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Sometime during the night of June 9, 1912 a killer or killers unknown, entered the home of Josiah B. Moore. Bludgeoned to death were Joe, his wife Sara, their four children and two neighbor girls, Lena and Ina Stillinger, who were visiting overnight. Known ever since as the Villisca axe murders, this is easily the most notorious crime in Iowa history.

Villisca, a town of twenty-five hundred souls in Southwestern Iowa, was changed forever by this tragedy. Hundreds joined in the immediate search for a deranged killer. During the initial period of community terror, families doubled up so that one member could be on guard throughout the night.

When no insane killer was found rumors and suspicions began to take root. Locals accused a prominent citizen, F.F. Jones, of hiring the murder because of business conflicts and jealousy directed toward Joe Moore. The county held two Grand Jury investigations, and tried a slander suit. Finally, in 1917 Lyn George Jacklin "Preacher" Kelly was arrested and tried. Reverend Kelly, who had a long history of mental and sexual problems, confessed to the murders while in police custody. However, Montgomery County citizens failed to convict him in two separate trials held in the Fall of 1917.

Lasting nearly a decade and dividing the town of Villisca for more than a generation, this unsolved mystery is a fascinating study of ordinary people dealing with an extraordinary event. The starting point in recreating that event is the document that follows. From a historian's point of view, the Coroner's Inquest enjoys pride of place among the hundreds of documents pertaining to the Villisca axe murders.

Tuesday, June 11, 1912, a day after the discovery of the murders, the Coroner's Inquest began in Villisca. Recorded verbatim by a court reporter, it contains the first official testimony regarding the event. These fourteen witnesses formed their impressions of the scene before they had an opportunity to be influenced by rumor and public opinion. The murder was fresh in their minds and their testimony undistorted by the passage of time.

The document is particularly useful in forming impressions of the scene and condition of the victims. Doctors Cooper and Williams were the first physicians to arrive. They conducted their survey of the scene before its contamination by the onlookers authorities failed to keep out of the murder house. This document also gives insight into the very early theories regarding possible suspects. Nearly all witnesses were questioned about family feuds and disgruntled employees who might be seeking revenge. From the perspective of eighty plus years, it is difficult to give credence to the idea that an angry brother-in-law would commit such a heinous crime or that a discharged hired man might kill a whole family. Nevertheless, the Coroner's jury explored these "leads". Finally, Ed Landers testimony is of particular interest, since he would figure prominently in future investigations and trials. His story changed over the years, so it is important to note his initial impressions as recorded in the Coroner's Inquest.

The Inquest transcript is a compelling document to read and certainly the starting point for anyone who would truly understand the Villisca axe murders.

Dr. Edgar Epperly

Purchase a bound facsimile of the original Coroner's Inquest

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