Axe used in Villisca murders displayed at the history center

The Montgomery County History Center is adding a unique piece of history to its collection.
Recently, the history center came into possession of the axe that was used in the most famous unsolved murder in Iowa history: The Villisca Axe murders.
An unveiling of an exhibit containing the axe took plsce June 28-29 at the history center at 2700 N 4th St.
Museum curator Dave McFarland shared that the murders took place sometime between June 9 and 10, 1912. The victims included Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sarah, and their four children: Herman Montgomery, Mary Katherine, Arthur Boyd, and Paul Vernon. Additional victims included Ina Mae and Lena Gertrude Stillinger
“It has become such a topic over the years. It split Villisca right down the middle. Half of the people thought F.F. Jones, a local banker and state senator was behind the murders. The theory was that he hired someone to kill the family, but its been proven the guy he supposedly hired was 600 miles away. He was voted out of the basnk he started, and it ended his political career and he ended up being a recluse,” McFarland explained. “The other half of the town thought it was Reverend George Kelly. Kelly was a nut, but he probably wasn’t violent, and it probably wasn’t him. “
Prior to the axe, the history center was given an archive of materials including letters and copies of newspaper articles through the years on the subject of the murders. The archive also contained a very unique set of items.
“We’ve got a notebook that has six original photographs. The board of supervisors at the time hired a professional photographer to take photographs of the crime scene when it went to the grant jury. There were originally 19 or 20 photographs originally, and someone was going to host the photos in a slideshow. They were shown twice, and the public outcry was so negative that he quit. All but six of the photographs disappeared except for the ones we have,” stated McFarland.
Several years ago, the axe was donated by the Villisca Historical Society to Iowa State Historical Society, after being on display at the historical society. The house was purchased by a group that also owns Glenwood Manor, and McFarland said recently, the Villisca Historical Society decided to disband. It was then a new destination was decided for the axe.
“They spoke to the State Historical Society, and they felt the axe should be given to the history center. We met with Leo Landis, the museum curator with the State Historical Society, and they signed over custody of the axe to us. We also have another archive from the Villisca Historical Society. Years ago, they got a court order to turn all the court records over to the historical society, and now we have all of them. It has some of the original grand jury items, and a lot of other things,” commented McFarland.
McFarland said since it was revealed the axe was coming to the center, McFarland has already been getting phone calls and requests, but he has limited plans for the axe.
“I’ve already been requested to “protect” the axe from paranormal experts and sensationalism. We’re going to display the axe on a tasteful and historical basis. It will not include haunted ghost tours or anything of the like. I’ve made that promise. The axe will be on display, but it’s not going to be available for people to pick up or touch or anything like that.”
McFarland said they are going with a soft opening for the initial exhibit, due to several factors.
“We were going to do a reception, and we probably still will for members of the public and for members, but with the highway construction and everything else, we decided we’ll do a soft opening during Junction Days weekend. People can stop in, and then we’ll go from there,” said McFarland.
McFarland also commented on a personal level on what it meant to have such a unique piece of history at the center.
“It’s kind of gratifying in a lot of ways. When you’re approached to do something like this from a professional standpoint, and then when you get something this outstanding that such an intrinsic piece of history. You can’t help but get an intrinsic award from it. We have a lot of things here that are kind of that way. It’s really gratifying when an exhibit comes off well,” McFarland stated.
McFarland is hopeful that the acquisition will mean a boost for the community as well.
“I’m hoping that this new exhibit and item will be a big thing for the community, and that it will draw people in. We can control the exhibit, and make sure it’s tastefully exhibited,” McFarland commented.
Learn more about the Montgomery County History Center at

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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