On Sunday, the wife and I went on down to Red Oak, Iowa. My father-in-law runs the Montgomery County Historical Museum, and we were invited to the unveiling of the new Villisca Axe Murder exhibit. It was a big hoopla to draw in money for the museum, there was an author there who wrote a book about the murders, and my wife and mother-in-law baked a huge cake in the shape of the Moore House which looked wonderful.
The exhibit itself is brilliantly done! It’s a faithful copy of the Moore bedroom (without the blood), and tons of information about the murders, but this really isn’t what this article is about, something else came out of this vicious tragedy which can provide a model for our hobby. This article will mostly be focused on the social implications of this happening, as the social implications were huge and took a nasty toll on the town which lurks over it to this day.
Just as a quick biopsy of what happened, so that my readers who aren’t familiar with the case can grasp what I’m writing about: In June of 1912, the residence of J.B. Moore, a successful business man who sold farm implements, including the contract with John Deere, was broken into during the night. Whoever did this took the axe which Moore used to break up coal, walked into the house and right upstairs. He killed Mr. Moore, his wife, his four little children, then went down stairs to kill two more little girls who were staying in the guest room. The killer wrapped all of the bodies up in their bedding, covered all of the windows and mirrors, locked the door and walked away. The case has never been solved.
Before this happened, Villisca was a cosmopolitan little city. Located right on the railroad, the trains provided the blood which kept the towns heart beating. Many of the people in town were middle-class, the lower-classes kept to themselves on the other side of the tracks, but everybody got along. Everybody knew their place in the pecking order. Villisca had two churches, a Methodist and a Presbyterian. It was a classy place, providing arts and entertainment which included high class music (a rarity at the time), big acts, and festivals that brought folks in from all around.
Life was happy! It evolved into an almost British-like social society. Some people owned their own automobiles, and the first symphony to play in the state of Iowa was here. Typical of country-life, folks kept their doors unlocked, and they talked. They talked about their neighbors and it was impossible to get away with anything without the entire town finding out about it.
The biggest crimes that the police had to handle at the time were simple petty crimes, usually the doings of transients who also rode the rails. A hobo camp was just outside of town, new faces were always showing up. Transients could easily find work from the residence, helping around their houses, or working fields. Folks let them come in for dinner, and even lodged them like good Christians.
All of this changed when the murders happened, the police had no idea what to do! The first officer on duty had a local guy watch over the house while he called in a Detective from Council Bluffs to come help out. What happened next really pushes the limit on the imagination.
Once word got out that a grizzly murder had gone down in the Moore house, you would think that people would just whisper about it, and do some armchair detective work and that would be it. The Gentiles of Villisca, these high society people weren’t content to just talk about the murders, or to simply go to church and mourn their dead. Instead, everyone in town, and from miles around, showed up. So many people came to the house that folks were falling off of the porch. The man in charge of securing the house was mobbed, there was nothing that he could do to stop them from entering the house. He told them that if they go inside, then they’ll witness something that would haunt them for the rest of their days, I mean the killer bashed in the heads of children with an axe! Mr. & Mrs. Moore were so deformed that they couldn’t be identified! This was a BAD crime scene, the kind that if it happened today would require councilors on duty to talk to the officers who had to work it. It was nightmarish and folks were lining up to go inside, some folks were even taking trophies, and it wasn’t just restricted to stealing property either, but pieces of skull and flesh were taken by these normally happy people who were now acting like ghouls!
I really can’t stress how nasty this must have been. You’ve got eight dead, mutilated bodies sitting in a closed up house, cooking in the Iowa summer heat. The smell, the bugs, mud tracked in from outside by the hundreds of spectators walking around the place like it was a circus freak-show . . . and they were taking stuff.
To say that the crime-scene was tainted would be a severe understatement. Crime investigation at the time was yet in its infancy, especially in a place like this, where the biggest crime is horse theft. A so-called expert in finger prints came down, but he was so drunk by the time he got off of the train and showed up at the door, that the police sent him to the hotel to sleep it off. Not that finger prints would had been any good, the next day, after he sobered up and investigated, he only found one print in the victim‘s blood, but it was smeared; and even then, we still can’t tell if it was the killers prints, or one of the ghoulish visitors who played with stuff. Even if he had found the perfect print, there wasn’t yet a system in place which it could be checked against, not to mention that fingerprints weren’t excepted in court yet.
Folks try to yell about the police screwing the job up, but I personally don’t see this as the case. It was the ghouls and gawking which made this crime scene unspeakable. Folks were even playing with the axe which the murderer had left leaning against the wall outside of the guest room when he’d finished.
There was enough evidence to piece together what had happened, and blood-hounds were brought in, they led the entire town to the river where investigators found a bloody cloth, but this could had been somebody else’s, as it was a popular fishing spot, and anybody whose ever cleaned a catfish knows how bloody those things are.
In other words, the killer had escaped. After a short simmering of the minds, the good folks of Villisca started realizing what this meant. What happened next is a bit more understandable, but yet again, it went to an extreme that couldn’t be foreseen.
There was no motive to this crime. Nothing was stolen, J.B. Moore had no obvious enemies (yet), but even if he did, why kill the children? And it wasn’t just the Moore family, but the two girls who just happened to be spending the night! A local dispute had erupted between the city officials and the power company, because of this, all of the street lamps had been left off on the night of the murder, thus the streets were dark. There wasn’t any moon out that night neither, so it was even worse! The children had attended a Children’s Night at one of the local churches, and the two girls were afraid to walk home in the dark and had gained permission to sleep in the Moore’s guestroom. The oldest girl was friends with one of the Moore children, so this wasn’t a problem.
This crime though, which no matter where you lived at in Villisca, was right down the street, and was so random that it could happen to anybody. ANYBODY! And you and your family could be next! More insanity erupted. Of course nobody believed that it was a local who had done this, it was a monster!
The hobos, who were in the camp outside of town, broke up the moment that they heard, all jumped trains and were out of town before any violence could befall them. Many of the transient workers ran too, of course it didn’t end there. The minorities were next, physically ran out of town if they didn’t go of their own free will. Visitors were no longer embraced, but looked upon with suspicion. The transients which did find work in town were treated oddly too. Before the murders they were usually allowed to sleep in the barn, but now people were putting them in their sitting rooms, while they and their families locked themselves up in one bedroom. The idea was that they could hear the transient getting murdered and they themselves could escape.
People rigged up cans on wires, so that in the dark, the killer would trip the wire and rattle the cans, alerting those inside to their presence. Of course the problem with this is all of the critters that also call Iowa home, many of them nocturnal. Coons would rattle the cans and folks inside the houses were to terrified to even come out and use the out-house!
Everyone bought guns, and there was a run on new locks; no hardware store was prepared for this, and many fights broke out because folks felt that they needed to protect their families and to hell with everybody else (a distinctly UN-Iowan sentiment).
Even today this can be felt, but in 1912, and the decade that followed it, the only way to describe the public is TERRIFIED! Everybody was armed, when folks came home late at night (about 9:30) they were warned to make as much noise as possible, else risk getting shot by their fathers. Nobody screwed around, doors were locked, but rumors stated the mysterious murder took place in a locked house, so nobody felt safe. In effect, everybody was victims of this crime, and the police (also locals) didn’t like it one bit either, this general feeling of helplessness overtook them as well. Before the week was out, every barn, alley, outhouse, and shadow was checked in the hunt for the monster that did this, but nothing came about it. Folks who were kids at the time recalled their terror of watching armed officers surrounding their barns, and them just knowing right then and there that the killer was hiding in there.
Emotions in Villisca had ran the gambit, or at least one would had thought that they had. You’d think that the shame of their ghoulish behavior would sink in, but unfortunately people out there saw money to be made from this. Papers from all over were interested in this story, and the quiet, simple people of Villisca were not used to folks as far away as New York caring about what happened to them. One of the first reporters, and one of the biggest trouble-makers soon hit the scene. He didn’t care about the crime, he only saw a chance to make money. This man was a drunk and addicted to opium, originally from California, he was fired from his job as a respected journalist because there wasn’t anything respectful about him. Shock reporting is nothing new, and at the time of the murder, he was in Kansas City working for their paper, and he instantly jumped on the story like a rattler strikes a rat.
Of course he didn’t work alone, another man showed up, and with his charisma and the writers gift of writing, they caused one of the biggest shit storms this state would ever be privileged enough to witness, and fabricated one of the greatest Iowa myths of all time . . . well, unless you’re from Villisca.
This story which they concocted had it all! Sex, Violence, and Rock & Roll long before Elvis would be swinging his junk around on the stage. You see they provided a suspect, all this time folks believed that the killer had to be a transient, no way could he come from ‘this’ community. No way could it be one of ‘them’. It had to be a foreigner, only a foreigner could be monstrous enough to do a whole family in like that. But this lawyer and newspaper man said otherwise. Not only was it one of ‘Them’, but it was the most powerful guy in town!
Now before Moore was murdered, he owned and ran a successful hardware store, but before that he worked for this guy, Frank F. Jones. This guy was a blowhard, opinionated bully. He seemed to have his grubby hands into everything, he operated not just the hardware store, but the bank as well. He was a politician who was running for Senator at the time of the murder. Now I’m not going to lie to you, the story is good! There was real bad blood between the two. Not only had Moore robbed him of the John Deere contract when he quit and opened his own shop, to you folks not savvy in country matters, there is no bigger name in farming implements then John Deere, it is the FORD or Chevy of tractors, and while not everybody owned their own automobile, almost everyone in town used a John Deere, it was a status symbol, and it still is to this day. Thus, this contract was a big deal, but remarkably this wasn’t the only thing that Moore was into in regards to Jones’ affairs, it also was a matter of common Villisca knowledge, that J.B. Moore was involved with his wife!
Great story, right? You can see how this kind of scandal would feed a small community rumor mill faster then the grain elevator fills up train cars, but it gets better. It is said that the suspect hired a professional criminal, a Blackie Johnson, a guy who was in Illinois at the time, not to mention never even knew that he was being called Blackie, this was just a name that the reporter decided to give him; you see, before landing his gig in KC, he wrote a series of fictional stories about this lovably rogue named Blackie, he just applied the name to Johnson, a career criminal, how and why they decided to finger this guy out of everybody else is beyond me, but folks ate it up!
According to the story, J.B. Moore’s old boss and biggest rival let Blackie into the house while Moore and his family was at church. Blackie went upstairs and hid in the attic closet until he was sure that everyone was asleep, then he crept out and butchered everyone with the axe. The two even found 3 witnesses who would testify in court that they had seen or heard this plot taking place. A mysterious group of three men plotting the murder, one man even claimed that he saw the suspect let Blackie in the house! Of course all of these witnesses, but one, caved in or changed their testimony once they took the stand. Jones got sick and tired of being slandered and attempted to shut the lawyer up for good in court, but it didn’t work, instead the lawyer twisted the case so that it wasn’t about slander anymore, but all about the fact that the suspect was the real mastermind behind the murder. Movies aren’t this dramatic! This lawyer would preach his theory everywhere he could. On the street corner, in barns, on porches, and folks were just drawn to him!
Well, the police saw through this. With the collapse of the case against the senator, their attentions were draw to a crazy little preacher from Nebraska who was in town that night and was telling everybody about it in lurid detail.
Rev. George Kelly was not a good person, he was what we here in Iowa refer to as a kook. He was brought into Villisca to cover for the normal preacher who was out of town. He was staying in the home of a church member, and there was always lots of complaints about his behavior. He’d yell at the children, and one of the residence, who was a child back then, reported that he stayed the night at her house once, and her mom was so unnerved and scared that she spent the night on the steps with a rifle to protect her family. She had her husband tell him that he’d have to find a different place to sleep the next night.
Well, to make a long story short, the police arrested the little preacher, but then the next social problem took the town by the throat! There was evidence which the preacher did it. A cloths washing company in Omaha reported that they had cleaned a bloody shirt. Normally one puts all of their cloths on a train, it got sent to Omaha and then returned to the pharmacy were you could pick them up. Well, the preacher took his cloths to the company himself, and didn’t leave his name, he just told them to send it to Villisca when they were clean. He then returned to Villisca and told the pharmacy that he was expecting the bundle. The problem was that the cleaners cleaned the shirt before alerting the police, so we’ve got no idea how much blood was on the shirt. When questioned by the cops, the preacher even stated that it was blood, but said that it was his blood because he had cut himself shaving and just let himself bleed all over his new shirt. Cops didn’t buy it and they grilled him all night until he confessed. HE CONFESSED!!!! He said that the voice of god told him to grab the axe and to “Slay, Utterly”. So he did. He also said that this wasn’t the first time that god talked to him, the good lord also wanted some buildings burned down in Nebraska, for whatever reason, so he done that too.
Another good lead was the preachers previous charge of ogling little girls. I was very brief in my description of the murder, but whoever took the lives of the children took extra care with one of the girls murdered down stairs. The police felt confident that they had their man! But all of the Presbyterians, who knew that the preacher was odd, and really weird, couldn’t believe that he was an axe murderer. Couple this with the fact of the lawyer and the reporter preaching about this scandal to anybody who would pay to listen, to everybody’s surprise, this drove a wedge between the town.
Folks formed two camps. Those that believed that the Senator did it, and those who believed that the preacher did it. Once the little preacher was held for trial and taken to Red Oak, a mob formed outside of the courthouse and he had to be transferred to a secret location, not for fear that the mob outside would lynch him, but because this mob was trying to set him free!
With all of this evidence against the little preacher, the lawyer and the reporter had corrupted every resident in the state of Iowa, titillating them with the story of the Senator. No jury could convict this guy, even though all of the evidence pointed directly to him, including a signed confession! The little preacher was allowed to walk, and the town went nuts.
The factions of the town attacked each other for the miscarriage of justice. Folks who believed that the Senator did it refused to shop in stores owned by folks who believed that the preacher did it. The children of the Senator’s supporters couldn’t play with the children in the Preachers camp. Violence erupted as well, none as serious as taking an axe to each others heads, but fights and arson did happen. It was insane! Surprisingly enough there are even pictures of the father of the two girls murdered in the house shaking hands with the little preacher. He believed, until the day that he died that Blackie Johnson had killed his daughters.
This debate still continues, the Senators life was ruined, he lost everything and was just as much a victim as anybody else effected by the tragedy, probably more so! As he didn’t lose his life, out-right, but he did loose all of his businesses, his prestige, and his money, not to mention that his name is still on the suspect list, and no doubt always will be. The Preacher was busted looking at little girls again up in South Dakota, he spent some time in an asylum before disappearing from the eyes and ears of history forever.
Years later, after all of this drama was over, a new suspect joined the list, a serial killer who could be tied to being in Villisca at the time of the Moore murders with the exact M.O. of this sort of crime. He had killed his own mom and sister in this exact way, not to mention it would solve a string over murders along his path . . . but of course this man is now dead too and this case has cooled to the point were solving it is irrelevant.
The repercussions of this tragedy can still be seen to this day. The house was immediately rented to a different family, nobody lived their long as the place is one of the most haunted houses in the country, and perhaps that is part of the social implications too. This case still ruffles feathers. The axe was kept under lock and key in the Red Oak Courthouse, it was suppose to be delivered to the museum for the unveiling, however a group in Villisca wishes that the house would burn to the ground and that the axe be buried in the cemetery. The thought of the Museum being burglarized during the night was not out of the question so the axe never made it to the exhibit.
The town was dealt a near fatal blow when the railroad died out, today it is much smaller then it once was, but it still struggles against what happened all those years ago. This could had happened anywhere, it just happened there. In a little-big town in central Iowa which was once known for pork and butter is now infamous for their bad behavior and tragedy.
THE ROLE PLAYING ANGLE
I know that I like to explore murder cases in my games. Nothing entertains me more then presenting a who done it, but something like this can really influence a who-do-it on a much grander scale! A successful village turned absolutely upside down over-night. A reasonable cast of characters. This could make for some really good vegetables in our mystery campaign soup! At least I see the potential, if you don’t then I hope that you at least got a good story out of the deal.
For more on the Villisca Case, there is a good supply of media out there. The Official Website, A documentary called “Villisca: Living with the Mystery” on DVD, and the new book by Roy Marshall called Villisca. There is more, out there then just this brief introduction.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
- Chapter I: The Goblin
- New Project to begin soon
- Reversing as Story Element
- Medusa Cactus
- Low Level Adventures & Monster Treasure
- Villisca Axe Murder
- Exploring Specialized Fighting Styles
- Plants, Dangerous: Fear Weed
- Societies and Factions in the D&D World
- Different Fighting Styles for Different Classes
- Thief Skills for the Masses
- More 2e Love
- RPG Blog Carnival: Conventions, Ren Fairs, Carniva...
- Books as Treasure
- ▼ August 2009 (14)