The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence
By Edgar V.
Page - 6
McClaughry thought the killer was left-handed based on his examination of blood spatters
and axe marks in the Moore house. In an effort to determine Kelly's preference, his
captors asked him if he would like to chop some wood for excercise. Kelly obliged
and swang the axe left-handed.
final leg in the states case against Kelly was his confession. He had been
interrogated repeatedly throughout the summer, but as the trial drew near, the state
officials decided on one final all-out effort to get him to confess. Late in the
afternoon of August 30, Kelly was brought into an interrogation room in the Logan Jail and
confronted by Attorney General Horace Havner, State Agents O. O. Rock and James Risden,
and the Harrison County Sheriff, M.D. Meyers. Thus began a grilling that was to last
throughout the night. All big men, they played the bad cop role with the diminutive
Kelly, breaking occasionally to return him to his cell. In his cell he now found two
thieves who assured him from their long criminal experiences it would go
easier on him if he confessed. One of these criminals was actually a
deputy sheriff from Pottawattamie County, G.W. Atkins, and the other a newspaper editor
from Missouri Valley.
By about 7:00 a.m.
the next morning Kelly broke and dictated a confession. In this confession he
claimed to have had difficulty sleeping the murder night, so he went for a walk.
While walking down the middle of the street he saw a light in a house and two children
(the Stillinger girls) getting ready for bed. He heard the Lords voice
commanding him to suffer the children to come unto me. In a trance-like
state, he walked to the back of the house, picked up the axe, went in the kitchen door,
and proceeded to kill everyone. He stayed in the house until first light, then let
himself out the front door and left town.
jury for the Kelly trial is seated on the left. Wilkerson is second from the right
near the table.
with this evidence against Kelly they brought him to trial on Tuesday, September 4,
1917. The trial lasted until Wednesday, September 26, when Judge Boice turned the
proceedings over to the jury. The jury deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal and
was dismissed Friday, September 28, 1917. A second cursory trial was held in
November of 1917 with Kelly being acquitted for all charges.
By the time the trial began in September, a majority of Montgomery County citizens were
convinced that Kelly was being framed as part of a conspiracy led by F.F. Jones. In
their eyes, Jones had used his money and political influence first to pack the 1916 jury,
then called on his crony, Attorney General Havner, to mislead the 1917 grand jury.
Now they were framing the poor deluded Kelly.
After the second Kelly trial in November of 1917, the Villisca Axe Murder Case was legally
at an end. The grand jury would not indict Mansfield and Jones and the petit jury
would not convict Lyn Kelly. There were no other suspects. Although many other
murders occurred during the years between 1912 and 1917, the serial killer had not struck
again, so that avenue was also closed. Consequently, while the case remained open,
it was essentially over, leaving immense frustration on all sides. Family and
friends of the victims were thwarted in their search for justice. Havner and most
other police officials were convinced that Wilkerson had so poisoned the minds of
Montgomery County citizens that they had let the real killer go free. Nothing was
resolved as both sides glowered at each other in impotent fury.
is not to say that there werent several minor aftershocks. Between trials,
John Warren Noel, Villisca photographer and staunch Wilkerson supporter and important
witness in the slander suit, was found shot and dying on the railroad platform in Albia,
Iowa. The Wilkerson crowd tried to suggest murder to shut him up, but an Albia
coroners inquest found it to be a suicide. (Railroad detectives were hot on
his trail for an attempt to collect money from the Q for preventing an
accident they believed he staged.)
In June 1918, James Wilkerson and Mae Noel, Johns widow, were arrested in an
Ottumwa, Iowa hotel on the charge of conspiracy to commit adultery. Six months
later, their trial jury hung over the question of whether they could convict Jim and not
Mae. The judge ruled he didnt see how they could convict one without the
other. During the summer of 1918, Wilkerson was busy running for Montgomery County
Attorney. He easily won the Republican nomination and would have certainly won the
general election in November, but to get on the ballot he first had to be admitted to the
Iowa Bar. His application to the Iowa Supreme Court provoked a dramatic response
from Attorney General Havner. Havner collected a long dossier in opposition to
Wilkersons application and in light of these rather incriminating documents,
Wilkerson withdrew his application and returned to Kansas City. The entire dossier
is currently in the State of Iowa Archives.
At that point, the court action ceased and all hope of legally solving the case ended.
Montgomery County citizens, exhausted and bitter, tried to put the case behind
them, but feelings sputtered to life whenever someone new confessed or the Des Moines
Register ran a feature article about the case, or one of the principals died.
Even though feelings remained and resentment festered, official actions pertaining to the
Villisca Axe Murder had ended.
Montgomery County Courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa was the setting for the slander suit and
both Kelly trials.
towards the murder best describes Villisca today. It is the defining event in the
towns history; in fact, it gives the town a definition most communities lack, but it
was such an evil event that citizens are uncertain how to deal with that history.
Many just wish it would go away, while others grope about for a moral way to use the
notorious event to slow or reverse the economic decline that Villisca has endured since
World War II. Villisca is struggling with the same forces of population,
transportation, and economic change that are fast turning Iowa into Nebraska.
The Moore house has been purchased, renovated and opened as a private museum by an
entrepreneur. The community has for the past few years held a summer reunion that
emphasizes many historical factors in Villiscas development, but certainly the
celebrations centerpiece for visitors from outside Montgomery County remains the
murder. It is unclear how these ambivalent community reactions to the murder will
resolve themselves in the future. The murder is a case study in community reaction
to moral rather than physical tragedy. As such, it has much to teach the larger
society, but it remains a slippery subject to present without seeming to exploit the
slaughtered innocents. Whether the community can find a way to extract a moral
meaning without exploiting the tragedy is the problem Villisca is struggling with today.
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