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The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

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Copyrighted image courtesy Fourth Wall Films
Montgomery County in Southwest Iowa

The Villisca Axe Murder is the only Iowa crime that has potential historical literary “legs”.   In this sense, it is like the two great murder epics, Jack the Ripper and the Lizzie Borden case.  Jack the Ripper, well into his second century continues to provoke controversy while novels, plays, motion pictures, and even musicals based on his crimes spew out into the popular literature markets.  Historical studies of this serial killer ranging from serious to fanciful also seem to spring up like mushrooms as the years go by.

America’s equivalent of England’s “Saucy Jack” is Lizzie Borden.   There is a veritable cottage industry producing books and television documentaries speculating about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence.  There is even a quarterly journal devoted entirely to the Borden murders, and the city of Fall River, Massachusetts is currently embroiled in a controversy about converting the murder house into a bed and breakfast mystery hotel.

Copyrighted image courtesy Stephen Bowman
Morning Ran Red by Stephen Bowman was published in 1986.

Villisca’s murder is over ninety years old and while it has yet to provoke national interest, there are signs that it will remain a viable topic into the 21st century.   There is now a novel and a play based on the event and two scholars from Kansas City have a historical study of the murder nearing completion.  Fourth Wall Films, a Los Angeles-based documentary film company has produced a feature length documentary based on the murder. The critically-acclaimed and award-winning Villisca: Living with a Mystery premiered in 2004, played in theaters in over 50 cities, qualified for the 2005 Academy Award competition, and was released nationally on DVD.  Villisca is cautiously experimenting with using the murder as a means of attracting tourists, and the murder house is now a private museum restored to its 1912 condition.

It seems obvious that murders like Villisca and Lizzie Borden hold great fascination for large segments of the general population.  The question becomes, is this just pushpin or are there things to be learned from such events?  Study of the Villisca murder reveals how a community reacted to an extreme moral crisis.  With no time to prepare and no precedents to consult, Villisca and its rural environ were confronted with a Lord Jim decision.  How do individuals and communities respond to such pressure?  How are questions of justice and retribution solved when agencies of police and courts are unable to apprehend a killer?

In response to such questions, Villisca developed a full-blown conspiracy theory of history to explain their failure to achieve justice.  Like most conspiracy theories, Villisca’s plot seems tortured to outsiders, but it was real to the majority of citizens and therefore determined their beliefs and actions.  In this sense, this small event, a horrible murder in a rural village, says something to a nation beset by shadowy conspiracies that are invoked to explain every fallen leader and justify such horrendous events as the Oklahoma City bombing.

Having offered these intellectual justifications, perhaps the most practical reason for studying the murder is that it is a compelling, exciting story.

Copyrighted image courtesy Fourth Wall Films
Dr. Edgar Epperly reviews early Villisca editing notes at Fourth Wall Films in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Edgar V. Epperly began researching the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders as a college student. In 1955 he traveled to Villisca for the first time with two friends where they interviewed Dr. Cooper, the first physician to examine the victims and the crime scene. Dr. Epperly is a retired Professor of Education at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research into the crime is ongoing.  He has written essays, articles, collected and compiled a photographic archive of the Villisca murder case now housed at the Iowa State Archives.   He is on the Humanities Iowa Speaker’s Bureau. He is currently the President of the Winneshiek County Habitat for Humanity. Epperly is co-authoring a book with Tammy and Kelly Rundle on the famous unsolved Villisca axe murder and is the primary consultant on the documentary "Villisca: Living With a Mystery."  Dr. Epperly is considered the foremost authority on the 1912 Villisca Axe Murders. 

This over-view of Villisca’s  complex, tragic story was written by Dr. Epperly in 1996 and published in the July 1996 of the Violent Kin! newsletter.

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Jack & Lizzie
Edgar V. Epperly