Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.
The murder weapon used in the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders was donated in October 2006 to the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. by its long-time owner, historian Dr. Edgar V. Epperly.
“On behalf of the Villisca Historical Society, I want to thank you for your faith expressed in us by offering the axe to our organization,” said acting Historical Society president Dr. Mary Hansen in a letter to Epperly.
Although the murder of eight people in 1912 was a great tragedy for the small rural community, public interest in the crime continues today, and the axe is the most significant surviving historical artifact related to the case. So long as it can was to be properly cared for and preserved, both Epperly and Hansen agreed that items related to Villisca’s history belong in Villisca.
Epperly has researched the still-unsolved case for more than 50 years and the axe was given to him by fellow researcher and writer Don Brown. Brown acquired the weapon from the widow of State law enforcement official James Risden, a special investigator in the 1912 murder case.
The Villisca axe murder investigation has not been active since the state tried and failed to convict suspect Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly in 1917. Iowa state law allows evidence valued at less than $50 to be released to its original owner or, in the absence of acceptance by the owner, to be disposed of in any reasonable manner.
Montgomery County Sheriff Tony Updegrove has also indicated that the axe can no longer be considered “evidence” in a criminal investigation and he supports its donation to the Villisca Historical Society.
The plan to donate the axe to a non-profit historical group in Villisca had been in place for several years. The recent official formation of the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. satisfied Epperly’s concerns for the preservation and safekeeping of this historical artifact.
The axe will likely be displayed in Villisca once the Historical Society obtains a building for their growing collection.
The axe was donated to the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. (VHSI) by Dr. Edgar V. Epperly just prior to a sold-out screening of Kelly and Tammy Rundle’s “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines on Halloween night 2006. Dr. Mary Hansen, president of the VHSI, accepted the axe and then turned it over to archivists from the State Historical Society for safe keeping. Once the VHSI has acquired a suitable and secure space for their archives and museum, the axe will return to Villisca.