Ed Epperly has been obsessed with a mass murder in a tiny Iowa town for over 65 years.
The unassuming 87-year-old retired college professor will bring his fiendish tales of the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders to the Bettendorf Public Library on Friday, Oct. 14. The 1:30 p.m. free talk is part of the library’s October Community Connections.
Epperly is the author of the new true-crime book “Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912.” Decades in the writing, “Fiend Incarnate” looks at the notorious Iowa crime that led to nearly a decade of investigations and trials. Villisca (pop. 1,132) is in southwest Iowa, about two hours from Des Moines).
Epperly will offer a presentation and book signing of the title. No registration is required to attend.
Sometime during the dark early morning of June 10, 1912, a person or persons unknown murdered Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sara, their children Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and two overnight guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger. Public frustration over the inability of law enforcement to solve the Villisca Axe Murders led to the formation of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The fingerprint collection compiled by the expert who also examined the Villisca crime scene became the basis of the F.B.I.’s current database. This Friday’s program is presented along with Moline-based Fourth Wall Films and is sponsored by the Friends of the Bettendorf Public Library.
First heard in 1950s
Epperly first heard about the murders while he was a student at University of Northern Iowa in the mid-1950s. He first heard from documentary filmmaker Kelly Rundle (a QC native) in 1992, when Kelly and his wife Tammy were living in Los Angeles, and had seen the college professor on a QC television news segment about Villisca.
Epperly worked with the Rundles (who own and operate Fourth Wall Films), over the next decade, resulting in the 2004 documentary, “Villisca: Living With a Mystery.”
“It was great fun for me,” Epperly said recently. “I knew nothing and did nothing about the construction of the film. I just gave them information as they ask it or needed it. And you know, they got to be quite expert about the murder by the course of that time.
“But when we had finished with the film, they suggested that you might want to write a book about it,” he said. “Well, I had thought of that a little bit, but I’ve never done any writing and it seemed like a daunting task to me at that time.”
Epperly’s initial draft was 738 pages long, and Rundle suggested he cut it down. The final book was 416 pages and published last November by Fourth Wall Press.
Tammy Rundle edited the book, so she worked closely with Epperly as he prepared the manuscript and helped craft how the story would be told in the book. Kelly Rundle did the cover and interior design.
“Ed was a cornerstone of our first documentary feature film. He has something close to a photographic memory and no one knows more about this story, and all the stranger-than-fiction details and characters than Ed,” Tammy said recently.
“As soon as we completed and released ‘Villisca: Living With a Mystery’ in 2004, we started talking about a companion book. We wanted to create a non-fiction book with wide appeal,” Kelly Rundle said. “I think we hit that mark. It’s a page turner.”
“They did exceptional job; they improved it a great deal,” Epperly said of the Rundles, who also provided invaluable historic photos for the book. “They were a big help. I really appreciate the help they gave me and they also gave me confidence to do it. They provided useful and clear directions. I appreciate that.”
Nothing to do with his career
Investigating true crime had nothing to do with his long teaching career (including in the education department of Luther College in Decorah, from 1969 to 2000), but has been a lifelong hobby.
“A lot of people fish all their life and others who do wood-turning and all kinds of things. So I just got interested in this,” Epperly said. “It’s amazing what you can find in a hobby like this. I’m not exceptionally vain but I’ve got underneath all of it, I do have a kind of a smugness that I know more about this than anybody else in the world.”
“When the book came out, I was immensely proud of that,” he said, noting he’s also tried to clear up many misconceptions about the case.
“The scene has been invaded by paranormal investigators and there’s lots of trying to establish that there are spirits of some type in the house and things like that — of which I have one, no knowledge of, or two, no experience with and three, no belief in.”
Everyone asks Epperly who he thinks did it, and he’s confident in two suspects, but they can’t both be true. One was a roving serial killer, who struck in Colorado, Illinois and Kansas in 1911 and 1912, including Monmouth, Ill. All the murders also were of entire families while they were sleeping, like in Villisca. That suspect was never caught.
The other prime suspect was a Villisca minister, Rev. George Kelly.
“He was arrested after the murder, tried for it and acquitted. He actually was tried twice and then was acquitted,” Epperly said. “I think he is a viable suspect — he was very mentally very disturbed, had a lot of sexual problems which paralleled what he left at the scene and things like that. So it’s one of those two in my judgment.”
In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary). He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1917, Kelly was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted.
Investigators and reporters across the country speculated that the violent crime was the work of an early serial killer.
America’s greatest unsolved mystery
“Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912” is the definitive written account of America’s greatest unsolved mystery, the culmination of 60 years of interviewing eyewitnesses and key figures in the murder case, researching and writing.
Epperly has written dozens of true crime articles, scholarly papers and blog posts, and has appeared on dozens of TV 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 is also the subject of the award-winning Fourth Wall documentary short “Axman” (2012).
In 1994, Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning, Iowa purchased the former home of murder victim J.B. Moore and his family. The house was returned to its original condition at the time of the murders. It was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and opened for tours.
“Films and books on the murders have recently captured the interest of an audience who had never heard of this horrendous crime,” says the home’s website. “Psychics claim they’ve identified the murderer and history buffs continue collecting piles of documents they say point to the truth.
“In all honesty though, we will never really know what happened on that dark night inside the home of J.B. and Sarah Moore,” the site says. “The murderer or murderers were never caught and given the many years that have passed, their dark secret was obviously carried with them to their own graves.”