Remembering Carolyn--Part Two
By Kelly and Tammy Rundle
People have two things to say during on-camera interviews: the expected and the unexpected. When we interviewed Villisca Review publisher Carolyn Cole Gage for our documentary feature film Villisca: Living with a Mystery she provided both. We met Carolyn in 1993 during a preliminary visit to the community whose history would become the focus of our lives as filmmakers for the next ten years.
In the summer of 1994 as we began shooting our non-fiction film, Americans were intrigued by the evolving O. J. Simpson murder case in our adopted home town of Los Angeles. It reminded Villiscans of their own mystery: the 1912 axe murders. The Moore murder house on East 2nd Street was being restored to its 1912 appearance and had its debut as a museum during Heritage Days. Both the documentary and the Moore house project raised concerns among some about the potential for inappropriate exploitation.
In the first part of her interview, Carolyn, talked about moving to Villisca and buying the newspaper. She spoke about the diversity of opinion in town in all matters and specifically about disagreement among citizens as to how the axe murders should or should not be utilized to attract interested "outsiders" to community events.
As we readied our equipment for take number two, Carolyn relaxed and chatted about the family antiques and heirlooms that surrounded the impromptu interview setting in her and husband Kenny's apartment above the newspaper office.
Tammy Rundle: Carolyn Cole Gage, take number two.
Kelly Rundle: When you came to Villisca from Atlantic [Iowa] you were probably already familiar with that aspect of Villisca's history?
CG: No, actually. I had lived on both coasts and gone to school at Iowa State, and then back to Des Moines. So I had really never heard of it. That was the amazing thing. And the week before we left Des Moines, the fellow who was cutting my hair mentioned that his parents were building a house the summer that this happened, and so they put extra locks and latches on the windows. And this was like forty miles away! I think people entirely miss the point of this whole thing. Of the suspicion, and you know, would you let your children stay at home alone at four o'clock in the afternoon? Probably not. I mean this just destroyed family life for a long time.
KR: Other than just studying the details of the history, is there something we can learn from what happened then and how the community reacted?
CG: Yes. It's something I will always be proud of, that they did not find the poor loner and hang him or, some old tramp, and just say, "we'll get rid of him." You know, the innuendo and gossip, if you live in a small town, you understand that. And that ruined [Iowa State Senator] F. F. Jones' future. I think he could have been governor. But I think there's a lesson that we have to step back, and think twice, and look at things. And unfortunately, I think decades later you can review history and wish there had been some forensic expert at that time. It might have been solved.
KR: Has there ever been any kind of conscious effort on the part of the Chamber of Commerce or any kind of community organization to capitalize on this aspect, since it is what the town is known for?
CG: "Capitalize" is an incorrect thing. I think "recognize." It's like "festival." I object to "festival." All of us do. You can work with it as a part of history. And I think the Texas Book Depository [in Dallas, Texas], people go there to review it. There'd be less to see there than there is here. But no, I don't think so. I think Darwin Linn [recently] purchasing the house is a good thing. To see someone who's going to make a conscious effort on being true and accurate to history is a good thing on that house, I think.
KR: How many visitors come to Villisca because they've heard the story?
CG: Oh, it's amazing. "Der Spiegel," out of Germany, about every six years will do something. "Time" magazine made an unfortunate reference about three or four years ago after [the] Algona [Iowa] murders when they said, "well at least Algona has put it to rest," I think they had a hospital wing opened in the memory of the family that was slain, while Villisca hasn't [put it to rest]. And I thought, well those twerps! I mean, they hadn't even approached us. We don't ever particularly bring it up or promote it. I think something will happen now. You don't want to put a big neon sign up there at the corner of 71 and High Street. But, you know, we'll have to deal with it. And we'll see, you know, the documentary may just change a lot of things for us.
KR: As a newspaper person here in town have you heard any interesting stories that are related to the murders in 1912?
CG: Well, I do know that almost every child the age of the Stillinger girls and the Moore girl, is supposed to have spent the night there [at the murder house on the murder night]. I think that's so funny. I always thought I knew someone that really was. It's like the president when he signs a bill, you know, every little letter has got a different pen. And the same thing here. They had dead bolt locks on the doors, families would live together out in the country, and women learned to shoot. And then, for the first few months afterwards, at dusk children were off the street and there was wire over the windows. "We want to be a part of history," you know. "Gee it's awful, we don't want to recognize this, but on the other hand my grandmother..." you know, this type of thing. In fact I, when I was down stairs just about a half and hour ago, someone came in the office and said to me (snicker), "Do you have a video of the axe murder?" And I said, "I beg your pardon?" And I think what they were talking about is the lecture [historian Dr. Epperly's Rialto Theater talk]. And I said, "Nooo we don't!" And he wanted to give it to his wife for her birthday. There is that interest there and I think it will continue.
KR: Why do you think people continue to be interested in it after all these years?
CG: The basic reason, and Dr. Epperly may dispute this, I think it's because you have eight people slain in a house, with the next house, what, twenty-five/thirty feet away. Nobody moved! I mean there was just this, I suppose it was the terror of the moment. And maybe children sleep hard, but why didn't anybody move? Why didn't anybody get up? And that would be so horrible, that no one knew what was going on. You think you'd hear some screams. Any of these other mass murders there is an indication there's a struggle or, you know, blood and all this. And I think that's what makes it so horrible that there was no great outcry when it happened. I mean, it could happen to you, you know, you could turn around and there could be someone right behind you now. Or, if you're in a theater watching this right now, you know, who do you know sitting next to you? You just don't know.
KR: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share with us?
CG: As I said, I just think this is a great community. I really think you're so close to life here. It's the first time I've ever had small town living. I think that's what makes it good. In times of tragedy, these people that were so close, and neighbors and friends that would help [in 1912]. There is still that element in a small town that they'll bring in your crops, they'll take your children to the doctor, you know, they'll take care of paying your bills. And I think that's still true and was true then. There's great concern. We'll just see what history does with this. After hearing Dr. Epperly, I'm pretty sure I know who did it, but then other people have different ideas. I think it's one of the most fascinating Midwestern stories I've ever heard. It's kind of the "Lock Ness Monster," in a murderous way.
KR: What does the word "outsider" mean?
CG: You don't want anybody coming into your house telling you where to put your couch or saying that you don't have a clean garage. You know, these "outsiders" coming in and "stirring up trouble," that's what they're objecting to. They want to say, "this is our town, leave it alone!" That's not going to happen and that shouldn't happen. And then again, you're altering history. You've got to open it up. But we don't object to people that come in for scholarly reasons at all. We don't want the people coming in with the ceramic axes and this type of thing, and being, being funny about it. And I think you'd be surprised, people will snap back if someone comes in and is kind of cruel or foolish about how they handle it. And I, as I said, you know, there couldn't, you couldn't parallel anything any better than the O. J. Simpson thing of what they're doing with the trading cards. I mean, that's bizarre. That's all we need to do is end up with some axe murder trading cards with the Moores and Stillingers and [Marshal] Horton and, the perverted little evangelist [suspect Rev. Kelly] and his wife. So, I think that's basically it. (long dramatic pause) And that goes for California "outsiders," too!
With that, Carolyn laughed and smiled broadly. When we confirmed the interview was over she eagerly bounced out of her chair. As a newspaper woman she was, after all, used to asking the questions.
Our friend Carolyn Cole Gage died on September 20, 2002. Villisca: Living with a Mystery will be available to the public in the summer of 2004 and we have dedicated our documentary to her memory. She was forthright, determined, hopeful, and a perpetual and cheerful ambassador for the small Southwestern Iowa community she called home. To us, Carolyn is Villisca and we're all able to reach a little higher for having known her.
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