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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

THE ODD LITTLE PREACHER


I do not believe the Reverend Kelly. But I am not sure if I don’t believe him when he said he did not murder those eight people, or when he said he did.  What I do know is that five years later, passengers on board the westbound number 5 train,  which had pulled out of little Villisca, Iowa at 5:19 A.M. that Monday morning, remembered the twitchy, diminutive preacher telling his fellow bleary eyed travelers that he had left eight butchered bodies back in Villisca. The bodies would not be discovered until almost eight that morning. So if the sleepy witnesses correctly remembered the words spoken to them five years earlier by a strange little preacher they had never seen before, then he was guilty of an unspeakable horror. If they were wrong, he was innocent. Of course, either way, he was crazy as a loon. And don't get me started on why none of the travelers told anybody at the time, about the odd little preacher.
Villisca is a self proclaimed “community of pride where the rivers divide”, the rivers being the West and Middle branches of the Nordaway River. It lies  80 miles southwest of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Montgomery County was settled in the mid 19th century mostly by people from the old Midwest, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, people with names like Bates and Bowman, Kennedy and Hoover, Powers and Preston and Wymore. They arrived on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, called by her customers just “The Q”.  At the time no community in Iowa was more than a few miles from an active passenger rail line. Most of the residents of Villisca either sold services or equipment to the local farmers or worked for the railroad. And it is not likely that in 1912 the little town was much smaller that it is today, when the population is just about 1,000 souls.On the morning of June 10th, 1912, inside a  sad looking two story house (now at 323 East 4th.Street) were found the bodies of Mr. Josiah Moore, his wife Sara, their daughter Katherine and their sons Herman, Boyd and Paul, as well as the bodies of their overnight child guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger. The children were aged 5 through age 12. All the victims were found in their beds, with their heads covered with bedclothes. All had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an ax, which was found wiped clean in the downstairs sewing room/bedroom,  along with the bodies of the Stillinger girls. The ceilings in the parent's bedroom and the children's room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the ax blade.Downstairs little Lena Stillinger’s nightgown was pushed up, leaving her gentialia exposed. But the doctors said there was no evidence of molestation. There was an odd bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm.  A two pound slab of bacon was found, wrapped in a dishtowel, on the bedroom floor.  On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water. The medical estimate was that all of the murders had occurred shortly after midnight, the morning of 10 June, 1912.In June 11th, Mr. Sam Moyer was arrested for the murders.  He was released on the 15th. On June 20th Mr. John Bohland was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later.  On July 5th, Mr. Frank Roberts (“a negro”) was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later. On December 28th farmer and victim Sara Moore’s ex-brother-in-law, Mr. Lew Van Alstine, was arrested for the murders. He was released a few weeks later. On July 15th, 1916 Mr. William Mansfield was arrested for the murders. On July 21st he was released. On March 19, 1917, the Reverend J.J. Burris told a Grand Jury sitting in the county seat of Red Oak, that a mystery man had confessed on his death bed to the murders. And then, on April 30th, 1917 a warrant for the arrest of the Reverend George Kelly was issued. He arrived to surrender himself two weeks later, oddly enough on the No. 5 train.
The authorities first became interested in the Reverend (above, on the left) a few weeks after the murders, alerted by recipients of his rambling letters in the village. He had arrived in Villisca for the first time the Sunday morning before the murders, and had attended a Sunday school performance by the Stillinger girls. He had had left Villisca the following day, Monday morning. Two weeks later he had returned posing as a detective, and had even joined a tour of the murder house with a group of real investigators.  (There was virtually no control of the crime scene.) The only thing stopping police from arresting him immediately was that it was abundantly clear the Reverend was absolutely crazy.Lyn George Jacklin Kelly (above, again with his wife) was the son and the grandson of English ministers, who, as an adolescent, had suffered a “mental breakdown”. He had immigrated to America with his wife in 1904 and preached at a dozen Methodist churches across North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa. Preaching from the pulpit he was “...a confident, well-versed, and articulate speaker”. But in personal interactions the 5 foot, 119 pound minister displayed “...a nervous demeanor, shifty eyes, and often spoke so quickly that saliva would dribble down his chin”. He had been assigned as a visiting minister to several small communities north of Villisca, where he developed a reputation for odd behavior; late night walks, rumors that he was a peeping tom and unconfirmed stories that he had tried to convince young girls to undress for him. In 1914, while preaching in South Dakota he had advertised for a private secretary. One young woman who responded was informed by return post that Kelly wanted her to type in the nude. He was convicted of sending obscene material through the mail, and spent time in a mental hospital. While there he wrote to the Montgomery County D.A. that he expected at any moment to be arrested for the Villisca murders.Finally, after investigating just about every other possibility, the Grand Jury indicted Kelly for the murder of Lena Stillinger. All through the summer of 1917, while in jail awaiting trial, Kelly was interrogated. The last interview was on August 30th , a marathon session that lasted all night. At 7AM on the morning of the 31st Kelly signed a confession to the murder, saying God had whispered to him to “suffer the children to come unto me.”At trial he recanted, and on Wednesday, September 26 the case went to the jury, which deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal. A second jury was immediately empanelled, and in November the Reverend Kelly was acquitted by all 12 jurors. No one else was ever tried for the murders. And the crime remains one of the most horrific, unsolved mass murders in American history, known simply as the Villisca Axe Murders. Did he do it?  I don't know. The passangers on the number 5 train that Monday morning were pretty sure he had confessed to them, three hours before the bodies were discovered. But did they really remember the confession, five years later? Was it really the morning of of the murders? Or had it happened two weeks after the murders, when Reverend Kelly had impersonated a detective? It is enough to shake your faith in any certainty in this world. ( http://www.villiscaiowa.com/)
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