Click here for Villisca's history
Click here for Haunting Villisca's production history
Click here for A Ghost of a Chance, The Making of Haunting Villisca
Click here for Director James Serpento's notes
Click here for Producer Kim Busbee's notes
Villisca’s History – A Real Place, A Real Mystery, A Real Haunting
In 1912, Villisca, Iowa was a flourishing town of 2500 residents. Thriving businesses lined the streets and trains pulled into the depot on a regular basis. The town was successful enough to build the only publicly funded Armory in Iowa. But, on June 10, 1912, the town’s tranquility was shattered by one of the most disturbing mass homicides in the country. The legendary Villisca slayings have gone down in the annals of history as the event which forever changed the small Iowa town.
The horror began on a damp Sunday evening in “the pretty place.” Before one full turn of the clock, eight people would be found axe-murdered in their beds: Josiah and Sara Moore, their children – Herman, Paul, Boyd and Katherine – and two young houseguests, Ina and Lena Stillinger.
Having returned home after participating in an evening church program, all were savagely – but apparently methodically – slaughtered sometime after midnight by person or persons unknown. Some believe the murderer hid in the attic of the house while the eight innocent victims were at church.
The next morning, neighbor Mary Peckham noticed that the Moore children didn’t come out to play or do chores as usual, and that the windows were covered on the house which stood with an eerie stillness. Mrs. Peckham began making calls and when Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore, Ed Selley and Marshall Hank Horton finally unlocked the house and entered, the victims were found bludgeoned to death in their beds.
Both upstairs and downstairs, they were carefully laid out, as if in their coffins, with their faces covered. Only one, 11-year-old Lena Stillinger, was found in a strange position. A lit, chimneyless lamp was found on the floor, a slab of bacon left by the bed, windows and mirrors were covered with fabric, and the weapon – the Moores’ own axe from the backyard woodpile – was left propped up against the wall in the parlor bedroom (or “sewing room”) where the Stillinger girls had slept. The killer had wiped the blood on their underwear and had thrown it under the bed. Their white church dresses were draped at the foot.
Upstairs, marks from the violent backswing of many axe-blows could be seen in the ceiling. A bowl of bloody water and a partially eaten plate of food were left in the kitchen.
Mrs. S.E. Stillinger, Ina‘s and Lena’s mother, had telephoned to find out why her girls were not yet home, but got no answer. When she called back later, she was told by the operator that “everyone in that house is dead.”
The bodies eventually were taken away and the gore-soaked bedding burned. Meanwhile, word of the murders had spread like wildfire, and the crime scene had been quickly compromised by curious crowds who camped nearby and tramped through the house, some even taking bone fragments as souvenirs. Bloodhounds were brought in too late and a confused and inept investigation followed. No unusual fingerprints (then called “fingermarks”) were found, leading some to think the killer wore gloves. A mass funeral, attended by thousands, was held in the town square, ending with a procession to the picturesque Villisca cemetery where the victims were laid to rest.
The shocked and terrified town mourned – and hunkered down. For safety, groups of people stayed up all night, guns at the ready. Men were sent ahead into homes to look in every closet and under every bed before families dared to follow, let alone go to sleep. Hardware stores sold out of locks. People barricaded their homes. And everyone waited.
Eventually, detectives – both amateur and professional – came to Villisca to try to solve the crime. An ambitious character from the Burns Detective Agency, one J.N. Wilkerson, came to crack the case but ultimately failed – though the vigor with which he pursued wealthy Iowa Governor hopeful, F.F. Jones, as a suspect added to a wide net of intrigue and suspicion involving political ambition; a sex scandal centering around Jones’ son, Albert, his daughter-in-law, Dona, and victim J.B. Moore; rumors of a bitter business rivalry between Jones and Moore; and whisperings of killers hired from marauding gangs.
An ex-convict, alleged drug user and itinerant slaughterhouse worker by trade, named William “Blackie” Mansfield, who was being sued for abandonment by his wife was one suspect. Tragically, Mansfield's wife and their baby, along with her family also were axe-murdered in their beds after the Villisca murders. Mansfield was accused of the Villisca murders by Wilkerson, but never was indicted due to a penciled pay stub used as evidence that placed Mansfield in a town a few hours away the morning after the murders.
In fact, many were suspect – but only one was tried.
The chaos finally culminated in a recanted confession from a deranged, perverted traveling British preacher, Reverend L. G. Jacklin Kelly, who, with spittle flying, preached about “slaying utterly.” After a Grand Jury Investigation and two fruitless trials, Kelly eventually was acquitted.
And with that, the gruesome and tragic Villisca Axe Murders drifted into a thick fog of mystery.
Now, nearly a century later, the house is an award-winning museum dedicated to the memory of the Moore family and Stillinger girls who lost their lives there. In 1998, the J.B. Moore House was added to the National Registry of Historic Places and its current owners, Darwin and Martha Linn, have carefully restored it. Their ongoing restorative work has even earned the “Preservation at its Best” award from Iowa’s Historic Preservation Alliance.
As the list of strange occurrences in the house grew – including some previous owners’ and restoration workers’ unsettling accounts of paranormal activity, visitors’ sightings of little girls in white dresses in the Blue Room, reports of children’s laughter throughout the house, and numerous photographs and videotapes in which strange “orbs” appear – the Linns came to believe that the house is indeed haunted and decided to bring in experts.
Darwin and Martha have allowed paranormal investigation teams to use sensitive equipment to measure data in and around the house. After multiple teams found unusual results, many are convinced that the house is the site of a residual and interactive haunting. Some believe that the victims’ spirits inhabit the house, desperately crying out for peace and for retribution of the murderer whose own spirit is also said to be trapped at the scene of this horrific, true crime.
HAUNTING VILLISCA – Production history (top)
Haunting Villisca is a feature-length motion-picture inspired by the unsolved 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders and the paranormal investigations of the crime scene, and is easily the largest, most complex and ambitious project to date from Des Moines-based independent film and stage production company AriesWorks Entertainment.
Haunting Villisca began in December, 2000, when AriesWorks principles Kimberly Busbee and James Serpento first visited the Southwest Iowa town of Villisca. Shown around by Darwin and Martha Linn, owners of the J.B. Moore home and the Olson Linn Museum; and by singer/songwriter Jeffrey Brown, the AriesWorks producers quickly determined that the Villisca story would make an excellent follow-up to their first feature project, The Yoofo Club.
Research into the strange case began immediately and continued throughout the more than four-year development period, during which Serpento and Busbee distilled down the massive story and began to craft the screenplay. Haunting Villisca’s script underwent hundreds of revisions – everything from minute changes in dialogue to the addition and elimination of entire characters, scenes and sequences. As screenwriters, Serpento and Busbee pored over thousands of pages of court records, newspaper articles of the time, and their own conversations with some of the town’s residents, themselves repositories of historical tidbits or quirky folklore.
Partway through development, the producers met Roy Marshall, a thirty-five-year veteran of the Iowa Department of Public Safety whose book, Villisca, provided a welcome tool for helping them collate the massive volume of research. “We read Roy’s book in manuscript,” Serpento remembers, “and it was just terrific. What he was doing was just what writers of the drama do, only he was doing it with a history book. His grasp of the facts is impeccable but he also makes the facts alive and vivid and immediate and breathtaking and we were so grateful that that text was around. When the book was published, we got a couple more copies and kept them on set so that the cast and designers would have access, too.”
Busbee and Serpento also made frequent visits to Villisca and the J.B. Moore Home (Villisca Axe Murder House), often accompanying the teams of paranormal investigators looking into claims that the site is haunted by the spirits of the murder victims – and of the murderer him (or her) self. Busbee and Serpento found these claims to be another fascinating aspect to include in the Villisca story.
In the years that the screenplay was taking shape, Busbee and Serpento continued the difficult search for the $2 million they wanted in order to produce the picture on film.
“We had several enthusiastic and committed people step up almost immediately and invest in different ways,” says Kimberly Busbee, who also produced and cast the picture. “Darwin and Martha Linn, the J. B. Moore Home’s current owners, who had turned the house into an award-winning museum, were extremely cooperative and made the house available as the principle location for the movie. With Darwin’s assistance, we also gained the cooperation of many incredibly supportive Villicsa townspeople; Karen Wright and Sheriff Butch Rulla, the people behind the Villisca Community Center and many others. We met amazingly helpful people in the Red Oak community as well. Karen Blue (Red Oak’s Mayor at that time) helped us secure the historic and beautiful Montgomery County Courthouse where trials were held. These two locations helped make the project’s budget not only more affordable, but allowed for unique audience appeal; interested moviegoers could see the story reenacted in the actual places where the events took place! We also received wonderful support from Lori Portz at the Chamber of Commerce in Red Oak who helped us connect with some area investors to get the project rolling. Meanwhile, we had numerous meetings with our attorneys and accountants, and were vetting the material, working and re-working the budget and ironing out the deal specifics. There was such energy behind the project – but, of course, it was doing what so many indie films do: building to critical mass until some magical confluence of circumstances gives it a green light. Nearly five years is a long time to wait to see a production come to fruition and it takes a lot of patience. Not everyone ultimately stayed, but most did, and we are grateful to them for their faith in us and in the project.”
When it became clear that digital production technology had advanced to the point where the picture could be made effectively for far less money, AriesWorks made the leap to shoot the movie on 24P, a top notch digital format – and began the pre-production process in earnest in April of 2005.
“The first thing we had to do was get a cinematographer on board,” says Busbee, “and we specifically needed someone who would understand what we were up against in terms of time and budget.”
The answer came in not one but two cinematographers, filmmakers Francisco and Jose Rodriguez.
“We’d seen quite a bit of their work through the Wild Rose Independent Film Festival, which we founded,” says Busbee. “I had cast and been a make-up artist for one of their projects and was impressed by how they maneuvered on a set. We knew they were used to working with little money – they often had little or no additional crew – but they were doing really strong work. And, as it turned out, they were available.”
With cinematography covered, Busbee rounded out the crew from the professional production pool of Des Moines-based workers and indie filmmakers who had expressed interest in the project. Among many others, experienced pro, Kent Abbott, signed on as sound recordist, father and son filmmaking team, Lucas and Terry Daily, came on as part of the grip/ electric department and director-designer Jaysene Overton took on the duties of first assistant director to Serpento. There were as many as 50 crew members to coordinate over the summer, including several interns from Busbee’s AriesWorks classes.
The project also required a documentary crew to make the tandem project, A Ghost of a Chance: The Making of Haunting Villisca and so she turned to Des Moines’ Central Campus Film Department and Bill Springer and Glendon McLean who train young filmmakers. Busbee worked out a deal to utilize three young women who were part of the program at Central. JEK Films; Jill Jones, Elizabeth Hixenbaugh and her own daughter, Kaitlyn Busbee, were brought on board to shoot the documentary footage.
And then began the immense casting process.
With more than 80 speaking roles and over 250 extras, producer Busbee switched to casting director. “I’ve been a casting director for years,” she says, “which meant that, at least, there was a process in place. We knew who we wanted in a lot of the key roles, but we still had to audition a huge number of actors to get the right mix for such a large ensemble piece. And, because we had so little money, we were going to be shooting weekends – every weekend, right through the summer. So, here are all these actors with complex schedules and that was challenging to say the least. I found Christy Miller to work as a second assistant director and to assist with extras casting, and we began the task. Thankfully, we found incredible talent for the project. We found many actors in the Midwest and some with local roots who were willing to come back to work on the movie.
We were especially blessed to have GregAlan Williams join the cast, a well known Hollywood actor with Iowa roots, who has had leading roles in Remember the Titans, Old School, Be Cool and many TV shows including The Sopranos, The West Wing, Boston Public, One Tree Hill and Crossing Jordan."
“All I can say is, thank God for spreadsheets,” laughs Serpento who, in addition to directing and acting, would be handling production management. “I would love to hand this UPM stuff over,” he says, “but the truth is, it helps me as a director. It helps for a director to know all the gritty details of how the schedule is coming together, who’s available when, who can’t possibly shoot then, and so on. It forces you to take all that lovely ‘art’ you’ve been thinking about for years and distill it down into clear, simple, specific units of work that must be accomplished or else the schedule will go south and you may never get this actor back. There’s tremendous pressure, but ultimately, that’s a good thing. It teaches you when to press and when to let go. When to speak, when to shut up. You won’t always be right, mind you, but at least you’ll be decisive.”
The large cast created another challenge for Busbee: wardrobe.
“I look back on this,” she says, “and I’m stunned that it actually happened. Much of the movie takes place in 1912 and 1917, so when you see hundreds of period costumes crammed into a storage space only a little larger than a walk-in closet, well…let’s just say, you get a whole new appreciation of the word ‘perspective.’”
Because of her background in make-up and costuming, Busbee found herself doing initial work in these areas, but help was desperately needed. To the plate stepped costume coordinator and special effects makeup artist, Robin Gilmer, who worked long hours in the costume closet and in her home concocting special effects materials. Another valuable resource was theatre veteran, Jacky Adams, who not only acted in the movie with her husband, Lyn, but provided many authentic and handsome vintage pieces of clothing and also made the Red Oak Depot available for area auditions. Stacy Heatherly, an experienced professional makeup artist and actress, assisted by providing makeup supplies and services (when she wasn’t acting in the movie) and later also made her home available for an Omaha area wrap party. Other makeup assistance was provided by Margaret Rubicam and Andrea Reedy, among others.
Yet another challenge was finding subsidiary locations for the shoot. Time and money constraints made it impossible to shoot entirely in Southwest Iowa, so more easily driveable locations were needed for some of the scenes. Local people with nearby locations were necessary for this huge project. Enter the Grahams, friends of Terry Daily, who offered their farm for the first day of shooting. Busbee remembers, “They were unbelievable. They were so hospitable that they even supplied food and energy drinks for the cast and crew and made some period props available for the scene. Later, they drove all the way to Red Oak be extras in the courtroom scenes and to help with makeup, and, at the end of the summer, they hosted the Des Moines area wrap party!” Also, Tom Wheeler and the Iowa Film office were invaluable. “Tom is very hands on and very professional,” Busbee says. “He scouted, took location shots and introduced me to wonderful people in the surrounding communities who helped us find exactly what we needed. We shot additional footage in homes and businesses in Carlisle, Indianola, Greenfield, Winterset, De Soto and Des Moines. We are extremely lucky that he has so many resources, so much knowledge of the great and varied locations in Iowa and that he could assist us so quickly. We met the great people who ran and owned the Crouse Café and the Warren Hotel in Indianola, the Back Inn Time in Greenfield and the Edgetowner Motel in De Soto, among others, and we are so fortunate to have had their support!”
“I think back” says Busbee, “and I recognize that there were so many places, all along the line, that a production of this size and complexity could have skidded right off the road, just wrecked spectacularly. But it never did. I believe that Haunting Villisca was meant to be and that the Universe continues to assist us in ways large and small. Oh, there were the usual problems – blown tires, mildly screwed-up hotel reservations – and unusual ones, like fence-hopping buffalo and closet doors that open and shut by themselves.
But at the end of the summer, there it was – thirtysomething hours worth of movie. And that’s a huge testament to the skill, diligence, fortitude and faith of an enormous number of gifted and dedicated people who worked on and around this project.”
A Ghost of a Chance, The Making of Haunting Villisca - description of the documentary (top)
This unique documentary was made by three unusual female teenage filmmakers who started their own production company. JEK Films, founded and co-owned by Jill Jones, Elizabeth Hixenbaugh and Kaitlyn Busbee, is award-winning for several of their short films. One of the most popular shorts, Crooks of the Cordless, garnered awards at the Iowa Motion Picture Association's Showcase Iowa, at the 2004 Wild Rose Independent Film Festival and at the Iowa Thespian Festival Film Competition. These teens were selected to study filmmaking at the prestigious Central Campus Film and Television Program in Des Moines for which they recieved many hours of college credit and have been working together for over two years. Each of them plans to continue studying and has chosen filmmaking as a career.
On set for the entire summer shoot, JEK members captured hours of interesting, quirky, tedious, passionate, frightening and funny footage. From their own unique viewpoint, they have edited together a look at their opportunity to shoot a full length feature film documentary and, especially, to give their perspective on shooting an epic story inspired by the unsolved 1912 crime. Working in and around the famed Villisca Axe Murder House and the Montgomery County Courthouse in Red Oak where the trials took place among other locations, they encountered many fascinating occurences, captured cast and crew interactions, interviewed experts on the history and about the paranormal phenomenon and made some lifelong friends.
This entertaining,yet moving documentary chronicles these experiences, notes the thematic threads and asks some questions about the nature of the human spirit.
James Serpento's notes on Haunting Villisca (top)
Sitting here now, a year after the wrap of Haunting Villisca, and just beginning to direct a production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Beckett's great quest - to discover and communicate essence, the perfect coalescence of form and being - is very much in my mind. For that is every artist's dream, whether or not they realize it or admit it. And the search can be utterly maddening. There are, after all, all these things in your way (take your pick).
But that's the game and no mistake.
For me, Villisca's story hit immediately with the sheer force of its potential. It seemed as though its form and being were perfectly bound up: history's powerful jaws seemed specially made for the task of hiding the truth and did what they were designed to do: clamp shut around the facts. And everyone else is left to the sad and exhilarating task of making the various fables.
If you've ever fallen in love at first sight - and I have - then you know a little bit about what I mean. What is most unsettling, is it not, is how utterly, instantly sure you are of everything - except, of course, for everything else.
Your only guide is the wreckage in your mind and heart left by that first strange collision of molecules. As Anne Bogart tells us, it is an erotic charge, defined as that thing that stops you in your tracks and demands an accounting, says, in effect, "No matter where you go from here, you can never be the same. I'm sorry, but your old self has died and is gone forever. You can choose to live, but it must be differently. Good luck. My suggestion is to Kiss Me."
Villisca landed not so much in my heart, but rather in that mysterious spot between the shoulder blades, the one that always itches and seems never to be within reach of being scratched. But one must try, or go mad.
And so, with the generous and skilled assistance of a great many people, I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was make a movie out of the strange contortions through which I was moving.
Perhaps all I really wanted was one blessed night where I wasn't up and milling about, looking for something - anything - to put the thing to rest.
"Please God just give me One Good Scratch."
Haunting Villisca and A Ghost of a Chance - notes by Kimberly Busbee (top)
I was drawn to this project for reasons I did not at first understand. I don’t relish horror films in general, and I dislike being exposed to violent subject matter. But, for some reason, I sensed there was more to the Villisca story than its being one of the worst unsolved crimes in this country. It is obviously a tragic, fascinating, compelling and horrible tale of human frailty, intrigue and murder. But, it also has become an epic fable of man’s capacity for sin, redemption and forgiveness.
When James and I first visited the J.B. Moore Home (now a museum owned by Darwin and Martha Linn) and heard the details of the terrible killings that happened there in 1912 and learned of the paranormal occurrences in the house since then, I began to yearn for more than knowing who the killer or killers may have been. I began to wonder about the victims; the individuals who lived and breathed and lost their lives that night….those innocent children and hapless adults who went to sleep expecting to wake in the morning. I began to wonder about the motives of those responsible for the crime and what circumstances could have driven them to this unspeakable act. I wondered about what it must have been like to live in Villisca after the bodies were discovered and everyone knew that a killer was loose. Did anyone enter their own home (let alone go to sleep at night) without a creeping fear? Did it seem that peace was forever lost? How could this unthinkable thing have happened in this pretty place and why? And how did the killer (s) sleep at night? Was there remorse? I wondered about the history of the land beneath the J.B. Moore home and about the Native Americans living in the area who gave Villisca its name. And the energy of the place fascinated me. I thought a great deal about the precarious balance of good and evil. The Villisca story draws you in, and those who visit the house often return again and again. It has become a place where deep questions are asked. We wrote this screenplay with some of these questions in our minds and in our hearts.
Our movie, Haunting Villisca, is an independent film. As such, it had a ghost of a chance to be financed, shot, finished and marketed. All along the way, the naysayers told me, “You’ll never get the money you need!” The story is too big!” You guys are trying to shoot a low budget PERIOD PIECE?! Are you CRAZY? “WHERE are you going to get all those costumes and props and HOW will you afford them?” “You NEVER will find enough good actors.” “The production will wreck.” “You’ll never finish it.” Or even worse, we were admonished, “You are dishonoring the dead by telling this story. No one but ghouls and freaks are interested in this.” Every day we heard that it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. Yet, here we are, nearly seven years later with a completed picture…
I thank the Universe which kept propelling the project no matter what obstacles were placed in our way and I thank all those wonderful people who worked hard and long to make the film a reality against the clearly formidable odds. And I note that, recently, the entire nation has become interested (if not obsessed) with crime stories, paranormal phenomenon and psychic tales. So, the question is why? Are we all twisted, or are we simply driven to better understand the scope of human nature? By yearning to grasp the essence of what happens to a person’s spirit after death, are we trying to reach out to others and link to a higher power? Will reaching inward to our own dark corners of the soul shed some light? And can we find evidence that we will exist even after we lose this shell we call a body? Possibly, as seems to be the case with the Villisca story, each of us merely is trying to find peace; to heal wounds and find forgiveness, even in the unforgivable… Maybe only then do any of us have a ghost of a chance.