The Odyssey of the Axe

Axe in case
Photograph © Fourth Wall Films. All Rights Reserved.

By Dr. Edgar Epperly

There was never a doubt regarding the weapon used in the Villisca axe murders.  The killer left the washed but still bloody axe leaning against the south wall of the downstairs bedroom where the two Stillinger girls bodies were found.  Several people who traipsed through the house before the scene was sealed by the police reported seeing the axe in various locations.  But this wandering of the murder weapon was undoubtedly explained by ghoulish spectators moving it from room to room as they inspected the premises.  Town Marshal Hank Horton, first on the scene was quite clear in his grand jury testimony that he found the axe in the Stillingers’ bedroom. (1917 Grand Jury investigation, pp. 18-19.)

The axe remained or was returned to the murder house Monday evening because when the bloodhounds arrived at the murder scene about 9:00 p.m., they were given the axe to pick up the scent of the killer.  (Red Oak Sun newspaper, June 14, 1912.)  By late evening on June 10, 1912, Sheriff Oren Jackson had taken possession of the murder weapon for the county.  Tom Moates, a 19-year-old in 1912 was dating Ruth Jackson, Sheriff Jackson’s daughter.  Tom and Ruth were sitting in the front room of the jail when Sheriff Jackson came in carrying a gunny sack.  His wife asked him what he had and he replied, “The axe that killed the Villisca people.”  He then locked the sack in the hall closet, saying he would, “put it in the sheriff’s office in the morning.”  (Personal correspondence Tom Moates to Edgar Epperly, Dec. 27, 1981.)

The axe remained under the control of the Montgomery County police and/or the District Court at least until the trials of Lyn George Jacklin Kelly in 1917.  We know it was introduced as an exhibit at the first Kelly trial in September of 1917 because the newspapers reported that the spectators waited breathlessly for Reverend Kelly’s reaction.  In somewhat of an anticlimax, Kelly seemed unmoved by the axe when it was presented in court. (Villisca Review Newspaper, Sept. 15, 1917.)

The next public appearances for the axe that this writer is aware of was in a newspaper photograph printed in the Des Moines Sunday Register, January 28, 1945.  This photo shows James E. Risden holding the axe.  The accompanying article states that Mr. Risden “obtained the weapon from Arthur Baker, Sheriff of Montgomery County.”   Since Mr. Baker served as sheriff from January 1, 1923 through December 31, 1930, state agent Risden apparently had the axe in his possession for at least 15 years before 1945.  It was perfectly legal and proper for Sheriff Baker to give the axe to Mr. Risden if he chose to do so.  Trial exhibits must be held for two years after which, if they are unclaimed, they may be disposed of at the discretion of the police.

Evidence in an unsolved crime is to be kept until there is no reasonable expectation that the crime will be solved.  Apparently, Sheriff Baker was satisfied that the Villisca murder was beyond solution so that some time between 1923 and 1930, he gave the Villisca axe to his friend and acquaintance James E. Risden.  Mr. Risden had been employed as an investigator by State Attorney General Havner during the months leading up to the Kelly trial in September of 1917.  In fact, he was one of Kelly’s interrogators on the night Kelly confessed to the Villisca murder.

When the state of Iowa created the original Bureau of Criminal Investigation in 1921, Mr. Risden was appointed second in command to O. O. Rock.  On Mr. Rock’s untimely death three years later, Mr. Risden was promoted to head of the BCI, a position he held until 1933.  (“History and administration of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, July, 1936, pp. 277-9.)   Consequently it is not surprising that in retirement he accepted the Villisca murder weapon when Sheriff Baker decided to tidy up the Montgomery County Courthouse.

When the current writer (Edgar Epperly) and his co-researcher Donald Brown discovered the 1945 Des Moines Register article , they decided to see if Mr. Risden still held the axe.   Don Brown, who was living in Des Moines at the time, telephoned his residence and spoke to his widow.  She advised Don that she still had the axe and would be happy to give it away.  Don received the weapon from Mrs. Risden in October of 1961.   Some two months later he decided he should get a notarized statement proving the axe’s authenticity from Mrs. Risden.  She signed a notarized statement on December 28, 1961, attesting to her October transfer of the Villisca axe to Mr. Don Brown of Leon, IA.

As an aside it should be mentioned that Don reported that she would not accept money for the axe so as a gesture of thanks, Don gave her a box of chocolate-covered cherries.   Don always told this tale with a cryptic smile on his face so it is to some degree apocryphal.  Certainly Don would not be above embellishing a good story for dramatic effect, but smile or not, he has over the years insisted that a box of candy bought the axe.

For the next decade or so, the axe was on public display in a glass case in Don Brown’s Used book store in Leon, IA.  When Don left Iowa for Indiana in the 1970’s, his research partner Edgar Epperly took possession of the axe after presenting Don with the obligatory box of chocolate-covered cherries.  From Leon, IA, it journeyed to Decorah, IA, where Epperly lived.  It remained in his possession from the mid-1970’s (the exact date of transfer was not recorded) until the spring of 1987.

During the winter and spring of 1987, Villisca formed a committee to plan the first Heritage Days event scheduled for the summer of 1987.  Part of that planning was to publicly acknowledge for the first time, the Villisca axe murders and their impact on the community.  I returned the axe to Villisca that spring so that it could be displayed during the summer Heritage Days. (Des Moines Register newspaper, June 7, 1987.)   After the festival, it remained on display in the Villisca City Hall for a number of years.

Early in the 21st Century, a new city administration decided to remove the axe from public display.  Consequently it was removed from the city hall and returned to former mayor, J. S. Enarson who, as chairman of the original Heritage Days committee, had accepted it from me in 1987.   Ms. Enarson held the axe until May of 2004 when I reclaimed it.

In June of 2004, the documentary film “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” premiered at the State Historical Society in Des Moines.  Since I had served as a consultant for this film, I made the axe available to the filmmakers, Kelly and Tammy Rundle, for a historical display which accompanied the film on its Midwestern tour of 2004 – 2005 (see photo above).

After the theatrical tour, I again assumed control of the axe.  It has remained in my home in Decorah until July of 2006 when I took three actions in response to questions about the whereabouts of the axe.  First, I had received a legal opinion that strongly argues I acquired the axe in a perfectly legal manner and that I may dispose of it as I see fit.  Secondly, I have placed the axe in a vault which insures its safety.

Finally, I have initiated steps to give the axe to the fledgling Villisca Historical Society, Inc. (VHSI).  Consequently, the Villisca murder axe will be transferred from Edgar V. Epperly of Decorah, IA to the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. as soon as arrangements can be made.

The trial exhibit mark on the handle of the axe donated to the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. further authenticates it as the weapon used in the 1912 Moore and Stillinger murders.

Photograph © Fourth Wall Films. All Rights Reserved.

One final note regarding the authenticity of the axe.  Fourth Wall Films, in its search for visual material to make their Villisca documentary, discovered a photograph of the murder weapon taken during the week of June 10-14, 1912.  A comparison of marks on the axe in this photograph with the axe discussed in this report shows that they are clearly the same instrument.

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