The Coroner's Inquest
1912 Villisca Axe Murders
Sometime during the night of June 9, 1912 a killer or
killers unknown, entered the home of Josiah B. Moore. Bludgeoned to death were Joe, his
wife Sara, their four children and two neighbor girls, Lena and Ina Stillinger, who were
visiting overnight. Known ever since as the Villisca axe murders, this is easily the most
notorious crime in Iowa history.
Villisca, a town of twenty-five hundred souls in Southwestern Iowa, was changed forever by
this tragedy. Hundreds joined in the immediate search for a deranged killer. During the
initial period of community terror, families doubled up so that one member could be on
guard throughout the night.
When no insane killer was found rumors and suspicions began to take root. Locals accused a
prominent citizen, F.F. Jones, of hiring the murder because of business conflicts and
jealousy directed toward Joe Moore. The county held two Grand Jury investigations, and
tried a slander suit. Finally, in 1917 Lyn George Jacklin "Preacher" Kelly was
arrested and tried. Reverend Kelly, who had a long history of mental and sexual problems,
confessed to the murders while in police custody. However, Montgomery County citizens
failed to convict him in two separate trials held in the Fall of 1917.
Lasting nearly a decade and dividing the town of Villisca for more than a generation, this
unsolved mystery is a fascinating study of ordinary people dealing with an extraordinary
event. The starting point in recreating that event is the document that follows. From a
historian's point of view, the Coroner's Inquest enjoys pride of place among the hundreds
of documents pertaining to the Villisca axe murders.
Tuesday, June 11, 1912, a day after the discovery of the murders, the Coroner's Inquest
began in Villisca. Recorded verbatim by a court reporter, it contains the first official
testimony regarding the event. These fourteen witnesses formed their impressions of the
scene before they had an opportunity to be influenced by rumor and public opinion. The
murder was fresh in their minds and their testimony undistorted by the passage of time.
The document is particularly useful in forming impressions of the scene and condition of
the victims. Doctors Cooper and Williams were the first physicians to arrive. They
conducted their survey of the scene before its contamination by the onlookers authorities
failed to keep out of the murder house. This document also gives insight into the very
early theories regarding possible suspects. Nearly all witnesses were questioned about
family feuds and disgruntled employees who might be seeking revenge. From the perspective
of eighty plus years, it is difficult to give credence to the idea that an angry
brother-in-law would commit such a heinous crime or that a discharged hired man might kill
a whole family. Nevertheless, the Coroner's jury explored these "leads".
Finally, Ed Landers testimony is of particular interest, since he would figure prominently
in future investigations and trials. His story changed over the years, so it is important
to note his initial impressions as recorded in the Coroner's Inquest.
The Inquest transcript is a compelling document to read and certainly the starting point
for anyone who would truly understand the Villisca axe murders.
Dr. Edgar Epperly
The Coroner's Inquest
Dr. J. Clark Cooper
Having first been duly sworn, on oath testified as follows, upon examination,
BY THE CORONER:
Q What is your initials?
A J .C.
Q J .C. You practice in Villisca?
Q When was you called Monday morning, --about what time was you called?
A I would guess it was 8:15.
Q 8:15. And what was the message?
A Hank Horton came up, I was sitting in my chair, I had been to the post office and got my
paper, was reading then just came up and stuck his head in the door and says, "Come
with me", I says, "What is the matter", and he said to come on, very much
frightened, and then he managed to get out that Joe Moore and all his family were murdered
in bed, so I put on my hat and went down, took my coat, and we came over to the house, and
ran down in front of the Moore house and then we waited while he went over to Peckhan's
[Peckham's] and got this bunch of keys, then Ross he said, when he was in the house that
this one was locked when we arrived and Dr. Hough was at Peckhan's [Peckham's] and he came
over Prysbeterian [Presbyterian] minister, and Hank unlocked the door, and we all went in.
Q How many went in?
Q Four went in?
A Horton, Dr Hough, Mr Ewing and myself.
A And we first went, just stepped into the dining room and then went into the back parlor
Having first been duly sworn on oath testified as follows:
By Mr. Ratcliff:
Q How late on that day, did you see them?
A Oh, just before they went to church.
Q In the evening?
A Yes, sir.
Q Did you see them after they came home from church?
Q Did you notice a light there?
Q Now, Mrs. Peckhan [Peckham], you may tell in your own words anything and everything you
know about this matter, the happenings of Sunday night at that house?
A full reproduction of the Coroner's Inquest is