The true crime book from the author of ‘Fiend Incarnate’, definitive work on the brutal 1912 Villisca ax murders | Local News

DECORAH – Ed Epperly is considered an authority on the worst mass murder in Iowa history. The retired Luther College professor has spent more than six decades immersing himself in the gruesome 1912 murders of a prominent Villisca family and two overnight guests.

Epperly’s nonfiction true-crime book, “Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Iowa Ax Murders of 1912,” is the result of his extensive research.

“This is an iconic case and sits right there with Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. These murders just didn’t get that kind of publicity, and the Villisca community tried to suppress the news at this topic when it happened,” Epperly said.


The drama remains unsolved.

On June 10, 1912, the small community of Villisca awoke to the violent murders of Josiah and Sara Moore and their four children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and guests Lena and Ina Stillinger. They were found brutally bludgeoned to death in their bed.

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“I heard about the murders when I was a kid in the 1940s, when my father and his brothers would get together and talk about it sometimes. “Hey, remember those big murders in Villisca….” I would stand at the edge of their circle and listen to them talk,” recalls Epperly, a native of southern Iowa.

There were not enough hearses in Villisca to carry the eight victims to their resting place, so horses and wagons carried several small coffins. A mass grave was opened in the small cemetery to receive the Moore family, and the Stillinger children were buried nearby.

As an undergraduate and graduate history major at the University of Northern Iowa at Cedar Falls, Epperly shared Villisca’s story with her classmates. In 1956 he and two friends decided to do “original research for a class and the three of us went to Villisca and spent a long weekend there, interviewing a number of people and visiting the sites. The house where the murders took place was private property, so we were unable to enter.

Today it is a paranormal hotel.

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After graduating, Epperly shoved research into a drawer and pursued her teaching career. In the 1970s, the professor renewed his interest in the case.

It quickly became his hobby. He immersed himself in Moore family history, heard first-person accounts from key Villisca figures of the time, and studied coroner’s reports and nearly 10 years of criminal investigations, transcripts lawsuits and a libel suit.

Among the suspects were a local businessman who served as a state senator and an itinerant minister known for peeping out of windows. A suspect was tried twice, resulting in a hung jury and an acquittal at the second trial.

“The brutal crime has terribly shattered the community of Villisca. One group was convinced that the state senator knew who was behind the murders,” the author said. The public was furious that law enforcement could not solve the case, and the murders led to the formation of the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Fingerprints collected at the crime scene became the basis of the FBI’s current database.

Other investigators speculated about a serial killer because similar crimes had taken place in Kansas, Illinois and Colorado.

Epperly has written numerous articles and blog posts, appeared on TV shows and at conferences across the country. His work was also the subject of the award-winning short documentary “AXMAN”. He was also the key consultant and interviewee in Fourth Wall Films’ award-winning feature-length documentary ‘Villisca: Living with a Mystery’ produced by Kelly Rundle and his wife, Waterloo native Tammy.

He wrote his first words in the book in 1979 the night Russia invaded Afghanistan. “It was a dormant project. I’m a fan of the vibe, I have a feel for the place, and I’ve made many trips to Villisca and found a large cache of documents at the Iowa State Historical Society,” Epperly explained. .

His 416-page historical book is a definitive account of the murders and is illustrated with more than 190 rare photographs.

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Ed Epperly examines the murder weapon, an axe, used to kill the eight victims at Villisca in 1912.


“I’m not a pugnacious guy, but I was offended by how the story was corrupted from the start. It’s been a witching brew of rumors and fear.

Epperly has his own suspicions about the perpetrators of the murders and is convinced they were sexually motivated. But he lets readers make up their own minds.

“I wanted to save history, and I was able to do that and provide access to history. It’s been a lifetime of work. Now I can sit back and smile and feel good,” Epperly added. .

The book is available in independent bookstores and in print and electronic form at For more information, visit

Maria D. Ervin