Blood, Gore, Tourism: The Ax Murderer Who Saved a Small Town
Continued from previous page
In 1916 Jones runs for state senate reelection and Wilkerson (along with Ross Moore and J.T. Stillinger) hosts revivals accusing Jones of hiring a man named William “Blackie” Mansfield for the job. Mansfield is a road crew worker and union organizer who also happens to be white despite a nickname that gets black people run out of town — yet again. On lampposts everywhere Wilkerson posts hundreds of flyers of Mansfield’s face:
This is the axe murder. He
murdered the Moore family at Vil
llisca. The hypocrite whose dirty
money paid for the hellish job
wants your support for the state
senate. Will he get it?
Obviously this bothers Sen. Jones. He sues Wilkerson for slander.
But Wilkerson hatches a plan — what if he puts Jones on trial instead? He packs the county courthouse with onlookers who crowd the aisles and the periphery behind the jury and judge. He calls four witnesses to testify against Jones. Vina Tompkins, a poor woman, says that shortly before the murders she’d seen Jones near the Nodaway River talking in the brush with three men about “getting a man out of the way” and promising money from an out-of-town bank. Alice Willard, a divorcee who lived near the Moores, says that on the eve of the murders she saw three strange men — one of whom was “Blackie” Mansfield — twice walk past the Moore house. Also says she later overheard Jones, Mansfield and Bert McCaull agree: “Get Joe first — the rest will be easy.” A real estate agent says he saw Albert Jones (the cuckolded husband) break into the Moore house while the family was away at the church service. And to this Wilkerson adds his own theory: the killer (or killers) hid themselves in the attic and closets. And finally a photographer says he’s overheard Jones, his son and Bert McCaull conspiring to kill Wilkerson for his ace investigations.
Jones loses in the court of public opinion, and loses the slander case, too. Mansfield, for his alleged role, gets arrested: He’s picked up in a Kansas City meatpacking plant where he works and he’s dangled by his feet from a bridge overlooking the Kansas River until he gives a confession.
In 1917 a grand jury convenes, but in that venue the case against Jones falls apart.
It turns out that Mansfield wasn’t in Villisca that night. From June 6-18, 1912, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad roughly 500 miles away. And what’s more, Mansfield organizes unions and Wilkerson works for a notoriously anti-union agency, the news of which muddles the detective’s already questionable claims. Ultimately the case falls apart when all four witnesses change or recant their stories.
The resolution(s): Mansfield goes free, sues Wilkerson for slander, wins $2,225 in damages. And Jones, ousted from office, loses political and social prestige. Never humbled, always proud, he publishes a memoir called “Reminiscences” shortly before his death. In it he focuses on his achievements and defends his legacy — and “Reminiscences” becomes a book that nobody reads.
And another suspect enters the saga — a guy named George Lyn Kelly who’s an itinerant preacher from Nebraska. He’s named because he spent the night of June 9, 1912, in Villisca. The guest of the local Presbyterian minister, Reverend Kelly left Villisca on the 5:19 a.m. train the next day and later began writing detailed, obsessive letters to Ross Moore, the Iowa attorney general and the Burns Detective Agency (Wilkerson’s employer). But with the Jones investigation running hot in Villisca, Kelly fades as a person of interest until his name resurfaces in 1917. The evidence levied against him: 1) he is a known window-peeper, 2) it’s believed he sent a bloody shirt to an Omaha dry cleaner after the murders, 3) an old couple claims he told them of the murders on the 5:19 a.m. train — several hours before the bodies were found, 4) he’s eccentric and considered a sexual deviant. Authorities charge him with the murder of Lena Stillinger, whose body the authorities say Kelly sexually posed and touched while masturbating with bacon grease on his hand.