Blood, gore, tourism: The ax murderer who saved a small town

100 years ago, someone killed 8 people in an Iowa home. Can unsolved brutality revive a dying town?

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Blood, gore, tourism: The ax murderer who saved a small town (Credit: viliscaiowa.com)

This is a story of murder and tourism and ghosts. Of civic failure and the illusion of certainty. It’s a Midwestern story that begins in 1912, before the state of Iowa became a patchwork of vanishing villages, before Interstate 80 and the World’s Largest Truck Stop. It is the year the John Deere company begins building tractors and Arizona enters the Union and a surprising number of Republicans believe in progressive ideals. It is the year of a new group called the Girl Scouts and two years before a world war. In this year the ocean swallows a ship called Titanic, a college professor becomes president, and Americans begin eating Oreos. And in Villisca, Iowa, it’s morning, a Monday, June 10, 1912.

The Iowa Touring Atlas has just touted Villisca, a town of less than two square miles surrounded by farmland and the forks of the Nodaway River, one of the finest cities in the state. “Metropolitan.” “A social center.” “Religious.” “Methodist.” “Presbyterian.” “Rare beauty.” “Pleasant View.” Villisca in 1912 has 50 retail stores, no saloons and banks “as strong as the rock of Gibraltar.” There is a two-story armory being built that symbolizes the community’s patriotism and pride. More men work as auctioneers than lawyers. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Line brings 24 passenger and freight trains here every day.

At 5 in the morning, Mary Peckham, age 63, gets out of bed. Her first chore is hanging her laundry. Outside it’s overcast and humid; her neighbor’s house is unusually quiet. Joe Moore, one of Villisca’s most prominent and successful young men, often cares for his horses in the backyard before walking to his farm equipment store in the center of town. Sarah Moore also tends to awaken their four young children before sunrise, and with the oldest Moore child age 11, and the youngest one, age 5, Mary Peckham expects to hear the usual morning noise.

By 8 a.m., she approaches the Moore house. The windows are closed and blocked by curtains and shades. No one answers when she knocks. She tries the door but it’s locked. Walking back to her house she reasons that Joe Moore’s parents have been ill. Perhaps tragedy struck them in the night and her neighbors are dealing with the grandparents’ sickness or death.



Her curiosity gathers two men to the house: Joe’s brother Ross and one of Joe’s employees. Mary Peckham greets both men separately, as the employee arrives first, can’t get inside and promises to send another worker to milk Joe’s cows. Through her window Mary sees Ross arrive. They walk onto Joe’s porch and Ross raps on the windows and shouts. Though not normally a visitor here, he opens the door with a key. Inside, he notices the neatness of the parlor. The silence of the rooms. His footsteps creak on the wood floor.

It is by today’s standards a small house, with only three rooms downstairs — a parlor, a kitchen and a small bedroom — and a tight, narrow staircase that leads to the parents’ bedroom, an attic and the children’s room.

Ross opens the door to the downstairs bedroom. The room is dark because the window shades are drawn. White, blood-covered bed sheets have been pulled over two little girls. One of them lies a third of the way down the bed, her arm sticking out from the covers.

Immediately Ross runs out of the house. “I did not wait long enough to see anything else,” he later will tell a grand jury.

“Get Hank over here,” he tells Mary Peckham, as he sits down breathlessly on the porch. Back in her house, Mary Peckham telephones Joe’s store and talks to the same employee who already stopped by. The employee says he just saw the city marshal, Hank Horton, talking with businessmen on the town square. He chases after Horton, a rather inept police officer with a large belly.

The employee and Horton find Ross Moore distraught on the porch. He says, “Something is terribly wrong in there,” and the city marshal and the employee go inside. In the downstairs bedroom the marshal pulls away a curtain to let in the sun. He notices a cloth covering a mirror. A bloodied ax leans against the wall near an unlit lamp. Underneath the bed is a white dress the killer used to wipe his hands, and a slab of uncooked bacon the killer maybe used as a lubricant to masturbate.

The employee runs from the house.

Whose are the bodies? Horton wonders.

He cannot recognize Lena and Ina Stillinger, respectively 11 and 8 years old. He doesn’t know that Lena and Ina had attended the same Presbyterian church service last night as the Moores, doesn’t know J.T. and Sarah Stillinger allowed their children to spend the night. To Horton these bodies are nameless, he doesn’t think to look at their Bibles inscribed and set somewhere inside this sickening room, to give Lena and Ina back their names.

“The rooms upstairs were dark, for the curtains were securely drawn,” Horton later will tell a grand jury. One imagines a match quivering in his hands as he walks up the narrow stairs.

He pulls the shade at the top. It’s a small room with a dresser and a bed beneath an angled ceiling. Joe lies on his back with his left hand on his chest. A 43-year-old man, six feet tall and 195 pounds, Joe is lifeless, with his head, once very handsome, with wavy dark hair, now marmalade. A coroner will say the bodies look like they’ve been dead for five hours, putting the time of the murders between midnight and 3 a.m. Beside Joe lies Sarah, a woman of 39, with a fragile face and curly brown hair, whose head an undertaker will deem “the least pulpy.”

Horton looks at the blood on the wall near the bed and on the floor. Sees ax marks in the ceiling and a lamp on the floor with its chimney kicked under a dresser. He wonders how the killer went about this. In this house every noise carries, so if the two little girls downstairs were killed first, one of them probably screamed, which probably awoke Joe and Sarah, but the parents’ bodies (aside from their heads) don’t look disturbed.

Next Horton enters the south bedroom, the largest in the house, with a closet and four windows shaped like an upside-down T.

Horton pulls open the shades.

Under the angles of the ceiling he surveys one empty cot and three beds, with the bodies of four children in the beds. The eldest Moore child, Herman, 11 years old, lies on his stomach with an undershirt covering his brain and the place where his skull is unhinged. Another bed holds a girl — Katherine, 10 years old — who lies with her face mostly beneath a bed sheet and a dress curled up over her head. And the last bed holds two little boys.

Horton notices there isn’t a lamp in the room and runs outside.

“There is somebody murdered in every bed,” he says to Mary Peckham and Ross Moore. He locks the door. “Don’t let anyone inside.”

Horton runs for a doctor. On the way into town he tells a night watchman of the murders, asks him to keep order at the house. Seconds later he tells a city clerk to call the county sheriff, the county attorney, detectives in Omaha and the police in Beatrice, Neb., who raise the best bloodhounds in the Midwest. He tells Drs. Cooper, Lomas and Hough, and together they tour the house with a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Ewing, who the night before planned with Sarah Moore the children’s Bible program that was Villisca’s major social event.

As opposed to today’s major social event — the murder scene — where eventually 50 to 100 people gawk at the bodies and disturb evidence.

Bruce Stillians, a druggist, takes photographs that he hopes the Omaha World-Herald will buy.

Dr. Hough sees ax marks in the children’s room.

Horton removes bloody clothing stuck to the Stillinger girls’ faces.

Someone notices Sarah Moore’s wedding ring still on her finger, decides there’s no evidence of robbery.

A crowd volunteers to pay for the bloodhounds.

All visitors to town become suspects.

The wife of Ross Moore poses for pictures inside.

Posses are formed and black people leave town out of fear they’ll be lynched.

J.T. and Sarah Stillinger receive a phone call that their children are dead.

Sarah Moore’s father learns his daughter is dead while running to her house.

One telephone operator tells another to keep quiet until more is known.

A drunk named Bert McCaull steals a piece of bone to display at his pool hall, claiming it belonged Joe Moore.

Ross Moore asks a soothsayer if her coffee grounds can say who murdered his kin.

Residents search every building.

The ax murders are deemed the worst murders ever in the Midwest.

Newspapers everywhere scream with the story, even the New York Times on page 20 the next day: EIGHT SLAIN IN HOME WHILE THEY SLEEP.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Dig deep enough into any town’s history and surely you’ll find a good murder. Even the little town in the Adirondacks where I’m soon to be married — a perfect postage stamp called Inlet, N.Y.  —  was where Chester Gillette was arrested in 1906 for drowning his pregnant girlfriend in a case that inspired folk songs, ghost stories and “An American Tragedy.” But there’s no such as thing as an INLET DROWNING the same as the VILLISCA AX MURDER. The murder has become Villisca’s brand (789,000 search results for “Villisca Ax Murder” on Google) just as Dyersville has a field of dreams and Madison County has covered bridges, a bad novel and a good film. One hundred years after the murders, Iowa is a state begging to be visited, with plenty of Americana to offer. Hence the World’s Largest Cornstalk. The World’s Largest Strawberry. The World’s Largest Bullhead Catfish. The World’s Largest Swedish Coffee Saucer. Even the World’s Largest Cheeto. And the Midwest’s most gruesome unsolved murder, now a guest host for ghost hunters, who pay hundreds of dollars to bring a sleeping bag and set up on the old hardwood floors.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

After an hour of emptiness on this third-rate highway, amidst brown and eerie hills on an unseasonably cold, gray spring afternoon, the sign appears like a beacon. “The Olson-Linn Museum and Ax Murder House.” I turn onto U Street, where off to the side I see the Villisca Elevator (the only elevator in Villisca is a grain elevator), and down a few bridges and bumpy roads that turn to gravel and back to concrete, and suddenly I find myself in the town square. There are a few well-kept houses, a new-ish playground, a war monument, children playing baseball and a mother wearing a T-shirt from the local high school that last year graduated 28 kids.

The windows of the Olson-Linn Museum are cloudy. It’s a white building of cracked bricks and rain-damaged shingles and a brilliant red door. A sign with changeable letters says:

 

VILLISCA AXE MURDERHOUSE

TO RS

WEEKDAYS 9 AM TO 4 PM

SAT . & SUN 1 PM      4 PM

A note says the owner is out: “I am at the J B Moore house 508 E. 2nd Ave.”

Minutes later a 74-year-old man pulls up in a rickety sedan.

“Hi there,” he says. He wears overalls, a ball cap, a plaid shirt and a blue nylon coat.

“How you doing?”

“Just fine.” He outstretches a hand. “Darwin.”

All of his teeth appear silver.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

“So this is your museum?”

“Kinda,” he says, unlocking the door. “I guess museums are like people. They have different personalities. Come on in.”

Darwin’s museum is like the lovechild of an old barn and a grandmother’s attic. Dusty and smelling slightly of mold. Everything inside intensely local. Old pieces of clothing on the walls and murals of businesses and banks and doctor’s offices, few of which exist anymore. Black and white photographs everywhere, mostly portraits of stern-looking men. In a glass case, commemorative T-shirts: “Villisca Ax Murder 1912.”

Behind the counter Darwin asks if this is my first visit. (Darwin would die not long after my visit.)

I nod because yes, I’ve never been here before, but in many ways I feel like I have. There’s a sameness to the plight of dying towns.

He wags his finger at the painting on the T-shirt depicting a white gothic house at sunrise. “The fella who did that said he’d like to paint something historical, so I said why don’t you paint the Ax Murder House. He’d never heard of it. So I took him and we made a deal and a few days later I left him on the street with his painting tools and he wasn’t there very long when he came up here and said he wanted the house keys. I said what do you need those for? He said I’d like to check the attic. And well I said What do you want to get in the attic for? He said he wanted an original shingle. He said he’d grind it into the paint for the shingles. And then he said I’ve already found enough lead from the siding that I’ll use in the paint for the siding. So anyway,” Darwin chuckles, “the house is in the house, you know?”

“Do the locals in town still talk about 1912?”

“Oh, some,” the old farmer says. “But not too much.”

I ask if he’d take me to the house. Since I’m a writer he waives the $10 fee.

As I settle into his rickety sedan we talk about his buying the house.

“I’ve had it since ninety-four.”

“And you were a farmer before?

“That was fine for a while but it got to the point when small fellas like me either had to get way bigger or get out. And I didn’t have any children — I mean, I have two daughters and they didn’t have any interest — so I joined my cousin with the museum.”

“What made you buy the house?”

“I was drawn to it. My wife, Martha, didn’t want to buy it. Her mother was a good friend of the Moore family. But it was for sale and it’d been sitting for two years and the furnace had froze up and the pipes were broke and the neighbors were thinking of buying it and tearing it down.”

“They didn’t want the memory around?”

“No, it was an eyesore. Nobody had a problem with it being where the ax murders happened.”

“Normal families lived there?”

“For eighty years.”

Darwin stops at an intersection with two churches on either side of the street.

“That Presbyterian church is where the Moores were at the night they were killed. They went to a Bible school program.” He points to the other church, too. “And that was Sen. Jones’ church, the Methodist one — well, the building that Jones went to later burned down, but the new church is in the same spot.” It’s a story Darwin has told many times. “Yeah, there was a time when a Presbyterian kid wouldn’t play with a Methodist kid because of the murders.”

He keeps driving and points to a handsome Victorian house with an upstairs porch. “And here was Reverend Ewing’s house, where the little minister Kelly stayed that night. He probably was up there on that balcony, too, you know? In his weirdness he was probably looking for a window to peep into.”

“Do you mind if I ask how much you paid for the house?”

He laughs. “I gave $10,000 for it.”

“And then you de-modernized it to the night of the murders?”

“Yeah, you see the other owners had enclosed the porch and put in asbestos siding which was good because it kept it in shape 45 years before I got it. And there is Sen. Jones’ house, and that’s where his son Albert lived with his wife —”

“The one who was sleeping with Joe Moore, right?”

“Coulda been. Well, she was definitely having affairs.”

“All of these houses are big and beautiful. This was a wealthy neighborhood back then?”

“The town was a wealthy town.”

“So what’s the town got going for it now?”

“The house,” he declares. “There’s no retail downtown. A couple antique stores and a pharmacy and a grocery. But as far as a woman buying a dress or a man coming to buy parts for his vehicle, none of that’s here anymore.”

“Where do people work?”

“Clarinda. Red Oak. Corning, quite a few work in Corning,” he says.

As Darwin talks I scribble in my notebook while he parks in a cemetery.

He says, “We’re at the first stop.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

The manhunt never yields a killer. At the funeral on the town square a quartet sings the song, “I Need Thee Lord.” Seven thousand people listen and weep; 300 journalists take notes. A few days after the murders the Stillingers give birth to a stillborn, and by the end of the year their house catches on fire, burns down. Many investigators come to Villisca, all of them with theories. One is named James Wilkerson and he is a Southerner by way of Alabama, then Texas, and he works for the Burns Detective Agency, which is a global investigative firm with offices in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and London. A tall and wavy-haired charmer, Wilkerson works in the Kansas City office and poses as a real estate agent. After a few months Wilkerson reveals himself to Ross Moore, who by this time — 1914, two years after the murders — is displeased with the state of Iowa’s investigations.

Wilkerson pins the ax murders on a state senator, Frank Hernando Jones, who owns the farm equipment store where Joe Moore worked before striking out on his own and taking with him the John Deere franchise. Jones’ motive, Wilkerson claims, was financial. (And what’s more, Wilkerson says, Joe also had been sleeping with the pretty wife of Sen. Jones’ dopey son Albert). A Presbyterian, and therefore more blue-collar than Jones, who’s a wealthy Methodist, Ross Moore believes Wilkerson’s theory; and so does J.T. Stillinger; and so do the rest of the Presbyterians. Among them, F.F. Jones has a priggish reputation. He came to Villisca before the Civil War and made his money in hardware and farm equipment, then entered banking and politics. He’s the superintendent of the Methodist Sunday school, a nondrinker, and some say a disciplinarian by nature. As a business owner he schedules his employees six days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and sometimes without any breaks. And apparently he openly hated Joe Moore.

In 1916 Jones runs for state senate reelection and Wilkerson (along with Ross Moore and J.T. Stillinger) hosts revivals accusing Jones of hiring a man named William “Blackie” Mansfield for the job. Mansfield is a road crew worker and union organizer who also happens to be white despite a nickname that gets black people run out of town — yet again. On lampposts everywhere Wilkerson posts hundreds of flyers of Mansfield’s face:

This is the axe murder. He
murdered the Moore family at Vil
llisca. The hypocrite whose dirty
money paid for the hellish job
wants your support for the state
senate. Will he get it?

Obviously this bothers Sen. Jones. He sues Wilkerson for slander.

But Wilkerson hatches a plan — what if he puts Jones on trial instead? He packs the county courthouse with onlookers who crowd the aisles and the periphery behind the jury and judge. He calls four witnesses to testify against Jones. Vina Tompkins, a poor woman, says that shortly before the murders she’d seen Jones near the Nodaway River talking in the brush with three men about “getting a man out of the way” and promising money from an out-of-town bank. Alice Willard, a divorcee who lived near the Moores, says that on the eve of the murders she saw three strange men — one of whom was “Blackie” Mansfield — twice walk past the Moore house. Also says she later overheard Jones, Mansfield and Bert McCaull agree: “Get Joe first — the rest will be easy.” A real estate agent says he saw Albert Jones (the cuckolded husband) break into the Moore house while the family was away at the church service. And to this Wilkerson adds his own theory: the killer (or killers) hid themselves in the attic and closets. And finally a photographer says he’s overheard Jones, his son and Bert McCaull conspiring to kill Wilkerson for his ace investigations.

Jones loses in the court of public opinion, and loses the slander case, too. Mansfield, for his alleged role, gets arrested: He’s picked up in a Kansas City meatpacking plant where he works and he’s dangled by his feet from a bridge overlooking the Kansas River until he gives a confession.

In 1917 a grand jury convenes, but in that venue the case against Jones falls apart.

It turns out that Mansfield wasn’t in Villisca that night. From June 6-18, 1912, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad roughly 500 miles away. And what’s more, Mansfield organizes unions and Wilkerson works for a notoriously anti-union agency, the news of which muddles the detective’s already questionable claims. Ultimately the case falls apart when all four witnesses change or recant their stories.

The resolution(s): Mansfield goes free, sues Wilkerson for slander, wins $2,225 in damages. And Jones, ousted from office, loses political and social prestige. Never humbled, always proud, he publishes a memoir called “Reminiscences” shortly before his death. In it he focuses on his achievements and defends his legacy — and “Reminiscences” becomes a book that nobody reads.

And another suspect enters the saga — a guy named George Lyn Kelly who’s an itinerant preacher from Nebraska. He’s named because he spent the night of June 9, 1912, in Villisca. The guest of the local Presbyterian minister, Reverend Kelly left Villisca on the 5:19 a.m. train the next day and later began writing detailed, obsessive letters to Ross Moore, the Iowa attorney general and the Burns Detective Agency (Wilkerson’s employer). But with the Jones investigation running hot in Villisca, Kelly fades as a person of interest until his name resurfaces in 1917. The evidence levied against him: 1) he is a known window-peeper, 2) it’s believed he sent a bloody shirt to an Omaha dry cleaner after the murders, 3) an old couple claims he told them of the murders on the 5:19 a.m. train — several hours before the bodies were found, 4) he’s eccentric and considered a sexual deviant. Authorities charge him with the murder of Lena Stillinger, whose body the authorities say Kelly sexually posed and touched while masturbating with bacon grease on his hand.

Surrendering himself, Kelly spends four months in jail refusing to talk. Then in late August Kelly is coaxed into a confession. For a few hours three police officers threaten him and place him in a cell with two men — a newspaper reporter and another police officer — posing as thieves. The two men berate Kelly until he confesses:

I went down stairs to the front door and left the house by the front door. I walked across to the Presbyterian Church. I did not intend to go any further but my mind was working on a sermon on a text called ‘Slay Utterly.’ As I had been hearing and reading sermons on that text, and a voice said ‘go on’ and I went on because I was in the grip of something I did not understand, and I felt God wanted me to slay utterly and I did not know where I was going or where I was. I got down near the end of the street and saw a shadow on the side of the house going from the back to the front and God told me to follow that shadow. I walked on a little bit further still thinking about my sermon and wanted to know where that shadow began. I went hunting the shadow, to the back of the house. I did not know who lived there, but I kept hearing that voice, ‘slay utterly.’ I said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will,’ [and I] was walking around in the darkness around the house trying to find the shadow and accidentally saw an ax. I picked it up and went to where the shadow went, for God wanted me to follow that shadow. I went around toward the front door. A voice says, ‘Go in, do as I tell you; slay utterly.’ I saw no light but I had to do as God told me and I dare not turn back because somebody was urging me on, I did not know who, I did not know where I was. I went right ahead because I heard that voice and as soon as I got in the house someone whispered ‘Come up higher’ out of the Bible and I went up a flight of stairs because I thought I was going up Jacob’s Ladder. I walked through the middle room into the further room. I don’t know what I went there for, only I was driven by an impulse and a voice. I saw some children lying there. The Bible says, ‘Suffer little children to come into me’ and I said ‘They are coming Lord.’ Before I knew what I was doing I started sending those children somewhere, I did not know, and I had to do as God told me and slay utterly. And so to obey God, I used the ax, and did not realize where I was hitting them, only I was trying to do what God wanted me to do. After killing the children, I went to the room where the parents were, and I don’t remember which of them I struck first, as my head was all wrong and I kept hearing voices, I slayed utterly, by using the ax, led by this impulse that I did not seem able to control. I then went downstairs, and wanted to lay down and rest and saw a room, and went in not knowing who was there, but I found two children in bed, and God said, ‘More work yet.’ Before I knew what I was doing, I had continued my sacrifices, by killing these two children, with the ax, as I had to offer blood sacrifices. To the best of my memory, I left the ax in the house and returned to the Ewing house, and went back to bed and I got up in the morning and caught the 5:19 train for Macedonia arriving home about 7:30.

With that confession in hand, the state of Iowa puts Kelly on trial, but the case falls apart the same as the one against Jones. Kelly’s attorney gives the jury reasonable doubt: the stained shirt wasn’t necessarily covered in blood; it could’ve been ketchup or paint or perhaps Kelly’s own blood from shaving. The old couple on the 5:19 a.m. train, when testifying under oath, can’t remember if they’d met Kelly at the time of the murders or two weeks later when he also stayed with the Ewings and was given a tour of Moore house. And Kelly is also a short man — could he really have hit the ceiling with an ax? The jury votes 11 to 1 for acquittal — and the case goes officially unsolved.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

At the cemetery, Darwin shows me the Moore family. They are buried in a large mass grave with a tall monument and a long flat stone. He points to some nickels and pennies on top of the Moore children’s names. “People like to play games,” he explains. “They like to come up here and see if they’ve been moved, and people do that at the house, too.”

“How many tours do you give in a week?”

“Oh golly, it varies so much. Saturday when I got to the museum there were seven carloads settin’ there waiting. That’s by far the largest. Three of them called ahead, the others were drop-ins. And then I had an overnight that night, too. But the overnight thing is the big deal. We got just about every weekend booked with that.”

Which means that almost every weekend Darwin makes $400 a night — which works out to an annual total of about $41,600, in a town with a median household income of $26,000. And it’s Darwin’s profits, along with a giant white sign that hangs from the house today, written in a dripping-blood script that says Villisca Ax Murder House, that makes him controversial in town.

He explains: “To be right truthful with you, the paranormal thing just happened. We never did recruit anybody for paranormal in this house. Never once have I recruited anybody. Never once in my life have I made a phone call and asked a paranormal investigator to come. They just come. It started the third or fourth year after I redone the house. This man from Nebraska called me and was all excited. He said he wanted to do a full-fledged paranormal investigation and I was like, ‘What’s a paranormal investigation?’ He said he’d bring infrared cameras and all kinds of equipment. It sounded neat to me, you know? He set a date to come and dummy me, I put it in the newspaper and I told everybody I saw. Honestly that night there was near a hundred people around the house.”

“Protesting?”

“No, just curious.”

“It got about 12 o’clock and the Nebraska man was perturbed because of the noise and so he let people in 10 or 12 at a time. And that was the first time I ever seen anything that really bothered me. About the second group there was a lady with a little girl. Just a really small girl. And this little girl kept tugging at her mother to go into the dark room, the one where the children slept. And I thought, that’s kind of funny. And so the tours went on a little longer, and with another group a little boy did the same thing. He was just tugging at his mother to go into the dark room. There was a psychic sitting across from me, and I asked her what’s the deal with the little kids. She said, ‘Oh Darwin, they’re children and their minds are open. They see the Moore children and they want to go in and play.’ I couldn’t buy that. But then I saw it happen again. And since then I’ve watched the children people bring into the house lay by the bed and play peek-a-boo under the covers with somebody who’s not there. I’ve seen them turn around and tell the air to quit pushing them. I don’t know.

“But I also don’t pay for advertising. It’s strictly word of mouth. The Internet has such a wide reach. I get between 200 to 300 visits a day to my website. I’ve been really lucky. To be right truthful I think this thing could be a gimmick for Villisca to survive.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - -

As luck would have it, I meet some Ax Murder aficionados. I’m inside the house with Darwin after the cemetery tour. The house is cold and hollow and more depressing than scary. Decorated to look like a lived-in house, with tables and chairs and hand-stitched quilts and stuffed animals on the beds of the children, the house looks like any other on a historical tour, but it feels (given the circumstances) more inhabited by dead air. Not haunted in the way of ghosts, but of specters. The victims still suffering indignities.

Tracy and two friends unload their car for their 19th overnight visit. An employee at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is a middle-aged woman carrying crystals. “They’re indicators of energy,” she explains. Her friend Bobbi is a young quiet woman, otherwise unnoticeable, who plans to sleep in the basement, whereas Connie, a redhead the same age as Tracy, carries flowers for the ghost of Sarah Moore. According to Connie, the fake flowers in the kitchen are all wrong  —Sarah told her as much.

“We always try to stir things up,” Tracy says. “The last few times we haven’t gotten a lot of activity, and I think it’s because we know the family and the family knows us. We’re comfortable, they’re comfortable. So tonight we’re splitting up and we got walkie-talkies because I’m not going anywhere without communication.”

Connie fluffs the flowers in the kitchen. “Do you want to spent the night with us,” she asks. “You could get one heck of a story if we get some activity.”

Darwin fights a smile as I decline.

Darwin, the ghost hunters, and I speak in the living room, which Darwin has decorated with a piano, a copy of DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” a Mexican religious candle, and a painting of a dog on a beach that Darwin says Sarah Moore painted in school.

Tracy recounts her and Connie’s first visit: “Connie was standing where you are [in the living room]. I had my crystal out and I was following this energy, this force, and every time I located it, it was moving. So I went all through the downstairs and I found it again, faintly, and then I said, ‘I’m just gonna leave it alone. I think it wants me to leave it alone.’ And Connie was standing where you’re at, and I came to walk out that door and it … it was like … it was like this force … I couldn’t tell you … it was like a hand … and it was this force on my shoulder and it pushed me into the door jam. And Connie saw it, and she goes, in this crazy quiet whisper, ‘Didyoujustgetpushed?!?!?!’ I was just laughing my head off because it was the neatest thing that had ever happened!”

Connie adds, “And in the summer, if you wear shorts, the little kids play with your legs.”

“How do you mean?”

“Like this,” Tracy says, her fingers wiggling like a spider.

Connie: “And if you sleep in the living room, you can feel them playing with your toes, and it’s like oooooohhh!”

Upstairs, in the children’s bedroom, Tracy whispers that she’s seen the real killers. She says there were two. We’re by ourselves when I startle at a noise from the closet and feel relieved when it’s just a draft in the ceiling. She saw the killers on an annual ax murder anniversary, she says, when Darwin threw a party at the Villisca Community Center, and Darwin’s webmaster said to Tracy and a woman from eastern Iowa that a hypnotist should visit the house.

Says Tracy: “So I turned to the lady from eastern Iowa and said, ‘You know how to do that, don’t you?’ and she said, ‘How do you know I can do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t ask me that question. I can’t tell you. But I am a willing participant.’ And she said, ‘I don’t have any of my stuff.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We can make this happen.’

“We came to the house, but I told her before we did anything I wanted permission. So I came upstairs and I asked Sarah, and Sarah said ‘maybe,’ and I knew it would be one of the women, because I am tied very closely to Sarah and Katherine [the 10-year-old], and I said to Katherine, ‘Will it be you?’ and there was a very eager ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and so I said to Katherine, ‘OK, just a moment,’ and so I went back to Sarah and she said, ‘yes.’

“So I went downstairs and told them I was ready. I don’t remember a lot of what happened. I remember feeling relaxed and feeling like I was looking through glass. The floors … I remember shiny polish … cleanliness. But they told me what happened. I was upstairs, sitting on the potty. (A questionable scenario: in 1912 the house lacked indoor plumbing, but really, when it comes to the instincts of a ghost hunter, do the facts of the case really matter? I’m inclined to say no.) I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and when someone asked what I was hearing, I said, ‘Daddy.’ But then I said, ‘No, that’s not Daddy.’ And later on it took me some time with research to figure out how she (Katherine) knew those weren’t Daddy’s footsteps. First of all, there would have been two sets of footsteps, and if there was only one, the person would have been wearing shoes — and Sarah did not allow shoes in the upstairs. So if Daddy was coming up the stairs — number one, Daddy was asleep — but if Daddy was coming up he’d have been barefoot. I figured all that out. There were things she told me I just had to figure out — how did Katherine know this? How would she know this? Well, she had shut the door. She was done with her business. Then she saw a light through the crack and heard thumping sounds. ‘There’s a thumping, there’s a thumping, and now Mom is awake’—these were the things she told me. ‘And now Mom’s screaming. And now Mom’s quiet.’

“The people watching me told me I was starting to cry, and to be scared, and at some point the boys must have started waking up, because they said I was trying to tell Paul, the little one, ‘Just be quiet Paul, please be quiet, please be quiet, please be quiet.’ He did the thumping here, he did the thumping there, and then an accomplice said something that Mom wasn’t dead. He had hit her but she wasn’t dead, and so I heard more thumping. They let me get to the point when Katherine opened the door, when I was saying ‘He’s looking at me … he’s looking at me … why is he looking at me!?!’ And that’s when they let me come out of it.”

Having nodded while she spoke, I stare at her awkwardly when she finishes. “You probably think I’m nuts,” she says. “But I’ve had a lot of experiences here. I take them all as information.” And I do, too. Later on, when I’ll transcribe this whole conversation, I’ll hear a strange noise at 9 minutes, 13 seconds on a tape I’ve labeled “Nutjob Visitor.” It could be a door closing slowly. It could be the wind. But it sounds like a moaning child, or something else coming to an end.

- – - – - – - – - – - – -

All of this talk of Villisca’s past — but what about its future? The woman who runs its historical society, a ghost hunter in her own right, says the town has no future without its past. It’ll always be a bedroom community for people who think towns of 10,000 are too big and corrupting for today’s youth. “We have other things besides the ax murder, you know,” she says when we meet at Villisca Foods. She’s 60 years old, maybe 70, and she carries milk slowly as if her knees or hips are worn down. A one-woman civic booster club, Mary hopes to raise $11,000 to rebuild the armory downtown. “In World War II we had a lot of soldiers, and if we have a museum that’s decent, people will come and we can bring up all of our heroes.” One of them is Lt. Col. Robert Moore, a nephew of the ax-murdered father, who won a Silver Star for leading his battalion back to safety through Nazi lines in Africa — “We walked past a German 88-millimeter gun position so close we could’ve touched the gun.” A newspaper photograph of him returning to his family at the Villisca depot won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. But even as Mary talks about veterans and the armory and rural tourism as economic development, she can’t fake optimism. Like Darwin, the first place she shows me is the cemetery. “Villisca is going to be a nice place for people to grow old,” she says. “People with memories.”

Then she shows me the old train depot.

“So as you can see the depot isn’t here anymore. But my dad was a railroader, and that’s what he did and that’s what a lot of men did who came here. His job was here. But now the railroads don’t employ many people. Twenty-seven trains still pass through here every day. The only thing is that none of them stop.”

In 1956 Mary left Villisca to attend college and lived away for 50 years. A retired English teacher and a Presbyterian minister, she came back a decade ago to live in her childhood home and start the historical group.

“I can remember when this was a bowling alley,” she says.

“That was a filling station.

“We have this theater that’s very nice, the Rialto, which Johnny Carson gave us money years ago to maintain because he’s from around here,” she says, in the present tense, as if Johnny Carson is still alive.

“The Nodaway River is right down here near the apartments for seniors and low-income people. This is our swimming pool. This is our football stadium. And have you ever heard of the Tyler Brothers? They started a bottling company in Villisca and got a hold of the Coca-Cola recipe and they pretty much expanded Coca-Cola into Iowa.”

“Is that company still here now?”

“No. But they were big here in the ’50s and ’60s.”

“How many students go to the high school?”

“Well, that’s kind of a sad story. We don’t have enough students. The school might close.”

She drives onward and parks in a field. “We used to have an airport right here.”

“Where the corn is?”

“It was the Tyler Brothers’ airport because they had their own private plane and airstrip.”

“How long has it not been an airport?”

“Probably 30 years.”

“Mary,” I say. “All of this is very sad.”

“Sorry, it was great in the ’50s,” she sighs. “I was also going to take you to a wooded area around here where kids used to park, but now it’s hardly anything and I don’t think I could even drive there anymore. There used to be a lake where kids would swim and they would cut ice when it froze. But if you look up ahead, you’ll see there’s no room to turn around from where we’re at.”

A few hours later I drive from Villisca and further into the depths of the barren Midwest. On the radio there’s news of recession on Wall Street, but around here that’s hardly news anymore. In my inner ear I still can hear Mary, There’s no room to turn around from where we’re at.

Nick Kowalczyk is a professor of writing at Ithaca College.

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