Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa


As the caskets were brought from the fire house and lined up in the town park in preparation for burial in the cemetery, the authorities put their heads together to review what they knew about the victims — a logical starting point.

J.B. and his wife, Sarah, were well-liked in the community, active in their church, and helpful to neighbors. They'd been married since 1899 and had four children, ages five to 11, three boys and a girl. Sarah had coordinated the Children's Day Program at church, which had gone until 9:30 on Sunday evening, at which time she and J.B. had gathered their children and the Stillinger girls. They all walked home, laughing and waving to acquaintances as they went, although it was unusually dark; the streetlights had not come on that night, as if to foreshadow the evil that crept into town.

Some time between midnight and five o'clock in the morning, the slaughter took place, probably earlier rather than later. The ax, it turned out, had belonged to J.B., identified by his brother, so whoever had grabbed it had been in one of the outbuildings. Although bloody, the killer had made some effort to clean it before leaning it against the wall where it was found.

A Similar Kerosene Lamp
A Similar Kerosene Lamp

Apparently this grim reaper had lighted his way, but just barely, with a kerosene lamp, found at the foot of the bed where J.B. and Sarah had been killed. Its glass chimney had been removed and placed under a dresser. Another such lamp was in the ground floor bedroom, also with the wick turned down. This intruder clearly wanted no one to see lights on in the house, so he knew what he was doing and appeared to have control over the scene.

Yet he had to have made a considerable amount of noise as he cracked skulls and jabbed the ax into ceilings, as well as when climbing the stairs. It was a mystery how he could have gone about his business, waking no one. It seemed that, except for Lena, they all lay still, killed in their sleep.

Since he'd covered most of the victim's heads or faces, there was reason to believe that he might have been acquainted with them, or that he believed if they opened their eyes and saw him, his visage might be impressed in the retina and thus detectable at autopsy. That was a common superstition for the period. A few have speculated that this offender was filled with regret for what he'd done, and if his central target had been J.B., with the rest unfortunate collateral, this could very well have been the case.

He then drew the curtains, possibly after he'd disabled everyone and before he went back to use the ax blade on them all, or possibly when it was all over (although they did not have blood on them). Those windows without curtains he blacked out with clothing found inside the house. An unexplained piece of this puzzle was the skirt he had torn and draped over several mirrors. Perhaps it was a ritual, perhaps a reflex, perhaps superstition.

In some cultures, mirrors were covered during sleep or illness so that the soul, which might wander, would not become trapped. After a death, mirrors were also covered or turned to face the wall as a way to prevent the deceased's soul from becoming caught in the mirror, delaying its journey to the afterlife, as well as to prevent the living from having their souls trapped in the mirror when in the presence of the dead. Some Eastern Europeans believed it was bad luck.

Yet without some details about the suspect, no one really knew what his motive could have been. Indeed, the bacon, too, puzzled everyone, and a few people surmised that the entire incident was a sexual crime, with the bacon serving as a masturbatory aid. The narrator on the Villisca DVD suggests that criminologists today agree, although none was named.

Whatever the case, officials now had to narrow down the pool of possible suspects.

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