Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa


Ax murder house
Ax murder house

The person she called was John Henry "Hank" Horton, 50, the town's primary peace officer. He'd been in this position fulltime for the past year. During those days, only large cities had police forces, and they were generally poorly organized. Peace officers had little to no training in processing a crime scene, so solving major crimes was not within their scope of employment. In fact, fingerprints had only just been used in the courts.

In 1911, an appeal had come before the Illinois Supreme Court from a trial concerning the murder of Clarence Hiller in his home. There were no eyewitnesses, but Thomas Jennings was apprehended with a revolver and blood-stained clothing, so he was arrested and tried. The cartridges from his revolver were identical to unused cartridges found in Hiller's residence. In addition, four fingerprints had been found in fresh paint on a fence near the window through which the intruder had entered and four experts had testified that Jennings had made them. It was a new form of identification, but these men were able to point to cases in other countries where fingerprint analysis had assisted in a criminal apprehension.

The jury accepted the expert opinion and convicted Jennings, sentencing him to hang. His attorney appealed the decision on the basis of the questionable admissibility of fingerprint evidence. The appellate court noted that fingerprints had already been admitted in Great Britain and that the relevant experts had concluded that the evidence was reliable. In a historic decision, the justices ruled that there was a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification. Thus, the sentence stood and Jennings was hanged.

Map of Iowa with Villisca locator
Map of Iowa with Villisca locator

However, in Iowa, few people if any were even aware of these developments. Indeed, the notion of preserving a crime scene seemed lost altogether as Horton entered the house. He did not take care to avoid trampling evidence on the floor. Instead, he went straight to the door that Ross Moore had opened that had sent him fleeing from the house. Noting the dark interior and drawn curtains, Horton, too, saw what Moore had seen: dark stains spattering the walls and two still forms beneath bed sheets that had been pulled all the way up, with only a pale arm extended from beneath.

Horton knew what death smelled like, and that's what faced him. He moved closer, striking a match, and saw that the white sheets were heavily stained with blood. In the rising June heat, they were beginning to smell rancid. Against the wall rested a long-handled ax with dark stains on it, and Horton noted one more odd detail, dark material that appeared to be torn clothing covered the mirror.

He steeled himself to climb the steps to see who might be up there. He had little doubt from the fact that no one in the family had been seen that there would be more victims.

Yet he'd already lost control of the scene. Two other men, one of them J.B.'s other brother, Harvey, had entered the house as well.

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