Several suspects emerged almost immediately, although 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, began to dwindle.
Today, historians and those who have studied the AXE murders extensively, seem to be made up of three camps. There are many who, to this day, believe Frank F. Jones, the prominent Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator who Moore had worked for was responsible.
Others adamantly insist that the crazed Reverend George Kelly was the culprit. In the third group are those who believe the Moore murders were the work of someone totally unrelated to the town of Villisca, a possible traveler, hobo, or serial killer. This is by far from an exhaustive list.
Hired Gun: William “Blackie” Mansfield, arrested in 1916
Demon inside a Minister: Rev. George Jacklin Kelly, tried in 2017
Convicted of a double murder: Henry Lee Moore
Midwest serial killer theory: Villisca was part of a pattern
S.A. “Andy” Sawyer, detained by sheriff
Joe Ricks, detained in Monmouth, Ill.
William “Blackie” Mansfield, Arrested in 1916
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 Jones and his son Albert of hiring William “Blackie” Mansfield to kill Josiah Moore. Neither Jones or his son was ever arrested, and both denied vehemently any connection to the murders.
However, the potential hit man, Blackie Mansfield, was arrested in 1916. Detective Wilkerson believed he was also responsible for the ax murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914, a full two years after the Villisca crime.
Further, he suspected that Wilkerson was the killer in an ax murder in Paola, Kansas, just four days before the Villisca massacre that bore many of the same peculiar details. He also pinned another ax murder in Aurora, Colo., on Mansfield as well.
Wilkerson concluded – as many investigators since – that those murders were part of a string likely done by the hands of the same person due to striking similarities. In each, the murders were hacked to death with the blunt end of an ax, the mirrors and bodies were covered with cloth. Notably, a lamp with the chimney off was left at each scene. Wilkerson had already served time at Leavenworth Prison.
Wilkerson convinced a grand jury to open an investigation. Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided a rock solid alibi that placed Mansfield in Illinois at the time of both the Paola, Kansas, and the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence. Local newspapers reported a woman testified she overheard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings. the Moore family The sheriff drove Mansfield into the nearby countryside outside the city limits, and he somehow managed to get back to Kansas City.
Mansfield later won a lawsuit he brought against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225, equal to about $65,000 in 2023).
Wilkerson told newspapers at the time he believed that Jones – arguably the wealthiest and most influential resident of Villisca at the time — pressured for Mansfield to be released, and pushed for Rev. TK Kelly to be arrested and tried.
The Rev. George Jacklin Kelly, arrested in 1917
The other prime suspect in the Ax murders was Reverend George Kelly, a traveling preacher originally born in England. 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 Ax Murders. Kelly was about to enter Presbyterian seminary and was doing some work for the Presbyterian Church in Villisca. He attended the Children’s Day program 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. It didn’t help that he wrote lengthy letters to investigators and posed as an investigator for Scotland yard to get inside the house shortly after the murders. He also sent a bloody shirt to a drugstore for cleaning the following week.
Many researchers on the Villisca murders have done deep dives Kelly. While intelligent and articulate, he suffered from mental issues and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had a penchant for peeping in windows, and was known as a “fire bug,” and confessed to a series of arson crimes.
But investigators failed to arrest him initially for a simple reason: his slight build. At only 5 foot 2 inches and about 119 pounds, the coroner and detectives for hire believed he was physically incapable of the crimes.
By the time he was arrested, five years had passed since the murders. Witnesses had difficulty remembering details. That, combined with a coerced confession and a lack of physical evidence, left one jury hung, and a second ended in a mistrial.
Kelly eventually left the Midwest and settled in New England. His behavior became increasingly erratic. In one stint, he worked as chaplain for a New Jersey chapter of the KKK, giving the invocation before cross burnings. His last job seemed fairly responsible, working as a chaplain for the large Bowery Street Mission in New York.
Kelly died in 1959 at age 80 in Islip Hospital in upstate New York, one of the country’s largest and most notorious psychiatric hospitals at the time. He and his wife are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Henry Lee Moore
As early as May 1913, investigators speculated the Moore family’s murder might be part of a string perpetrated by a serial killer. M.W. McClaughry, a federal officer assigned to the Villisca case, announced that he had found a suspect in those murders and four other crimes others committed throughout the Midwest around the same time.
His suspect was Henry Lee Moore (no relation to Josiah Moore). Henry was born Nov. 1, 1874, in Boone County. Mo., the eldest of four sons of Enoch, a Civil War veteran, and Georgia Anna Wilson Moore, a nurse. By 1910, Henry’s father and two of his brothers died, and his other brother had moved to California.
Henry grew up troubled. While living in Missouri, he’d developed a habit of visiting various morgues in st. Louis to look at the dead bodies. He kept a scrapbook of famous murder cases; one researcher said he may have started his collection as early as age eight.
While working as a farmhand, he is rumored to have fathered a child the underage daughter of a farmer. He had run-ins with the law and was convicted of forgery in 1910 and served time in a Kansas state prison. He was released in May 1911.
The first ax crime of the series McClaughry suspected him of committing happened in Colorado Spring, Colo., in September that year – the same month he got a job working on the railroad.
A month later, in October of 1911 a family was killed in Monmouth Ill., and just a week later, five members of a family in Ellsworth, Kan., were murdered as they slept. Just a week before the murders in Villisca, a man and his wife were killed in Paola, Kan. The similarities in the crimes were striking.
Moore was in love with a 16-year-old girl named Queenie Nichols who rejected his marriage proposal because he didn’t have a home of his own. He assured her that he’d be soon the sole inhabitant of his mom’s house, where he lived on and off. On the night of Dec. 17, 1917, he checked into a hotel in Columbia using an alias. He went to his mother’s home and beat her with a rusty coal ax while she sat in a chair putting ointment for her joints. He went upstairs and then beat to death his 82-year-old sleeping grandmother.
He returned to the hotel and attempted to clean off all the blood, but ended up leaving it spread around the room, on the sheets, his clothes and his arms. He returned to the house to “discover” the bodies but his blood-splattered clothes and the quick revelation that he’d spent the night in the hotel made him an immediate suspect. He was convicted on March 14, 1918, and sentenced to life in prison. His was paroled in 1949. He died at age 82 in a Salvation Army Center in St. Louis
McClaughry continued to pursue his theory that Moore was responsible for at least four crimes that killed 22 people in the Midwest, and a few took this seriously, even opening official investigations. In the end, Moore was never charged or convicted of any of the others.
S.A. “Andy” Sawyer, detained by sheriff, June 18, 1912
Every hobo, transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was also a suspect in the Villisca ax murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. As with many other suspects, no real evidence linked 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 July 10, themorning the murders were discovered. 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 Dyer needed an extra man and he was given a job on the spot.
Dyer testified that later when the crew hit Fontenelle, Iowa, 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 ax 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 ax 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 where the man that killed the Moore family got out of town. He said the killer jumped over a specific manure box a block from the Moore house, then crossed the railroad track. Sawyer then said to look on the other side of the railroad car to see an old tree where the murderer stepped into a creek.
According to J.R. Dyer, when the train passed into Villisca, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four 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 p.m. that evening headed away from Villisca.
Joe Ricks, detained in Monmouth, Ill., June 15, 1912
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. However, this was a rare time the account of Fay Van Gilder was noted – her testimony is absent from the coroner’s inquest and subsequent trials.
His story is from the following two news accounts of the era:
“Niece of the Moores Assists in the Hunt”
Villisca, Iowa., June 15, 1912 — On receipt of a telegram from Sheriff, W.F. Fitzpatrick, of Warren county, Ill., 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.
Rebirth of the Serial Killer Theory
Researchers today believe a serial killer traveling by train is a plausible explanation for not only the murders in Villisca, but other seemingly random ax murders ranging from 1910 to 1919. They point to the pattern of crimes McClaughry identified in 1913.
Most rule out Henry Lee Moore as a good suspect, however. In the other cases, robbery was not a motive, while in his case, greed was the obvious driver. Some signatures of the other crimes are missing, such as covering the victims’ faces. Also, the spree seems to have started earlier, while Moore was still detained, and continue after his imprisonment.
Crime researcher Beth Klingensmith has suggested that as many as 10 incidents that occurred close to railway tracks but in locations as far away as Rainier, Wash., might be part of this chain, and in several cases there are striking similarities to the Villisca crime.
In his 2012, the book, Murdered in their Beds by Troy Taylor, explored many similar ax murderers involving families in Texas, Colorado and throughout the Midwest that echoed Villisca. He didn’t pinpoint a specific suspect. In his podcast, “American Hauntings,” Taylor added another crime that took place earlier in San Antonio, stating he believed that when the killer first struck.
In 2017, in the book, The Man on the Train, journalist Bill James theorized the murders could have been the work of Paul Mueller, a German immigrant drifter and logger. James even tied Mueller to the infamous Hinterkaifeck ax murders in Germany, stating his belief Mueller returned to Germany after running into trouble with the law a few times in the U.S.
These authors and other researchers focus on crimes where families had been murdered by ax and shared signature similarities. Axs were a weapon of convenience at the time since virtually all homes had one. Some involved prepubescent girls. Not all homes in those days had mirrors – they were an expensive luxury item – but in those that had them, they were usually covered with cloth or clothes. In most, victims’ faces were covered. Windows would be covered, and doors locked.
Several shared another unique signature: a lamp without a chimney, the wick turned down low.
These are the cases most often cited in connection to the Villisca murders:
Colorado Springs Ax Murders (1912):
On Sept. 17, 1911, four members of the Burnham family were found murdered with an ax at the home on Dale Street. When news of the murder spread, people noticed the next-door neighbors, the Wayne family, had not yet appeared. It turned out that Henry, his wife, Blanche, and their 18-month-old daughter, Lula, had been murdered in the same manner. There’s some evidence that the killer in Villisca may have tried to conduct a second murder; a telephone operator said someone tried her locked bedroom door shortly after 2 a.m.
Monmouth Ax Murders (1911):
On Sept. 30, 1911, William Dawson, his wife, Charity, and their 13-year-old daughter, Georgia, were blungeoned to death with a heavy pipe in their beds while they slept. This crime had distinctive similarities to the Villisca scene.
Paola, Kan,, Ax Murders (1912):
Just six days before the Moore family murders, Rollin Hudson and his wife were found murdered in their beds, killed by an ax. Their faces were covered, the murder weapon was left at the scene, the window shades were drawn and the doors were locked.
Axman of New Orleans (1918-1919):
A series of brutal ax murders occurred in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919, attributed to an unidentified assailant known as the “Axman.” The killer targeted victims in their homes, often attacking them with an ax or other blunt objects. While the geographic distance is significant, the brutal nature of the attacks and the fact that they involved ax murders have led some to speculate about a possible connection.