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The Villisca Axe Murders:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

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Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Review.
A group of law enforcement officials and newspapermen investigating the Villisca ax murders. Hank Horton can be seen on the far left.  M. W. McClaughry is sixth from the left.

Seldom has a community been confronted by as devastating or frightening event as was Villisca that Monday morning.  With darkness came the fear that a madman was on the loose and might strike again.  During the ensuing days, families doubled up with a shotgun guard awake all night.  Locks were sold out, windows nailed shut, and dogs “prized about all else.”  Rumors blossomed by the hundreds—rumors that were to spread and poison the community when officials were unable to catch a murderer.

On Tuesday M.W. McClaughry, an assistant warden and fingerprint expert at Leavenworth Penitentiary, arrived to investigate the scene.  Community confidence in this expert was shaken when he left the train falling down drunk.  But when sobered, he made a detailed analysis of the scene.  No usable fingerprints were found, but he did carefully analyze blood spots and axe cuts made in the ceiling upstairs.  His study of these measurements led him to conclude the killer was left-handed and when striking the children in the south room had been in a frenzy, waving the axe one-handed over his head.

Copyright 2004, FWF. All Rights Reserved.
The movie poster for "Villisca" features an evidence photo taken in 1912 of the axe and a lamp removed from the crime scene.  The axe was found leaning up against the south wall in the downstairs bedroom and the lamp is thought to have been the one found in Joe and Sara's bedroom.

A hundred leads and a thousand rumors directed investigators.  It seemed everyone was suggested as a suspect by someone.  Out of this volatile mix of fright and rumor came a week of intensive investigation and frantic pursuit down a cold trail.

Until Monday morning, June 10, 1912, Villisca was a typical Iowa agricultural trading center.  With a population of some 2000 it was larger than many, but its location in the extreme southeast corner of Montgomery County precluded it from ever becoming the “county capital”.  Hence, it was fated to lag behind the more centrally located Red Oak.  It did sit on the main line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.  The CB&Q or the “Q” as it was known locally, was the main-stem west out of Chicago, providing Villisca superb east-west rail connections.   While the division point was 50 miles east in Creston, a north-south branch line leading to St. Joseph, Missouri did originate at Villisca so the railroad was a major element in the town’s daily life.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.
The C.B.&Q. depot in Villisca.

Villisca and its murder can be seen as a metaphor for the ghastly 20th century.  That literary comparison best fits the onset of World War I.  In both instances a confident, innocent world was shattered by an unexpected, violent event, never to be reassembled.  Before the murder, Villisca believed in a just, ordered world, but it awakened Monday, June 10, 1912 to a world that was inexplicable by conventional standards.   As the weeks passed, it became increasingly obvious that this great injustice might never be righted.  That would be unthinkable.  Wouldn’t the stones themselves cry out for justice if the killer wasn’t found?  How could God be in heaven and all be right with the world when the killer of these innocent children lived free and unpunished?

At first all professional investigators, such men as Lloyd Longnecker from Omaha and Tom O’Leary from Kansas City, assumed the Villisca murder was just another in a string of killings that had begun in the fall of 1911.

The fall of 1911 had seen a spectacular series of horrible murders in the Midwest.   Every two weeks that fall whole families were slaughtered in their beds without apparent reason.  On Sunday, September 17, 1911 in Colorado Springs, two families—the Burnhams and the Waynes, who lived next to each other—were all killed with an axe as they slept.  Two weeks later in Monmouth, Illinois, William Dawson, his wife, and thirteen-year-old daughter met a similar fate.  Just as in Villisca, shades were drawn, bodies covered, and the thirteen-year-old Dawson girl seemed to be the only victim who had moved after the killer struck.  A length of gas pipe had been the murder weapon.

The next in this suspected series of killings occurred in Ellsworth, Kansas on Sunday night, October 15.  Will Showman, his wife, and three children were bludgeoned to death as they slept.  The murder axe was found leaning behind the door connecting the tiny house’s two rooms.  It had been washed, but remnants of blood and hair still clung to it.  As at Villisca, there was a lamp at the foot of the parent’s bed whose chimney was later found under a kitchen chair.  All bodies were covered with bedclothes when found.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

The final similar murder preceding Villisca happened in Paola, Kansas on Wednesday night, June 5, 1912, just four days before Villisca.  Rolland and Anna Hudson, a young couple who had moved from Ohio a few months before, were found murdered in their beds.   No weapon was ever found, but it appeared a pickaxe or mason’s hammer had been used.  Again, the victims had been covered and no obvious motive was apparent.

Although this serial killer theory dominated the very early investigation, interest in it soon faded until it was largely forgotten.  That seems strange, except it was a blind alley.  If police accepted the serial killer idea, it became obvious that the murderer was moving in some random, unpredictable fashion.  There was not the remotest connection between any of the several murdered families.  Rather, it appeared the murderer traveled from town to town, killing whenever the spirit moved him.   Consequently, the police had no guide on which to base their efforts, but had to wait until he struck again and hope he left a trail to follow.  Such impotence is frustrating to both police and citizens.  Investigators are supposed to investigate and “the roving madman” theory left them helpless with no real leads to pursue.   In the absence of irrefutable similarities between the murders, it was easier to acknowledge intriguing possibilities in the serial killer theory while pressing on with each independent investigation.

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