Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

Transient Maniac

By Tuesday, June 11, when it seemed unlikely that a local man was connected to the slaughter, authorities considered the possibility that the murders had been committed by a stranger, a roving maniac, who'd committed similar crimes. In fact, just nine months earlier, there had been several ax murders nearly 700 miles away in Colorado Springs, CO.

The first had also occurred on a Sunday night — September 17, 1911 — and three people died in the home of H. C. Wayne. Apparently, that was not enough for this fiend, because the family next door suffered the same fate as they slept. The killer entered the home of Mrs. A.J. Burns who had two children, and all were slaughtered with an ax. All six victims had suffered ax blows to the head.

Sunday night, two weeks later, but far away in Monmouth, Illinois, an intruder took what appeared to be an ax to William Dawson and his wife and daughter. Then in Kansas, on October 15 and June 5 — this one just a week before Villisca — two more families met an untimely fate. In Ellsworth, there were five victims: the entire William Showman family, while in Paola, Roland Hudson and his wife were bludgeoned. The pick-ax used had been left behind in another building.

Some analysts said that the crimes had key similarities, such as the MO and time of the crime, and that pointed to a single killer, while others said that they had key differences. While commentators today indicate that the concept of a serial killer was not well-known, so linkage analysis was not developed, in fact, America had been through a number of cases of serial murder, including the aforementioned pig farmer, Belle Gunness, in Indiana in 1908. She had claimed more than a dozen victims over the years.

In addition to her, H. H. Holmes in Chicago had been suspected in more then 100 murders, and even before him, in Austin, Texas in 1885, the Servant Girl Annihilator had murdered five women in the course of a year. On Joseph Briggen's California ranch, also a pig enterprise, the bones of twelve men had been found. In addition, numerous poisoners had killed a string of victims, and there were several series of unsolved murders in at least five states, aside from those under consideration for association with Villisca. Authorities most certainly realized that men and women alike could indulge in repetitive murder, although it was much harder to link those occurring in separate jurisdictions.

Three months after the Villisca slaughter, back in Quincy, Illinois, Charles Pfanschmidt, his wife, daughter, and guest were murdered. The house was set on fire, but the bodies were discovered and it was clear that they'd been killed in their sleep with an ax. Although it appeared that the son of the couple, living away but expecting a considerable inheritance, was the culprit, rumors abounded that this incident was another that should be attributed to the Midwest ax killer. Yet the son was convicted. It wasn't the only family massacre to be linked to Villisca that year.

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