From time to time, I like to point out an interesting story in Iowa history. Although I’m not sure why the story of the Villisca Axe Murders is one story of Iowa history that continues to draw my interest. For any non-Iowans reading this, the Villisca Axe Murder was a terribly sensational murder trial in 1912 and famous in Iowa history. An entire family, plus two little girls that had been overnight guests, were gruesomely murdered with the family’s axe they used for firewood. (I’ve seen the axe in person.) The case made a big enough media splash that you will find contemporary articles about it in the New York Times. It was also an early case where someone was called in to take fingerprints, but the crime scene had been so mishandled (tons of people, both officials and gawkers were allowed to wander the house at will) that nothing of use was found. Although there were two men considered by the town to be likely suspects, one of which was even eventually put on trial, the cases against them both were generally considered weak and unlikely.
This was a story with staying power in Iowa. It was often featured in small collections of stories of Iowa history. I really think it’s part of the reason my own great-grandfather insisted on checking every door and window, looking in every cupboard and under every bed when the family returned from town even up to my own childhood [much later than 1912 😉 ]
Interest was renewed by a fictionalized account in a novel in the 1970s and a documentary on the murder and how its legacy effected the town in the late 2000s. The documentary, Villisca: Living with a Mystery, speculated that the murders were actually the work of a serial killer, even identifying other potential kills and a possible suspect. The house was turned into a historic site only in recent memory and found that to stay financially viable it focuses on possible paranormal activity in the house, even though for a house with such a gruesome past it remained almost completely free of such stories for almost a century.
Today, June 10, 1912 marks the 100th anniversary of the crime.
Iowa Public Radio did a recent interview with the people who have studied the case most:
(I highly recommend listening to the archive, it’s very interesting, but listening to it at bedtime last night – not one of my best ideas.)
You can get the documentary they talk about, Villisca: Living With Mystery here:
If you’re interested in learning more read: http://docublogger.typepad.com/villiscamystery/