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The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

Page - 4

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.
William Mansfield was identified as a suspect in the Villisca murders in a Kansas City Post newspaper article penned by Jack Boyle.  Boyle dubbed Mansfield "Insane Blackie" and accused him of being a drug addict.   Boyle was later arrested in Kansas City on drug charges.

In July 1916 Wilkerson arrested Mansfield at the Cochran Packing Plant in Kansas City, Kansas.  He was interrogated in Kansas City, then extradited from Kansas to face a Montgomery County Grand Jury.  That jury deliberated a week, and local opinion anticipated Mansfield would be bound over for trial.  Instead, the jury returned no true bill and Mansfield was released.

Villisca was thunderstruck and Wilkerson vitriolic in his attacks on Jones and Montgomery County justice.  Although grand jury proceedings are secret, he insisted a majority had been for indictment, but Jones had used his political influence to “pack” the jury.  These attacks culminated in August when Wilkerson started holding outdoor meetings to rally public opinion against Jones.  The first was held in Fryer’s pasture south of town.  Wilkerson, who was a stem-winder of a speaker, stood in an open touring car to harangue the crowd.  He patted his breast pocket and boasted he, "had the documents to convict 'Blackie' Mansfield of the Moore murders and prove Frank Jones put up the dirty money to pay for it.”  When Wilkerson held a second mass meeting in Grant, Iowa, north of Villisca, Frank Jones decided he must act to defend himself.   September of 1916, Jones sued Wilkerson for slander, asking for $60,000 in damages.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
F. F. Jones (left), Judge J. B. Rockafellow, and J. N. Wilkerson.

This suit was argued in November and December of 1916.  It was one of the most sensational in Iowa history.  The suit quickly became a trial of Jones for murder rather than Wilkerson  for slander because Wilkerson admitted saying what he was accused of, but claimed his accusations were true and you can’t slander a man with the truth.  The judge’s failure to control the huge crowd that filled the courtroom beyond capacity added to the trial’s raucous atmosphere.

Wilkerson’s case revolved around a series of eye witnesses, most of whom had not come forward until now.  First was Vina Tompkins, who in 1916 was living in Marshalltown, but in 1911 had been camping outside of Villisca while her husband worked on the brick paving of Third Avenue.  She claimed to have overheard three men talking about money behind the old slaughterhouse just southeast of Villisca during the fall of 1911.   She thought one of the men “resembled” Frank Jones, but she could not swear it was him.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
Vina Tompkins

The next star witness was Alice Willard.  Alice was divorced and living with her father, Mr. Holland, just a block south of Joe Moore’s house in 1912.  On Saturday morning, June 8, she saw two strangers walk by the Moore house, then turn south at the corner and come by her house.  They frightened her, so she looked at them carefully.  Later that night, she claimed to be walking behind the Moore house with a traveling salesman, Ed McCrae, when she saw three men approaching from the south.  To hide themselves, she and Ed crouched down in a plum thicket.  As the men approached, Alice recognized two as the Saturday morning strangers.  They were met by two other men coming from the west.  Alice identified these two as Frank Jones and Bert McCaull.  Alice first claimed one of these two was Albert Jones, but changed her story to identify Frank Jones.  That change led to the conviction of Wilkerson for contempt of court and the trial of Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner for oppressing a witness.  But that is another tale for another day.  The five men met just in front of the plum thicket.  Alice couldn’t hear what they were planning, but she did hear the phrase, “Get Joe first and the rest will be easy.”  Alice claimed Ed McCrae was dead by 1916, but authorities failed to locate any record of him, either dead or alive.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
Alice Willard

The third witness was Ed Landers, a Shenandoah insurance salesman.  Ed and his family were staying with his mother just across the street east and up the block north from the murder home in June of 1912.  Even though he had testified to the coroner’s inquest that nothing unusual had happened the Sunday night of the murder, he now insisted that as he and his wife walked passed Joe’s house about 8:15 Sunday night, a man, just a few steps ahead of them, turned and “walked right in” Joe’s house.   Ed identified the man as Albert Jones.

After hearing several minor witnesses, the jury returned a not guilty verdict and required F.F. Jones to pay court costs.  In the minds of the majority of citizens in Montgomery County, this meant that Mansfield was the killer and Jones had hired the murder.  While all this was going on, an ambitious young lawyer, Oscar Wendstrand of Red Oak, was running for County Attorney on the platform of convening a new grand jury and finally solving the Villisca Axe Murder.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
Ed Landers

Oscar was elected and the new grand jury was convened in March of 1917.  By now the case had statewide implications, so Iowa Attorney General Horace Havner of Marengo took charge.  He brought in Fred F. Faville of Storm Lake as a special prosecutor.   Wilkerson was also on the team and provided a one-hundred-fifty page document—the “Dope Sheet”—which identified who should be called as witnesses and summarized what they would say.

This 1917 grand jury toiled in secret for nearly six weeks while community excitement and anticipation steadily rose.  Then to everyone’s surprise, the jury failed to indict Mansfield.  He was able to conclusively prove he was working in Illinois when the murder occurred, but the general public never knew that because grand jury deliberations are confidential.   Many, if not most, of Wilkerson’s witnesses also failed to testify as the “Dope Sheet” said they would.  With Mansfield not indicted, the case against Jones was officially over.  Unofficially, a large majority of Montgomery County citizens were convinced of his guilt and that he had used his money and political influence to escape justice.  To this day many in Montgomery County believe in F.F. Jones’ guilt.

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"Insane Blackie"
Slander Suit
"Dope" Sheet