September 25, 2023

Author, historian reflects on the Villisca murder mystery

June 12 – LEON – Edgar Epperly said it feels no different to give his presentation on the anniversary of the Villisca murders, when eight people were murdered with an ax in a house on the night of June 9, 1912.

And that’s even part of the mystery, as it could have happened in the early morning hours of June 10.

No one knows for sure when exactly it happened. And nobody knows who did it.

“I’ve done this so many times, today doesn’t feel any different,” he said Friday after his presentation at the Leon Community Center, the city where he grew up. Part of his presentation was to promote his book “Fiend Icarnate”, due out in late 2021, a collection of his research into the case he started in the 1950s.

Using an ax found at the crime scene, someone killed Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sara, their children Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and two overnight guests Lena and Ina Stillinger at the Villisca home of the Moore’s. Josiah and Sara were the only adults, the six children ranged in age from 5 to 12 years old.

Because the mystery has been the basis of documentaries and cable TV shows, Epperly said he hopes his book and work will provide reasons why interest in the mystery won’t fade in the future. Epperly called it one of the most intriguing crimes compared to Jack the Ripper, a serial killer in 1888 London, and Lizzie Borden. Borden, 32, was tried for the August 1892 murders of her stepmother, Abby Borden, and father, Andrew Borden in Massachusetts. She was acquitted, but no other person was a suspect.

As part of an Iowa history class at what is now known as the University of Northern Iowa, Epperly thought the murders would be an “interesting topic” to study, other than the French explorers across the state or Lewis and Clark who explored the River traveled to Missouri.

Despite the movies, related books, and the house being a tourist stop for something over 100 years old, it remains a struggle.

“There’s a bad feeling in Villisca,” he said of how some residents of the Montgomery County town were annoyed by the attention the case continues to receive; The ax is part of the collection of the State Historical Society.

“There’s a higher chance it has gravy stains on it,” laughed Epperly when asked if the ax still has any evidence. Before it was under the supervision of the state and Vilisca’s historical group, Epperly and a friend owned the ax and showed it to friends at dinner parties.

“I never felt like we owned the axe,” he said. “We just owned it.”

Epperly, 87, began investigating the crime as a student. In 1955 he traveled to Villisca with two friends and met Dr. Cooper, the doctor who examined the victims and the crime scene. Epperly eventually taught at Luther College in Decorah before retiring.

Villisca Marshall Mike Overman patrolled the city from midnight to 4 a.m. on the night of June 9, 1912. Nothing suspicious was noticed.

The city’s telephone office was on the second floor of a commercial building and was accessed by an exterior cast-iron staircase. Night calls were mostly emergencies and infrequent. Delaney could rest on a bed in the room. During her shift that night, she claimed that at 2:10 a.m. she heard doors opening and footsteps outside the office. Whoever it was couldn’t enter the phone room due to a locked door and left. Delaney was never able to see or identify a person. She has not contacted the police at this time.

“Murder and violence were rare,” Epperly said of Villisca at the time.

Epperly said Villisca’s case bears some similarities to other murders in other parts of the country, from 1898 to 1912 in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Monmouth, Illinois; and Paola and Ellsworth, Kansas. The serial killer suspect killed a family. The murders in Paola, which is south of metro Kansas City, took place on June 5, 1912. An ax was the usual weapon.

A neighbor of the Moores noticed the lack of activity in the house while he was outside doing laundry. With shutters still on the windows and no response to knocking on the door, authorities were called and gained access to the house and the bodies were discovered around 8:30 am on June 10. The county coroner arrived about 9:30 a.m. am

“There wasn’t a roll of crime scene tape in Villisca, let alone in the world,” Epperly said. “They didn’t know who to look for.” Epperly said the science behind finding fingerprints was too primitive back then; nothing useful was found.

As time went on, suspects of Joe Moore’s heated business rival FF Jones and Reverend George Kelly were noticed. A grand jury couldn’t do it to Jones.

Kelly was at a children’s day church service on Sunday evening, June 9, the same church event that all the victims had gone to.

Kelly was born in England. He and his wife, Laura, had arrived in New York City in 1904. During his childhood, Lynn suffered from some kind of mental illness.

He served the Methodist Church in the United States and traveled to North Dakota for his first parish. Between 1904 and 1912 he served a dozen or more Methodist churches. Because of poor money management and personal habits, Kelly never stayed in a church for long while preaching in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. The seminary president was scheduled to begin classes in September 1912 and arranged for him to serve three churches that summer, including two churches northwest of Villisca.

He was arrested in May 1917 on evidence linking him to his residence in Villisca. Kelly admitted to the murders but recanted his story before trials began later that year. Kelly was reported by others to have left Villisca by train at 5:20 a.m. on June 10, telling others about the crime before it gained regional attention. In 1912 it was common for Villisca to have dozens of trains a day.

He was known to be sexually inappropriate with women in several ways. One of the girl victims in Villisca may have been sexually assaulted.

The first jury was hanged and the second acquitted him.

In 1942, the Kellys were living in Manhattan, New York. Laura died in a hospital in December 1947 at the age of 80. George was admitted to a mental hospital in New York in September 1957 and he died in April 1959 at the age of 80, still suffering from mental illness.

“Kelly was a viable suspect,” Epperly said.

But nobody knows for sure.

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