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The Victims

The “Murder House”

Villisca Axe Murder Mystery

In the early 1900’s, Villisca Iowa, a midwestern town of 2500, was flourishing. Businesses lined the streets and several dozen trains pulled into the depot on a daily basis. According to D.N. Smith, a Chicago, Burlington, Quincy Railroad employee, Villisca meant “Pretty Place” or “Pleasant View.”

In 1912, the town built the only publicly funded Armory in the state of Iowa. The Company housed there participated in the 1916 Mexican Expedition, WWI and WWII, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During World War II, Montgomery County lost more men per capita than any other county in the United States. Villisca surely contributed several of her own to that number.

Unfortunately for the citizens of this close-knit community, however, these accomplishments will be forever overshadowed by the horrific deaths of eight of their own. On June 10, 1912, the tranquility of this “Pretty Place” was shattered by the discovery of the Villisca Axe murders. The Moore Family, well-known and well-liked Villisca residents and two overnight guests were found murdered in their beds. Little known to it’s residents was the possibility that their town was named, not after a “pretty place” but for the Indian word “Wallisca” which means “evil spirit.”

One hundred and four years later, the unsolved murders remain a part of Villisca’s past that continues to haunt its future. While several of Villisca’s historic buildings have been demolished, the Axe Murder House, as it is known, has been placed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.

Long before serial killers and mass murders had become a way of life, two adults and 6 children were found brutally murdered in their beds in the small mid-western town of Villisca, Iowa. During the weeks that followed, life in this small town changed drastically.

As residents of this small town reinforced locks, openly carried weapons and huddled together while sleeping, newspaper reporters and private detectives flooded the streets. Accusations, rumors and suspicion ran rampant among friends and families. Bloodhounds were brought in. Law enforcement agencies from neighbouring counties and states joined forces. Hundreds of interviews filled thousands of pages.

And yet, the murders remained unsolved, the murderer unpunished.

The walls of this pristine home still protect the identity of a murderer who bludgeoned to death the entire family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests. What’s more, not only do her walls hold the secret of the killer these many years later, they also continue to house a number of paranormal entities. Nestled in the hills of southwest Iowa, Villisca is a small rural community of about 1,300 people today; but, in the early 1900’s, it was a bustling railroad town with about 2,500 people.

At that time, more than two dozen passenger and freight trains stopped at the depot each day and the town sported several hotels, restaurants, stores, theatres, and manufacturers. Within this thriving environment lived Josiah B. Moore, one of Villisca’s most prominent businessmen. The owner and operator of the Moore Implement Company (a John Deere Company franchise), he was a solid competitor with other area businesses. On December 6, 1899, Josiah married Sarah Montgomery at the home of her parents and the couple would have four children ? Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul.

Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912. The Moore house in Villisca, 1912. One of the town?s larger and better-appointed properties, it still stands today and has been turned into Villisca?s premier tourist attraction. For a price, visitors can stay in the house overnight; there is no shortage of interested parties.

Lena and Ina Stillinger, the daughters of Joseph and Sara Stillinger, left their home for church early Sunday morning. They planned on having dinner with their grandmother after the morning service, spending the afternoon with her and then returning to her home to spend the night after the Children’s Day exercises concluded. The girls, however, were invited by Katherine Moore to spend the night at the Moore home instead. Prior to leaving for the exercises, Mr. Moore placed a call to the Stillinger home to ask permission for the girls to stay overnight. Blanche, Lena and Ina’s older sister, told Mr. Moore that her parents were both outdoors but she would pass the message along to them.

?J.B.?, as Josiah was familiarly called, and his wife, Sarah, were well-liked in the community, active in Presbyterian Church, and described as being friendly and helpful to their neighbors. On Sunday, June 9, 1912, the Moore family as well as the Stillinger family attended church. An annual event was also held Sunday evening called the ?Children’s Day Program,? which had been coordinated by Sarah Moore. That evening, 9 year-old Katherine Moore invited her friends, 12 year-old Lena Stillinger, and her sister, 7 year-old Ina May for a sleepover. The girls accepted and the after the program ended at 9:30 pm, the Moore family, along with the Stillinger sisters, walked home from the church, arriving about 9:45 and 10:00 pm.

The next morning, Moore’s neighbour, Mary Peckham, noticed that the Moores were not outside taking care of their regular chores and that the house was unusually still. Between 7:00 and 8:00 am, she knocked on the door but, received no answer. When she tried to open the door, she found it locked. Concerned, she called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore. When Ross Moore arrived, he knocked loudly on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. He then tried to look through the windows but found all of the curtains drawn or the windows covered. He then produced his keys and entered the house, quickly returning to the front porch and instructing Mary Peckham to call the sheriff.

What he had seen was shocking. The entire Joshiah Moore family had been murdered, as well as the two young overnight guests ? all bludgeoned with an axe while they slept. In the upstairs master bedroom lay 43 year-old Josiah Moore and 39 year-old Sara Moore, both bludgeoned in the head, their bed linens stained heavily with blood. In the adjacent upstairs bedrooms, were the Moore children, 11 year-old Herman, 10 year-old Mary Katherine, 7 year-old Boyd, and 5 year-old Paul, who had also been bludgeoned in the head while they slept. In the main level guest room, the bodies of Lena Stillinger, age 12 and her sister Ina, age 8, were also found dead, killed in the same manner as the family.

Lena and Ina Stillinger. Lena, the elder of the girls, was the only one who may have awoken before she died.

Once the murderers were discovered, the news travelled quickly in the small town. As neighbours and curious onlookers converged on the house, law enforcement officials quickly lost control of the crime scene. It is said that up to a hundred people traipsed through the house gawking at the bodies before the Villisca National Guard finally arrived around noon to cordon off the area and secure the home. The only known facts regarding the scene of the crime were:

  • Eight people had been bludgeoned to death, presumably with an axe left at the crime scene. It appeared all had been asleep at the time of the murders.
  • Doctors estimated time of death as somewhere shortly after midnight.
  • Curtains were drawn on all of the windows in the house except two, which did not have curtains. Those windows were covered with clothing belonging to the Moore’s.
  • All of the victims? faces were covered with the bedclothes?after?they were killed.
  • 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.
  • The axe was found in the room occupied by the Stillinger girls. It was bloody but an attempt had been made to wipe it off. The axe belonged to Josiah Moore.
  • The ceilings in the parent’s bedroom and the children’s room showed gouge marks apparently 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.
  • The doors were all locked.
  • The bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger were found in the downstairs bedroom off the parlor. Ina was sleeping closest to the wall with Lena on her right side. A gray coat covered her face. Lena, according to the inquest testimony of Dr. F.S. Williams, “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. Apparently she had been struck in the head and squirmed down in the bed, perhaps one-third of the way.” Lena’s nightgown was slid up and she was wearing no undergarments. There was a bloodstain on the inside of her right knee and what the doctors assumed was a defensive wound on her arm.
  • 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 though 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 it’s 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.

It’s important, however, that we also realize that in 1912 – fingerprinting was a fairly new venture, and DNA testing unimaginable. Although a local druggist had the forethought to attempt to enter the crime scene with his camera, he was promptly thrown out.

Villisca City Marshall Hank Horton arrived quickly, soon followed by other officers. In the meantime, the gruesome news spread like wild fire and within no time, neighbours and curious onlookers converged on the house. Law enforcement quickly lost control of the crime scene and it is said that as many as a hundred gawkers traipsed through the house before the Villisca National Guard arrived around noon and cordoned off the home.

The investigation tells that the eight victims were killed shortly after midnight, and all but Lena Stillinger were thought to have been asleep at the time of their murders. It was concluded that Lena was the only victim that had attempted to fight off her attacker, as she appeared to have had a defensive wound on her arm. The attack was so vicious that the ceilings in the parents’ and childrens’ bedrooms showed gouge marks apparently made by the upswing of the axe.

If you’re really feeling brave, the Villisca Axe Murder House offers overnight stays for groups of friends who want to spend the night searching for the ghosts that are still roaming the murder scene.

No one was ever officially convicted of the Moore Family murders, though there were many suspects, and many people who admitted to being the killer.

According to a reconstruction attempted by the town coroner next day, he took an oil lamp from a dresser, removed the chimney and placed it out of the way under a chair, bent the wick in two to minimize the flame, lit the lamp, and turned it down so low it cast only the faintest glimmer in the sleeping house.

Still carrying the ax, the stranger walked past one room in which two girls, ages 12 and 9, lay sleeping, and slipped up the narrow wooden stairs that led to two other bedrooms. He ignored one, in which four more young children were sleeping, and crept into the room in which 43-year-old Joe Moore lay next to his wife, Sarah. Raising the ax high above his head?so high it gouged the ceiling?the man brought the flat of the blade down on the back of Joe Moore?s head, crushing his skull and probably killing him instantly. Then he struck Sarah a blow before she had time to wake or register his presence.

Leaving the couple dead or dying, the killer went next door and used the ax?Joe?s own, probably taken from where it had been left in the coal shed?to kill the four Moore children as they slept. Once again, there is no evidence that Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; or Paul, 5, woke before they died. Nor did the assailant or any of the four children make sufficient noise to disturb Katherine?s two friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, as they slept downstairs. The killer then descended the stairs and took his ax to the Stillinger girls, the elder of whom may finally have awakened an instant before she, too, was murdered.

What happened next marked the Villisca killings as truly peculiar and still sends shivers down the spine a century after the fact.?The ax man went back upstairs and systematically reduced the heads of all six Moores to bloody pulp, striking Joe alone an estimated 30 times and leaving the faces of all six members of the family? unrecognizable. He then drew up the bedclothes to cover Joe and Sarah?s shattered heads, placed a gauze undershirt over Herman?s face and a dress over Katherine?s, covered Boyd and Paul as well, and finally administered the same terrible postmortem punishment to the girls downstairs before touring the house and ritually hanging cloths over every mirror and piece of glass in it. At some point the killer also took a two-pound slab of uncooked bacon from the icebox, wrapped it in a towel, and left it on the floor of the downstairs bedroom close to a short piece of key chain that did not, apparently, belong to the Moores. He seems to have stayed inside the house for quite some time, filling a bowl with water and?some later reports said?washing his bloody hands in it. Some time before 5 a.m., he abandoned the lamp at the top of the stairs and left as silently as he had come, locking the doors behind him. Taking the house keys, the murderer vanished as the Sunday sun rose red in the sky.

When the Moores were discovered several hours later, by the neighbour, worried by the absence of any sign of life in the normally boisterous household. That set in train a sequence of events that destroyed what little hope there may have been of gathering useful evidence from the crime scene. Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper and 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). 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; as many as 100 curious neighbors and townspeople tramped as they pleased through the house, scattering fingerprints, and in one case even removing fragments of Joe Moore?s skull as a macabre keepsake.

The murders convulsed Villisca, particularly after a few clumsy and futile attempts to search the surrounding countryside for a transient killer failed to unearth a likely suspect. The simple truth was that there was no sign of the murderer?s whereabouts. He might have vanished back into his own home nearby; equally, given a head start of up to five hours in a town at which nearly 30 trains called every day, he might easily have made good his escape. Bloodhounds were tried without success; after that there was little for the townspeople to do but gossip, swap theories?and strengthen their locks. By sundown there was not a dog to be bought in Villisca at any price.

No one could imagine who could possibly commit such a heinous crime and the townsfolk were first convinced it must be a deranged tramp. Expecting to find the blood-drenched killer hiding somewhere in the area, a number of posses were formed on horseback and in autos, searching alleys in the city and every barn, shed, and outhouse in the vicinity. But, they returned empty-handed.

With darkness came the fear that a madman was on the loose and might strike again. Families partnered with their neighbors to stand shotgun guard all night and windows were nailed shut. In the ensuing days, every lock in town was sold out, residents openly carried weapons, neighbors looked with suspicion upon neighbors, and rumors and accusations ran rampant. Soon, newspaper reporters and private detectives flooded the streets. Bloodhounds were brought in and law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties and states joined forces. The murders began a chain of events that split the small town and forever changed the course of the lives of its residents.

One of the earliest thoughts by investigators was the possibility of a serial killer. The previous year, a series of horrible murders had taken place in the Midwest. In the fall of 1911, every two weeks whole families had been slaughtered in their beds without apparent reason. These included the families of the Burnhams and the Waynes in Colorado Springs in September, the killing of a family in Monmouth, Illinois two weeks later, a culminated in the murder of the Showman family in Ellsworth, Kansas on October 15, 1911. The next year, another similar murder occurred in Paola, Kansas on June 5, 1912, just four days before Villisca. Though there were similarities in these gruesome killings, interest in the serial killer theory soon faded and was largely forgotten.

Every stranger or transient to the small town were also suspects. One such man was Andy Sawyer. A transient that moved from job to job, he gained temporary work for the Burlington Railroad on the very morning of the murder. According to the rail crew,? he purchased a newspaper which headlined the murders and w “was much interested in it.” The crew also complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on with an axe close by and was a loner. Afterwards, he talked much about the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended. He also told the crew foreman that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and was afraid he may be a suspect which was why he left.

The crews foreman, Thomas Dyer, was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912. The foreman would later testify that before he turned Sawyer over to authorities, that he walked up behind him and Sawyer was rubbing his head with both hands, then all of the sudden jumped up and said to himself “I will cut your god damn heads off,” while making striking motions with his axe and hitting the piles in front of him.

Though Sawyer’s name often came up often in Grand Jury testimonies, he was eventually dismissed as it was found that he was actually in Osceola, Iowa on the night of the murder. The alibi was extremely tight as he had been arrested for vagrancy at 11:00 pm that evening.

As the investigation continued, the focus turned to locals in the community and a number of possible suspects emerged. The speculation of the townspeople caused them to identify themselves by who they believed committed the crime. Friendships became strained and in many cases, irretrievably broken.

One of the first suspects was Sarah’s brother-in-law, Lee Van Gilder, who was the ex-husband of her sister, Mary. A man prone to violence and having previous brushes with the law, there was bad blood between him and the family. Van Gilder; however, was later cleared.

Looking at motive, the authorities began to investigate Frank F. Jones, a prominent businessman and Iowa State Senator. For years, before he opened his own business, Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones as a top salesman in Jones of Villisca, a hardware and implement store. In 1907, Josiah left the company and started a competing business, taking with him the coveted John Deere franchise. The two became bitter enemies, so much so that by 1910 they wouldn?t speak and would cross the street to avoid meeting each other.

Not believing that Jones would commit the crime himself, investigators began to look at a man by the name of William Mansfield, who from a ?tip,? had learned he may have been hired by Senator Frank F. Jones? to murder the Moore family. In July, 1916, Mansfield was arrested in Kansas City, Kansas and extradited to Iowa to face a Montgomery County Grand Jury. Though local opinion anticipated Mansfield would be bound over for trial, the jury refused to indict him on grounds that his alibi checked out. In the meantime, Frank Jones lost his re-election as senator, but, was never charged with a crime.
Another suspect was the Reverend George Kelly, who was a traveling minister who happened to be teaching at the Children’s Day services at the Presbyterian church, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. The tiny, nervous, bird-like preacher had a reputation of being unbalanced and perhaps a pedophile and had left?Villisca?very early on the day of the murder. It was not these facts; however, that led to his being investigated.

Rather, it was an obsession that he had with the murder that turned law enforcement’s eyes on him. His obsession resulted in a stream of long, rambling letters sent to state and local investigators, private detectives, and relatives of the victims

On his next preaching visit to Villisca two weeks after the crime, he arranged to stay over on Monday and visited the murder house. Within a month, officials began to investigate him finding out that he had been seen peeking into a woman’s bedroom just days before the murder and had been observed in several towns prowling streets late at night. He had also made specific requests that young women pose nude for him on at least three occasions. They also cited a disturbed mental state including his sexual obsession and a bloody shirt he sent to be laundered the week after the murder.

Kelly was arrested in April, 1917. As the trial drew near, state officials decided on one final all-out effort to get him to confess. After a long evening of interrogation, Kelly dictated a confession on August 31, 1917. The confession stated that he had difficulty sleeping the murder night and went for a walk, during which he spied the Stillinger girls getting ready for bed through the window. He then went on to say that he heard the Lord?s voice commanding him to ?suffer the children to come unto me.?

The trial began on September 4, 1917 but was dismissed on September 28th as the jury was deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal. A second trial in November resulted in Kelly being acquitted for all charges.

By the time the trial began, a majority of Montgomery County citizens were convinced that Kelly was being framed as part of a conspiracy led by Frank Jones. They believed that Jones had tried to use his money and influence to pack the jury.

Another suspect was Henry Lee Moore (no relation to Josiah Moore), who was thought to be a serial killer. Several months after the Villisca murder, Henry was convicted of the murder of his mother and grandmother with an axe. He was also suspected of the killings in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Ellsworth and Paola, Kansas. The cases were similar enough that all were committed by the same person; however, this was never proven.

In the end, the police and investigators gave up in 1917. The murders remained unsolved and the killer unpunished. Today, the remains of those murdered by the mysterious axe-man lie in the Villisca Cemetery. The ?Murder House? continues to stand.

The travelling Reverend George Kelly became another suspect after he developed a strange fascination with the case. Kelly appeared in Villisca on June 8, and left on the 10th after teaching a children’s service that the Moore family attended. In the weeks following the murders, Kelly began sending strange letters to the police and to the family members of the deceased claiming that he witnessed the murders as they were happening.

The Villisca axe murders produced less publicly accessible photographic evidence than most of the other axe murders that occurred in 1911 and 1912.

No?photographs exist of either the crowd of hundreds that gathered at the Villisca crime scene or interior views of the Josiah B. Moore family home. The investigators hired a local photographer to take pictures of the scene, before it was cleaned.

These photographs have been either lost or mislaid in the intervening years. There is proof of their existence because a bill for them was paid by the County Board of Supervisors in September of 1912. The original photographs were apparently taken by Tom Churchill, a private practice photographer based in Villisca.

In addition to the official photographs, there was a second set of photographs secretly taken during the first hours after the murder was discovered. Bruce Stillians, the son of a local druggist, was one of many private citizens who streamed through the house before police gained control of the murder scene. Acting as a stringer for the?Omaha World Herald?newspaper, Bruce entered the house with a small Kodak box camera. While inside he took pictures of the bodies and bloody scene created by a killer or killers unknown.

Upon leaving the house,?Stillians was confronted by Ross Moore, brother of the murdered Josiah. Ross had seen the camera and immediately inferred Bruce’s intention. Ross knew his family had suffered an unspeakable assault that day and he was damned sure he wasn’t going to let them be further exposed to sensational publicity. Boiling mad, he grabbed Bruce and a scuffle ensued. It was not a fist fight but soon the rather burly Ross had the camera in his grasp. In an instant, it was on the ground, smashed by 200 pounds of righteous indignation.

With the offending film exposed to light, the camera lay in shambles as Ross stalked across the yard. Bruce gathered up the pieces and gave the damaged film to the?Herald?reporter, but no amount of darkroom magic could coax images from the bedraggled celluloid.

Photo Copyright 2011, Fourth Wall Films.

There is one interior photograph which lays claim to having been taken before the house was cleaned on Thursday June, 13th. It is a shot of the dresser in the downstairs bedroom with its large mirror covered. The crowded closet to the dresser’s right seems so similar to descriptions given by those first on the scene that it appears to be an authentic crime scene photograph.

A print of this photograph was collected by Don Brown, an early student of the murder, from the?Des Moines Register?newspaper. No record was made as to photographer or how it came into the Register‘s possession, but there is little doubt it was taken shortly after the murder was discovered.

Although few crime scene photographs from the Villisca murder scene have been found, many photographs related to that event have survived. Portraits of family members, victims, investigators, suspects, political officials, the murder house and the community of Villisca have all been collected and preserved. These numerous period views are most helpful in recreating the Villisca of 1912.

There is one final footnote to the photographic record of the murder. During the week after its discovery an enterprising photographer from Creston Iowa, came to town. This anonymous rogue made a series of lantern slides telling the story of the murder. Using his friends as actors he produced scenes of the community, murder scene, and house.

Packaged as a short feature, he planned to exhibit the series in movie houses. The slides were shown in Creston and Corning Iowa. The firestorm of protests these showings provoked got so hot that the program was pulled from distribution.

Over 50 years later these lantern slides resurfaced in the possession of a middle school teacher in southeast Iowa. He used them in his classroom until they were stolen. Quickly retrieved by local police they were not returned to the teacher because police reported they had been misplaced. Perhaps this interesting set of photographs, and others, will?come to light?in the future.

In 1994, Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning, Iowa purchased the former home of murder victim J.B. Moore and his family. The house was returned to its original condition at the time of the murders on June 10th, 1912. It was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and opened for tours.

Films and books on the murders have recently captured the interest of an audience who had never heard of this horrendous crime. Psychics claim they’ve identified the murderer and history buffs continue collecting piles of documents they say point to the truth.

In all honesty though, we will never really know what happened on that dark night inside the home of J.B. and Sarah Moore. The murderer or murderers were never caught and given the many years that have passed, their dark secret was obviously carried with them to their own graves.

For some, the speculation was almost too much to bear and in 1912, townspeople began to distinguish and identify themselves by who they believed committed the crime. Friendships became strained and in many cases, irretrievably broken. The town stood then and in many cases still stands divided.

The?Villisca Axe Murder House, as it is now bluntly known, was purchased in 1994 by Darwin and Martha Linn and restored to its 1912 state for public tours. If a daytime walk through the premises doesn’t give you enough of a thrill, you can stay overnight in one of the blood-soaked bedrooms. House rental is $428 per night for up to six people.

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