Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa


Reverend George Kelly
Reverend George Kelly

The Reverend Lyn George J. Kelly, at just over five feet and weighing about 115, was a scrawny and excitable traveling preacher from Macedonia, Iowa, not far from Villisca. He'd come into town on Saturday, June 8 and the following day had been in attendance at the church where the Moore family and Stillinger girls had participated in the children's program. Yet it was clear to those who encountered him that he disliked children and was exceedingly agitated, often speaking too fast to be understood. He left town early the following morning, which made him a prime suspect (though he was scheduled to leave), but he exacerbated the situation considerably in 1917 by confessing. In addition, there was testimony that Kelly had told some people on the train on the morning of the murders that eight people had been killed in Villisca. That statement had occurred prior to 7:00 A.M., before bodies were discovered.

In a letter penned by Lena Atkinson, who'd had exposure as a child to Kelly on the evening before the murders, she said, "We youngsters always heard the Minister confessed the crime on the train going to Macedonia. As we heard it, he had received a vision to follow the biblical injunction, 'Slay and slay utterly.' Whether that is in the Bible I have no idea, but we as youngsters always repeated it to each other... I do remember my parents always believed Rev. Kelly committed the Villisca Ax Murders."

Lena Gertrude Stillinger
Lena Gertrude Stillinger

In addition, Kelly wrote letters to the authorities about the murders and seems to have sent a blood-stained shirt to be laundered. Since such an item was never recovered for evidence, this could have been a rumor. But in his town, Kelly was known as a Peeping Tom.

In his confession, Kelly said that on the night of June 9, he'd heard the sound of windmills and went for a walk to clear his head. He was pondering a sermon about "slaying utterly," and he found himself in front of the Moore house. In a trancelike state, he found the ax, went inside, and started to kill. He claimed he killed the adults first, then heard a voice to keep going, so he bludgeoned the Moore children. Ending in the downstairs bedroom, he heard God's voice again, so he then finished off the Stillinger girls.

From a crime scene analysis, authorities believed the killer was left-handed, so to get some evidence after his confession, they asked Kelly to chop some wood. He obliged, swinging it left-handed. It seemed to many involved in the case that they'd found the killer at last.

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