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The Villisca Axe Murders:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

Page - 3

Copyrighted photo courtesy J. Goos.
Frank Fernando Jones.

Within minutes of the murder’s discovery, some Villisca citizens began speculation that F.F. Jones, a prominent town businessman, might be involved.  F.F. Jones seemed an unlikely suspect.  Born in 1855 in New York state, he heeded Greeley’s admonition and moved west to grow up with the country.  In 1875 he moved to rural Villisca from Illinois.  Frank broke prairie and taught school as he looked to establish himself.  Married in 1880, by 1882 he had left school teaching and farming to become a bookkeeper for a hardware and implement firm in Villisca.  In 1890 he and a partner bought a hardware and implement stock that started him down the road to a very successful retail career.  From this retail base, he moved into banking.  In 1895 he joined a five-person partnership, which formed the Farmer’s Bank in Villisca.   Ten years later this business was reorganized as the Villisca National Bank.  In November of 1903, he won election to the State House of Representatives.  He remained in the House until the fall of 1912 when he was elected State Senator from Montgomery County.

Mr. Jones was also a pillar of the Methodist Church.  For twenty-five years he served as Sunday school superintendent and certainly was its leading layman in 1912.  Why would such a leading citizen be suspected of such a heinous crime?  The suspicions against him related to motive.  When the doctors on the scene reported no evidence of rape, citizens and local officials gave up sexual motivation as an explanation.  They also considered and rejected the possibility of a deranged serial killer.   Consequently, they turned to conventional motivation to explain the killer’s actions.  That such a murder as was committed in Villisca could be explained by conventional motivation is a bit hard to swallow from the perspective of several decades, but if conventional motivation became the accepted explanation, then F.F. Jones was the best local suspect.

Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Review.

First, F.F. had made more than his share of enemies.  He was arrogant, self-righteous and hard in his business dealings.  Secondly, Joe Moore, the murdered man, was his bitter enemy, a fact known by everyone in town.  In 1901 when Jones bought into a new retail partnership, Joe was already working for that firm.  He stayed on and became a crack salesman for “Jones of Villisca.”  In 1907 Joe left and opened a competing hardware and implement store.  More gulling than that, he took the John Deere Plow Company franchise with him when he left.  The business conflict between Frank Jones and Joe Moore had grown so intense that by 1910 they wouldn’t speak and would cross the street to avoid meeting each other.

Finally, Frank and Joe were separated by an issue of jealousy, pride, and passion.   F.F. had a son Albert who worked for the firm.  Albert was perceived as being dominated by his father.  In 1910, Albert married Dona Bentley from Hawleyville, a small town south of Villisca.  Dona had come to town as a schoolteacher.  She was pretty, vivacious, and in the parlance of the time, a “high stepper.”   That is an ill-defined term, but in Dona’s case seemed to refer to her unwillingness to become a quiet, retiring matron after she married.

Copyrighted photo courtesy J. Goos.
Dona Bentley Jones

Within a year of her marriage she was acting in a most indiscrete manner.  She was entertaining male visitors in her home when Albert was not there.  At least three, and perhaps as many as five, local men visited her un-chaperoned.  As the reader might suspect, Joe Moore was among these visitors.  In fact, Joe was her most frequent guest.  Revealing either extreme naïveté or a disregard for public opinion, Dona arranged these several trysts over the telephone.  This was the day of a central operator, so every phone call was bugged as everyone in 1912 knew.   Certainly any gossip as explosive as this was sure to spread throughout the town, and it did.

All these reasons combined to give F.F. Jones a better conventional motive for murder than anyone else in town.  Gossip was rampant, but there was no public acknowledgment of the community suspicions directed toward a citizen of such prominence as F.F. Jones.   There is nothing in the Attorney General’s papers, or statements by local investigators to suggest that Jones was a suspect.  The only public record is an editorial in the Villisca Review that chides citizens for spreading ill-founded rumors that even include such preposterous charges that a prominent local citizen was behind the murder.  It is very doubtful these community suspicions would have ever officially surfaced had the Moore family not continued to pressure officials for action.

Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Public Library
Burns Agency Detective James Newton Wilkerson

In April of 1914, a Texas land agent, James N. Wilkerson, came to town and set up shop.   He worked for several weeks arranging a train trip to south Texas to, as he put it, “get the best farmers in the world to come and buy the best land in the world.”   Then one evening he knocked on the back screen of Ross Moore’s drug store.   Introducing himself as an undercover operative of the Burns Detective Agency working out of Kansas City, he told Ross he was convinced that F.F. Jones was the money behind the murder.  From that point on the accusations against F.F. were common, but not public knowledge.  No formal court proceedings were held, no newspaper editorials written, no official interrogations conducted, nor arrests made.  Instead, the community boiled with rumors for two years while Wilkerson built his case.

All this intrigue came to a head during the Republican Primary Election in June of 1916.   On the Sunday before the Tuesday election several Villisca citizens received an anonymous flyer in the mail, which contained a Leavenworth Penitentiary mug shot of a man named William Mansfield.  Under the picture was text that asked if they wanted for their state senator the man whose money had paid this man to kill the Moore family.

Now the accusation was public.  Jones lost the nomination to County Attorney Ratcliff, and Villisca wanted to see what would happen next.

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