The unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims is a mystery like no other. It has stunned and dazed people, given them goosebumps, wreaked havoc on all our imaginations, and baffled the common-folk consciousness to no end.
On the day of June 1912 when eight innocent people lost their lives in a single night, the quietest and conventionally uneventful town of Villisca, Iowa, changed forever. The perpetrator of the murderous violence on that day had hacked the entire Moore family and two guests to death with an axe.
Over time both suspects and confessions have emerged, and even trials have taken place, but, ultimately, the person responsible for the brutal crimes remains unknown. Now more than a hundred years have passed, but the Villisca axe murder case remains one of the most notorious for evading closure.
1. The Moore Family and Other Victims
The eight victims – the Moore family in its entirety and two friends of the Moore children:
- Josiah B. Moore, 43
- Sarah Moore, 39
- Herman Montgomery Moore, 11
- Mary Katherine Moore, 10
- Arthur Boyd Moore, 7
- Paul Vernon Moore, 5
- Ina Mae Stillinger, 8
- Lena Gertrude Stillinger, 12
As was the nature of society at that time, Josiah B. Moore was the head of the household. He was an industrious man and had found success in his endeavors in his youth.
He eventually married his wife Sarah with whom he had four children. The Moore family had good social standing and community relations. They were also part of the church community and had connections within the social matrix. They had a positive presence among their peers.
1.1. The Day Before the Murders
On the morning of 9th June in the year 1912, Josiah and Sarah got ready and got their children ready as they had a big day ahead of them. The local Presbyterian church was hosting Children’s Day.
Sarah Moore served as one of the co-facilitators of the event and the family had to be present for that. The activities ran from late afternoon until all the children had finished their performances.
Two neighborhood children who were friends with the Moore children, Lena and Ina Stillinger asked their parents if they could stay at the Moore home that night for a sleepover. Now a party of eight with the two new additions, the Moore family headed home, had supper, then prepared to go to sleep. No one would be seen alive again.
1.2. The Mystery Begins on June 11th, 1912
The next day, the hustle-bustle which was a characteristic feature of the Moore family home ebbed overnight and a neighbor Mary Peckham was the first one to sense that something was amiss. She called for Josiah’s brother Ross, who came to look into the matter.
He came to the Moore house around 8 am and checked the main bedroom where Josiah and his wife lay underneath bloodied bedsheets, unmoving and lifeless. Ross Moore called the local marshal and told him that something unimaginable had taken place.
Soon officer Marshal Henry Horton arrived on the scene and conducted a thorough search of the Moore House. He found a dead body on every bed, as well as a blood-covered axe lying in the room where the Stillinger girls lay dead. The entire Moor family and two of their friends were brutally executed.
The unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims disturbed not just the trust and faith of the community at large but caused a deeper distrust to re-surface.
1.3. Murder Scene
The word about the ill fate of the Moore family spread like wildfire in Villisca, as it does with small towns and intimate communities. Police officers and a local doctor went through the entire house and examined the bodies and the conditions they were in. Dr. F.S. Williams, who was the first medical officer on the scene, determined that the attacks occurred between midnight and 5 am.
It was determined that each of the victims was struck with an axe allegedly around 20-30 times. Due to this, their bodies were mutilated irreparably. The blade of the weapon is said to have impaled Josiah, while the blunt end of the axe was used to crush the rest of the victims. This distinction is said to indicate that Josiah was the real target and perhaps the rest were collateral damage.
Other information involves that seven out of eight victims died in their sleep. However, Lena Stillinger who was 12 years old at the time may have still been awake when the killer struck. This estimation is based on a defensive wound on her arm, and the fact that she lay at length on her bed.
There was no decapitation, mutilation, or sexual assault. The main cause of death was blunt force trauma to the skull of each of the victims. Further, in Josiah and Sarah’s bedroom, raised hatch marks were visible on the ceiling.
2. The Unexplained Death of the Villisca Axe Murder Victims: Evidence Analysis
In addition to the utter brutality on display, there were odd discoveries made at the crime scene. Two cigarette butts left in the attic were discovered. This lead the investigators to suggest that the killer or potential killers might have waited there until everyone in the house had gone to sleep.
Then the perp may have made his way through the home using an oil lamp, firstly targeting Josiah and Sarah and then moving towards the children. Police also discovered a plate of food and a bowl of bloody water on the kitchen table, which the perpetrator might have used to wash his hands after the killing.
Another peculiar fact is the perpetrator’s action of covering all windows and mirrors with garments. This means they had to have searched in the drawers and other places within the house and when they found garments to cover various areas in the house, they covered them – including glass panels and mirrors in the doors
3. Villisca Axe Murders Aftermath
The unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims can trace its unexplainable character partly to the aftermath and crime scene contamination. Not only had the killer/killers fled, but any trace of evidence that could have been retrieved was also lost when the crime scene was overrun by the local folks.
Despite the doctor’s warning, the curious residents of Villisca climbed upon the Moore house walls and went inside. The crime scene became instantly contaminated, and given the lack of forensic progress at the time, it was an almost impossible task to find any real DNA evidence left by the killers.
The local police had only a few leads, they searched the whole of Villisca and the surrounding areas and also inquired about some towns peoples. But the perpetrators had at least a three-hour ahead of them, and police believed that he would have already left the town.
A number of suspects come into sight over the years, some of whom even confessed to the Villisca murders. From hereon the case becomes as complex as ever and marks the beginning of why the case continued to be referred to as the unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims.
The unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims is a complicated affair. It becomes more convoluted if we look at the suspect pool, investigative lapses, and negligence of the community.
4.1. Lyn George Jacklin Kelly
Reverend George Kelly a wandering minister who arrived in Villisca for the first time on June 10th in the morning, to attend the Sunday school directed by Sarah Moore, became one of the first ones to be suspected.
On the morning of the 11th, he is said to have left Villisca at 5 am by the way of a train heading out of the town. Reportedly, several hours before the news had spread he is said to have told some of the passengers that eight dead bodies were lying back in Villisca and even mentioned that they had been killed while they slept.
Two weeks later Reverend Kelly returned to Villisca, and after convincing and deceiving the police into thinking that he was a detective from out of town, he was able to hook on to a tour of the Moore house with a group of legal investigators. Some level of investigative prowess and protocol of verification they had!
Further, Kelly’s history of mental illness was also unknown. The police weren’t aware of Kelly’s past until he became a suspect in the Villisca killings. It turned out that Kelly had struggled with severe mental illness in his teenage years. Kelly used to regularly visit churches throughout Iowa and neighboring states.
Kelly was free until a Grand Jury indicted him for the murder of Lena Stillinger in the year 1917. In the month of August of the same year, he confessed his crime, saying that God had whispered suffer the children to come unto me in his ear. On the behalf of Kelly’s mental illness, his confession was dismissed. Later the court declared him innocent and set him free.
4.2. Henry Lee Moore
Another person who became part of the suspect pool was by the name of Henry Lee Moore. Even though he had no connection with the Moore family, he was a suspected serial killer, who had killed his mother and grandmother with the help of an axe, a few months after the Villisca killings took place.
When an officer working on the case of the Villisca killings case became convinced that Henry Moore was answerable for the Villisca slayings and also possibly a string of likely murderers in Colorado, Kansas, and Illinois, Henry Lee Moore was bumped to the top of the list of suspects.
But he was ultimately dismissed as a suspect, due to the lack of evidence related to Henry to the Villisca slayings.
4.3. William Mansfield
After two years of Villisca’s slayings, police turned their attention towards Illinois residents and serial killers. William Mansfield who killed his wife, daughter, and also his parents-in-law in the same way as the Moore family slayings became another suspect.
Later, inspectors linked him to other axe murders that happened in Kansas and Colorado, and he was even a suspect in the notorious Axeman of New Orleans case. Unlike Villisca killer/killers, in the Illinois case, murderers used sheets to cover windows so that no one could peep in.
Later, it came to light that Mansfield had been in Illinois, at the time of the Villisca slayings. Indeed, later an eyewitness claimed that he saw Mansfield boarding a train in Clarinda, Iowa, placing him close to only twenty minutes outside of Villisca slayings.
4.4. Frank F. Jones
A Villisca businessman named Frank Jones with political clout throughout the town was another suspect. Several years before the slayings, Josiah Moore had been an employee of Jones, but Moore left to start up his own business.
In doing so, Josiah took a big part of Jones’s business with him. There was bad blood between them. He served as a tangential suspect in the unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims.
According to Villisca residents, Josiah and Jones hated each other. However, it was considered a coincidence that Jones could kill his business rival. There were also some rumors around Villisca that Josiah had engaged in extramarital activities with Jones’s daughter-in-law. Such rumors kept the town ablaze and arrayed at the same time.
5. The Villisca House Today
The unexplained death of the Villisca axe murder victims is a baffling and nerve-wracking episode in the history of human violence and violent tendencies. Over a hundred years passed, but the Moore family household still stands, old and quiet in a residential area in Villisca, Iowa.
While every other household nearby has been renovated and refurbishments, the Villisca house is still frozen in time, still laced with the trauma it witnessed but can’t give words to. At this juncture, a consideration of The Villisca Murder House: 6 Things to Consider may prove to be useful.
Now the Villisca house is an attraction, an exhibition for the morbid curiosity of tourists. Now it exists as a museum, slightly touched up to maintain its stability. While many have tried to solve the murder case, the explained death of the Villisca axe murder victims continues to remain a mystery.
Years have lapsed and there is still no breakthrough that could prove to be beneficial for resolving this case once and for all. It is perhaps going to be forever a mystery unsolved.
Read more interesting content at 13 Years of Terror: The Haunting Legacy of The Black Dahlia Murder.