By Douglas Burns
VIILISCA — "The Rev. Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, the only man tried for the eight Villisca axe murders of 1912 and a preacher with a well-documented reputation for deviant sexual behavior, served as minister at the Carroll Presbyterian Church for nearly a year following the internationally notorious slayings, as southern Iowa officials focused on other suspects.
To be sure, the nearly century-old still-unsolved southern Iowa murder spree is one of the creepiest, compelling episodes in the history of the state, and the fact that more Iowans, particularly in the western part of the state, don’t know about this case is evidence of a breakdown in the teaching of Iowa history.
Then again, that oversight might preserve good nights of sleep, because delving into the history of this monstrous case of seemingly inhuman evil is not for the faint of heart.
With a documentary, “Villisca,” now out, the late Rev. Kelly posthumously remains a central figure in one of the more sensational murder cases of the 20th century.
One longtime historian of the case has spent years developing a theory that Kelly not only killed eight people in a Villisca home on a June night but may be connected to more of the estimated 30 axe murders that were reported in the Midwest, the Great Plains and Colorado from the fall of 1911 to the summer of 1914.
“That would be the Holy Grail, to show Kelly was a serial killer,” says Ed Epperly, a retired Luther College education professor who has studied the murders for 50 years since his own college days at the University of Northern Iowa.
Epperly told me he can’t say conclusively that Kelly is the Villisca butcher, but he said, “I’ve been more inclined to Kelly.”
Additionally, Epperly has been able to place Kelly in locations where it is at least possible that he committed more murders.
“Kelly would have been a psychopath,” Epperly said. “He didn’t have empathy for other people.”
No evidence ever has emerged linking Kelly to any deaths in the Carroll area, but the preacher discussed the Villisca murders at length with people in Carroll, and two teenage girls, members of the Carroll Presbyterian Church in 1913, told a grand jury that Kelly sexually harassed them, testimony that played a crucial role in characterizing the English immigrant as a peeping Tom with an intense attraction to young girls.
It is that behavior as much as anything that led the Iowa attorney general’s office to charge Kelly with the Villisca murders and prosecute him in two trials, the first leading to a hung jury and the second an outright acquittal.
During Kelly’s time in Carroll, some closely involved with the case in Villisca suspected he might be the culprit, but most of the attention in the first years after the slayings focused on a prominent state senator from Villisca, Republican Frank Fernando Jones, and a spectacular swirl of politics, greed and sex, with rumors of lurid, even incestuous liaisons.
For that reason, Kelly came to Carroll in the fall of 1912 like just another preacher fulfilling an assignment — although people quickly found him to be disturbing.
Meanwhile, tracked by Texan James Newton Wilkerson, a dogged, colorful, larger-than-life private detective from one of the Pinkerton-style agencies that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jones was called before a grand jury and accused of orchestrating the murders. Jurymen declined to indict one of Jones’ alleged associates, opening the door for the cases against Kelly to proceed.
With the Villisca case there is a virtual cottage industry in theories. Visitors to the city can take “axe murderer” tours and the local Casey’s General Store sells books and memorabilia right along with Diet Cokes, gasoline and pizza. But to this day, what is known about the Villisca axe murders beyond a reasonable doubt, ironically, are essentially the same facts the first law-enforcement officials on the scene discovered on the morning of June 10, 1912.
“We call it America’s greatest unsolved mystery, and I don’t think that’s too much of an exaggeration,” says Kelly Rundle, producer of “Villisca.”
“You could not make this up. I think it was Tom Clancy who said, `There is a difference between fiction and reality. Fiction has to make sense.’”
Eight people, including six children under 12, were massacred in a Villisca home just hours after attending a service at the Presbyterian Church. All of the victims were struck first with the blunt end of an axe as they slept. The dead included Josiah Moore, 43; his wife, Sarah Moore, 40; and their four children, Herman, 11, Katherine, 9, Boyd, 7, and Paul, 5.
Two friends of the Moore children, Lena Stillinger, 11, and Ina Stillinger, 9, had the misfortune of staying overnight there and also were butchered - with Lena left in a sexually suggestive position. There was no evidence - using the science of 1912 - of rape or sexual penetration.
A coroner’s report estimated that each of the victims had been savagely bashed with the flat side of an axe 20 to 30 times, the killer moving from bed to bed until the bloody scene was complete, according to the exhaustive 2003 book, “Villisca,” authored by former Iowa state fire marshal Roy Marshall.
On the night of June 9, 1912, both Jones, the politician, and Kelly, the preacher, were in Villisca, Kelly at the Presbyterian Church as a visitor from Macedonia where he was then serving, and Jones at the Methodist Church as a prominent, perhaps its most illustrious, member.
To this day, according to Rundle and Epperly, many people in Villisca believe Jones, the late state senator, was involved in the crime, either as a murder-for-hire scheme or in some other fashion, because of business disagreements with Josiah Moore as well as alleged jealousies stemming from unsubstantiated claims of a sort of supercharged love triangle.
“The majority of people believe Jones was behind it,” Epperly said. “They believe it because they heard it from their grandparents and parents. They believe it in the same way they believe in religion.”