Villisca, Iowa

The murders occurred somewhere in the early morning hours of June 11, 1912, in the southwestern Iowa town of Villisca. Six members of the Moore family and two overnight guests were found bludgeoned to death in the Moore residence. All eight victims, which included six children, suffered severe head wounds from an axe. A lengthy investigation yielded several suspects, but the first trial ended in a hung jury and the second ended in an acquittal. The crime remains unsolved to this day.

The Moore family consisted of parents Josiah and Sarah and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7) and Paul Vernon (5). The Moores were an affluent and church-going family. On June 10, 1912, Mary Katherine invited sisters Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12) to spend the night at the Moore residence. That evening, the group attended the Presbyterian church where they participated in the Children’s Day Program. After the program ended at 9:30 p.m., the Moores and the Stillinger sisters walked to the Moores’ house, arriving 15 or so minutes after the program ended.

Early the following day, a neighbor, noticing the Moores had not come out to do their morning chores, went and knocked on the Moores’ door. When nobody answered, she tried the handle and discovered that it was locked. Concerned, she phoned Josiah Moore’s brother, Ross, who came over immediately. He received no response knocking or shouting, so he unlocked the front door with his copy of the house key. While Peckham stood on the porch, Moore went into the parlor and opened the downstairs guest bedroom door, where he found Ina and Lena Stillinger’s bodies on the bed. He told Peckham to call Hank Horton, Villisca’s primary peace officer, who arrived shortly thereafter. Horton’s search of the house revealed that the entire Moore family and the two Stillinger sisters had been bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, determined to be an axe, was found in the downstairs guest room next to the Stillinger girls’ bodies. The axe belonged to Josiah Moore.

Doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Two spent cigarettes discovered in the attic suggested that the killer or killers patiently waited until everyone was asleep before striking. The murders began in the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah Moore were sleeping just down the hall from their children’s shared bedroom. Josiah received more blows than any other victim and the blade was used mercilessly on his face and head, so much so that his eyes were missing. The blunt end of the axe was used on the others. The next victims were Herman, Mary Katherine, Arthur and Paul, bludgeoned in the head in the same manner as their parents. Those recreating the crime scene believed that the killer then returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the elder Moores, though likely already dead, and while doing so knocked over a shoe that had been filled with blood. The killer then moved downstairs to the guest bedroom to kill the sisters Ina and Lena.

Investigators believed that all of the victims except Lena Stillinger had been asleep when murdered. Probably woken by the commotion upstairs in the tiny house, they surmise that she tried to fight back, based on her crosswise position on the bed and a defensive wound on her arm. Her nightgown was pushed up to her waist and she was wearing no undergarments, leading to speculation that the killer sexually molested her or attempted to do so.

Odd findings at the crime scene reflect the psychotic and disorganized state of mind of the killer: a 4 pound slab of bacon leaned against the wall in the guest bedroom, next to the axe. The axe had been hastily wiped clean, although blood and hair remained.  A jug of milk had been removed from the icebox and was sitting on the floor at the foot of the narrow stairs. All of the windows and mirrors in the house had been covered by skirts pilfered from the bureau, torn and carefully pinned. The sheets had been drawn over each of the bodies, and quickly became saturated with blood. Hurricane lamps, unlit, were found on the floor at the foot of the Moore parents’ bed and the guest room bed. Both glass chimneys had been removed and carefully placed upright underneath a dresser. The killer had spent a leisurely amount of time in the house, seemingly both before and after the murders.

The investigation was bungled from the outset; the crime scene was not secured and so curious neighbors came from near and far and trampled through the house, removing morbid mementos and destroying precious evidence. Many took unsolicited pictures and although a receipt for a professional photographer was discovered, no crime scene photos remain. The murder weapon is said to reside in a locked case at the Vallisca Historical Society, but its provenance is unproven.

Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore (no relation). Background on the suspects and investigation follows, with credit to Wikipedia:

Andrew Sawyer

Every transient and otherwise unaccounted-for stranger was a suspect in the murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. No real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.

According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington, Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 a.m on the morning the murders were discovered. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and, as Dyer needed an extra man, he was given a job on the spot.

Dyer testified that later that evening when the crew reached Fontanelle, Iowa, Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The newspaper carried a front page account of the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer “was much interested in it.” Dyer’s crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy that Sawyer slept with his axe next to him; he often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.

He reportedly told Dyer that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders. Afraid of being taken as a suspect, he had left and gone to Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.

Dyer later testified that prior to the sheriff’s arrival, he walked up behind Sawyer. He was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, “I will cut your god damn heads off.” At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.

Dyer’s son (J.R.) testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer to`ld him he would show J.R. where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1½ blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away.

Sawyer was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there, and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train (to send him away) at approximately 11 p.m. that evening.

Reverend George Kelly

Kelly was an English-born traveling minister in town on the night of the murders. Kelly was described as peculiar, reportedly having suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. As an adult, he was accused of peeping and several times asking young women and girls to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 10, 1912. He left town between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered. Reverend Kelly had confessed to the murders in court, but the jury didn’t believe his confession.

In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case and wrote many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed the murders. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details because of having committed the murders or was imagining his account.

In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary). He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. Investigators speculated again that Kelly could be the murderer of the Moore family.

In 1917, Kelly was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.

Frank F. Jones

Frank Fernando Jones was a Villisca resident and an Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones at his implement store for many years before leaving to open his own store. Moore reportedly took business away from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. Moore was rumored to have had a sexual affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence supports this.

William Mansfield

Another theory was that Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child and parents-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He is believed to have committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes. He was also suspected in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each crime site was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in virtually the same manner.

Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, a similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two axe murder cases followed in Ellsworth, Kansas, and Paola, Kansas. The cases were similar enough to raise the possibility of having been committed by the same person. Other murders reported as possibly being linked to these crimes include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1911–1912, the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other such murders during this time period.

The murders in Colorado Springs were closely related in execution to those in the Moore house. Nine months before the Villisca murders, H.C. Wayne, his wife and child, and Mrs. A.J. Burnham were found dead in Colorado Springs, murdered by axes. The Colorado Springs Police found it difficult to believe that the same person could perpetrate a similar crime in a city. As in the Villisca murders, bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passersby from looking in. At the Moore house, the murderer hung aprons and skirts to cover the windows. As in the murders in Villisca, the murderer in Colorado Springs wiped the blood off his axe and covered the heads of the victims with bed clothes.

Mansfield was also the prime suspect of the Burns Detective Agency of Kansas City and Detective James Newton Wilkerson, who suggested that he was a cocaine-addicted serial killer. According to contemporary news reports, Wilkerson believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law, and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914 (two years after the Villisca murders), the axe murders committed in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca murders, and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Illinois.

According to Wilkerson’s investigation, all of the murders were committed in precisely the same manner, indicating that the same man probably committed them. Wilkerson stated that he could prove that Mansfield was present in each of the differing crime scenes on the night of the murders. In each murder, the victims were hacked to death with an axe and the mirrors in the homes were covered. A burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. In each case, the murderer avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves, which Wilkerson believed was strong evidence that the man was Mansfield, who knew his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth.

Wilkerson managed to convince a grand jury to open an investigation in 1916 and Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided an alibi that placed Mansfield in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence and later won a lawsuit he brought against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225. Wilkerson believed that pressure from Jones resulted not only in Mansfield’s release but also in the subsequent arrest and trial of Reverend Kelly.

However, R.H. Thorpe, a restaurant owner from Shenandoah, Iowa, identified Mansfield as the man he saw the morning after the Villisca murders boarding a train at Clarinda. This man said he had walked from Villisca. If proven to be true, this testimony would disprove Mansfield’s alibi. Furthermore, it was reported that a Mrs. Vina Tompkins, of Marshalltown, was on her way to testify that she heard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings.

Henry Lee Moore

Henry Lee Moore was a suspected serial killer who was convicted of the murder of his mother and grandmother several months after the murders in Villisca, his weapon of choice being an axe. Before and after the murders in Villisca, the very similar axe murders on his mother and grandmother were committed, and all of the cases showed striking similarities, leading to strong suspicion that some, or all of the crimes were committed by an axe-murdering serial killer and, just like “Blackie” Mansfield, the axe-murdering Henry Moore can also be considered a suspect in some of these slayings.

Sam Moyer

At the inquest, it was reported that Sam Moyer (Josiah’s brother-in-law) often threatened to kill Josiah Moore; however, upon further investigation, Moyer’s alibi cleared him of the crime.

MY EXPERIENCE

In the summer of 2011, my future wife and I made a cross country road trip that started in Houston and ended up in Gettysburg. Round trip, we drove through 15 states. The trip included several visits to various destinations, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural school and Taliesin in Spring Green Wisconsin, the bizarre House on the Rock, the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield Ohio, Falling Water in Pennsylvania, and Gettysburg. We even managed to fit in a Pirates game at PNC Park (beautiful stadium by the way, quite a great place to watch a baseball game). Our first stop, however, was the Vallisca Axe House in Vallisca, Iowa.

This was going to be my first real official ghost hunt. I’ve always had an interest in the supernatural and had been to several haunted venues before, but never with ghost hunting equipment. This though, was going to be different. I had purchased some ghost gear before our trip and I was ready to go.

We were scheduled to be on the 4 o’clock tour of the house. Driving through Iowa though, we ran into several bad storms on the way. Knowing we were going to be late, we called to see if they would still let us in the house even though we wouldn’t arrive until 4:45. The lady who had just purchased the house informed us that they close at 5 o’clock, but they would let us in for a short time if we got there before then. We made it there about 10 minutes before 5:00 and the woman responsible for doing the tours opened the house up for us and told us to take our time. She had just finished the last tour of the day and since it was just the 2 of us, she let us go in by ourselves. Upon entering the home, you could immediately feel the heaviness in the air. The place looked like it did 100 years ago, almost like stepping back in time. I pulled out the camcorder and EMF detector. Within the first minute the fully charged camcorder battery was drained, the battery icon started flashing and it then turned itself off. We would later find out that the video recorder was shot for the rest of the trip; it would not take a charge after this and eventually I had to purchase a new one. This was just the beginning of what I have to say is the most frightening ghost experience I’ve ever had. Going room to room downstairs, the quaint furnishings and small living spaces made you realize just how tiny the house is. However, the overwhelming sense of sadness and negativity give the house a much larger presence. My EMF detector went crazy a few times on the first floor, especially in the downstairs guest bedroom. Already emotionally and mentally drained, we headed up the extremely narrow, steep staircase. When you get to the top of the stairs there is a bed crammed into a small space on the landing. There were various balls, scattered around the floor here. The balls were there for visitors to pick up and place in strategic spots around the house. The idea is that if you placed a ball on the floor or wherever, you would then invite the spirits of the children who were murdered there to come and play with them. Macabre for sure, but anything to lighten the mood of this dark place would be an improvement. My girlfriend had already walked down the short connecting hallway to the children’s room. I picked up a ball and I headed towards the bedroom she was in. I wasn’t ready for what I saw next, which is actually giving me chills just typing it. The children’s room was just a short distance down the hall from the landing. To get there you had to pass a small open door on the left, which led into a small attic space. As I passed by, I looked into the attic area and right by the tiny window was a black mist that vanished into the dark corner of the room as soon as I saw it. To this day it is by far and away the most paranormal experience I’ve ever had. Stunned at what I just saw, I looked at my girlfriend standing in the doorway of the room. “Are you ok?” she asked. Yes, just yes. I sat the ball down in the middle of the hall and went into room. I just wanted out at this point, but didn’t want to spoil it for her. The room that the children shared had numerous dolls and toys dispersed around the room. It was also was furnished with a small bed, crib and dresser. We snapped some photos and had some more EMF spikes as we finished investigating room. Leaving the area, I noticed the ball I had placed in the hall had rolled into attic area where I saw the black mass. My girlfriend, unaware at what I had seen, wanted to investigate the area. I told her I wasn’t feeling well and ased if it was ok if we just left. I guess I ended up spoiling it for her anyways. She complied and we left the house. I was so relieved to be out of there.

Outside, the lady who owned the house and woman who does the tours were waiting for us in the gift shop. We purchased a few souvenirs (don’t ask me why) and sat and talked with them for 15 or 20 minutes. They told us a little history on the place, as well as some of the experiences people had in the house. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell everybody what I saw, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Itching to leave, I cut them short and told them we had a schedule to keep. By then it had started raining really hard and my girlfriend thought it would be best if we stay put until the rain lightens up. NOPE! A quiet hour later down the road she asked me again if everything was ok, but I still wasn’t ready to talk. She then pulls out the flyer she picked up in the gift shop and says, “Oh wow, did you know you could spend the night in there?” I pulled over and explained to her what had happened in the house. “ I guess sleeping in there is out then,” she said to put a smile on my face.

Even though I have had other experiences, everything else has been a walk in the park compared to this place. Call it what you want: a dark presence, negative energy, demonic entity; I don’t know, but there is something evil in that house. I had always hoped to get a glimpse of the paranormal on my ghost excursions. It turns out the old adage of be careful what you wish for couldn’t be more true. People who hunt ghost do it or various reasons. For the most part though, most of us are searching for the proof of life after death. Perhaps the truth lies in that house in little Vallisca Iowa, but I will look elsewhere, for I will never take another step into that place again.

Author: Brent Cummings