A century of fascination with Villisca murders

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Salon posted a piece Sunday on the legacy of the Villisca axe murders. The 100th anniversary is on June 10.

One passage caught my eye as yet more evidence that very nasty politics is hardly a recent phenomenon. An investigator looking into the crime, James Wilkerson, sought to pin the murders on a local state senator, Frank Hernando Jones. Wilkerson accuses Jones of hiring William "Blackie" Mansfield to do the deed, with electoral implications:

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:

Obviously this bothers Sen. Jones. He sues Wilkerson for slander.

So clearly, it can get worse than accusing candidates of voting for heated sidewalks and flower pots.

I'd encourage you to read the whole Salon piece. Well-written.

I visited the house where the murders took place for a story I was working on in 2007, at my old job. It was about various places in Iowa where the sites of tragedy or crime have became tourist draws. (I even shot a video. Spielberg, I ain't.)

Of all the places I've ever gone to report, that afternoon in Villisca stuck with me. Touring that house was unsettling and depressing. Of the eight people who were murdered, six were children. Time can't remove the horror of that. I went in thinking it would be no big deal, but I was wrong.

I came away uneasy, like a some townspeople, with the notion of this as a tourist site. But fascination with it is human nature, I guess. Free county, free market and all that. But I doubt I'll be going back.

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