The Villisca Axe Murders 100 years on

Joe and Sarah Moore, c.1905 with their eldest two children, Herman and Katherine. All four, together with two younger children and two of Katherine’s young friends, would die together in June 1912, killed by an unidentified ax-wielding assailant. The unsolved crime remains Iowa’s most infamous murder mystery.

Shortly after midnight on June 10, 1912—one hundred years ago this week—a stranger hefting an ax lifted the latch on the back door of a two-story timber house in the little Iowa town of Villisca. The door was not locked—crime was not the sort of thing you worried about in a modestly prosperous Midwest settlement of no more than 2,000 people, all known to one another by sight—and the visitor was able to slip inside silently and close the door behind him. Then, according to a reconstruction attempted by the town coroner next day, he took an oil lamp from a dresser, removed the chimney and placed it out of the way under a chair, bent the wick in two to minimize the flame, lit the lamp, and turned it down so low it cast only the faintest glimmer in the sleeping house.

Still carrying the ax, the stranger walked past one room in which two girls, ages 12 and 9, lay sleeping, and slipped up the narrow wooden stairs that led to two other bedrooms. He ignored the first, in which four more young children were sleeping, and crept into the room in which 43-year-old Joe Moore lay next to his wife, Sarah. Raising the ax high above his head—so high it gouged the ceiling—the man brought the flat of the blade down on the back of Joe Moore’s head, crushing his skull and probably killing him instantly. Then he struck Sarah a blow before she had time to wake or register his presence.

The Moore house in Villisca, 1912. One of the town’s larger and better-appointed properties, it still stands today and has been turned into Villisca’s premier tourist attraction. For a price, visitors can stay in the house overnight; there is no shortage of interested parties.

Leaving the couple dead or dying, the killer went next door and used the ax—Joe’s own, probably taken from where it had been left in the coal shed—to kill the four Moore children as they slept. Once again, there is no evidence that Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; or Paul, 5, woke before they died. Nor did the assailant or any of the four children make sufficient noise to disturb Katherine’s two friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, as they slept downstairs. The killer then descended the stairs and took his ax to the Stillinger girls, the elder of whom may finally have awakened an instant before she, too, was murdered.

What happened next marked the Villisca killings as truly peculiar and still sends shivers down the spine a century after the fact. The ax man went back upstairs and systematically reduced the heads of all six Moores to bloody pulp, striking Joe alone an estimated 30 times and leaving the faces of all six members of the family  unrecognizable. He then drew up the bedclothes to cover Joe and Sarah’s shattered heads, placed a gauze undershirt over Herman’s face and a dress over Katherine’s, covered Boyd and Paul as well, and finally administered the same terrible postmortem punishment to the girls downstairs before touring the house and ritually hanging cloths over every mirror and piece of glass in it. At some point the killer also took a two-pound slab of uncooked bacon from the icebox, wrapped it in a towel, and left it on the floor of the downstairs bedroom close to a short piece of key chain that did not, apparently, belong to the Moores. He seems to have stayed inside the house for quite some time, filling a bowl with water and–some later reports said–washing his bloody hands in it. Some time before 5 a.m., he abandoned the lamp at the top of the stairs and left as silently as he had come, locking the doors behind him. Taking the house keys, the murderer vanished as the Sunday sun rose red in the sky.

Lena and Ina Stillinger. Lena, the elder of the girls, was the only one who may have awoken before she died.

The Moores were not discovered until several hours later, when a neighbor, worried by the absence of any sign of life in the normally boisterous household, telephoned Joe’s brother, Ross, and asked him to investigate. Ross found a key on his chain that opened the front door, but barely entered the house before he came rushing out again, calling for Villisca’s marshal, Hank Horton. That set in train a sequence of events that destroyed what little hope there may have been of gathering useful evidence from the crime scene. Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper and Edgar Hough and Wesley Ewing, the minister of the Moore’s Presbyterian congregation. They were followed by the county coroner, L.A. Linquist, and a third doctor, F.S. Williams (who became the first to examine the bodies and estimate a time of death). When a shaken Dr Williams emerged, he cautioned members of the growing crowd outside: “Don’t go in there, boys; you’ll regret it until the last day of your life.” Many ignored the advice; as many as 100 curious neighbors and townspeople tramped as they pleased through the house, scattering fingerprints, and in one case even removing fragments of Joe Moore’s skull as a macabre keepsake.

The murders convulsed Villisca, particularly after a few clumsy and futile attempts to search the surrounding countryside for a transient killer failed to unearth a likely suspect. The simple truth was that there was no sign of the murderer’s whereabouts. He might have vanished back into his own home nearby; equally, given a head start of up to five hours in a town at which nearly 30 trains called every day, he might easily have made good his escape. Bloodhounds were tried without success; after that there was little for the townspeople to do but gossip, swap theories–and strengthen their locks. By sundown there was not a dog to be bought in Villisca at any price.

Dona Jones, daughter-in-law of Iowa state senator Frank Jones, was widely rumored in Villisca to have had an affair with Joe Moore.

The most obvious suspect may have been Frank Jones, a tough local businessman and state senator who was also a prominent member of Villisca’s Methodist church. Edgar Epperly, the leading authority on the murders, reports that the town quickly split along religious lines, the Methodists insisting on Jones’s innocence and the Moores’ Presbyterian congregation convinced of his guilt. Though never formally charged with any involvement in the murders, Jones became the subject of a grand jury investigation and a prolonged campaign to prove his guilt which destroyed his political career. Many townspeople were certain he used his considerable influence to have the case against him quashed.

There were at least two compelling reasons to believe that Jones had nursed a hatred of Joe Moore. First, the dead man had worked for him for seven years, becoming the star salesman of Jones’s farm-equipment business. But Moore had left in 1907–dismayed, perhaps, by his boss’s insistence on hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week—and set himself up as a head-to-head rival, taking the valuable John Deere account with him. Worse, he was also believed to have slept with Jones’s vivacious daughter-in-law, a local beauty whose numerous affairs were well known in town thanks to her astonishingly indiscreet habit of arranging trysts over the telephone at a time when all calls in Villisca had to be placed through an operator. By 1912 relations between Jones and Moore had grown so cold that the they began to cross the street to avoid each other, an ostentatious sign of hatred in such a minuscule community.

The Reverend Lyn Kelly, a markedly peculiar Presbyterian preacher, attended the Children’s Day service in Villisca at which the Moore children gave recitations, and later confessed to murdering the family—only to recant and claim police brutality.

Few people in Villisca believed that a man of Jones’s age and eminence—he was 57 in 1912—would have swung the ax himself, but in some minds he was certainly capable of paying someone else to wipe out Moore and his family. That was the theory of James Wilkerson, an agent of the renowned Burns Detective Agency, who in 1916 announced that Jones had hired a killer by the name of William Mansfield to murder the man who had humiliated him. Wilkerson—who made enough of a nuisance of himself to derail Jones’s attempts to secure re-election to the state senate, and who eventually succeeded in having a grand jury convened to consider the evidence he had gathered–was able to show that Mansfield had the right sort of background for the job: In 1914 he was the chief suspect in the ax murders of his wife, her parents and his own child in Blue Island, Illinois.

Unfortunately for Wilkerson, Mansfield turned out to have a cast-iron alibi for the Villisca killings. Payroll records showed that had been working several hundred miles away in Illinois at the time of the murders, and he was released for lack of evidence. That did not stop many locals—including Ross Moore and Joe Stillinger, father of the two Stillinger girls—from believing in Jones’s guilt. The rancor caused by Wilkerson lingered on in the town for years.

The advert that Lyn Kelly placed in the Omaha World-Herald. One respondent received a “lascivious” multi-page reply which told her she would be required to type in the nude.

For others, though, there was a far stronger–and far stranger– candidate for the ax man. His name was Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, and he was an English immigrant, a preacher and a known sexual deviant with well-recorded mental problems. He had been in the town on the night of the murders and freely admitted that he had left on a dawn train just before the bodies were discovered. There were things about Kelly that made him seem an implausible suspect—not least that he stood only 5-foot-2 and weighed 119 pounds—but in other ways he fit the bill. He was left-handed, and Coroner Linquist had determined from an examination of blood spatters in the murder house that the killer probably swung his ax that way. Kelly was obsessed with sex, and had been caught peering into windows in Villisca two days before the murders. In 1914, living in Winner, South Dakota, he would advertise for a “girl stenographer” to do “confidential work,” and that ad, placed in the Omaha World-Herald, would also specify that the successful candidate “must be willing to pose as model.” When a young woman named Jessamine Hodgson responded, she received in return a letter, described by a judge as “so obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy as to be offensive to this honorable court and improper to be spread upon the record thereof.” Amongst his milder instructions, Kelly told Hodgson that she would be required to type in the nude.

Convicted ax murderer Henry Lee Moore was the suspect favored by Department of Justice Special Agent Matthew McClaughry–who believed he committed a total of nearly 30 similar murders across the Midwest in 1911-12 .

Investigation soon made plain that there were links between Lyn Kelly and the Moore family. Most sinister, for those who believed in the little preacher’s guilt, was the fact that Kelly had attended the Children’s Day service held at Villisca’s Presbyterian church on the evening of the murders. The service had been organized by Sarah Moore, and her children, together with Lena and Ina Stillinger, had played prominent parts, dressed up in their Sunday best. Many in Villisca were willing to believe that Kelly had spotted the family in the church and become obsessed with them, and that he had spied on the Moore household as it went to bed that evening. The idea that the killer had lain in wait for the Moores to go to sleep was supported by some evidence; Linquist’s investigation had revealed a depression in some bales of hay stored in the family barn, and a knot hole through which the murderer could have watched the house while reclining in comfort. That Lena Stillinger had been found wearing no underwear and with her nightdress drawn up past her waist did suggest a sexual motive, but doctors found no evidence of that sort of assault.

It took time for the case against Kelly to get anywhere, but in 1917 another grand jury finally assembled to hear the evidence linking him with Lena’s murder. At first glance, the case against Kelly seemed compelling; he had sent bloody clothing to the laundry in nearby Macedonia, and an elderly couple recalled meeting the preacher when he alighted from a 5.19 a.m. train from Villisca that June 10 and being told that gruesome murders had been committed in the town—a hugely incriminating statement, since the preacher had left Villisca three hours before the killings were discovered. It also emerged that Kelly had returned to Villisca a week later and shown great interest in the murders, even posing as a Scotland Yard detective to obtain a tour of the Moore house. Arrested in 1917, the Englishman was repeatedly interrogated and eventually signed a confession to the murder in which he stated: “I killed the children upstairs first and the children downstairs last. I knew God wanted me to do it this way. `Slay utterly’ came to my mind, and I picked up the axe, went into the house and killed them.” This he later recanted, and the couple who claimed to have spoken to him on the morning after murders changed their story. With little left to tie him firmly to the killings, the first grand jury to hear Kelly’s case hung 11-1 in favor of refusing to indict him, and a second panel freed him.

Rollin and Anna Hudson were the victims of an ax murderer in Paola, Kansas, just five days before the Villisca killings.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that both Jones and Kelly were most likely innocent came not from Villisca itself but from other communities in the Midwest, where, in 1911 and 1912, a bizarre chain of ax murders seemed to suggest that a transient serial killer was at work. The researcher Beth Klingensmith has suggested that as many as 10 incidents that occurred close to railway tracks but in locations as far apart as Rainier, Washington, and Monmouth, Illinois, might form part of this chain, and in several cases there are striking similarities to the Villisca crime. The pattern, first pointed out in 1913 by Special Agent Matthew McClaughry of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), began with the murder of a family of six in Colorado Springs in September 1911 and continued with two further incidents in Monmouth (where the murder weapon was actually a pipe) and in Ellsworth, Kansas. Three and five people died in those attacks, and two more in Paola, Kansas, where someone murdered Rollin Hudson and his unfaithful wife just four days before the killings in Villisca. As far as McClaughry was concerned, the slaughter culminated in December 1912 with the brutal murders of Mary Wilson and her daughter Georgia Moore in Columbia, Missouri. His theory was that Henry Lee Moore, Georgia’s son and a convict with a  history of violence, was responsible for the whole series.

It is not necessary to believe that Henry Lee Moore was a serial killer to consider that the string of Midwest ax murders have intriguing similarities that may tie the Villisca massacre to other crimes. Moore is now rarely considered a good suspect; he was certainly an unsavory character—released from a reformatory in Kansas shortly before the ax murders began, arrested in Jefferson City, Missouri, shortly after they ended, and eventually convicted of the Columbia murders. But his motive in that case was greed–he planned to obtain the deeds to his family house–and it is rare for a wandering serial killer to return home and kill his own family. Nonetheless, analysis of the sequence of murders—and several others that McClaughry did not consider—yields some striking comparisons.

Blanche Wayne, of Colorado Springs, may have been the first victim of a Midwest serial murderer. She was killed in her bed in September 1911 by an ax man who heaped bedclothes on her head and stopped to wash his hands, leaving the weapon at the scene.

The use of an ax in almost every case was perhaps not so remarkable in itself; while there certainly was an unusual concentration of ax killings in the Midwest at this time, almost every family in rural districts owned such an implement, and often left it lying in their yard; as such, it might be considered a weapon of convenience. Similarly, the fact that the victims died asleep in their beds was likely a consequence of the choice of weapon; an ax is nearly useless against a mobile target. Yet other similarities among the crimes are much harder to explain away. In eight of the 10 cases, the murder weapon was found abandoned at the scene of the crime; in as many as seven, there was a railway line nearby; in three, including Villisca, the murders took place on a Sunday night. Just as significant, perhaps, four of the cases—Paolo, Villisca, Rainier and a solitary murder that took place in Mount Pleasant, Iowa—featured killers who covered their victims’ faces, three murderers had washed at the scene, and at least five of the killers had lingered in the murder house. Perhaps most striking of all, two other homes (those of the victims of the Ellsworth and Paola murders) had been lit by lamps in which the chimney had been laid aside and the wick bent down, just as it had been at Villisca.

Whether or not all these murders really were connected remains a considerable puzzle. Some pieces of evidence fit patterns, but others do not. How, for example, might a stranger to Villisca have so uneeringly located Joe and Sarah Moore’s bedroom by low lamp light, ignoring the children’s rooms until the adults were safely dead? On the other hand, the use of the flat of the ax blade to strike the fatal initial blows does suggest the murderer had previous experience–any deep cut made with the sharp edge of the blade was more likely to result in the ax becoming lodged in the wound, making it far riskier to attack a sleeping couple. And the Paola murders have striking similarities with Villisca aside from the killer’s use of a carefully adapted lamp; in both cases, for example, odd incidents occurred the same night that suggest the killer may have attempted to strike twice. In Villisca, at 2.10 a.m. on the night of the murder, telephone operator Xenia Delaney heard strange footsteps approaching up the stairs, and an unknown hand tried her locked door, while in Paola, a second family was awakened in the dead of night by a sound that turned out to be a lamp chimney falling to the floor. Rising hurriedly, the occupants of that house were in time to see an unknown man escaping through a window.

Perhaps the spookiest of all such similarities, however, was the strange behavior of the unknown murderer of William Showman, his wife, Pauline, and their three children in Ellsworth, Kansas in October 1911. In the Ellsworth case, not only was a chimneyless lamp used to illuminate the murder scene, but a little heap of clothing had been placed over the Showmans’ telephone.

A Western Electric Model 317 telephone, one of the most popular on sale in the Midwest in 1911-12. Note the phone’s startlingly “human” features.

Why bother to muffle a phone that was highly unlikely to ring at one in the morning? Perhaps, as one student of the murders posits, for the same reason that the Villisca murderer took such great pains to cover the faces of his victims, and then went around the murder house carefully draping torn clothing and cloths over all the mirrors and all the windows: because he feared that his dead victims were somehow conscious of his presence. Might the Ellsworth killer have covered the telephone [left] out of the same desperate desire to ensure that, nowhere in the murder house, was there a pair of eyes still watching him?


Beth H. Klingensmith. “The 1910s Ax Murders: An Overview of the McClaughry Theory.” Emporia State University Research Seminar, July 2006; Nick Kowalczyk. “Blood, gore, tourism: the ax murderer who saved a small town.”, April 29, 2012; Roy Marshall. Villisca: The True Account of the Unsolved Mass Murder That Stunned The Nation. Chula Vista [CA]: Aventine Press, 2003; Omaha World-Herald, June 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 1912; December 27, 1913; June 10, 2012.

Several bloggers offer thoughtful insights into the Midwest ax murders. For the Villisca case, The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog is a good place to start, and there was also occasional coverage at CLEWS. Meanwhile, Getting the Axe covers the whole apparent sequence of 1911-12 ax killings, with only a minor focus on the Villisca case itself.

61 thoughts on “The Villisca Axe Murders 100 years on

    • Ha. Probably. The answer, which I was not allowed to mention on the Smithsonian site, was supposedly that he used grease from the bacon joint as, er, lubricant to…

      • I read that he masturbated into the bacon. It was found near the foot of the bed where one of the axed little girls was splayed out. All in all, quite an evening.

  1. What I’ve always found crazy about stories like these is that the murderer probably went on to have kids and grandkids. Somewhere out there there was a man or woman who had no idea that their grandparent was a crazy axe murderer. Really makes you think about what you really dont know about the past.

  2. My husband and I got a tour of the house and cemetery from Darwin, the gentleman mentioned in the Salon article. It was so sad to think about all those children being killed, especially the Stillinger girls. Any other night and they would have been safe at their home. Darwin was a fount of knowledge; he’d answer any question you had and ten more you hadn’t thought of.

  3. On the topic of old-timey axe murders another good read is about the murder of the Reed family at the Mission San Miguel in 1846…it even involves mountain man Jim Beckwourth discovering the bodies and alerting the authorities. Unlike the Villisca axe-murders, though, justice was (mostly) served in this case…

  4. YES- I’ve read all the books, heard about this growing up, and saw the recent film. It wasn’t the crazy minister. I think it was the guy referred to as “Blackie” and I believe he was a killer for hire and enjoyed his work- a real psychopath for $.

  5. This is absolutely nuts! Read the article. It is awesome. And I shall continue to pretend I am addressing an audience…

  6. […] The always excellent Mike Dash brings you the Ax Murderer Who Got Away […]

  7. […] Said goodbye to my quiet nights sleep with this beautiful, Truman Capote-esque #longread: […]

  8. My grandmother was born in Villisca around 1910, and my mother was born and lived in Villisca until she grew up and went to college. Villisca used to be quaint American small town with a Main Street that Walt Disney would love, amazing red brick gothic courthouse.

    It’s a terrific unsolved murder. Axe marks in the ceiling, 6″ x 12″ section of unsliced bacon used as a masturbatory aid, freaky miniature ministers with needs too “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy as to be improper to spread upon the record,” a bearded Bulgarian Lace Salesman, and a suspect whose estranged wife had been the victim of an axe murderer in Illinois.

  9. Reading this story reminds me of something I’ve read several times in serious historical works: as best anyone can tell, the rate of such horrifying murders has not increased over the years (though the lethality certainly has, with modern weapons), despite the nearly-universal believe to the contrary. Really! The number of such crimes being reported and solved has definitely increased, but historians believe this is entirely due to increased communications around the world and vastly improved criminal investigations. Consider a serial murderer in, say, 1800, who traveled for a month or so between murders. Two towns in the U.S. in 1800 that were a few hundred miles apart would quite likely never even know that each other had experienced a similar murder – and even if they did find out, it would be long after the fact and long after any investigation. Two and two would simply never have been put together. The world before about 1920 or so was a much safer place for serial murders…

  10. There are bunches of ghost hunting shows done on this house. There are actual ax marks in the walls from the killer swinging the ax. It is chilling to think about how it must have happened.

  11. I’ve actually spent the night in this house; they rent it out to people who want to go ghost hunting. I’m not prepared to say that it is without a doubt haunted, but it’s really damn creepy, and I had some seriously weird experiences in there.

    • I’ll go ahead and say it. The house is definitely haunted. I have friends who spent the night there like you did, and captured some pretty compelling EVP. We plan to go spend the night there in the spring.

      • I did read most of it, and found it fascinating, and my mind just went……ahhhh, damn. I’m always curious as to why and how someone gets to that point, to commit such a heinous act. What happened to them to make them do that? We’ll never know.

      • Some crimes are not crimes of passion, the criminals make it out to look that way to conceal motives. I really think these murders had to do with that affair. Oh yeah, I don’t blame anyone who reads a bunch of stuff like that, but many of these newer users just look at the volume of text and run away.
        As far as people getting to that point goes, I have no idea. I can be a hateful person sometimes (ADHD makes me moody), but I have outlets and stuff for that. I’m not capable of murdering anyone; however, there are plenty of monsters out there who don’t think anything of it. Life is cheap, but it’s not worthless.

  12. Mike! Great article and thank you for sourcing my paper. The movie “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” is a wonderful documentary on the murders in Iowa and their subsequent impact on the town. I hope everyone who reads my paper enjoys it. I wrote it for a History class for my Masters Degree, never dreaming it would be referenced or read as much as it has. Henry Lee Moore is my first cousin, three times removed. His grandmother, Mary Wilson, was my great great great grandmother. BethK – Colorado Springs, CO

  13. Some pagan cultures believed that the spirit escaped through the mouth. I wonder if that is why he covered their faces?

  14. I think, without a doubt, that the murderer was Henry Lee Moore in all of these related killings of 1911 and 1912. McClaughry had it correct. The facts add up to that. Continue to read and research more on Moore and you’ll find some interesting facts and comments that he made. I believe that he was released from prison in 1948 in the St. Louis area. He was indeed the ax murderer who got away.

    • Henry Lee Moore certainly was an ax murderer, but probably not THE murderer in the Villisca case. He was originally my prime suspect, too, but in the end, I think McClaughry was just trying to pin it on someone in order to close the books. In my documentary, “The Ax Man Enigma,” I interviewed a descendent of HLM, and she made a very compelling case for why Henry simply wasn’t sophisticated enough to have pulled off the terrible murders in Villisca.

  15. The Victorian era held many superstitions about death. While the deceased’s body was in the house, all mirrors were to be covered in black material. The Barton Upon Humber Family History Aid website explains that this ensured “that the soul of the departed would not get trapped behind the glass and be prevented from passing to ‘the other side,'” Similar to the ancient superstitions, the Victorians also believed that “if you saw your own reflection in a room where someone had just died, then you would soon die yourself.”

  16. We drove by the Paola site. Thought the house was torn down there is a similar structure at 710 W. Wea. I think Kelly, the minister can be dismissed as an attention seeking pervert, Jones…while he may have had motive in Villisca it won’t explain away the amazing similarities elsewhere. Mansfield may well have been the murder for hire and more prolific than the one instance. But in Monmouth Loving Mitchell was arrested for the crime and an electric flashlight found by the fence that had carved into it “Colo Springs 11 Lovey” which could have put him at the two sites AND established that he chose a second victim as in the Colo Springs murders. Does anyone know what happened to Mitchell?

  17. Mike, thank you for the great research and the wonderful resource links. As a criminal justice graduate I’ve studied and profiled serial killers in college and have always had a morbid fascination with understanding how the human mind could do some of these horrible things. One thing I am most certain of is that the Villisca perp is a serial killer.. With his sexual overtones – and the older tradition of covering eyes, or heads where the eyes would have been if he didn’t pulverized them – (I suspect he did that to remove the guilt of the corpses looking at him)… I’m certain that this one not his only similar act. I’m not convinced of any of the known suspects, the preacher or Mclaughery’s suspect… And so I think the only way it will be solved is looking at other similar murders during that time period. That’s what Mclaughery did, and I’m not certain his conclusions were correct, nor that the Missouri man was guilty of the Missouri murder or any of the murders. This is what I discovered so far: Almost exactly one year to the date earlier a similar murder scene was found in Ardenwald, Oregon – a suburb of Portland. Bloody palm prints and fingerprints were left on one of the bodies in that scene. Of course the Henry Fingerprint identification system was fairly new then, but Mclaughery himself was the resident expert on fingerprints at the Bureau of Investigation (Forerunner to the FBI) I’m really curious as to why he discounted the Ardenwald murders in his own profile of the murderer. I suspect it’s possibly because the prints found at the Ardenwald scene don’t match any of the suspects in the Villasca, Monmouth, or Ranier killings – which I think he felt were perpetrated by the same killer…. I think those fingerprints are possibly the key. And I’m not so quick to discount the connection between Ardenwald and Villasca. Would love to see your research on that.,..

    • The problem is, so many people went through the crime scenes before investigators could that none of the prints were comparable. Private investigators were brought in on the Ardenwald case, as well as a Bertillion expert. He was the same expert brought in to lift prints at Rainier and Colorado Springs. Fingerprints were only examined in Villisca and McGlaughry wasn’t able to lift anything useful. The Bertillion expert could only get one clear print and with Bertillion, the only thing that mattered were measurements so no pictures were taken or retained. Ardenwald investigators had discounted the connections between Springs and Ardenwald because The Pinkertons were investigating Springs and a different firm was investigating Ardenwald. Private Investigators, chasing reward money and billable hours, did far more harm to these investigations than any good they accomplished.

  18. There was a similar murder in WI in (I think) 1920. In my moms hometown of Marquette WI, a family named Pahl was murdered with an ax. I remember my aunts saying the odd thing was that the lamps were on the floor with the chimneys gone and the mirror was covered. However, Mr. Pahl was not killed with an ax, but shot several times in the heart, and found in front of the stove with his feet up as if he was relaxing. Marquette was a hunters town, situated on a lake and very near a marsh, drawing people from all over to hunt birds and game. Villasca was very near a hunting marsh too.( I looked it up) The Pahls’ death was ruled a suicide/murder, but no one believed it, and thought that it was committed by someone posing as a hunter. Thank you for the article, it brought back memories and allowed me to be an arm chair detective,which is always a fun thing to do.

    • Hi Chris

      Thank you very much for getting in touch about the Marquette case and its similarity to Villisca.

      The parallels sound fascinating. I’d certainly like to know more and would be grateful for any further details or a reference to the Marquette case. I’ve had a poke around some newspaper archives for coverage without finding anything.

  19. I can tell you a very little more on my own. Mrs. Pahl, the lady who was killed, was a very good friend to my aunts, especially my aunt Elsa. She spent the afternoon before she was killed with them at my granddad’s house. And my aunts said she seemed reluctant to leave. When they (the Pahls’) weren’t seen the next day, my Granddad, who was very respected in the village, was asked to accompany other neighbors into the house. And they found the bodies. What I remember most vividly was the description of the lamps being on the floor or disturbed somehow. No one knew what to think of that.
    I will try to find out more. Little towns in Wisconsin are very insular and I couldn’t find a newspaper report online. Maybe there wasn’t any at all. If I find something more I will let you know,

  20. If you seek the motive behind the Villisca tragedy, you will see who benefitted the most by the murders. It is not who you might think, not the real motive, ever talked about. I have a secret group on FaceBook that may open the case again for it’s resolution.

    • Joyce, I made a documentary about the Villisca murders (and other similar ones throughout the Midwest during that time). I would love to discuss this with you, as I plan to update my film with new information in a re-release. At the very least, I’ve studied the murders for years, and I know we’d have a great discussion!

      From your post, I’m inclined to guess you support the Jones theory? There was certainly a motive there. Or, if you have a theory about someone who’s been talked about very little or not at all, I REALLY can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

      Is there a way for me to send a request to join your private FB group?

  21. Thinking aloud, the murderer or murderers put out bacon, covered all the glass and mirrors and put out a bowl of water. Just throwing ideas out for a motive; water is an astral conduit, mirrors can trap a demon, the bacon? I’m not sure, some sort of food for some sort of entity? Does anyone else have any thoughts?

    • blood atonement ritual, Roz Ryszka-Onions. The bacon, is a very big physical clue to what the murderer did to access Lena, who was a threat to the Stillinger family, once she and Ina allowed the family secret to be exposed…they were punished for being disobedient. punished in such a way the secret could never escape the walls of the house.

  22. In case it’s of interest, Bill James, the well known baseball writer, just told the New Yorker he is writing a book on the Villisca case and the mid-west axe murders:

    You’re working on another crime book. What’s it about?

    The working title is “The Man from the Train” and it will come out next year. You know the story of the murders in Villisca? All right, a hundred and four years ago, eight people are found dead, murdered with an axe, inside this locked house, in a quiet, small town in the southern part of Iowa. It’s a famous crime, and the reason that it became famous is that at the time it was obvious that it was the latest in a series of similar attacks. I had the idea that I’ll bet there are others like this which have not been tied to the same murderer, because at the time they didn’t have the methods you have now to connect the dots between unrelated events. So I started looking for them, and I found several. So I wrote a book about it. And, unbelievably enough, we were able to figure out who [the killer] was.

  23. Too bad no DNA back in the day. However history does repeat itself, what is The FBI profile of the American serial killer! United States has the MOST serial killers in the world. ( nowadays it’s mass shootings) This was after the pilgrims got here.

  24. It’s interesting to see that the idea of covering mirrors in rooms where death is taking place is generally interpreted by students of the Villisca case as something the killer did to prevent himself seeing his own reflection – the idea seeming to be that he could not bear to see himself committing such depravity. In fact it is an old English custom, dating to some indeterminate period before the mid nineteenth century, which was usually done at the same time as throwing open the windows in the room where a death had taken place. The idea was to ease the flight of the dead soul to heaven by preventing it from becoming confused by the mirrors. See for instance Helen Frisby’s paper on “The persistence of purgatory: English folk funeral customs c.1840-1920”. I wonder if the windows in the Villisca house were open.

  25. Pingback: A book from a (sub)genre you haven’t read before – What We've Been Reading

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