The Suspects in the Villisca Axe Murders

"State Senator Topped the List"

While no one was ever convicted of the Villisca Axe Murders, there seemed to be no shortage of suspects. In the days following the crimes, you could have read about at least four possibilities in any edition of the newspaper. Many of the leads, however, were quickly exhausted and as time wore on they began to dwindle.

Today, historians and those who have studied the Axe Murders extensively, seem to be made up of three camps. (For more information regarding the suspects, click on the link on their names.) There are many who believe Frank F. Jones, a prominent Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator was responsible for the brutal deaths of the Moore's and the Stillinger Children.

Others adamantly insist that the crazed Reverend George Kelly was the culprit. Still others believe the Moore murders were the work of someone totally unrelated to the town of Villisca, a possible traveler, hobo, or serial killer.

Josiah Moore worked for Frank Jones at the Jones store for several years until he opened his own implement company in 1908. According to Villisca residents, Jones was extremely upset that Moore had left his employ and managed to take the very lucrative John Deere franchise with him. Rumor was that Moore had an affair with Jones' daughter-in-law, Dona, which further fanned the flames. Detective Wilkerson of the Burns Detective Agency openly accused Frank and his son Albert of hiring William Mansfield to kill Joe Moore. Neither Jones was ever arrested and both denied vehemently any connection to the murders.

William "Blackie" Mansfield ~arrested in 1916

Paid by Frank Jones to commit the Moore murders?

William Mansfield of Blue Island, Illinois, was the prime suspect of the Burns Detective Agency of Kansas City and Detective James Newton Wilkerson. According to the Wilkerson Investigation, the murder of Joe Moore and the other occupants of the Moore home were committed by Mansfield, who was in turn, hired by F.F. Jones.

Mansfield was also known as George Worley and/or Jack Turnbaugh. According to Wilkerson, Mansfield was a cocaine fiend and serial killer. Wilkerson also believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914 (2 years after the Villisca murders), the Axe Murders committed in Paola, Kansas, 4 days before Villisca murders and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Colorado.

According to Wilkerson's investigation, all of the murders were committed in precisely the same manner indicating the same man committed them. Wilkerson stated that he could prove that Mansfield was present in each of these places on the night of the murders. In each murder, the victims were hacked to death with an axe and the mirrors in the homes were covered. A burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. In each case, the murderer avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves, which Wilkerson believed was strong evidence that the man was Mansfield, who knew his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth.

Wilkerson managed to convince a Grand Jury to open an investigation in 1916 and Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided an alibi that placed Mansfield in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence and later won a lawsuit he brought against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225.00. Wilkerson believed that pressure from Jones resulted not only in Mansfield's release but also in the subsequent arrest and trial of Reverend Kelly.

"Jury Probing Evidence - Case Against William Mansfield, Accused of Villisca Axe Murders, is Now Up"

Red Oak, Ia., July 15, 1916 -- the Montgomery grand jury got down to business here today, examining the evidence against William Mansfield, brought here from Kansas City, Ks., charged with the Villisca axe murders of four years ago. It is expected that there is enough evidence to keep the jury busy till Friday when Mansfield will have his preliminary hearing and be defended by his Kansas City attorney.

R.H. Thorpe, a restaurant man from Shenandoah, was here today and identified Mansfield as the man he saw the morning after the murder boarding a train at Clarinda. This man said he had walked from Villisca. If this is substantiated it will break down Mansfield's alibi. Mrs. Vina Thompkins, of Marshalltown, is on her way here to testify that she heard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings.

"Released For Murder Committed In 1912"

Red Oak, Iowa, July 21, 1916 -- William Mansfield was released by order of District Judge Woodruff at 3 o'clock this afternoon after a special Montgomery county grand jury refused to indict him for the Villisca axe murders four years ago. The sheriff placed him in an automobile and drove into the country, and it is supposed Mansfield will return to Kansas City, Kansas, at once.

Reverend George Jacklin Kelly ~ arrested 1917

Was his confession given under duress and torture?

The other prime suspect in the Axe murders was Reverend George Kelly, a traveling preacher. Kelly and his wife settled in Macedonia, Iowa in 1912 after several years of preaching throughout the Midwest.

In 1917, Kelly was arrested and charged with the murder of one of the victims of the Villisca Axe Murders. Kelly was invited to attend the Children's Day exercises at the Presbyterian Church on June 9th of 1912. His presence in Villisca on the night of the murders and his subsequent departure in the early morning hours of June 10th made him a prime suspect in the case.

Kelly's supposed "confession" made a mockery of law enforcement practices at the time, and was withdrawn before his trial began. Kelly's first trial resulted in a hung jury and he was finally acquitted by the second. According to information presented by Kelly and Tammy Rundle, "Kelly moved to Kansas City, Connecticut, and finally New York City. The remaining years of his life and his final resting place remain a mystery".

Henry Lee Moore

The work of serial killer?

There existed a strong possibility that a serial killer was actually at work and Wilkerson's case against Mansfield actually suggested the same. M.W. McClaughry, a federal officer assigned to the Villisca case actually announced in May of 1913 that he had solved not only the Villisca murders but 22 others that had been committed in the Midwest around the same timeframe. McClaughry's theory was that Henry Moore, no relation to Josiah Moore, was the serial killer responsible for all of the crimes.

Henry Moore was actually convicted of the murders of his mother and maternal grandmother in Columbia, Missouri just months after the murders in Villisca. Moore's family members were killed just as brutally as the victims in Villisca and his weapon of choice was an axe.

Henry Lee Moore was born November 1, 1874 in Boone County, Missouri. He was the eldest son of Enoch and Georgia Ann Wilson Moore. There were three other sons born of the couple. Henry's father was a farmer and served in the Civil War. His mother was a nurse. Two of Henry's brothers, Tilden and Turner Moore as well as his father passed away before 1910. Henry's remaining brother, Charles died in 1960 in Stockton, California. Charles left the area prior to the deaths of his mother and grandmother and did not return for the trial. It was unknown whether or not he was aware of the situation.

In 1900, Henry was living with a family in Franklin County Iowa and working as a farmhand. It is suspected that Henry may have fathered a child with the young daughter of the farmer. Henry was sentenced to the Kansas State Reformatory in in Hutchinson Kansas on a forgery charge and was released on April 11, 1911. The murders in Colorado Springs occurred in Sept of the same year. Testimony during Henry's trial indicated that he had lived with his mother and grandmother during the winter of 1911 and the summer of 1912. He left to take a job on the railroad.

Henry Lee Moore served 36 years of a life sentence before being paroled by the govenor of Missouri on December 2, 1949. The govenor commuted his sentence on July 30, 1956. Henry Moore was 82 years old and had been living at the Salvation Army Center in St. Louis. It is unknown when he died or where he was living at the time.

During the Villisca investigation, other axe murders also came to light. Just 9 months before the crime in Villisca, H.C. Wayne, his wife and child and Mrs. A.J. Burnham and her two children were bludgeoned with an axe in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A month later, in October of 1911 a family was killed in Monmouth Illinois and just a week later, five members of a family in Ellsworth Kansas were murdered as they slept. Just a week before the killing of the Moore's and Stillinger's in Villisca, a man and his wife were killed in Paola, Kansas. The similarities in the crimes were striking.

McClaughry received information about Moore's conviction from his father who was the warden of the Leavenworth Kansas Federal Penitentary. It was his belief that Mr. Henry Moore had committed all of the murders. For whatever reason, McClaughry's announcement went largely ignored and to our knowledge, Henry Moore was not convicted of any of the other crimes.

"Similarity of Case To Colorado Horror"

Colorado Springs, Col., June 15, 1912 -- Police officials who are in constant touch with the Villisca authorities find added parallels in the Moore and the Burnham-Wayne murders, which are difficult to explain by the theory that the same person or persons committed both crimes. In Villisca the murderer strung skirts and aprons across the windows to prevent any one from looking into the house. At the Wayne and Burnham homes bed spreads were stretched across the windows.

In Villisca, he covered the heads of the victims with bed clothing, wiped the blood from his axe and removed the stains from his hands and clothing; and this, too, was the case here. Here, as in the Iowa town, the doors were locked, an unfastened rear window in each instance affording an means of entrance for the ax man.

Andy Sawyer ~ detained by sheriff, June 18, 1912

Crazed mutterings made his employer nervous.

Every hobo, transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was also a suspect in the Axe Murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. As with many other suspects, no real evidence linked Mr. Sawyer to the crime, however, his name came up often in Grand Jury testimonies.

According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 a.m on the morning the murders were discovered. Mr. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and as Mr. Dyer needed an extra man- he was given a job on the spot.

Mr. Dyer testified that later that evening when the crew hit Fontenelle Iowa, Mr. Sawyer purchased a newspaper which he went off by himself to read. The newspaper carried a front page account of the Villisca murders and according to Dyer, Sawyer "was much interested in it." Dyers crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy about the fact that Sawyer slept with his axe and often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.

He apparently told Dyer personally that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders and was afraid he may be a suspect which was why he left and showed up in Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18th of 1912.

Prior to the sheriff arriving, Dyer testified that he walked up behind Sawyer and he was rubbing his head with both hands and all of the sudden jumped up and said to himself "I will cut your god damn heads off" at the same time he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.

Dyer's son (J.R.) also testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer told him he would show him (J.R.) where the man that killed the Moore family got out of town. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1 1/2 blocks away and then showed where he crossed the Railroad Track and there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. He then said for me (J.R.) to look on the other side of the car and he would show me an old tree where he said the murderer stepped into the creek.

According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about 4 blocks away. Sawyer, however, was apparently dismissed as a suspect in the case when it was discovered that he was able to prove he'd been in Osceola, Iowa on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train at approximately 11:00 p.m. that evening.

Joe Ricks ~ detained in Monmouth Illinois, June 15, 1912

Arrived by train in Monmouth, Illinois wearing shoes covered in blood.

An early suspect in the murders was Joe Ricks, a man who was arrested in Monmouth, Illinois when he stepped off a train wearing shoes that were covered with blood. As you can see in the newspaper articles that discussed the accusation, the man was not recognized as the man seen in Villisca asking for directions to the Moore home the day preceeding the murders.

"Niece of the Moores Assists in the Hunt"

Villisca, Ia., June 15, 1912 -- On receipt of a telegram from Sheriff, W.F. Fitzpatrick, of Warren county, Illinois, County Attorney Ratcliffe left hurriedly late last night for Monmouth, Ill., accompanied by Miss Fay Van Gilder, the 16-year-old niece of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph B. Moore, the victims of last Sunday night's octuple assassination.

They went to see if Miss Van Gilder could identify the man under arrest there as a man with whom she talked on the Saturday morning preceding the murders. The young woman related that she was accosted by a stranger who inquired where the home of the Moores was located. Later, when she told Mrs. Moore of the occurrence, the latter said a man answering the description of the stranger had been hanging about their place. The Monmouth suspect who gives the name of Joe Ricks, told the Illinois officers that he came from Clarinda, Ia., a town 15 miles from here.

"Traces of Fiend Fade in the Hunt"

Monmouth, Ill., June 15, 1912 - Joe Ricks, held here in connection with the Moore murder at Villisca, Ia., is not the man Fay Van Gilder saw "acting in a suspicious manner," near Villisca a few days before the murder. Miss Van Gilder, who came here today with her mother, Mrs. Emma Van Gilder and District Attorney Ratcliffe, of Villisca, declared as soon as she was brought face to face with Ricks that he was not the man. Ricks has given a fairly good account of himself to the authorities. He said that the bloodstained shoes he was wearing when arrested he had obtained in a trade from a tramp.

and still...

confessions continue to roll in years after the crime.

"Confession In Ax Murders Alleged"

Red Oak, March 19, 1917 -- The Rev. J.J. Burris, of Terrillton, Okla., has arrived in Red Oak with a subpoena from the Montgomery county grand jury, which, for the past ten days has been investigating the Villisca murder mystery.

The minister, who is pastor of the Church of Christ in the Oklahoma city, declared that a man, whose name he was unable to recall, on his death bed confessed to him of having committed the murders which shocked the entire state, and which for four and a half years have baffled detectives and county and state officers.

Mr. Burris is expected to tell his story to the grand jury. He said the confession was made to him in a hotel at Radersburg, Mont., July, 1913, about a year after the crime. "When I arrived at the bedside I saw at a glance he was at death's door. He was in torment and lived only a short time after I arrived. Death was said to have been due to delirium tremens." Mr. Burris said the man began to talk immediately upon his entering the room. "He said he had been guilty of many wrongs," continued the minister, "and wanted to make a clean breast before he died. He seemed to know that he had but a short while to live.

His life was passing rapidly and it was with great difficulty that he spoke. He was physically unable to dwell much on details. The man sank back among the pillows. A great load seemed to have been lifted from his mind. In a few minutes he breathed his last." Mr. Burris said the body was buried in Radersburg.

The clergyman said that the man told him that he was living in Villisca at the time of the murder and that formerly he had been engaged in the blacksmith business there. He is said to have been part owner of a blacksmith shop in Radersburg at the time of his death. "I should judge he was a man about 25 years old at the time ofhis death," said Mr. Burris. "He has relatives in Villisca, I was told that his sister in Radersburg years ago married a physician and left her home in Villisca to live in the west."

Mr. Burris said he did not remember ever having seen the man before he was called to the bedside. He said the man climed to have known him when he lived in Iowa years ago. Asked if he had ever heard the story told by Mr. Burris, Albert Jones, who with his father, F.F. Jones, of Villisca, are being investigated in connection with the ax murder Saturday, declared that he had and that he did not attach much importance to it.

Detective J.N. Wilkerson, who is seeking indictments against a half dozen residents of Montgomery county, declared that he had investigated the story and found that it would not stand up.

Mr. Burris said he had been in communication with Attorney General Havner in regard to the story he said was told him by the dying man, and that the attorney general had the money with which to pay the expense of his trip to Red Oak. Mr. Havner is expected to arrive in Red Oak from Des Moines. F.F. Faville, who is conducting the grand jury investigation refused to comment on Burris' story.

Detroit Prisoner Says He Slew Minister, Wife, and Four Children in 1912

Red Oak, Iowa, March 26, 1931 -- Authorities tonight were checking the confession of George Meyers in Detroit, Mich, to the axe murder eighteen years ago of Joseph Moore, his wife, four children and two girls at Villisca twenty miles southeast of here. The brutal slaying of the eight victims on the night of June 9, 1912, aroused the country and resulted in the arrest of many suspects.

At the time it was believed the same murderer killed an entire family in Colorado Springs only a few months before, another family in Kansas and a third in [line missing & text appears to be mixed up a bit], the most prominent citizen of eastern Iowa. The Villisca victims were Moore, 42, his wife: Herman 11, Catherine, 9, Floyd, 7, and Paul, 6, their children, and Edith Stillings, 12, and her sister, Blanche, 9, who were visiting at the Moore home.

Detroit, March 28, 1931 -- George Meyers, 48, prisoner in county jail here awaiting sentence for burglary, has confessed to the axe murder of six persons - a man, his wife and their four children - in Villisca, Iowa, 18 years ago, it was learned here tonight. Meyers' alleged confession came after five hours of grilling by detectives Max Richman and Earl Anderson who had received an anonymous tip by letter to check up on the prisoner. Finger prints of Meyers, sent to the sheriff of Montgomery co., Iowa, are said to have checked with fingerprints found at the scene of the crime.

The victims were Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Moore and their four children. Meyers said he did not know the minister nor the business man who promised to pay him $5,000 to kill the family. The offer, he said, came thru an underworld acquaintance whom he met in Kansas City. The acquaintance took him to Villisca, Iowa, about 65 miles southeast of Omaha, Neb., where they met the man who wanted the job done.

"I never knew what the man's name was" the alleged confession reads. "He pointed out the house of this family he wanted wiped out. I demanded part of my money from him before I did the job. He gave me $2,000 and said he would give me the rest afterwards. I got an axe and entered the house about midnight. I killed them all, the man his wife and their four children. They were all asleep. A little while after, I again met this man who had hired me and told him the job was done. I wanted the rest of my money. He said I'd have to wait." When the business man refused to pay him the rest of the money until he was sure the family had been killed, Meyers said he fled the town before daybreak and never returned.

Detroit, March 28, 1931 -- This afternoon the detectives said Meyers admitted killing the Moore family but denied killing the two Stillinger girls.

Detroit, March 30, 1931 -- Leroy Robinson, alias George Meyers, who Saturday confessed the slaying of six persons in Iowa in 1912, and who yesterday was said to have headed a plot of 10 prisoners to break out of the county jail, was sentenced to from 14 1/2 to 15 years in the Michigan state prison at Jackson today. Robinson's confession that he killed six persons at Villisca, Ia., does not tally with the record of the crime, officers said. Eight persons were killed, Robinson's confession accounted for only six.