On June 10, 1912, the sleepy little town of Villisca, Iowa was changed forever. Josiah Moore, his wife Sarah, their four children (Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul), and two friends were found murdered in their beds, their skulls crushed. Lena and Ina Stillinger had gone to church with the Moore’s and had been invited by Katherine to spend the night.
The crime has never been solved.
The bodies were discovered when a neighbor realized the Moore’s hadn’t started their outside chores. Josiah’s brother was called, and he found the broken bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger in the Moore’s parlor.
The Villisca Axe Murders may be one of the most mismanaged crimes in history. Word of the bodies spread like wildfire, and police soon lost control of the scene. Historical accounts claim more than a hundred people walked through the house to gape at the bodies before the National Guard arrived.
All hell broke loose in the town. Residents took up arms, suspecting one another. Reporters and private detectives flocked to the town while law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties and states assisted in the investigation.
Here are the facts, as stated by the official site of the Villisca Murders:
• 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.
• A kerosene lamp was found at the foot of the bed of Josiah and Sarah. The chimney was off and the wick had been turned back. The chimney was found under the dresser.
• A similar lamp was found at the foot of the bed of the Stillinger girls, the chimney was also off.
• 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.
• The bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger were found in the downstairs bedroom off the parlor. Ina was sleeping closest to the wall with Lena on her right side. A gray coat covered her face. Lena, according to the inquest testimony of Dr. F.S. Williams, "lay as though she had kicked one foot out of her bed sideways, with one hand up under the pillow on her right side, half sideways, not clear over but just a little. Apparently she had been struck in the head and squirmed down in the bed, perhaps one-third of the way." Lena's nightgown was slid up and she was wearing no undergarments. There was a bloodstain on the inside of her right knee and what the doctors assumed was a defensive wound on her arm.
The murderer—or murderers—left behind a load of forensic evidence. Had the crime happened today, perhaps it would have been solved. Fingerprinting was in its infancy, and DNA testing unheard of. Even if the scene had been properly processed, authorities probably wouldn’t have been able to use the evidence.
Still, there are suspects. Many point to Frank F. Jones, an Iowa State Senator, as the murderer. Victim Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones for years. When he left and started his own implement company in 1908, Jones was furious. Moore had stolen the John Deere franchise from him. Rumors also floated around that Moore had an affair with Jones daughter-in-law, and his son was accused of being a co-conspirator. They were never arrested.
Sounds like great motive to me. Big financial loss and dilly-dallying with another man's woman? Never gets a good reaction.
William Mansfield from Illinois was suspected of being hired by Frank Jones to commit the murders. One investigator put together a case to bring to the grand jury, pinning not only the Villisca murders but several other axe murders on Mansfield. Insufficient evidence was found. He was released.
Rev. George Jacklin Kelly was also a suspect. He was a traveling preacher and had settled in Macedonia, Iowa. In 1917, he was arrested for the murder of ONE of the victims (but experts argue they were committed by the same person). Kelly attended the church and children’s program the day before. He left town early on the 10th.
Kelly confessed, but it was withdrawn before trial. The Villisca site calls his confession a “mockery of law enforcement practices at the time.” Kelly’s first trial was a hung jury; he was aquitted in the second.
This one makes me wonder. Sometimes it's often the least likely people who turn out to be the bad guys. Confessions are still coerced, and I can only imagine how easy it was to do back then with no video equipment and a town out for blood. But why did Kelly leave so early in the morning the day of the murders? Combined with his seeing the family the day before, that's suspect.
Murders like this are usually rage killings. Was Kelly angry at the Moores? We'll never know.
The third school of thought is that someone unknown to the area killed the Moore’s and Stillinger girls - a serial killer. The case against Mansfield actually supports this theory. 22 other murders had been committed in the Midwest around the same time. A federal officer assigned to the Villiscia murders believed Henry Moore (not related) was the killer.
He’d been convicted of the murders of his mother and maternal grandmother in Columbia, Missouri just months after the Villisca murders. His family was killed in the same manner. Other axe murders were also being investigated: family in Colorado Spring, Colorado was bludgeoned to death. A family in Monmouth, Illinois was killed, and then a family in Ellsworth, Kansas. A week before the Villisca killings, a man and his wife were murdered in Paola, Kansas. The similarities in the cases were undeniable. The case against him was never proved, however. Perhaps modern day science could have solved it.
Others were investigated, but again, no charges.
Another strong possibility. But are the similarities really the same? Were the nuances of the crime committed? Did the investigators look past the bludgeoning and look at the details of the rooms? Were the windows covered? Were the victims faces covered?
By the way, that's usually done by someone who knows the family, a sign of remorse. Even if Frank Jones hired Mansfield, the guys didn't know the family. Reverend Kelly did. He knew all the victims.
Of course, covering the bodies could have also been part of some weird M.O. Or perhaps the murderer couldn't stand to see what he'd done. The time taken in the house suggests callousness, something I'm not sure the Reverend had. And was this the murderer's first killing? His only? Behavioral analysts of today might be able to tell, but the details are lost to history.
The Villisca House is a now a tourist attraction on the National Registrar of Historic Places. Stories about it being haunted abound. The official site of the murders says paranormal investigators have gathered visual and auditory evidence of a haunting. Objects move, psychics claim to have seen spirits.
If ever a place was likely to be haunted, the Villisca House would be it. The only surviving witness to a terribly tragedy, it alone knows the murder’s true identity.
The Villisca Axe Murder House