VHSI Annual Membership Drive Underway

Villisca square 1900s
Villisca, Iowa square circa early 1900s. Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

Join us and support the preservation of Villisca’s history!


Villisca Historical Society

Join now and get
15 months of membership for the price of 12 months
Annual individual membership $20
Annual family membership $35
Sustaining membership* $100

As a member you will receive the bi-annual digital newsletter;
be invited to attend special VHSI events; contribute to saving Villisca’s unique history!

Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering


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Nov 10-11 Marks Special Veteran’s Day Event at Armory

The Villisca Historical Society is co-sponsoring a Veterans’ Day two-day event at the Armory, 316 E 3rd St, Villisca, IA on Nov. 10 and 11 honoring veterans from the Villisca area, with a special focus on those who served in WWI. Join us for this special celebration!

The Armory will be open for two hours following the SWV Middle School program on Nov. 10, and from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Nov. 11.  A display will honor veterans from this area, with a special focus on those veterans who served in World War I. An Honor Roll listing all WWI veterans buried in the Villisca City Cemetery will be on display, as well as the historic WWII Honor Roll, and other local military mementos.

Loans of artifacts for the display are welcomed.

* * * * *

Support your local historical society


Villisca Historical Society

Join now
and get 15 months of membership
for the price of 12 months:
September 2017- December 2018.
Annual individual membership $20.
Annual family membership $35.
Sustaining membership* $100.


Help Save Villisca’s History
Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering

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Celebrating 12 Years of Preserving Villisca History

Villisca square 30s
Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

By Mary Hansen, VHSI President

It’s hard to believe, but the Villisca Historical Society, Inc. came into being more than a decade ago, in 2005. The mission statement of the new organization was, and still is: The Villisca Historical Society, Inc., shall collect, preserve, interpret, and display artifacts, photographs and documents to shed light on the natural, civil and political history of the City of Villisca, Iowa. It will develop programs and services to promote public awareness, scholarly research and appreciation of Villisca’s unique history.  This society will foster excellence in leadership and historical inquiry, believing that an understanding of the past illuminates the present and gives vision to the future.”

Thanks to the generosity of a large number of people, our society continues to fulfill many of those same goals. But just as importantly, the VHS Inc. has supported other organizations that share our aim of preserving and celebrating our joint history.

For instance, just a month after receiving our certificate of incorporation and our 501(3)C status, we were able to provide start up money to the Villisca Alumni Association to help get the 2005 All-School Reunion under way. We have continued that support ever since.

Ed & Susie ax
Former Villisca Mayor Susie Enarson and Ed Epperly
examine the Villisca weapon. Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

We’ve also received many items of historical significance in the past 12 years. Perhaps the most important one came from Dr. Ed Epperly, who donated the ax from the infamous Villisca ax murders. As we have no secure place in which to safely store the murder implement, it has spent the past 12 years at the State Historical Society building in Des Moines. Nevertheless, it belongs to the Villisca Historical Society and through us to the town of Villisca. Because of our efforts, it has been protected.

John Rundles Rialto
Photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films.

During the past several years, we’ve also had the privilege of hosting the showing of several of Kelly and Tammy Rundles’ movies, like the preview of Lost Nation: The Ioway in 2007 during Villisca Heritage Days. The Rundles also helped create and maintain our website and are now developing a VHS Inc. blog for us which will make our work available to even wider audiences.

In addition, we’ve participated in studies of the National Guard Armory in the hope that venerable building could be restored and preserved in order to bring it back to serving as a community center.

Villisca Memories

We have been participants in history fairs at the local schools and reprinted Audrea Higgins’ “Villisca Memories,” her history prepared for the Bicentennial. For almost ten years, Dave Higgins produced fascinating newsletters that documented important events, people and memories from our town’s past. Recently, we created a Facebook page, Historic Villisca, which is reaching even more folks.

I have had the privilege of representing the Society in many events, like the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Iowa’s statehood in which I drew from Lorene and Dennis Neal’s book, Montgomery County Veterans of World War II.

VReview front page.jpg

We helped the Villisca Library pay for digitizing the Villisca Review’s archives through July 2011, which has made much of the town’s history accessible through the internet. Last year we co-sponsored Iowa History Day in Villisca with the Forgotten Iowa History Society, group of more than 35,000 Facebook members.

This year we also funded a brochure celebrating the 80th anniversary of Villisca’s City Hall and helped purchase shelves to display artifacts in the Armory where renovations are continuing.

We don’t know what we’ll be called upon to help with next, but with your participation, we’ll be ready. So please, join the Villisca Historical Society today and help preserve Villisca’s past for those who in the future wish to look back to understand their present.

If you are not a member of the Villisca Historical Society, we encourage  you to join us!  We are currently launching a funding drive to raise money to assist in our efforts to preserve, educate and inform about Villisca’s treasured past and its future! Thank you for your support.

Support your local historical society


Villisca Historical Society

Join now
and get 15 months of membership
for the price of 12 months:
September 2017- December 2018.
Annual individual membership $20.
Annual family membership $35.
Sustaining membership* $100.


Help Save Villisca’s History
Contribute today!

• Membership • Donations • Volunteering

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One of Villisca’s own receives long-delayed Silver Star

Bob Moore Jr.jpg
Photo courtesy Captain Robert Moore, Jr.

Forty years after the fact, former Army Capt. Robert Moore, Jr., a 1963 graduate of Villisca High School, received the Silver Star for his actions during the Vietnam War.

In a ceremony in Marietta, Georgia, at the Joint Forces Headquarters, Major Gen. Jim Butterworth presented Moore with the Army’s third highest honor.

“It is an incredible story. Forty-three years ago, a deserving military member performed gallantly on the field of battle,” Butterworth said.

Butterworth’s words were a testament to the personal courage Moore showed on July 13, 1969.

In Vietnam, Moore served with the 101st Airborne Division. He received One of Villisca’s own receives long-delayed Silver Star the medal for “performing with courage and discipline under fire.”

The records report Moore’s actions this way: After an enemy land mine exploded and sent shrapnel tearing through one of his knees, Moore, continued to command his unit and refused medical treatment until the other wounded first received help.

Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey said, “He is the epitome of a hero. He is the embodiment of what makes this nation the greatest on Earth.”

Moore said after the ceremony that he is full of pride, but also feels guilt. He feels guilty and doesn’t understand why he was awarded a Silver Star in lieu of the other brave soldiers in his unit.

“I don’t know why I was awarded,” said Moore with tears in his eyes, “but I do know that I will wear my medal with pride and that I wear it for each one of my men. Thank you.”

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100 Years Ago–Villisca’s boys came home from the Mexican border, only to be ordered to prepare for WWI

Parade Susie E
Photo courtesy Susie Enarson.

The sixty-five men and three officers of Company F of Villisca left on June 25, 1916, for Camp Dodge on their way to the Mexican border. They arrived in Texas on July 26, and by the time September rolled around the Company had been on the line for all of six minutes! They returned home on February 20, 1917 to a huge red, white and blue welcome, with banners, dinners and speeches.

But, just three months later, the Company that had returned in joy from what was  essentially a phony war was ordered to recruit men to attain war strength. America had declared war on Germany on April 6 and needed all of her fighting men. This one was
going to be a real war and western Iowa’s troops were needed.

The unit was mustered into federal service on July 25, 1917, assigned to the Rainbow Division. When Col. Douglas MacArthur had been ordered to form a division of 42,000 men by selecting crack regiments from practically every state. He responded that it would be “a division that will represent every state, to cover the country like a rainbow.”

Our boys, part of the 3,600 Iowans in the 168th Infantry division, departed for Camp Mills, Hempstead, Long Island, New York on September 10. They boarded a  transport ship, arriving in France in December 1917.  By March they were in the trenches fighting the “Hun.” Before it was all over, our men—no longer boys now—would see service on six different fronts.

Battles at Champagne Marne, Aisne, Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne took some of our men’s lives and injured others. The war made heroes of our men, although not all of them received medals for their bravery. Some would die from disease or suffer for the rest of their lives from the effects of mustard gas. Tiny little camps such as Ker-AVor would imprint themselves on the consciouness of the men from Villisca.

But at 11 o’clock of the 11th day of the 11th month, it was over. The men from Villisca had helped win the war to end all wars. They came home on the transport Leviathon, which landed at Hoboken, NJ, on a May evening in 1919.

The division was sent to Camp Upton, New York, for a short period.

The people of Villisca couldn’t wait! The screaming headline in the May 2, 1919 Villisca Review said it all: “They’re Coming Home!”

A joint celebration with Clarinda was planned, with Villisca honoring the company first.

The Herald summed it up: “The boys are on their way home and plans are under way here and in Villisca to give them the greeting and welcome that they have justly earned
and deserve. Just when the boys of Co. F will be here is not yet known, but it is a positve fact that when they do arrive they will be welcomed back to us with the spirit of tried and true heroes who have fought and bled for home and country.”

Co. F arrived in Villisca on Train No. 9 on May 17 and were met by a large, exuberant crowd. The official celebration was held May 20.

Villisca heaved a huge sigh of relief: “Our boys are back!”


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Epperly Donates Villisca Axe to Historical Society

Ed with axePhoto 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.

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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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