the town had a “history and mystery days” festival that Epperly viewed as cathartic. Controversy arose again in the 1990s when the Moore house became a tourist attraction and drew interest from so-called paranormal investigators. But that controversy has mostly abated now. Hansen is among those who don't like the ghost hunts. “Charlatanism,” she called it, though she said she likes the owner of the house and business.
Hansen would rather Villisca not be known for the tragedy of a century ago. But it did happen. So she tries to also focus attention on Villisca's brighter moments.
Meanwhile, the Villisca Cemetery, with its expansive views of the rolling hills that surround the town, reminds a recent visitor of the human toll of the crime — after all these years, after all the hysteria, the hype, the remembering and the forgetting.
Amid the fading markers stretching as far back as the town's founding, Josiah and Sarah Moore and their children are buried under one long gravestone. Last week, it was lined with fresh flowers.
World-Herald staff writer Andrew J. Nelson contributed to this story.
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Part Two: The Town
By Andrew J. Nelson / WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
VILLISCA, Iowa — One hundred years after the ax murders, the people of this Montgomery County town would rather be known for something else.
But is being recognized for something awful better than not being noticed at all? Read more/Read less
At T.J.'s Cafe downtown, 10 percent of the business around Halloween time is derived from paranormal aficionados who come from all over, said Cody Embree, 33, the assistant manager and fry cook.
“We'll have tour buses pull over for it. … We actually had two gentlemen from London not too long ago,” he said. “I understand why some people don't appreciate it, but it keeps Villisca on the map.”
Martha Linn, 75, owner of the property where the eight people were slain June 10, 1912 — now dubbed the Villisca Ax Murder House, said there isn't much else in town to draw visitors. Like many rural communities, Villisca has fewer residents than it did 100 years ago. The community of about 1,200 is down more than 800 people and numerous businesses since the infamous — and yet unsolved — crime.
And, Linn said, the people she draws bring their money with them.
“You know, I am full every night this month except for one,” said Linn, 75. “I'm full every night in July. I have bookings clear up through December.”
People pay to tour the house as well as to book it for overnight stays, many seeking a ghostly experience.
That far-and-wide reputation has disadvantages.
“When you're from a small town and that's all you're known for, it kind of sucks,” said Tara McCormick, 32, who operates a small day-care near the house. “I went to Des Moines shopping and I had my ID and they said, ‘Ohhhh, you're from Villisca.'”
One does not have to wait long for a vehicle to crawl by on East Second Street, with all eyes focused on the white frame house with red trim on the corner lot. At city hall downtown, people come by almost every day for directions to find the house.
Said McCormick: “If I'm outside, I get a lot of people who stop and ask … ‘Can you tell me where the murder house is?'”
It wasn't until the early 1990s — when Linn's now deceased husband, Darwin, purchased the house and turned it into a museum — that the carnival began, said brothers Kenneth Kernen, 87, and Henry Kernen Jr., 81. They don't understand all the curiosity.
“Why bring up something that happened years ago?” Henry said. “We have never paid any attention to it, ourselves.”
But they grew up hearing the stories. Their father, Henry Sr., would tell them how he rode through town in a horse and buggy on his way home from a date the night of the killings, oblivious to what had happened nearby.
He didn't know about it until the next day,” Kenneth said.
Villisca Mayor Andy Crussell said he, like many older people in town, accepts having the house as a tourist attraction despite having “little feelings” about it.
“You know, about making money off people who died,” Crussell said.
But he said the house brings business to Villisca, and he and others like and respect the Linns.
“It's history for our town,” said Crussell, 79, a Villisca native who returned after retiring from a career in the aircraft industry. “It's a magnet for people.”
Crussell was on the City Council when the house was converted to a tourist attraction. The idea was more controversial then. Instead of trying to block it, city officials wanted to make sure the plan didn't overly sensationalize the crime.
They felt they mostly succeeded. For example, they prevented installation of a sign at the entrance to town; instead, there's one at the house. But Crussell said he lost on another point.
“I wanted to list it as the Moore house, not the ax murder house,” he said.
Embree, the cafe's assistant manager who lives in nearby Red Oak, finds positives in Villisca's notoriety. “We're losing our factories. Farming is going more and more corporate every time. So what do you do to keep a small town going?”
Besides, the tragedy of 100 years ago might still offer a lesson for folks. Said Doug Palmquist, 46, of Stanton, who last week was eating lunch at T.J.'s: “It's good to know your neighbors and look out for them. Stuff could still happen.”
World-Herald Staff Writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.
Part Three: The Murderer
By Christopher Burbach / WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Fifty-seven years after Edgar Epperly began researching the Villisca ax murders, he still hasn't decided who the killer is.
“I get asked that a lot,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Decorah, Iowa. “We've decided on two people.” Read more/Read less
In other words, he isn't certain enough to settle on one.
Epperly said the most likely candidate is the minister, the Rev. Lyn George Kelly, who was tried for the crime and acquitted. Kelly attended the Children's Day services the night before the murders. He left town early the next morning. He was a peeping Tom. After advertising in The World-Herald for a stenographer, he was convicted of using the mail to try to hire her to work in the nude.
Kelly confessed to the Villisca murders. However, he gave the confession under duress to two people he thought were fellow inmates, but were really a deputy from Pottawattamie County and a newspaper editor from Missouri Valley, Iowa.
The other possibility is a serial killer. Three very similar crimes occurred in the Midwest — in Colorado Springs, Monmouth, Ill. and Ellsworth, Kan. — in the fall of 1911 before the Villisca ax murders. And another happened in Paola, Kan. just a few days before the Villisca killings.
Early investigators noted similarities to the Villisca murders. Whole families were bludgeoned with a weapon of opportunity, usually an ax. Their bodies were covered with bedding and clothes. In some, a chimney-less lamp was found at the foot of women's or girl's beds.
“If you look at the (Villisca crime), it cries out for a serial killer,” Epperly said. “You read the newspaper accounts of the other ones, and you shake your head and say these all have to have been committed by the same guy.”
A respected documentary by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle implies that the killer could have been a railroad worker named Henry Lee Moore, who was convicted of killing his mother and grandmother with an ax in Columbia, Mo., in December 1912. The Midwest ax murders stopped after his arrest.
But Epperly doesn't agree that Moore was the killer, noting an Iowa state attorney general's investigator looked into it and dismissed him as a suspect. Epperly couldn't find evidence of it, but surmises the investigator found an alibi for Moore for June 10, 1912.