Villisca: Living with a Mystery
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Who used an axe in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912 to kill eight innocent people, including six children, in their beds? Was it a serial killer? A fiery, itinerate preacher? An ex-con hired by a prominent Iowa state senator?
Villisca: Living with a Mystery tells the amazing story of Iowa’s most notorious unsolved murders.
Alas, this documentary tells the terrible story in a flat, unimaginative way. The hushed narration might have been an attempt to convey respect for the victims and horror for the event, but the monotonous tone is conducive to sleep. Another thing that makes the film hard to follow is that it jumps around, jumbling characters and plot lines.
Even though the murders occurred more than 100 years ago, they continue to be a thorn in the side of the otherwise sedate and nondescript town of Villisca. Local residents are still divided about who might have perpetrated the crime. And the house where the victims were slaughtered in their beds has been turned into a museum offering tours and overnight stays – “Are you scared?” taunts the Axe Murder House’s website. Perhaps this is why Villisca has only been on the RAGBRAI route once (in 2009) and then only as a pass-through town.
The documentary is worth watching, however, for many reasons, including the historical value and the fact that the story reveals a lot about small town Iowa during the early 20th Century: its trusting nature; power to generate rumors; dependence on railroads; racism; inward focus; and emphasis on church life; as well as its underlying decency.
Another film, Haunting Villisca, appears to be more sensational, but this film is not readily available for viewing. Several books, including Villisca, Morning Ran Red, and On the Road to Villisca, also recount the murders.