April 2001

In Errol Morris’ classic documentary feature film The Thin Blue Line, a Dallas County police investigator comments on the hypnosis of a police officer--to draw crime scene details from her unconscious mind--by saying, "it really didn’t help anything at all, but it was interesting."

So it has sometimes been with our research into the 1912 Villisca Axe murders. A number of leads have been interesting, but haven’t really led anywhere.

During our month-long shoot in Villisca, Iowa in 1994, Adam Lawrence, our production office manager, received a phone call from a relative of Detective James Newton Wilkerson. She said she had several volumes of personal shorthand notes belonging to Wilkerson that might relate to his axe murder investigation.

She allowed us to copy the documents and then we began a search for someone who could decipher the turn-of-the-century style shorthand. Apparently, there was a slightly different shorthand style in use in the early 1900s.   In addition, stenographers also develop and use their own distinctive shortcuts.   Given all these variables, we were fortunate to find a Kansas City attorney who agreed to take on this onerous decoding task.

To make a long story short, some of the translated notes related primarily to another case Wilkerson was working on. The pages that did relate to the Villisca investigation seem to be portions of testimony taken during one or more of the trials.  Some of this testimony relates to the Montgomery County Protective Association and its members.  The Association raised money to defend Reverend Kelly and to pursue the case against Senator Jones.  The group was managed by Wilkerson and his supporters.

While any "new" historical material related to the axe murders always makes interesting reading, the most significant information we gleaned from several volumes of shorthand notes was two crime scene details not found in other documents.

Much ado about nothing? Perhaps. But leads must be followed on the chance they will guide you to something significant...or at least interesting.


A portion of the second shorthand journal (page number 8). The "RO" in the upper left refers to "Red Oak."   These notes were apparently taken by Wilkerson's stenographer for his own reference.
You'll find the word "Red" (Oak) in the upper right corner of this transcription. "K." refers to Reverend Kelly and the statements at the bottom refer to his wife Laura and whether she was financially destitute during her husband's trial.
Related Links:
History of Court Reporting

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