It isn’t very often that the phrase “a life’s work” gets brought up in casual conversation. Even further yet, it is less often that that phrase applies to a murder investigation. However, it is seemingly the rarest to encounter someone whose “life’s work” encompasses such a depth of information about a subject so specialized as an axe murder which happened nearly 110 years ago on the opposite end of the state.
Enter Dr. Ed Epperly, and his book “Fiend Incarnate.”
At 86 years old, the retired Luther professor of education claims to be the foremost expert in the world on the Villisca Axe Murders—and he might be right. In having conversation with him, he can recall with almost film-like detail the specificities of the brutal and strange crime which rocked a rural southwestern Iowa town over a century ago.
Of course, anyone could be good at their niche if they put in the work. However, to put in the work that Epperly has would require, quite literally, almost a lifetime of study. That’s because Dr. Epperly has been studying the Villisca Axe Murders since he was an undergraduate student at UNI in 1955.
In those years, Dr. Epperly has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of not only the details of the case, but the suspects, the theories, the culture surrounding the case and the impact it has had not only on Villisca but the true crime world as a whole.
But what exactly happened?
In brief, on June 10, 1912, in the town of Villisca, Iowa, Josiah Moore, his wife Sarah, kids Herman, Mary, Arthur and Paul, along with guest children Ina and Lena Stillinger were murdered in their beds with an axe. The killer escaped Villisca without ever being caught and to this day the case remains unsolved. In the 110 years since, the case has become infamous in Iowa lore, especially with the rise of interest in true-crime stories.
One thing that has persisted over that time is the question of “whodunnit.” In “Fiend Incarnate,” Epperly details not only the suspects, but the possibilities of how, why, and “what if?” To come to answer these questions, Dr. Epperly spent years traveling to and from the town, exploring decades of archives and records, and writing—although somewhat infrequently.
“I’m fairly dyslexic,” said Epperly. “I can’t really read or write all that well, but I can picture things in my mind.” As a result, compiling this 416-page book (the first draft of which began as over 700 pages of “really good stories”) took some time.
“I’d work on it for a few months, really intensely, and then I’d leave it alone for a bit,” noted Epperly, “It was rather sporadic for a while.” When he began, however, Dr. Epperly had no choice but to work hard at it—he had a grade on the line!
The entirety of this 66-year venture began with a school project at UNI, for an Iowa History class. Epperly, along with two friends, decided they wanted to study something out of the normal and chose Villisca as their topic for study. After writing the paper, Dr. Epperly graduated UNI, received his master’s, then his doctorate, then taught education at Luther College; all the while keeping up his research on the matter.
“It took several trips,” said Epperly, in reference to how long it took for him to start getting into some of the groundbreaking information presented in the book. Epperly noted that he made dozens of trips to Villisca, even while living in Decorah. “I’d plan it out for several days, that way I could get some work done.” Epperly thanked Luther as being a place that was tolerant of his curious field of study that was well outside of “anything I could actually teach in my classes.”
Once he retired in 2000, Epperly found more time to devote to the subject, even becoming a featured part of the documentary “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” which came out in 2004. That film became the motivation to write “Fiend Incarnate,” as a companion piece.
Dr. Epperly noted the enjoyment he received out of doing the documentary, and how good it felt to see that project come to fruition. “It took them something like 12 years to complete. We sat at Café Deluxe … and drank coffee and Coke for hours talking about Villisca,” Epperly said, about part of his involvement in the film. “They also came [to his house] and filmed me for several days.”
Now, several decades later, “Fiend Incarnate” is out. The book was officially released on Nov. 23, through Fourth Wall Press of Moline, Ill. Through Epperly’s decades of research, the book seeks to analyze the Villisca Axe Murders with the most depth ever seen. “I believe I know the most, in the world, about Villisca,” said Epperly. “I think that everyone should find their thing, but it’s pretty rare to find something you might be the best in the world at.” Dr. Epperly noted how fortunate he felt that his line of research took him to this level of notoriety, but ultimately, he said he worked for all these years because he enjoyed it.
As for what comes next? Dr. Epperly will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know what he wants to do next. “86 is a little old to begin another large project,” he quipped, “I’ve considered writing a memoir, about my childhood,” he added. However, it seems that Dr. Epperly is content, at least for the moment, in enjoying the decades of work he has completed.