The Haunting Unsolved Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murders

On June 10, 1912, the quaint town of Villisca, Iowa was the site of a gruesome murder that rocked this town of only 2,000 people to its core. Local businessman Josiah Moore and his wife Sarah Montgomery Moore had moved into their white frame house after their marriage in 1899. Their family had grown quickly, with 11-year-old Herman, 9-year-old Katherine, 7-year-old Boyd, and 5-year-old Paul. They were a picture-perfect family that regularly attended their local Presbyterian church and supported the community.

However, their popularity did little to save them on that cloudy night. By morning, a strange stillness had descended upon their house, as the entire family had been bludgeoned to death by an axe in the night.

The Haunting Unsolved Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murders
(Left to right) Josiah and Sarah Moore, Herman (age 11), Katherine (age 10), Boyd (age 7), and Paul (age 5) Ina Stillinger (age 8) and Lena Stillinger (age 11).

The Murders

The days before the gruesome murder saw a few warning signs. In the early hours of Saturday, June 8th, a local woman named Fay Van Gilder was accosted by a strange man looking for the Moore home. Mrs. Moore stated on the 9th that she had seen the same man on their property but thought nothing of it. By then, it may have already been too late.

On Sunday, June 9th, Katherine Moore invited 12-year-old Lena Stillinger and her sister, 8-year-old Ina to spend the night at the Moore house. Elder sister Blanche okayed their plan, and, in the evening, the sisters met the Moores at the Presbyterian Church’s annual Children’s Day Program. Sarah Moore led the exercises, which ran from 8 to 9:30 PM and ended with chitchat. Then, the family and the Stillinger girls walked the three blocks home, arriving around 10 PM. After a late-night snack of milk and cookies, everyone went to bed.

They could not have known that a villain would step out of that cloudy night, nor that he had made himself at home in their barn. Later investigations revealed a depression in hay bales just beside a knot hole through which the criminal likely watched the house. Shortly after midnight, he picked up an axe from the coal shed and entered through the unlocked back door.

The Haunting Unsolved Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murders
The actual murder weapon used in the Villisca axe murders. The axe belongs to the Villisca Historical Society.
Related: Listen To These Horrifying EVP’s of Screams in The Villisca Axe Murder House

In preparation for his crimes, the man removed the chimney from an oil lamp and bent the wick to keep the flame low. Walking past Lena and Ina downstairs, he headed to the parents’ room and then entered the children’s upstairs bedroom. In both cases, gouges were found on the ceilings from where his axe scraped before the flat of the blade crushed each person’s skull. Due to the silence of his attacks, not one of the Moores stirred from sleep as their entire family was obliterated.

The villain then descended the stairs and killed the visiting Stillinger girls, though elder Lena showed signs of waking and briefly fighting for her life. Authorities focused on the way she was found, with her arms and legs akimbo. However, although her underwear had been removed and her dress was in disarray, there was no evidence of sexual assault. Yet, a neighbor likely heard her cry. Edward Landers was visiting his mother’s nearby home that night and, at some point after midnight, he was awoken by hooting or possibly a woman or girl moaning. Thinking little of the sound, Landers had fallen back asleep, leaving the inhabitants of the Moores’ house to their fate.

After finishing his work, the killer returned upstairs to smash the heads of each Moore clan member around 20 to 30 times. He left only a bloody pulp on their pillows but covered each with their bedclothes and placed a used lamp at the end of the parents’ and visiting girls’ beds. He then covered every mirror and window before taking 2-pound slab of uncooked bacon from the icebox and wrapping it in a towel. He placed the meat in the downstairs bedroom near a piece of key chain and the murder weapon, and then washed his hands in a kitchen basin. At some point before 5 AM, the villain abandoned a plate of food in the kitchen and departed for parts unknown, locking the door behind him.

The Haunting Unsolved Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murders
An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the victims and the house.

The Discovery

Neighbor Mary Peckham awoke as usual around 5 AM, but, while hanging laundry, she noticed no sign of the Moores next store. Concerned, she approached the house between 7 and 8 AM but no one responded to her knocks. Peckham then let the family’s chickens out and called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore, while their employee, Ed Selley, fed the horses on the brother’s request. Upon his arrival, Ross was able to unlock the door and enter the house.

He then discovered the bodies of Lena and Ina downstairs, and Peckham then called the sheriff. City Marshall Hank Horton showed up to start the investigation, followed by Sheriff Oren Jackson and doctors J. Clark Cooper, Edgar Hough, and F.S. Williams, along with county coroner L.A. Linquist. News travelled fast, however, and the scene of the crime was soon crowded with townspeople. Some even removed fragments of Josiah Moore’s skull as a keepsake of the macabre crime. After hours of investigation, the bodies were removed around 10 PM and taken to a make-shift morgue in the local fire station.

Although several suspects were considered, the evidence was far from conclusive and seemed to point to a stranger passing through town. Part of the problem was that around 30 trains departed from the Villisca train depot each day. In addition, bloodhounds and other common search methods produced no clues to the identity or whereabouts of the killer. Plus, after the murder, newspaper reporters and private detectives had flooded the small town of Villisca, and rumors abounded. All that the investigation seemed to have was gossip.

The Suspects

The Haunting Unsolved Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murders
(Left to right) Senator Frank Jones, William Mansfield, Reverend George Kelly and Harry Lee Moore.

However, gossip and rumor fuelled investigations for decades. Authorities fast turned to Iowa State Senator Frank Jones. He had employed Josiah Moore for 9 years at his Jones Store establishment before the younger man had left to open his own implement store. Relations were cold between the two because Moore had taken the profitable John Deere franchise with him, and the two men had avoided each other ever since. On top of that, many believed that Josiah had had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law Dona.

Although Jones was eventually subject to a Grand Jury investigation, a Detective Wilkerson of Burns Detective Agency connected him to another criminal – William Mansfield. Wilkerson believed that Mansfield had been hired by Senator Frank Jones to kill the Moores. Mansfield was a suspected serial killer believed to be responsible for the murder of his wife, infant child, and in-laws, as well as similar axe murders committed in Paola, Kansas just four days before the Villisca murders took place. Each had involved an axe, covered mirrors, and lamps with the chimney removed. As a result, Mansfield also faced a Grand Jury investigation and was arrested in 1916. However, Mansfield had an alibi – namely that he had been working in Illinois on that very day – and was released without charge due to lack of evidence.

Investigators also focused on an odd Presbyterian preacher named Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. On the day of the crime, he was traveling through Villisca on his regular route to visit small communities north of town. He had even attended the Children’s Day exercises before leaving at dawn. Police suspected him due to his having been caught peering into windows days before the murders and then having dropped off bloody laundry shortly thereafter. In addition, he had apparently posed as a Scotland Yard detective to get a tour of the crime scene. Although Kelly confessed at one point, he recanted and claimed police brutality. The Grand Jury still indicted him, but the preacher was acquitted.

Related: The Strange Mystery of the Axeman of New Orleans Murders

The final suspect was Harry Lee Moore, who murdered his mother and maternal grandmother months after the events in Villisca. Federal Officer M.V. McClaughry connected this unrelated Moore to the family, along with 22 other cases in a string of bizarre murders in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado. Similar to the Moore’s killer, he had used the flat of an axe blade, with the weapon found at the scene of the crime in 8 cases. Other common characteristics included a nearby railway, lingering after the act, covered faces, wash basins of blood, and chimney-less lamps left at the ends of beds.

In the end, not even this final suspect was convicted of the crime. Unfortunately, gross mismanagement of the scene of the crime and related evidence made it impossible to come to a clear conclusion. Over a decade of investigations, grand jury hearing, and minor litigations did little to help.

Through the recent documentaries Villisca: Living with a Mystery (2004) and The Ax Man Enigma (2013), new evidence has come to light. For instance, several people in the area around Villisca reported strange events on the night of the murder. A local telephone operator reported footsteps approaching her locked bedroom door around 2 AM, while a family in Paola, Kansas reported an intruder in their home days later who left only a chimney-less lamp. Regardless, the Axe Murder House has since become a Nationally Registered Historic Building, and for the right price, your family can experience a night there first-hand. Be warned that the spirits of the dead may not be at rest, as several visitors have reported children’s voices, falling lamps, and a supernatural presence that lingers in our world.

Further reading:

Villisca, by Roy Marshall

Morning Ran Red: The Villisca Axe Murders, by Stephen Bowman

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