The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence
By Edgar V.
Page - 5
Lyn George Jacklin Kelly
the childrens 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. Lyns 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
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.
and wife Laura Kelly
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 OLeary, 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 OLeary 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
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 Kellys
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
classified ad Kelly placed in the Omaha World Herald.
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. Elizabeths 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 Wilkersons Dope Sheet, investigators and jury alike decided
they should conduct a serious inquiry into Kellys guilt or innocence. As grand
jury member Scott Smith said after the Wilkerson case collapsed, Weve got to
look at that crazy preacher over in Nebraska.
|The indictment charging Rev. Kelly with the murder of Lena Stillinger.
April of 1917 they conducted an extensive investigation into Kellys 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 Wilkersons 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) Kellys 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.
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.
point out Kelly had been seen peeking in Billy Millers wifes 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 hearts
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