Dr. Edgar V. Epperly first heard of the mass murder in Villisca, Iowa when he was a child, and began studying it in earnest in college. "It may sound peculiar," he once said, but he's spent the ensuing five decades enthralled by this murder case, interviewing witnesses, examining the evidence, and writing numerous articles about the baffling mystery.
Dr. Epperly, recently retired as a professor of education from Luther College in Iowa, is now writing a book as well, this after consulting with filmmakers for the making of a documentary about the murders, "Villisca: Living With a Mystery" (see the Clews review of this excellent film).
In sum, eight people, six of them children, were murdered in their beds in the middle of the night in June 1912 in a small Iowa town. Three suspects emerged, but none was convicted and the case was never solved.
Clews recently had a chance to ask Dr. Epperly a few questions about the murders in Villisca, our need to know, and obsession in general. Here's the Q&A.
You have studied the murders in Villisca for many years now. There were, as you know, three chief suspects in the murders, and several inquiries, public and private, civil and criminal. After studying so much evidence for so long, do you draw any firm conclusions on who may or may not have been the truly guilty party?
Over the years I have oscillated between the serial killer theory and the belief that Rev. Kelly was the murderer.
When you link the great risks Kelly ran and efforts he expended to see young women in the nude to Lena Stillinger's semi-nude body, left in an obscene pose, it seems obvious Kelly was the murderer.
Just when I have convinced myself Kelly had a sufficiently psychopathic personality to kill everyone in the house so he could look his fill, I reread the accounts of the Colorado Springs, Monmouth, IL, Ellsworth and Paola, KS, murders, and doubts creep in. They are all mainline railroad towns with their murder houses but a stone's throw from the tracks. In all cases, the killer came with no weapon in hand, relying on providence or the devil to guide him to a suitable instrument carelessly left in the back yard. All but one murder occurred on a weekend and the scenes with their covered bodies peacefully lying in bed cry out for the same wandering railroad killer.
Consequently, like a pendulum, I slowly swing back and forth always keeping one irresolute foot in each camp. Unsatisfying, but the best I can do at this time.
Anticipating your readers' reactions, I have thrown away a lifetime trying to place Kelly in one or another of the murder sites at the crucial time.
The one conclusion I do confidently draw is that F. F. Jones, Villisca banker and state senator, was not guilty. He lacked motive, did not have a sufficiently disturbed personality to contemplate the act, and his supposed hired killer William Mansfield can prove with sworn testimony and documentary evidence he was in Montgomery, IL, working on the railroad on the night of the murder.
Do you think there is still evidence that might yet come to light?
I don't think there is a huge cache of records hiding somewhere but there are some missing pieces. I have never seen a transcript of the July 1916 Grand Jury proceedings which considered William Mansfield's guilt or innocence.
The September, 1917, transcript of Rev. Kelly's trial rests in the Montrgomery County courthouse as an untranscribed, unreadable shorthand document. If we can translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, I am sure the Kelly trial shorthand code can be broken but no one has had the money or interest to do so up to this time.
There also are records of Montgomery County paying for photographs taken in conjunction with the original investigation. These seem to have been lost. Perhaps they will surface some day.
If you could find any one piece of evidence that eludes you, what would it be, and what light do you think it would shed on the case?
In December of 1913, Rev. Kelly was preaching in Winner, SD. He advertised in the Omaha World Herald for a stenographer and received an inquiry from a recent high school graduate from Council Bluffs, IA. He told her she would be fine but he wanted her to type in the nude. Postal authorities send him fake letters and thinking he was corresponding with an eager 18 year old girl, his answers became increasingly salacious until he was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (sounds like the current internet cases, doesn't it?)
During his trial Kelly's letters were introduced in evidence. When I accessed the transcript of this trial, the letters were acknowledged but, in the words of the judge, "Too obscene and disgusting to be spread upon this record." I would like to read those letters because they might reveal Kelly's sexual fetishes and desires which one could relate to the Villisca murder scene.
What do you suppose explains your obsession with this old murder case? What makes us want to know? What makes certain cases "haunt us," as John Douglas puts it?
Growing up in southern Iowa, I heard about the case as a youngster. Later in college, two friends and I, writing a joint term paper, made our initial visit to Villisca and I found myself "hooked by the topic." There always seem to be someone else to interview, another town to visit, more newspaper to review, and additional court documents to locate.
I suppose there are deeper elements in my personality which might shed light on my "obsession" with such a heinous crime but I have never gone down those dark roads in search of an explanation. Growing up in a grocery store, I always enjoyed working in Dad's butcher shop--let's see Freud make something out of that!
When working on the recent film, did you have any trepidation about it when you first heard of the project -- any concern about how you or the case or the town would be portrayed on film?
In 1992, I received a call in my office at Luther College. A disembodied voice introduced himself as Kelly Rundle who, with his wife Tammy, owned a Hollywood documentary film company, Fourth Wall Productions. They had stumbled upon the Villisca murder and wanted to speak to me about consulting on their planned film.
It is difficult for me to ignore anything about the murder so I readily agreed to meet with them to discuss the project. Neither side of this discussion knew each other from a load of coal. We both took a shot in the dark, based on our reading of each other during that initial meeting in a Decorah café.
Now 15 years later, it seems from my point of view to have been a good bargain.
What'd you think of the final product, Villisca, Living with a Mystery?
I couldn't be more pleased. The Rundles have treated a complex, sensational topic in a mature, serious manner. They let the story speak for itself drawing deep meaning from a seemingly meaningless act.
Are you planning a book about the case? Will it be the first non-fiction account of the Villisca axe murders? Are there other books in print about the similar and possibly related axe murders in the US Midwest in the 1910s/20s?
There is a book in print entitled Villisca by Roy Marshall. It is a serious study of the case. Mr. Marshall who grew up in southwest Iowa believes Rev. Kelly was the killer. The Rundles and I are working on a book-length study of the case. With their photographic file, the rotogravure section alone will make it an attractive item. I personally have no agent and largely rely on the Rundles to handle such matters.
I know of no books dealing specifically with the Midwest ax murders that have been connected to the Villisca case. Using Murder, a scholarly study of serial killers, discusses Villisca and its companion murders along with more contemporary cases.
Have you always studied true crime cases?
Not really, my interest in true crime is quite specialized. I have read everything I could lay my hands on regarding Villisca and its potential sister crimes. I have casually inspected some 25 other murders from the first two decades of the 20th century because it had been suggested they might be included in the Villisca series. In my opinion none of them qualify.
Several years ago, I did a modest amount of reading in the litereature surrounding Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. Both of these cases share a similar literary problem with Villisca. Their climactic event occurs at the beginning of the tale and there is no satisfying solution at its end. I wanted to see how authors handled this problem as they discussed Saucy Jack and Lizzie.
Visit the Villisca Emporium
See Dr. Epperly on Catherine Crier Live on YouTube
See the Lamplight Q&A at the Murder House on YouTube