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Movie Review: Villisca: Living With a Mystery

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Historic true crime blogger Laura James's review of this fantastic true crime documentary stoked my interest in both the documentary and the crime itself. I'm grateful to Laura for putting me in touch with Kelly and Tammy Rundle, the directing/producing team behind Villisca: Living with a Mystery.

I watched the DVD sent to me by the Rundles two nights ago. Everyone else in the house was asleep, and I watched it on the computer, the room otherwise dark.

That was probably a bad idea.

For Villisca: Living with a Mystery spooks you even as it takes you to a place and time long gone, to little Villisca, in southwest Iowa. You are set down first on June 10, 1912. The streets are wide, and there are still more horses and carriages than motorcars.

That night in Villisca the children at the Presbyterian Church gave a Childrens' Day program. Participating were the Stillinger sisters, Lena and Ina, and some of the Moore children: Herman, 11, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and Paul, 5. Sara Moore, matriarch of the Moore clan headed by local businessman Josiah Moore, had been in charge of the childrens' program. The Moores were one of Villisca's leading families.

Around 9:30 that night the church doors opened and people spilled with the light onto the street, heading home.

To understand the magic Kelly and Tammy Rundle were able to work with their deceptively simple approach to this story you should know that as I watched the movie, I could imagine the warmth of the June night, the rustling of wools and linens as people chatted, walking into the dark. I could smell burnt coffee wafting up from the church, where perhaps the men had gathered before the program to talk politics, or business, or do bible study.

Perhaps pipes were lit, or cigars, and in the dark laughter unfurled, and as people moved into the night towards home, it faded.

The lights went out in Villisca that night. So as the Moores made their way home, the Stillinger sisters coming along to stay for the night, the dark was deeper than it might have been on any other night.

The style of Villisca: Living with a Mystery is familiar to anyone who has ever seen one of Ken Burns's well-made and often intellectually satisfying productions on PBS, but the Rundles have placed their own unique stamp on the story. Through interviews with elderly residents and former residents of the town as well as chats with authorities on certain types of crime (like famed profiler Robert K. Ressler) they weave a story that combines the feel of family talks taking place at twilight on the front porch with a slowly intensifying true crime story well-worth the full-length documentary treatment.

Aged folks speaking with a rough eloquence about a past that to many of them was anything but distant share the screen with tastefully chosen photos of the crime scene, as well as modestly rendered recreations. Underpinning all of it is a pitch-perfect soundtrack, incorporating original music as well as traditional American music — I was struck by the eerie way the filmmakers incorporated a piano version of one of my favorite hymns, "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" under scenes about the beginnings of the ultimately misbegotten investigation into what happened after the Moores got home that night.

Some time that night someone entered the Moore home. Locking up your home wasn't a habit for residents of Villisca in 1912; it may not be a habit still. So the killer didn't need to force entry.

The killer held in his hands an axe he'd picked up as he rounded the side of the Moore home.

He took out Josiah Moore and his wife Sarah first. The killer used the blunt edge of the ax initially, but upon returning to the master bedroom he must have been concerned that Josiah Moore was not yet dead, and he went to work with the blade.

Then the killer attended to the children, Herman, Catherine, Boyd, and Paul.

The Stillinger girls were murdered while sleeping in a downstairs bedroom. It was in the attack on the sisters that the killer's real motive may have been revealed. That, or a psychopathic killer decided to take additional advantage of a situation not previously anticipated. Found near the bed where the Stillinger girls died was a slab of bacon taken from the Moores' icebox. One of the girls had been positioned in a sexual manner, though it was never reported that either girl was raped. Investigators have long suspected that the slab of bacon was used as a masturbatory aid by the killer.

Then, alone in the house with his own madness and eight dead, brutalized bodies, the killer apparently went to every window, drawing curtains, and spreading aprons. He also covered a mirror inside the home. He may have stayed in the Moore home for hours after the massacre.

Villisca: Living with a Mystery does an excellent job of detailing the events spiralling out from that horrific night. The Rundles trace how later suspicions and accusations derailed the political career of one man and drove another man, already troubled, even further into madness. And they finally make a compelling case for the Moores having been victims of a particularly terrifying and mobile serial killer.

For there were at least 20 other murders that happened in the midwest in the same time period that had strikingly similar elements. All of these murders have been tentatively attributed to a man named Henry Lee Moore. From the Stevens Point Gazette (WI), an issue published May 14, 1913:

Henry Lee Moore went to the penitentiary at Jefferson City after being found guilty of the murder of his mother and grandmother, Mrs. Mary Wilson and Mrs. George Moore, at Columbia Mo., in December, 1912. Moore made many damaging admissions and contradictory statements.

He said he had made a study of famous murders, including the Dr. Crippen case in England. The ax murders ascribed to Moore […] are:

H. C. Wayne, wife and child; Mrs. A.J. Burnham and two children; Colorado Springs, Colo., September, 1911. William B. Dawson. wife and daughter, Monmouth, III. October, 1911.
William Showman, wife and three children, Ellsworth. Kan.. October, 1911.
Rollin Hudson and wife, Paolo, Kan., June, 1911.
J. B. Moore, four children and two girl guests. Villisca, Ia. June, 1912.
Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Moore at Columbia…

The murders were linked by similarities, sometimes striking, found at each scene, as well as Henry Lee Moore's mobility at the time. Henry Lee Moore was a railroad worker. He was able to travel widely in a way not always available to other residents of the midwest in 1911 and 1912.

This documentary premiered in 2004, and it has been receiving steady notice and positive reviews ever since. And no wonder, as for the true crime afficionado as well as anyone with an interest in that particular period of American history, Villisca: Living with a Mystery is a dark treat. Not only does it portray an unsolved crime worthy of modern slasher films in a respectful and dignified way, it also explores the ripples such events can send through the lives not just of those left behind but the collective life of a community. Villisca today is simply not the same town. There was, as the movie makes clear, the Villisca before the axe murders, and the Villisca afterwards. Villisca eventually embraced the legacy left by the Moore murders, but even now, it isn't a comfortable embrace.

I can't give a stronger recommendation to a true crime documentary than the one I give Villisca: Living with a Mystery. Held together by the sure-footed storytelling on the parts of Kelly and Tammy Rundle as well as the affable and informed voice of historian Dr. Edgar V. Epperly, this movie sets a high bar for full-length documentary treatments of crime stories. I'm a little spoiled now.

The following links may give an idea of how intriguing this particularly gruesome unsolved mystery truly is:

If your interest in true crime is often (like mine) limited to current events, this is the story, and the documentary, that may lure you into the sepia-toned obsessions of the true crime historian. You may never look back.

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