When we hear of murder cases, they seem to occur in big cities around the world. So when a murder of eight people happens, and we learn it happened in a small town in Iowa, it seems almost unheard of. But even worse the case remains unsolved. Here is the tale of the Villisca Axe Murders.

Villisca, meaning “Pretty Place” was a small town of 2500 and was flourishing in the early 1900’s. June 10, 1912 the residents of Villisca, IA had to reconsider if their tiny hamlet was actually a “Pretty place” or if it was more accurately named after the Indian word “Wallisca” which means ‘Evil Spirit’.

Before the words Serial Killer and Mass Murderer were used in newspapers the world over, Villisca was faced with a crime so horrendous it’s still discussed on internet chat rooms and true crime platforms. A husband and wife, their four children, and two house guests were all murdered in their beds, and nobody knows why.

On June 10th, the neighbor hung out her laundry at 5am. At 7am she didn’t see anyone out at the Moore house next door, nor had the chores been started. She attempted to rouse the family by knocking on the door and windows, but nobody replied. She returned home and then called Mr. Moore’s brother, Ross Moore.

From here the sloppiest police investigation commenced. Ross attempted to awaken the family by knocking but when that produced no answer, he took out his keys and found the one to open the door. The neighbor lady did not enter the house. Ross didn’t get past the room off the parlor.

In the bedroom where two bodies and dark stains on the bedding. Ross immediately left the house and had the neighbor call the police. The two bodies in the room were the guests of the Moore family, the neighbor girls, Lena and Ina Stillinger, ages 12 and 8 respectively.

The police discovered the murders, but then it became a circus; neighbors, onlookers, gawkers, all came through the house, destroying evidence and seeing the bodies of their friends and neighbors. The entire Moore family, Josiah and Sarah, and their children; Herman (11), Katherine (9), Boyd (7), and Paul (5) were dead in their beds. An axe found at the scene was determined to be the murder weapon.

These are the facts of the case:

  • 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.
  • 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.

There are suspects, but no arrests were ever made in the case. Unfortunately the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters have never received justice in this case. Here are the suspects and why:

Frank Jones – Frank was Josiah’s employer until 1908, when Josiah left his employment and in fact opened his own implement dealership as well. It was rumored that Josiah had also had an affair with Frank’s daughter-in-law. Both father and son denied any involvement with the murders.

William Mansfield – William was a serial killer, before the term even became popular. He was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, child, and in-laws in 1914, two years after Villisca. He was also responsible for the murders of Jennie Miller and Jennie Peterson in Aurora, CO. And the axe murders in Paola, KS, 4 days before Villisca. It was reported that all the murders were committed in the same way, so therefore by the same person. It was also speculated that William had been hired by Frank Jones.

Reverend George Kelly – The reverend was invited to the children’s services at the Presbyterian Church the day before the murders, where the entire Moore family had participated. He was in town the night of the murder and left early the next day, as there was a train depot in town with trains arriving and departing frequently. He had been put on trial, but was later acquitted.

Henry Moore – No relation to the Moore family. Henry had been convicted of murdering his mother and grandmother in Missouri four months after the murders in Villisca. He had killed them with an axe and just as brutally as the murders in Iowa. The same murders that were linked to William Mansfield were also linked to Henry Moore. Prison officials believed that Henry had committed them all, again they were all similar in brutality, and weapon.

Every unknown person, transient, hobo, or tramp passing through or near the town of Villisca were considered a suspect. Unfortunately there are only theories, and no solid suspect, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The house still stands today. It has been preserved as it looked in 1912, and is open for tours, ghost hunts, and overnight stays. The property is reported to be haunted by the victims of the axe murders. If interested please check their website for further details of tours, costs, and precautions.

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