The Villisca Axe Murders & The Man Looking to Get Rich


1912 Villisca, Iowa was a small, small town, with a handful of businesses and some train tracks.  Unfortunately, it was about to become famous across the nation.  On the morning of June 10, 1912, six members of the Moore family and two girls that had stayed over with the Moore daughters were found bludgeoned to death.  The case remains unsolved.

However, author Troy Taylor makes a fairly good case that it was a string of murders committed by a train hopping serial killer in his book Murdered In Their Beds.  I’ve been a fairly avid reader of Troy Taylor for at least a decade, maybe more.  Recently, I was told Bill James – the father of Sabermetrics – had turned his vast practical stat knowledge towards researching the exact same topic and that his book The Man From the Train was even better.  So I grabbed it.

I agree that Bill James’ book is better.  And by the end of it, I was thoroughly convinced that yes, Villisca was one in a long series of murders committed by a man he refers to as The Man From The Train.  It also reminded me of my original theory on why the axe murders went unsolved for a century… J. N. Wilkerson.

It’s nearly impossible to do any in depth study of the murders and not come across the name J. N. Wilkerson.  Wilkerson was a private detective that worked for the Burns agency out of Kansas City.  And one of those guys that stands on both sides of the law.  Before the 1950s, nearly all murders that didn’t happen in a major metropolis were investigated by private detectives, usually paid for by something called a reward fund.  Or if the family had money, by the family.  Professional detectives working for police departments just weren’t really a thing at the time.

The Burns Agency was the Midwest version of the Pinkerton Agency in New York City.  And the majority of their investigators were on the up and up.  But there’s always a few bad eggs when there’s an endless supply of money to be made from murder.  And J. N. Wilkerson was one of those bad eggs.

Wilkerson was put in charge of the investigation in Villisca, Iowa after the original detective was given a promotion and moved to Chicago.  I have always been of the opinion, that Wilkerson had no desire to solve the murders, because it was more profitable to keep investigating them.  He even accused at least one man he knew to be innocent in an attempt to blackmail him.  Frank Jones, the accused, didn’t go for it and eventually he sued Wilkerson for slander, which would make it even more profitable to not solve the murders.

Of course, even if Wilkerson hadn’t been a tool, the murders still probably wouldn’t have been solved, simply because serial killers were rare and the linked cases were never investigated as a whole.  Wilkerson just made it more difficult for detectives interested in solving the murders that had occurred in multiple states from Oregon to Texas to Iowa, because he became doggedly determined to hold Frank Jones accountable for as many things as possible after the slander case – which Jones lost.

Eventually, Wilkerson was fired by the Burns Agency, because Villisca wasn’t the only place he was uninterested in getting justice as long as there was money to be made.  By then, the Burns Agency’s reputation had taken a huge ding and several places like Kansas City where they were headquartered canceled the standing contract they had with the agency and started their own professional investigative division.

Also, the reason Villisca is better remembered in this possible string of murders over any of the others is because of Wilkerson.  As other cities that had these brutal murders went back to daily life, Wilkerson was having weekly town hall meetings, trying to drum up support (and therefore money) to continue his investigation.  He even told a fellow detective that as long as he could keep the people of Villisca angry and in a panic, they would give him all the money they could to keep him on the case.

And they did.  At one meeting, a rich local farmer decided to take the payment matters into his own hands and started a register of locals who pledged money to the reward fund from which Wilkerson was paid.  The richest man in Villisca would categorically refuse, because he didn’t trust Wilkerson and why should he since it was Frank Jones.

I actually recommend both books, by both authors for different reasons.  And the more I learn about the other cases mentioned in their books.  The more convinced I become that the Villisca Axe Murders were committed by a serial killer.

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