Villisca, Iowa and the Axe-Murder Man

Villisca, Iowa in the early 1900's.

Postcard of Villisca, Iowa in the early 1900s.

On a quiet residential street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa, a horrible tragedy occurred a century ago that continues to leave its effects on this small town. 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 on June 10, 1912. 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 1900s, 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, theaters, 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

“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 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 neighbor, 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.

Josiah Moore family about 1904, before the two younger boys were born.

Josiah Moore family about 1904, before the two younger boys were born.

Villisca City Marshall Hank Horton arrived quickly, soon followed by other officers. In the meantime, the gruesome news spread like wildfire and within no time, neighbors 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.

The axe was found in the guest bedroom, indicating that the Stillinger girls were the last to be killed. It was bloody but, an attempt had been made to wipe it off. The axe belonged to Josiah Moore. All of the curtains in the house had been drawn. Two windows that didn’t have curtains had been covered with clothing.

All of the victims’ faces were covered with bed linens or clothing after they were killed. Other evidence showed that a pan of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table as well as a plate of uneaten food.

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 that headlined the murders and “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. Afterward, 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 crew’s 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.

Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912.

Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912.

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.

Reverend George Kelly

Reverend George Kelly

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.

Villisca is a small agricultural town of about 1,300 people today. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, September 2011.

Villisca is a small agricultural town of about 1,300 people today. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, September 2011.

The house where the murders took place was originally built in 1868 and the Moore family purchased it in 1903. After their deaths, the house went through the possession of eight people, until it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Darwin Linn in 1994.

By that time, the house had deteriorated badly and was close to being condemned. However, the Linns restored the old house to its original condition and in 1998 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it is open for tours and overnight sleepovers. And, it should come as no surprise that it is haunted, so much so, that it is consistently rated in the top ten most haunted places in America.

Over the years, there has been a long history of paranormal happenings in the house. Previous tenants have said they have spied a shadowy man with an axe standing at the foot of their bed, images of bloody shoes, closet doors that open of their own device, the sounds of children crying, and clothing taken from dressers and closets and strewn about the room.

In one instance a man reported that while sharpening a knife, it suddenly turned around and stabbed him in the thumb. He explained that it felt as if someone had a grip on his wrist. One family who reportedly ran out of the house screaming one night, moved out that very day.

Villisca Ax Murder House

Since the house was opened to tours and overnight stays, a number of paranormal investigations have been conducted, which have allegedly provided audio, video and photographic proof of paranormal activity. When the house was investigated by the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures Crew, they captured a recording of a man who said “I killed six kids.”

Yet others, who have toured the house, have reported hearing children’s voices when none are present, whispers, banging sounds, falling lamps, and objects that move of their own accord. Some have reported feeling an evil presence in the attic where it is thought the murderer hid while waiting for the family to fall asleep. One story alleges that as one an individual tried to enter the attic, an unknown force prevented her from doing so.

Though there are many that say that the house is truly haunted, there are many who say it is not, including some who actually lived in the house without ever experiencing any mysterious activities. You can judge for yourself, by making a visit to the home, which is open for tours.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 10, 2020.

More Information:
Villisca Axe Murder House
508 E. Second Street
Villisca, Iowa  50864

Also See:

Most Haunted Places in America

Ghostly Legends

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