Attend the tale of Villisca on WQPT, still a haunting mystery 109 years later

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The Villisca Ax Murder House is where the unsolved murders of two adults and six children took place in June 1912, in the small southwest Iowa town.

For a true Iowa horror story on Halloween night, be sure to tune in Sunday at 9 p.m. on WQPT (Quad Cities PBS) for the documentary, “Villisca: Living with a Mystery,” produced in 2004 by Moline-based Fourth Wall Films.

It took 10 years to research, interview and film the two-hour in-depth study of Iowa’s worst mass murder — of eight innocent people (six of them children) — and the impact the crime had on a small Iowa town. Villisca, Iowa (pop. 1,132 in 2020) is four hours southwest of the Quad Cities.

Sometime during the dark early morning of June 10, 1912, a person or persons unknown bludgeoned to death Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sara, their children Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and two overnight guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger. The sensational crime led to nearly 10 years of investigations and trials. The small southwest Iowa town of Villisca split over the guilt or innocence of a local businessman and State Senator.

“Villisca: Living with a Mystery” tells the epic true story of the Villisca Children’s Day axe murders. Following just two months after the sinking of the Titanic, America’s greatest unsolved mystery built and ruined political careers, created a lasting community split over the guilt or innocence of a local man — a state Senator — and produced dozens of litigations including three sensational trials, according to a film synopsis.

Moline-based filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle released their first documentary, about the Villisca ax murders, in 2004.

The documentary also explores the possibility that the Villisca crime, and similar axe murders in Monmouth, Ill.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Ellsworth, Kan., may have been the work of one of America’s first serial killers. Filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle combined rare period photographs, startling computer animation, original art, limited re-enactments, and fascinating interviews with historians, eye-witnesses, town residents, and forensic experts to shed light on the spellbinding mystery and to dramatically reveal the face of a new suspect.

The house where the murders took place is available for tours, and is detailed on its official site, Villiscaiowa.com (which also includes a virtual tour). The site says that upon arriving at the home of his brother in 1912, Ross Moore attempted to look in a bedroom window, then knocked on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. When that failed, he produced his keys and found one that opened the door. Although Mrs. Peckham followed him onto the porch, she did not enter the parlor. Ross went no farther than the room off the parlor.

When he opened the bedroom door, he saw two bodies on the bed and dark stains on the bedclothes. He returned immediately to the porch and told Mrs. Peckham to call the sheriff. The two bodies in the room downstairs were Lena Stillinger, age 12 and her sister Ina, age 8, houseguests of the Moore children.

The remaining members of the Moore family were found in the upstairs bedrooms by City Marshall Hank Horton who arrived shortly. Every person in the house had been brutally murdered, their skulls crushed as they slept. Josiah Moore, age 43, Sarah Montgomery Moore, age 39, Herman Moore, age 11, Katherine Moore, age 9, Boyd Moore, 7, and Paul Moore, 5, as well as the Stillinger sisters.

Tammy and Kelly Rundle, with the original ax used to bludgeon the eight murder victims to death.

Once the murders were discovered, the news traveled quickly in the small town. As neighbors and curious onlookers converged on the house, law enforcement officials quickly lost control of the crime scene. It is said that up to 100 people traipsed through the house gawking at the bodies before the Villisca National Guard finally arrived around noon to cordon off the area and secure the home. The axe was left at the crime scene.

“Had these murders been committed today, it is almost certain that law enforcement officials would have easily solved the crime and brought the murderer to justice,” the website says. “Almost 100 years later, however, the Villisca Axe Murders remain a mystery. The murder or murderers are probably long dead, their gruesome secret buried with them. In hindsight, it’s easy to blame the officials at the time, for what could only be considered a gross mismanagement of what little evidence may have remained.”

New book by expert “Axman”

For the Villisca film, the Rundles depended on the expertise of Edgar Epperly, who’s been following the infamous case for now 60 years. The Decorah, Iowa man (and retired Luther College education professor) has written “Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912,” now the definitive account of America’s greatest unsolved mystery.

The upcoming book by Villisca expert Ed Epperly, “Fiend Incarnate.”

After 60 years of interviewing eyewitnesses and key figures in the axe murder case, researching and writing, Fourth Wall Press is pleased to present Epperly’s magnum opus. He has written dozens of true crime articles, scholarly papers and blog posts, and has appeared on dozens of television and radio programs, podcasts, symposiums and at film festivals.

He is a popular guest speaker at colleges, universities, historical societies, museums, libraries, and bookstores. Epperly was interviewed and served as the key consultant on the award-winning documentary feature “Villisca: Living With a Mystery,” produced by Emmy-winning Fourth Wall Films. He is also the subject of the award-winning 2012 documentary short “Axman.”

Epperly is a retired Luther College professor who lives in Decorah, Iowa.

The release date for “Fiend Incarnate” will be announced soon. For updates, check its Facebook page HERE. For more information on the Villisca film, visit villiscamovie.com.

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