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The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

Page - 5

Copyrighted image courtesy Edgar V. Epperly
Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly

During the children’s day service on Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, a tiny, nervous, bird like man sat toward the back of the Presbyterian Church.  Joe Moore sat across the aisle to the north, beaming as his children said their pieces and his wife, Sara, helped direct the show.  The strange little man was Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, and he was in Villisca for the first time that night.

Preacher Kelly was born in England.  He and his wife, Laura, had arrived in New York City in 1904.  Lyn’s father and grandfather had been congregational ministers, and he had been a boyhood evangelist.  During adolescence Lyn suffered some kind of mental breakdown, attributed by his mother to excessive study, so he never went to a university.

He came to America to serve the Methodist Church and traveled all the way to North Dakota for his first parish.  Between 1904 and 1912, he served a dozen or more Methodist churches.  Unable to stay anywhere very long because of poor money management and peculiar ways, Reverend Kelly preached in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.   In the spring of 1912 he gave up on Methodists saying, “You can starve working for the Methodists,” and enrolled in the Presbyterian seminary in Omaha, Nebraska.   Scheduled to begin classes in September 1912, the seminary president arranged for him to service three open churches that summer.  Two of these churches, Arlington and Pilot Grove, served rural parishes northwest of Villisca.  Consequently, Reverend Kelly arrived in Villisca for the first time on the murder weekend.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly
George and wife Laura Kelly

Monday morning, Reverend Kelly left town on No. 5 at 5:19 a.m., some three hours before the murder was discovered.  During the next week he became obsessed with the murder.   Having been in Villisca Sunday night seemed to bind him to the horror.  This obsession resulted in a stream of long, rambling letters.  He wrote to state and local investigators, private detectives, and relatives of the victims.  On his next preaching visit two weeks later, he arranged to stay over on Monday and persuaded Reverend Ewing to take him to the murder house.  As luck would have it, a group of investigators were going through the house at that time so Kelly joined them.

Within a month, his letters started to attract quiet attention among officials investigating the crime.   Tom O’Leary, representing the Hays Detective Agency, was particularly suspicious of Preacher Kelly.  Tom wrote a coy, flattering letter asking Kelly for details about what had happened that Sunday night.  Kelly wrote to O’Leary and several others providing details that seemed either fanciful or incriminating.  He claimed to have been out walking and heard the thud of the axe; he claimed the killer had been disturbed by a couple walking by and had stepped out onto the porch until they had passed; he said Mrs. Moore had reared up in bed before the killer struck.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1912, the State Attorney General quietly investigated Kelly.  None of this investigation reached the public press, but private conferences were held and reports filed in which it was discussed whether or not there was sufficient evidence to make an arrest.  No arrests were made, probably because Kelly’s position as a minister made it hard to picture him as the killer.  Also, his obvious mental illness caused authorities uncertainty as to what he had experienced and what he had imagined.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
The classified ad Kelly placed in the Omaha World Herald.

Kelly dropped out of official concern and the Omaha seminary because of bad debts until 1914 when he surfaced in Winner, South Dakota as a preacher and shorthand reporter.   Among his other talents, Kelly was a “typewriting fiend.”  From Winner, he placed an ad for a private secretary in the Omaha World Herald.  A young woman, Jessamine Hodgson, responded and was shocked when Kelly wrote back saying she would do fine, but she must type in the nude.  She took his letter to her pastor, who in turn took it to the police.  They turned it over to the postal authorities who proceeded to send Kelly a series of dummy letters asking for more details.  His letters grew progressively more salacious until the authorities were satisfied with their case and arrested him for sending obscene material through the mail.

Kelly was convinced in May of 1914, and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, but instead transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C.  There he underwent several months of therapy, during which he wrote Attorney General Cosson expressing fear that he would be arrested for the Villisca Axe Murder.  Cosson wrote back assuring him that he was not a suspect and to concentrate on getting well.

During the five years since 1912, authorities continued to speculate on the possibility that Kelly might have been the murderer.  As grand jury witnesses failed to corroborate Wilkerson’s “Dope Sheet,” investigators and jury alike decided they should conduct a serious inquiry into Kelly’s guilt or innocence.  As grand jury member Scott Smith said after the Wilkerson case collapsed, “We’ve got to look at that crazy preacher over in Nebraska.”

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
The indictment charging Rev. Kelly with the murder of Lena Stillinger.

During April of 1917 they conducted an extensive investigation into Kelly’s possible guilt, returning an indictment and issuing a bench warrant for his arrest on April 30, 1917.  In an ironic twist, Kelly rode into Red Oak, Iowa on Monday morning, May 14, 1917 on No. 5 arriving at 6:00 a.m.  This was the same train he had taken from Villisca on Monday morning, June 10, 1912, nearly five years before.  Kelly voluntarily presented himself to Montgomery County Sheriff Bob Dunn that afternoon.

During the summer, Montgomery County and to a lesser extent all of Southwest Iowa, had been in an agitated state.  J. N. Wilkerson had formed an organization, the Iowa Protective Association or the Montgomery County Protective Association (both names were used), which collected money for Kelly's defense, and continued to call for F. F. Jones' arrest and trial.   Attorney General Havner placed a penwriter in the crowd so that verbatim transcripts from several of these meetings are in the state archives in Des Moines.

In general, Wilkerson used these meetings to reiterate his case against Jones, outline the government conspiracy that was framing Kelly, and collect money.  The money collected was to hire a legal defense team for Kelly and fund a continued investigation of F.F. Jones and Bill Mansfield.  The defense team was headed by Wilkerson’s lawyer in the slander suit, Ed Mitchell of Council Bluffs.

While these torch light meetings were going on all summer, the state plodded on in its construction of a case against Kelly.  By September when he was brought to trial, that case had four essential elements: (1) Kelly’s disturbed mental state including his sexual obsession; (2) a bloody shirt he sent to be laundered the week after the murder; (3) his knowledge and talk about the murder before it had been discovered; and (4) his confession.  Kelly was specifically charged with the death of Lena Stillinger.   She had been found with her under-drawers removed and thrown under the bed and her nightshirt bunched above her hips.  She had been pulled down in the bed with her hip slightly off the bed.  A lamp was at the foot of the bed and the state contended the killer (Kelly) had displayed her for visual sexual gratification.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly
Sara Moore's father John Montgomery (far left) and Lena and Ina Stillinger's father Joe posed with the Rev. and Mrs. Kelly to indicate their belief in Kelly's innocence.

They point out Kelly had been seen peeking in Billy Miller’s wife’s bedroom just days before the murder and had been observed in several towns prowling streets late at night.  He had also made specific requests that young women pose nude for him on at least three occasions.  Finally, while preaching in Carroll, Iowa less than a year after the murder he had cajoled and pleaded with two thirteen-year-old girls in his parish to pose nude for him.  All these actions were offered by the state as evidence that Kelly entered the house, killed its occupants, pulled down shades and covered the glass in the front doors so that he could look at a semi-nude Lena Stillinger to his heart’s content.

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