The Unsolved Mystery Of The Villisca Axe Murders

In Villisca, Iowa, there is an old, white-frame house that sits at the end of a quiet street. At first glance, the house has no aura of mystery, unwittingly blending into its environment. But on closer inspection, this structure proves to be hauntingly eerie and empty, with the doors to the house tightly boarded up. A small sign hints at a century-old murder scene: “Villisca Murder House.”

This little white house was once filled with the joys of life until a seemingly ordinary night in 1912, when someone entered and savagely bludgeoned the inhabitants —eight in total— to death. This murder eventually became known as the Villisca Axe Murders —the Murders of eight inhabitants that would befuddle investigators for centuries to come.

The Villisca Murder House.

Situated in Montgomery County, Iowa, Villisca —as of 2019— boasts a population of about 1,100 people. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, however, this town was a booming community that attracted developing businesses and tycoons that sought to capitalize on a steadily growing population.

Occasionally interrupted by the trains that passed through the town, Villisca was also known for having the National Guard Armory —an armory funded entirely by the local people of Villisca. However, the legacy of this town remains tainted mainly by the gruesome murders of the Moore family on June 9, 1912.

The Moore family comprised Josiah B. Moore and Sarah Moore. Josiah Moore was one of the town’s successful businessmen. Josiah had amassed significant wealth by his thirties and decided to settle down with his future wife, Sarah Moore. They had four children together — Herman, Mary, Arthur, and Paul Moore.

The Moore family was popular throughout the town and had made a name for themselves through their generosity and kindness. The townspeople knew them to be devout Christians who maintained good relationships with many in the community and beyond. However, Josiah had a few people who opposed his style of living, both personally and professionally. 

The Days Leading up to the Murder

On the 9th of June, 1912, Josiah and Sarah prepared their children for the busy Sunday they had ahead of them. Their church —the local Presbyterian Church— was hosting the children on their Children’s day.

Sarah Moore had co-planned the event, and therefore, the entirety of the Moore family would attend the event. 

The day’s activities lasted all afternoon and early evening, finally rounding up around 9;30PM after the children had executed all their pre-planned performances for the event.

While heading home, two neighborhood children —Ian and Lena Stillinger— planned to stay at Moore’s house that night, which their parents agreed to. It had been a long day for everyone involved, and after milk and cookies, everyone retired to bed. 

The following day, around 7:30 am, the Moore household was met with a strange quietness that concerned a local neighbor, Mary Peckham. None of the family members had gone about their usual morning routines or passed through their regular routes, and the windows were still shut. Mary eventually called Ross, Josiah’s brother, to come and check on the household. 

When Ross came around 8 am, he walked into the house through the front door. Ross was immediately met with horrific scenes, discovering blood-soaked sheets that hid two corpses. Upon further investigation, Ross found the bodies of his brother, Josiah, and Josiah’s wife, Sarah. 

Ross called the local marshall and told him that “something terrible had happened.” The said marshall, Marshall Henry Horton, got to the house barely thirty minutes later and undertook a thorough search. It led to the discovery of a corpse in every bed, with a blood-covered axe where the Stillinger girls lay dead. 

Murder In Villisca 

The death of the Moore family and the Stillinger girls quickly spread across the small community. Meanwhile, the police and a local doctor examined the bodies. Doctor F.S. Williams, the first medical officer on the scene, determined that the Murders occurred between midnight and 5 a.m.

Doctor Williams also ascertained that an axe had struck each of the victims between 20-30 times, leaving each body bloody and almost unrecognizable.

The assailant had used the weapon blade to hit Josiah while the blunt end struck the remaining victims. This significant distinction led investigators to believe that Josiah had been the main target while the rest of the family had been collateral damage. 

Seven of the eight victims died in their sleep, but 12-year-old Lena Stillinger was presumed to have still been awake when the killer attacked. Wounds on her body revealed that there may have been some struggle between her and the attacker. The cause of death across victims was blunt force trauma to the skulls of each victim. 

Strange Evidence 

Some bizarre discoveries were made at the crime scene. For instance, two cigarette butts were found in the attic, leading to speculations that the killer may have waited there while everyone else went to bed. Then, he navigated his way through the house with an oil lamp, his initial targets being Josiah and Sarah, before moving on to the children.

The police also discovered a plate of food and a bowl of bloodied water on the kitchen table. The water might have been what the killer used in washing his hands.

The perpetrator also ransacked the drawers and found several clothes that he used to conceal various surfaces in the house, including mirrors and glass panels in the doors. The most bizarre evidence was the four-pound bacon slab the killer left in the Stillinger girls’ room. Finally, he took the house keys, locking the doors behind him as he left. 

The Aftermath Of The Murders

The Murders at the Moore House shocked the small town to its core that the curious residents of Villisca trooped to the house and snooped around. However, this was poorly thought out, as they contaminated the crime scene. This also played a massive part in the lack of concrete DNA evidence, coupled with the lack of forensic advancements at the time. 

The police had few leads to work with; they interviewed several people from Villisca and its surroundings. However, they believed that the killer may have fled town, as they had a three-hour start ahead of the police. Seven suspects have popped up, with some even confessing to the murders. 

Andrew Sawyer

At the time of the murder, every stranger in town and unaccounted for was a suspect in the murder case. Andrew Sawyer was one such person. However, he was only interrogated and not charged. 

Reverend George Kelly

Reverend Kelly was an English minister who happened to be in town on the might of the crime. Kelly was described as peculiar, stemming from his mental breakdown as an adolescent. He was accused of peeping at nude women as an adult and, at various times, asking young women to pose nude for him.

On June 8, 1912, Reverend Kelly came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day Service —the same service the Moore family attended. He left Villisca early on the 10th of June, mere hours before the corpses were discovered. In a bizarre twist, Reverend Kelly confessed to the murders when tried, but the jury did not believe his confession.

The weeks that followed the murders saw Reverend Kelly display an alarming obsession with the case, writing letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased.

This aroused more suspicion on the part of the investigators, which eventually led to private investigators inquiring for more details. Kelly mentioned how he heard sounds and even witnessed the murders of the entire family. However, his known mental illness made the authorities question the integrity of his account. 

However, two years after the murder, Kelly was arrested for sending inappropriate materials through mail to a lady he harassed. He was eventually sent to St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C.

In 1917, Kelly was arrested for murdering the Moore family and the Stillinger girls. Police obtained a confession to the crime from Kelly; however, Kelly retracted his statement hours later. Two separate trials later, Kelly was acquitted.

Frank F. Jones 

Frank Fernando Jones, a Villisca resident and Iowa State senator. Josiah Moore had worked with Frank for many years at Frank’s implementation store before eventually opening his store.

According to reports, Moore took a good number of Frank’s business with him, including a John Deere dealership. Moore also allegedly had a sexual affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, although there’s no evidence to support the latter claim.

William Mansfield

Another conspiracy theory is that Senator Jones had William “Blackie” Mansfield assassinate the entire Moore family. Many months before the murders in Villisca, a similar murder case occurred in Colorado Springs.

Two more similar cases followed in Ellsworth, Kansas, and Paola, Kansas. These cases raised the possibility of it being committed by the same person. 

The Murders in Colorado Springs had a striking resemblance to the Moore House murder. H.C. Wayne, his wife, and his child were found murdered with an axe. The assailant used sheets to cover the windows to prevent onlookers. These tactics were also replicated in the Moore House, with the murderer in both Colorado Springs and Villisca covering their victims’ heads.

This led Kansas City’s Burns Detective Agency and Detective James Newton Wilkerson to believe that Mansfield —a cocaine-addicted serial killer — was the prime suspect. Burns further thought that Mansfield murdered his wife, child, father-in-law, and mother-in-law in Illinois on July 5, 1914.

Wilkerson convinced a grand jury to begin an investigation in 1916, and Mansfield was subsequently arrested and transferred to Montgomery County from Kansas City. However, Mansfield’s alibi put him in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders. Eventually, he was released for lack of evidence, and he won a lawsuit against Wilkerson worth $2,225. 

Henry Lee Moore 

Henry Lee Moore, although not related to the deceased Moore family, was a suspected serial killer and was eventually convicted of the murders of his mother and grandmother in Villisca —an axe being his eventual choice of weapon.

There were many resemblances between his previous killings and the slain Moore family, causing him to be suspected of the Villisca Murder. 

Sam Moyer

Finally, It was reported, during the inquest, that Josiah’s brother-in-law often threatened to kill Josiah. However, further investigation proved that Sam’s alibi cleared him of the crime.

Will The Villisca Murder Ever Be Solved?

Despite many investigations and suspects worth over a century, the murder at the Moore House may never be solved. Maybe time, in its unraveling, will prove to defy this mystery.

If you enjoyed this article, read about Lizzie Borden

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