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Blood, Gore, Tourism: The Ax Murderer Who Saved a Small Town

100 years ago, someone killed 8 people in an Iowa home. Can unsolved brutality revive a dying town?

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 This is a story of murder and tourism and ghosts. Of civic failure and the illusion of certainty. It’s a Midwestern story that begins in 1912, before the state of Iowa became a patchwork of vanishing villages, before Interstate 80 and the World’s Largest Truck Stop. It is the year the John Deere company begins building tractors and Arizona enters the Union and a surprising number of Republicans believe in progressive ideals. It is the year of a new group called the Girl Scouts and two years before a world war. In this year the ocean swallows a ship called Titanic, a college professor becomes president, and Americans begin eating Oreos. And in Villisca, Iowa, it’s morning, a Monday, June 10, 1912.

The Iowa Touring Atlas has just touted Villisca, a town of less than two square miles surrounded by farmland and the forks of the Nodaway River, one of the finest cities in the state. “Metropolitan.” “A social center.” “Religious.” “Methodist.” “Presbyterian.” “Rare beauty.” “Pleasant View.” Villisca in 1912 has 50 retail stores, no saloons and banks “as strong as the rock of Gibraltar.” There is a two-story armory being built that symbolizes the community’s patriotism and pride. More men work as auctioneers than lawyers. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Line brings 24 passenger and freight trains here every day.

At 5 in the morning, Mary Peckham, age 63, gets out of bed. Her first chore is hanging her laundry. Outside it’s overcast and humid; her neighbor’s house is unusually quiet. Joe Moore, one of Villisca’s most prominent and successful young men, often cares for his horses in the backyard before walking to his farm equipment store in the center of town. Sarah Moore also tends to awaken their four young children before sunrise, and with the oldest Moore child age 11, and the youngest one, age 5, Mary Peckham expects to hear the usual morning noise.

By 8 a.m., she approaches the Moore house. The windows are closed and blocked by curtains and shades. No one answers when she knocks. She tries the door but it’s locked. Walking back to her house she reasons that Joe Moore’s parents have been ill. Perhaps tragedy struck them in the night and her neighbors are dealing with the grandparents’ sickness or death.

Her curiosity gathers two men to the house: Joe’s brother Ross and one of Joe’s employees. Mary Peckham greets both men separately, as the employee arrives first, can’t get inside and promises to send another worker to milk Joe’s cows. Through her window Mary sees Ross arrive. They walk onto Joe’s porch and Ross raps on the windows and shouts. Though not normally a visitor here, he opens the door with a key. Inside, he notices the neatness of the parlor. The silence of the rooms. His footsteps creak on the wood floor.

It is by today’s standards a small house, with only three rooms downstairs — a parlor, a kitchen and a small bedroom — and a tight, narrow staircase that leads to the parents’ bedroom, an attic and the children’s room.

Ross opens the door to the downstairs bedroom. The room is dark because the window shades are drawn. White, blood-covered bed sheets have been pulled over two little girls. One of them lies a third of the way down the bed, her arm sticking out from the covers.

Immediately Ross runs out of the house. “I did not wait long enough to see anything else,” he later will tell a grand jury.

“Get Hank over here,” he tells Mary Peckham, as he sits down breathlessly on the porch. Back in her house, Mary Peckham telephones Joe’s store and talks to the same employee who already stopped by. The employee says he just saw the city marshal, Hank Horton, talking with businessmen on the town square. He chases after Horton, a rather inept police officer with a large belly.

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