Iowa man continues 57-year quest to solve Villisca ax murders

Ed Epperly has investigated the 100-year-old unsolved Villisca murders for more than half a century. What drives him to continue on the path?

1:14 AM, June 9, 2012

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A view from the front yard of the Villisca Ax Murder House. / Register file photo

Ed Epperly has investigated a 100-year-old murder for 57 years. His lifelong determination to find every detail in the unsolved case is nearly as puzzling a mystery as who slaughtered the eight people in their sleep. The grisly ax murders occurred in Villisca in 1912.

What drove a college professor with a doctorate to such lengths?

In the basement of his comfortable Decorah home that backs into a wooded dead end street, he has filled three large file cabinets with copies of court documents, transcripts of interviews and handwritten index cards marking the decades of peering at microfilm before it was even possible to print its images.

Epperly, 76, will start by saying it’s a hobby, like woodworking, a curiosity that went beyond proving who did it, although he’s still tracking down leads.

100th anniversary of Villisca murders

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Montgomery County History Center, 2700 N. Fourth St., in Red Oak.

WHAT: A showing of the Four Wall Films “Villisca: Living With a Mystery.” Ed Epperly and Four Walls Films’ Kelly and Tammy Rundle will discuss the murders and the new documentary on Epperly called “AXMAN.” The ax used in the murder will also be on display. $5.

The Villisca Ax Murder House on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Second Street in Villisca will be open for tours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

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But when he is gently pulled from the details of this small Iowa town and its infamous crime, marked this weekend by a 100th anniversary commemoration, and toward his own motivations, what unfolds is not an obsession. It’s a cause.

Epperly begins his own story in 1955 when he and two college buddies, all social studies majors, piled into a car they owned together and headed toward Villisca to write a paper for class on the murders. He remembered sitting on the porch of his boyhood home after Sunday dinner in Leon, listening to older family members discuss the unsolved crime.

He will say he was innocent to the deep divisions in Villisca when he arrived 40 years after the murders. He walked into the office of old Doc Cooper, who declined to talk until young Epperly said, “I understand you were the first on the scene.”

“He then talked for an hour and couldn’t contain himself,” Epperly said. “I realized it was the biggest event in his life.”

At this point, Epperly’s story is sidetracked as he, too, talked for an hour about the fascinating case.

In a small house in Villisca, the Joe Moore family and two visitors were axed to death. Such a bloody murder was beyond the comprehension of residents desperate to find the killer.

Along came a charming southerner named James Wilkerson, a detective who convinces the surviving family members and eventually many in town that he has found one. That man was successful local businessman and state senator F.F. Jones, who had a running business feud with Moore, and claimed that Joe was sleeping with the pretty and loose wife of the senator’s son, Albert.

If you put a string in front of people, Epperly said, they want to connect the ends. “They want to make sense of the world and evil like this, the depth of which they didn’t know people were capable of.”

Many citizens came forward, hoodwinked by Wilkerson, to testify to murky details of Jones and others in town conspiring to hire a man to do the deed. His hitman’s name was Blackie Mansfield, whose relatives were also conveniently axed to death.

Jones eventually had enough and filed a slander suit against Wilkerson. Many citizens recanted the testimony when it was shown that in fact Mansfield was working at the time, and had a work slip signed by supervisors.

Along came another suspect, an oddball itinerant preacher with sexual problems and mental illness who happened to spend that fateful night in Villisca. George Kelly was charged and later coaxed into confession.

Many in town didn’t believe Kelly did it, thinking he was framed by the Jones’ camp, and he eventually was exonerated.

The town spun into two camps that have divided it for decades.

People switched churches or didn’t allow kids to play with kids of families who believed in one or the other’s innocence. Newspaper features appeared every 20 or so years. Film documentaries were made.

“It’s still an open wound,” said Dave McFarland of the Montgomery County History Center.

People pointed fingers and it was remembered in families for decades. Gossip ran rampant.

“Anybody that got close to it got blood on them,” McFarland said. “My great aunt even testified in one of the grand juries.

“Ed Epperly came along at the right time. He talked to people who still had it in their memory.”

Finally, Epperly returned to his own story. He had left Villisca behind but never forgot it after he earned his degree from the University of Northern Iowa and started to teach social studies in Pella.

One day he called Don Brown, a college buddy who worked on the original college paper, and told him he saw a photograph of a person who had the ax. Brown approached the family and found out the man had died, and the widow just wanted to get rid of the still-bloodied ax. She wouldn’t take any money for it, so Brown gave her a box of chocolate-covered cherries for the ax. That’s how Epperly’s interest was revived — and how he later came to have the ax for 20 years before donating it to the state historical society.

He spent weekends driving across country, tracking down similar murders. He spent days in state archives, cracking open old attorney generals’ files untouched for so long the rubber bands holding them together burst into dust. But with earning his doctorate and eventually becoming a Luther College professor in teacher education, and having a wife and child, the research went in fits and starts.

“Nobody knows more about it that he does,” said Kelly Rundle, the Quad Cities filmmaker of “Villisca: Living With a Mystery” who will show a sneak preview of his 25-minute documentary on Epperly, “AXMAN,” at the commemoration. “He is in an area that is virtually all his.”

What Epperly came to realize is that he wasn’t interested in the sensational manner of the gruesome crime, but in its aftermath. He pieced together the stories.

He read the accounts and imagined the scenes. The blacksmith George Bloodgood, for example, told of peering out his shop the day of the murder and seeing Jones storm past, red-faced and head lowered.

“Can’t you just see him in his shop, watching Jones go by?” Epperly asked.

He followed the lost trail of Kelly, overjoyed that he located a job application that traced him through 1920, and the trail of a piece of Joe Moore’s skull, plucked from the house and passed among residents.

By memory, he can imitate the robust Wilkerson’s grand statements as he supported the suspect Kelly to further his own case on Jones, saying Kelly would be convicted “the day a celluloid dog catches an asbestos cat in hell!”

He recounted the tragedy, not just of murder, but ruined reputations. One example was Harry Whipple, also offered as a suspect by Wilkerson. Whipple was a big, kind-hearted man, but kids on the street began to run away from him.

Epperly visited Whipple’s close friend Cloyd Smith in his dying days in a nursing home. There were rumors of Whipple’s deathbed confessions to Smith.

“He talked of Whipple in a way that was so human and real you knew he was telling the truth,” Epperly said. “He told me how while hunting with him Whipple accidentally shot a dog and cried and cried. He said, ‘There was no way he could do it.’ ”

In the end, after weaving stories of dozens of people in Villisca, after even plucking a random file out of thousands in his cabinet that recounted details of a night watchman sitting in the park the night of the murders, Iowa’s most famous crime came down to a couple things.

It isn’t a current fascination of ghosts at the home that has been made into a tourist attraction. It isn’t even fingering the murderer, although in retirement he is working on a lead about a man known to sleep with an ax who may have traveled the rails through Villisca.

It’s this: Ed Epperly grew up a dyslexic and was the first of his family to attend college. He wasn’t part of the “intellectual world” as a professor, hell-bent on renown.

“Consequently, I’m immensely proud in a quiet way. Here’s a little part of the world I know more about than anyone in the world,” he said.

And it’s this:

“People say of the victims, ‘Those poor people, how horrible.’ I don’t share that horror. They weren’t cowering in a corner waiting to die. They were in a sound sleep and suddenly were dead.”

The people left behind to deal with the aftermath are the ones he memorializes. He has learned the habits and personalities of dozens who lived in 1912, their relationships with each other and injustices, and the story of a town torn apart.

“Only a tiny group is saved in history,” he said. “The vast majority of people live and die and are forgotten. I feel bad about that. They were people who were ill-used — and a lot of people in Villisca were ill-used.

“I kind of enjoy saving them. People like Harry Whipple will not be forgotten.

“In some sense, what better thing could I do with my life than that?”

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