On June 10, 1912, eight people were found dead in the Moore’s home in Villisca, Iowa. The murders spawned nearly ten years of investigations, repeated grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit, murder trials, and numerous minor litigations.
Law enforcement agencies from neighbouring counties and states joined forces, and bloodhounds were brought in to track down the killer. The crime made and broke political careers, pitted neighbours against neighbours, friends against friends and family against family.
Accusations, rumours and suspicion ran rampant among the community and townspeople began to distinguish and identify themselves by who they believed committed the crime. Even on the first day after the crime was discovered, there was a large number of suspects and murder confessions came in from those who were not even suspected. So who committed the Villisca Axe Murders on June 10, 1912?
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The Villisca Axe Murders
In the early 1900s, Villisca, Iowa, was a flourishing Mid-Western town, population 2,500. In 1912, the town built the only publicly funded Armory in the state of Iowa. On June 10, 1912, the tranquility of this “Pretty Place” was shattered when it took after the possible more sinister meaning of the Indian word “Wallisca,” meaning “evil spirit.”
It was June 9, 1912, a warm summer day in Villisca, Iowa, and the daughters of Joseph and Sara Stillinger, Lena and Ina, left their home to attend church early on Sunday morning. After which they planned to have lunch with their grandmother and spend the night with her after the Children’s Day exercises. The Children’s Day exercises was an end-of-the-year Sunday school program where the children performed speeches and recitations. But they were invited by 10 year old Katherine Moore to spend the night at the Moore house instead. Josiah Moore, Katherine’s father, call to the Stillinger home, prior to leaving for the Children’s Day exercises, to ask permission for the girls to stay overnight. The Moore’s were an affluent family, both well-known and well-liked by the community, so when Blanche Stillinger, Lena and Ina’s older sister, answered that day, she told him that her parents were both outdoors but she would pass the message along to them.
The Children’s Day Program at the Presbyterian Church was an annual event that began the evening of Sunday, June 9 at 8 pm. According to witnesses, Sarah Moore coordinated the evening’s exercises. All of the Moore children as well as the Stillinger girls participated while Josiah Moore sat in the congregation. The program ended at 9:30 pm that evening, and the Moores returned to their home sometime between 9:45 and 10 pm.
The following morning, June 10, at 5 a.m., Mary Peckham, the Moore’s next door neighbor stepped into her yard to hang laundry. Two hours later, around 7 am, she had realized that none of the Moore’s chores had began that morning, furthermore she hadn’t seen any of them about yet. The Moore house seemed unnervingly still.
She approached the house sometime before 8 am to knock on the door, when she received no response, she attempted to gain entry only to find the front door locked from the inside. Unable to attract the attention of any of the Moore family, she let the Moore’s chickens out and placed a call to Josiah Moore’s brother, Ross Moore.
After receiving the call from Mary Peckham, Ross Moore arrived at the Moore house and attempted to look in a bedroom window. Failing at that, he then knocked on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. And when that too failed, he used his key to gain entry. Mary Peckham was with him at the time but waited after following him into the porch, she did not enter the parlor. Ross Moore himself made it no farther than the bedroom off the parlor when he saw the two bodies on the bed with dark stains on their bedclothes. Immediately, he returned to Mary on the porch and called the hardware store that Josiah owned, and told employee Ed Selley to fetch Marshall Henry “Hank” Horton, because something “terrible had happened.” It is important to note at this point in time that a second story we read said that he had asked Mary to retrieve the Marshall.
In total, 8 people including Josiah and Sarah, their 4 children: Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, and their two overnight guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger, were murdered while the slept. Based on the testimonies of Mary Peckham, and those who saw the Moore’s at the Children’s Day Exercise, it is believed that sometime between midnight and 5:00 am on June 10, an unknown assailant entered the home of J.B. Moore and brutally murdered all occupants of the house with an axe.
Marshall Horton arrived around 8:30 am. With him, Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper, Edgar Hough and Wesley Ewing, the minister of the Moore’s Presbyterian congregation. They were followed by the county coroner, L.A. Linquist, and a third doctor, F.S. Williams (who became the first to examine the bodies and estimate a time of death).
News in a small town travels quickly, and as the buzz of the murders made it around neighbors and curious onlookers converged on the house. When a shaken Dr Williams emerged, he cautioned members of the growing crowd outside: “Don’t go in there, boys; you’ll regret it until the last day of your life.”
Many ignored the advice and law enforcement officials quickly lost control of the crime scene, and it is said that up to 100 people traipsed through the house gawking at the bodies as they pleased through the house and scattering fingerprints. The Villisca National Guard finally arrived around noon to cordon off the area and secure the home. Which is way too late for evidence not to have been lost.
They did such a good job securing the crime scene that amateur historian Ed Epperly, who has studied the case since the 1950s (and apparently for years owned the axe used in the killings — not sure what he’s doing with evidence of an unsolved case) said one local pool room operator is believed to have walked away with part of Josiah Moore’s skull.
When Horton and his crew found bodies of Lena (12) and Ina (8) were found first in the bedroom downstairs just off the parlor. Ina was sleeping closest to the wall , a grey coat covering her face and Lena on her right side. According to the testimony of Dr. FS Williams, Lena “lay as though she had kicked one foot out of her bed sideways, with one hand up under the pillow on her right side, half sideways, not clear over but just a little.” It was suggested that she had been struck in the head and squirmed down in the bed, perhaps one-third of the way. Her nightgown was slid up revealing that she had been wearing no undergarments, and there was a bloodstain on the inside of her right knee and what doctors assumed was a defensive wound on her arm. It is important to note that doctors concluded that Lena had not been sexually assaulted. With the exception of Lena, all of the victims faces were covered with bed-clothes when they were found.
The remaining members of the Moore Family were found in the upstairs bedrooms by Marshall Horton with their skulls crushed as they slept. Josiah Moore, 43, Sarah Montgomery Moore, 39, Herman Moore, 11, Katherine Moore, 9, Boyd Moore, 7 and Paul Moore, 5. The ceilings in the bedroom of Josiah and Sarah , as well as the children’s, showed gouge marks apparently made by the upswing of the axe. Each of them had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an axe.
The only known facts regarding the scene of the crime were:
- 8 people were bludgeoned to death, presumably with an axe left at the crime scene and all appeared to be asleep at the time of the murders
- The estimated time of death was shortly after midnight
- All the doors were locked, and the curtains of the house were drawn, save for the two windows that had none – those were covered with clothing belonging to the Moore family
- The axe belonging to Josiah was left leaning against the South wall in the room occupied by the Stillinger girls, and though it was bloody there did look like an attempt had been made to wipe it of. It was suspected to be the murder weapon
- The upstairs bedroom ceilings appeared to have gouge marks made by the upswing of the axe
- A piece of a keychain was found on the floor in the downstairs bedroom
- A pan of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table as well as a plate of uneaten food
- A kerosene lamp was found at the foot of the bed of Josiah and Sarah. The chimney was off and the wick had been turned back. The chimney was found under the dresser.
A similar lamp was found at the foot of the bed of the Stillinger girls, the chimney was also off.
- Dr. Linquist, the coroner, reported a slab of bacon on the floor in the downstairs bedroom lying near the axe. Weighing nearly 2 pounds, it was wrapped in what he thought may be a dishtowel. A second slab of bacon about the same size was found in the icebox
- Linquist also made note of one of Sarah’s shoes which he found on Josiah’s side of the bed. The shoe was found on its side, however, it had blood inside as well as under it. It was Linquist’s assumption that the shoe had been upright when Josiah was first struck and that blood ran off the bed into the shoe. He believed the killer later returned to the bed to inflict additional blows and subsequently knocked the shoe over.
The Moore-Stillinger funeral services were held on June 12 in Villisca’s town square with thousands in attendance. The National Guard blocked the street as a hearse moved toward the firehouse, where the eight victims lay. Their caskets, not on display during the funeral, were later carried on several wagons to the Villisca Cemetery for burial. The funeral cortege was 50 carriages long.
The Villisca Axe Murder Suspects
There were a few “clumsy and futile attempts” to search the surrounding countryside for a transient killer, but this failed to unearth a likely suspect. Importantly, the killer was given a head start of up to five hours in a town at which nearly 30 trains ran through every day, so it is entirely possible that he made a clean escape.
The murders spawned nearly ten years of investigations, repeated grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit, murder trials, and numerous minor litigations. Law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties and states joined forces, and bloodhounds were brought in to track down the killer. The crime made and broke political careers, pitted neighbours against neighbours, friends against friends and family against family. Accusations, rumors and suspicion ran rampant among the community and townspeople began to distinguish and identify themselves by who they believed committed the crime. The town stood then and in many cases still stands divided.
Even on the first day after the crime was discovered, there was a large amount of suspects and murder confessions came in from those who were not even suspects.
So who committed the Villisca Axe Murders on June 10, 1912?
Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly
Suspect numero uno is a one Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. Rev. Kelly was an English immigrant, and was said to be both “unbalanced” with well-recorded mental problems and “perhaps a pedophile” thought we want to clarify that the pedophile rumour is completely unsubstantiated – but he was described as a “sexual-deviant.” (Side note – this is 1912 so basically anything that isn’t missionary with the lights off is sexually deviant).
Standing 5 foot 2 he seems to be an implausible suspect, but he was left-handed which the Coroner said the killer probably was due to the blood splatter left-behind.
He was described as obsessed with sex and someone said he had been caught peering into windows in Villisca two days before the murders. Further two years later in 1914, in South Dakota, he placed an ad in the Omaha World-Herald asking for a “girl stenographer” to do “confidental work” and specified that the successful candidate would have to be “willing to pose as a model.” A young woman named Jessamine Hodgson responded and recieved what a judge described as “so obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy as to be offensive to this honorable court and improper to be spread upon the record thereof.” Basically, he refused to read it outloud but among Kelley’s milder instructions, he wrote that she would be required to type in the nude.
Rev. Kelly was a travelling minister who happened to be teaching at the Children’s Day services on June 9, which the Moore family attended. He and his wife left town early on June 10, the day the bodies discovered. Many in Villisca believed that he had spied on the Moore household that evening. The idea that the killer had lain in wait was somewhat supported by evidence; the Coroner’s investigation revealed a depression in some bales of hay stored in the family barn, and a knot hole through which the murderer could have watched the house while reclining in comfort.
Among the evidence was the testimony of an elderly couple that recalled meeting him on the 5:19 am train the morning the bodies were discovered. He allegedly told them about the gruesome murders that had been committed —a hugely incriminating statement, since they had had left Villisca three hours before the killings were discovered. He had also allegedly sent bloody clothing to the laundry in nearby Macedonia. Finally, it was also said that Kelly had returned to Villisca a week later and shown great interest in the murders, even posing as a Scotland Yard detective to obtain a tour of the Moore house.
Arrested in 1917, Kelly was repeatedly interrogated and eventually signed a confession to the murder in which he stated: “I killed the children upstairs first and the children downstairs last. I knew God wanted me to do it this way. `Slay utterly’ came to my mind, and I picked up the axe, went into the house and killed them.” ‘
He later recanted his confession, and the couple who claimed to have spoken to him on the morning after murders changed their story. They attempted to indict Kelly twice, the first resulted in a hung jury (11 to 1 in favour of refusing to indict him) and the second panel freed him.
Much like the other suspects we are going to talk about, there was nothing substantial connecting Andrew Sawyer to the murders. but his name was bandied about in grand jury testimonies.
Thomas Dyer of Burlington, Iowa, a bridge foreman and piledrive for the Burlington Railroad testified that Sawyer approached him and his crew in Creston, Iowa at 6 am on the morning the bodies were discovered. Sawyer had purchased a newspaper that had on it the front page an account of the murders which he “was much interested” in.
Dyer’s crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on—Oh sweet baby Jesus, arrest that man now—and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy that Sawyer slept with his axe, often talked about the Villisca murders and whether or not someone had been arrested AND (get this) Sawyer told him he was in Villisca that day AND HAD HEARD ABOUT THE MURDERS.
Dyer was suspicious and turned Sawyer in to the Sheriff on June 18. He told the Sheriff that he had walked up behind Sawyer who was rubbing his head with both hands, and startled him – allegedly Sawyer jumped and said to himself “I will cut your god damn heads off,” while making a striking motion with his axe hitting the piles in front of him.
Sawyer was released when he was able to prove that he had not, in fact, been in Villisca but was in Osceloa, Iowa where he had been arrested for vagrancy. The Osceloa Sheriff recalled putting him on a train at approximately 11 pm that night.
Frank F. Jones
Frank F. Jones might be the most obvious suspect. Jones was a Villisca resident, a tough local businessman, an Iowa State Senator and a prominent member of Villisca’s Methodist church (the Moore’s were members of the Presbyterian church). It is said that the town quickly split along religious lines, the Methodists insisting on Jones’s innocence and the Presbyterian congregation were convinced of his guilt. Jones was never formally charged, but he was the subject of a grand jury investigation and a prolonged campaign to prove his guilt, both of which destroyed his political career.
There were two main reasons that Jones was suspected of the murders. The first was that Josiah had worked for him as the star salesman of his farm-equipment business until he left in 1907, perhaps due to his 7 am to 11 pm 6 day a week work schedule. Josiah set up his own shop and became a business rival of Jones taking away valuable business from him, including that from a very successful John Deere dealership in the area.
But perhaps worse, it was alleged that Josiah was having an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, a vivacious “local beauty whose numerous affairs were well known in town thanks to her astonishingly indiscreet habit of arranging trysts over the telephone at a time when all calls in Villisca had to be placed through an operator.” It was said that by 1912, the relationship between the two of them had grown so poor that they crossed the street to avoid each other.
James Wilkerson, agent of renowned Burns Detective Agency announced in 1916 that Jones had hired a killer to murder the Moore family. The accusation was enough to derail Jones’ attempt to secure re-election to the state senate.
William “Blackie” Mansfield
William “Blackie” Mansfield—who 100 percent looks like an unmarried Victorian lady—was the man Wilkinson suspected Jones had hired to murder the Moore family.
It was believed that Mansfield, a cocaine addict, was a serial killer, as he was the chief suspect in the axe murders of his wife, her parents and his own child in Blue Island, Illinois, as well as the axe murders of Rollin and Paola Hudson in Kansas, four days before the crime, and the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Colorado. All of the locations of these crimes were accessible by train and carried out in the same manner.
However, Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury refused to indict him on the grounds that his alibi checked out. Payroll records showed that Mansfield had been working several hundred miles away in Illinois at the time of the murders, and he was released for lack of evidence.
It is interesting to note that restaurant owner RH Thorpe from Shenandoah, Iowa, said that he saw Mansfield walking from Villisca and boarding the train the morning after the murders, if true this would debunk his alibi. But it’s not true… ‘cause they have payroll records.
Henry Lee Moore
Finally, we have Henry Lee Moore (no relation to the Moore family) who was prosecuted in December 1912 for murdering his mother and maternal grandmother in Columbia, Missouri. Both of his victims had been slaughtered with an axe. It is suspected that Henry Lee Moore might have been the actual culprit in the string of axe murders during that period of time.
But it’s not necessary to believe that Henry Lee Moore was a serial killer to consider that the string of Midwest axe murders may be tied together. Moore is now rarely considered a good suspect in the Villisca Axe Murders, while he was certainly an unsavory character, released from prison in Kansas shortly before the ax murders began and arrested in Jefferson City, Missouri, shortly after they ended, and eventually convicted of the Columbia murders — he had no motive for the Moore case. In the Columbia case, he planned to obtain the deeds to his family house.
It was not necessarily remarkable that an axe was used in all the murders, almost every family in rural districts owned such an implement, and often left it lying in their yard. Similarly, the victims died asleep in their beds was likely a consequence of the choice of weapon, an axe is nearly useless against a mobile target. But other similarities among the crimes are much harder to explain away:
- In 8 of the 10 cases, the murder weapon was found abandoned at the scene of the crime
- In 7 there was a railway line nearby
- In three, including Villisca, the murders took place on a Sunday night
- In four of the cases—Paolo, Villisca, Rainier and a solitary murder that took place in Mount Pleasant, Iowa—featured killers who covered their victims’ faces
- three murderers had washed at the scene
- at least five of the killers had lingered in the murder house
- two other homes (those of the victims of the Ellsworth and Paola murders) had been lit by lamps in which the chimney had been laid aside and the wick bent down, just as it had been at Villisca.
Whether or not all these murders really were connected remains a considerable puzzle, but there certainly does seem to be a case for it. Perhaps the spookiest of all such similarities, however, was the strange behaviour of the unknown murderer of William Showman, his wife, Pauline, and their three children in Ellsworth, Kansas in October 1911. In the Ellsworth case, not only was a chimneyless lamp used to illuminate the murder scene, but a little heap of clothing had been placed over the Showmans’ telephone.
Other Interesting Notes
As a side note — in June 2016, Netflix released a fictional horror film titled “The Axe Murders of Villisca.” Netflix described the film as “three ghost-hunting teens get more than they bargained for when they break into a historic home where eight people were murdered over a century ago.”
KCCI.com‘s Damond Fudge reviewed the film, and said the incident is used as a springboard, of sorts for the film’s story, which is set in the present day and “more interested in being a standard haunted house tale than a study of a tragic small town horror.” He was quoted saying:
While there are some good things to be found during the short, 74-minute runtime, they’re outweighed by a lot of awfulness. The movie, as a whole, is a jumbled mess that leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
For the record, I turned on this movie last night while I was finishing up this script, and in less than 30 seconds I already had an issue with it. The first thing that comes on screen is the ‘slay utterly’ quote from Rev. Kelly (the hottie), doesn’t mention that he recanted and says it was taken on June 9, which is impossible considering the murders happened on June 10 and he skipped town right away. I’m sure for legitimate reasons. They also alleged that Lena had been sexually assaulted and that the Stillinger girls were staying at the Moore house because of a power outage in the town. I also want to point out that if you happen to be stabbed by something, unless you’re a doctor—leave it in until you can get to one.
The Moore Home Hauntings
Over the next ninety years the Moore home had 7 additional owners, including the Villisca State Savings and Loan from 1963 to 1971. In 1971, the ownership moved to Kendrick & Vance, and only a month later retitled to Darwin Kendrick. Mr. Kendrick remained the name on the title until the house was sold again to Rick and Vicki Sprague on January 1, 1994. In 1994, the Moore house was purchased for Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning, Iowa. They returned the house to its original condition at the time of the murders in 1912. It was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and opened for tours.
Today, it sits as an old white frame house sitting on a quiet residential street. It is is said to be filled with untold amounts of paranormal activity. Apparitions of both the children and the adults can be seen throughout the home. Strange sounds, screaming and more can be heard, thought to be one of the children who awoke before she was bludgeoned to death. Some guests have claimed to see random pools of blood on the floor. However, when they go to get help the blood mysteriously disappears. Ghost groups and physics both confirm that the house is haunted by the family and that they remain restless until their true killer is finally known.
Visits by paranormal investigators have provided audio, video and “photographic proof” of paranormal activity. A lady in one of the videos we saw said that they could hear children laughing and playing then later they could hear childrens screams, and it is said that more than one tour has been cut short by children’s voices, falling lamps, moving ladders and flying objects.
Psychics that have visited have confirmed the presence of spirits dwelling in the home, and many have claimed to have communicated with them, and skeptics have left believers
The doors and windows are tightly closed and covered, with an outhouse in the backyard a weather-beaten sign hanging from decrepit front porch warns it is the “Murder House.” The current owner has witnessed demonic presence in the form of a white light on her arm and the house is said to be inhabited by an evil demonic entity who murdered the family.
Visiting the Villisca Axe Murder House
This case has always been controversial, but an old wound was opened for Villisca when Darwin and Martha Linn bought the house, which for decades had been used as a rental. The Linns restored the building to its 1912 appearance, tearing off siding, removing an enclosed porch and repainting the house. They then opened it for tours, and the house gained a national reputation among people who believe in paranormal activities.
And while Mr. Linn has unfortunately passed away, Ms Linn said the house is booked nearly every night through the summer. Visitors bring their own sleeping bags and pillows because as Mrs. Linn says, “I’m not a bed and breakfast.”
Tours during the day cost $10 for adults, and for $400 groups can rent the home for the night.
Did you love this episode? Check these other gems out:
- Lizzie Borden Took an Axe: Rumour has it Lizzie Borden was also an axe murderer or was she? You’ll have to tune in to find out.
- Jazz It Out: The Axeman of New Orleans: Between May 1918 and October 1919, the Axeman of New Orleans terrorized the Italian grocer population in New Orleans, Louisiana. Find out what that was all about by tuning in!
- The Most Haunted House in America: Who doesn’t love haunted houses? Why not learn about the most haunted one in the USA!
- The Amityville Haunting: The DeFeo Murders: This is the infamous house of all of our nightmares… learn all about it.
The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for The Villisca Axe Murders themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- The Crime, VilliscaIowa.com.
- History, VilliscaIowa.com.
- Villisca, PrairieGhosts.com
- Villisca Axe Murders, IowaColdCases.org.
- Villisca Axe Murder House Tour, Paranormal Pat (YouTube).
- Paranormal investigator stabs self during visit to Iowa ‘Ax Murder’ house where 8 killed: cops, Daily News.
- From the archives: Inside the Villisca ax murder house, The Des Moines Register.
- This photo from inside the Villisca Axe Murder House is seriously creepy, The Des Moines Register.
- The Suspects, VilliscaIowa.com.
- Suspect, The Villisca Axe Murder.
- The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders, Killers Without Conscience.
- Villisca Ax Murder Suspects: Andy Sawyer Nearly Talked his Way Into Jail, The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog.
- Suspects, The Villisca Axe Murder.
- The Ax Murderer Who Got Away, Smithsonian Magazine.
- Serial Suspects: Who Committed the Villisca Axe Murders?, The Line Up.
- Real Paranormal Sightings Caught on Tape Villisca Axe Murders House Documentary, Live Scifi (YouTube).
- Villisca Axe Murder House, Travel Channel.
- Anger over ghost tours at notorious Iowa axe murder house on 100-year anniversary of worst killing in state’s history, DailyMail.com.
- The Villisca Ax Murder House, P.R.I.S.I.M.
- Villisca Axe Murder House, Try to Scare Me.
The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “The Villisca Axe Murders” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.
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