Legendary true crime writer Edmund Pearson once said, "The Borden case is without parallel in the criminal history of America. It is the most interesting, and perhaps the most puzzling murder that has occurred in this country."
For two decades I agreed with him.
But yesterday I watched a two-hour documentary on an unsolved murder case from Iowa. Now my head has been entirely spun around, and I look not to the east but to the west and a tiny town called Villisca, Iowa -- and I stand corrected. Pearson, you were wrong all along. The greatest unsolved murder in the history of America took place in 1912, and the film Villisca: Living With a Mystery is an excellent introduction to a case that will leave all students of true crime saying, "Lizzie who?"
If Lizzie Borden is Historic True Crime 101, then the obscene axe murders that took the lives of eight people (including six children) as they slept, destroying the psyche of this quiet Iowa town on June 10, 1912, is Historic True Crime 401: it will call on all you think you've learned about criminology.
Villisca: Living With a Mystery is the single best true crime documentary I have ever seen (and I do believe I've seen virtually all of them). With exquisite care, never dipping into the sensationalism that would have been within easy reach (and which the residents of Villisca would not have tolerated), the filmmakers relay the facts of the murders, the effect they had on the townsfolk, the suspects, the theories, the courtroom dramas. It even includes a (tastefully done) computer animation of the crime scene and interviews with a forensic psychiatrist as well as FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler, a very nice touch for those of us who like to hear from profilers on everything. The movie also features top-notch production values and narration, interviews with writers, historians, and residents, and hundreds of historic photos of the people and places involved (which are not repeated, and I'm glad of this. Endless repetition of the same photos over and over and over is one of my primary beefs with most true crime stories depicted on film and TV.)
The murders of a prominent businessman, his wife, their four children, and two young girls who were visiting that night just terrified the town. They couldn't explain a crime like this -- eight people, killed in their beds with an axe; one of the victims was posed afterward -- how could an early twentieth century mind wrap itself around it? There were no witnesses, no fingerprints, no apparent motive, and it was never solved. Descriptions of the murder scene strongly reminded me of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, for those who know that reference (Amazon link).
For decades, residents of Villisca argued about who committed the murders, when they would talk about it at all. Was it the state senator, who certainly had ample cause to hate? Was it the preacher, the profoundly mentally ill Englishman known as a peeping Tom and pervert, who confessed to the slayings? Or was it a serial killer who was implicated in a string of similar butcheries and who kept newspaper clippings on the crime? While the film does not purport to have the final answer, it certainly is a satisfactory exploration of the horrific event.
The film has received universally good reviews, with all Amazon reviews giving it the full five stars and glowing viewer comments on IMDb such as --
- "A wonderful film... faithful and respectful... I highly recommend it."
- "An enjoyable movie for crime buffs and historians -- very well presented."
- "Great. I wasn't expecting to get so caught up... keeps you glued to the story... an excellent murder mystery and a good historical documentary worth seeing."
- "I... was captivated...this story will knock your socks off."
- "Two hours well spent."
- "Absolutely engaging! ... Like Ken Burns... the attention to detail, accuracy, use of animation to take the viewer into the home and town all make this film credible and engaging."
- "What a wonderful piece of work!"
The comparison to legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is certainly appropriate, for this film is in his league. The film is so absorbing that I completely forgot at several points that I meant to take notes and had to watch it again. Though I would have watched it again anyway and will watch it again in the future and am glad to have my own copy.
If you have seen this film, and/or have studied this murder case, I would love to hear your opinions. I find myself utterly absorbed in this mystery to the point that I added a "Villisca" category to Clews (at left) and want to explore it further. The movie's official website features quite a lot of content, as does the "official site" of the murders. A genealogy buff has created a website featuring some of the original newspaper coverage. The Villisca Historical Society also has a website that delves into the mystery in detail.
The movie is being released on DVD this month, and you can order a copy from the official website for the film or from Amazon. It will also be available for rent from the Family Video chain as well as Netflix.
Grade: A+. The best movie ever made in the true crime genre.
"Why, now, here's something like a murder! This is the real thing. This is genuine. This is what you can approve, can recommend to a friend."