Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

Searching for Cause

The physicians and coroner accompanied Horton up the creaky wooden stairs to see the rest of the massacre. They confirmed that all six victims had died from a similar style of bludgeoning, and since only the one ax had been found, it seemed that the killer had used the same implement on all of them. He'd apparently used the dull side of the ax head to stun them, getting the blade stuck in the ceiling in several places, and then used its sharp edge to complete the work of death and mutilation. Blood spots on the ceiling appeared to be cast-off from the killer swinging the ax back to make another telling blow.

The person who had suffered the most was J.B. He'd apparently been struck repeatedly, in a form of overkill that indicated either rage or fear that the only adult male in the house could not be easily dispatched. J. B. was on his back, with his left hand lying over his chest. His face had been cut so often the eyes were gone. The way he'd been brutalized would inspire speculation about enemies he may have had, business rivals, or disgruntled employees.

As for the children, on one cot lay a boy on his stomach, who'd taken the fierce blows to the back of his skull. The killer had then placed a gauze undershirt over the open wound, as if to soak up the blood.

Not far from this victim was a little girl, her face bashed in and a blood-spattered dress lying partly on her head. The sheet was pulled up over her head as well.

Finally, on a single bed, two murdered boys lay together. According to the official report delivered by one of the doctors at the scene, both of the tops of their heads were beaten in, and blood lay all over the pillows. It appeared as if they'd died instantly. The coroner noted that it seemed as if the brains of all the children had been "chopped out by some instrument." He thought, as stated in one source, that each person had been struck between 20 and 30 times, and over J.B.'s head, a gouge mark indicated the killer had raised the ax fairly high for at least one blow. (That number is likely an over-estimate or exaggeration, or erroneously reported, as the total number of blows that night would have been well over 150, and the heads would probably have been nothing but pulp.)

Strangely, the coroner found a piece of a keychain and a four-pound slab of raw bacon (some sources say two pounds), wrapped in a cloth and lying on the floor in the downstairs bedroom, near the ax. Another piece, nearly the same size, was in the icebox in the kitchen, where both the inside and outside doors had been locked. On a table stood a bowl containing bloody water and a plate of food, prepared but not consumed. The only other potential pieces of physical evidence were the ripped clothing covering a glass and several mirrors, the glass chimney of a lamp lying under a dresser, and a heel mark on a magazine lying on a closet floor. Also, Sarah's blood-filled shoe was on J.B.'s side of the bed, as if picked up and moved. Dr. Linquist assumed that blood had pooled and dripped into it from J.B's considerable head wound, and it was then tipped over. The ax, too, had been wiped off, as there were cloth fibers on it, and the killer had cleaned off his hands on several items.

The house was not the only place that yielded data.

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