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Terror in Rural Iowa: The Villisca Axe Murder

I’m a sucker for a good true crime story and if you give me one of the oldest cases in Iowa history that has never been solved—color me super intrigued.

I recently took a road trip to the Villisca Axe Murder House in Villisca, Iowa. The house is now a tourist destination for the small town with both day tours and overnight visits available for a fee. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, the house was closed for the season and a tour was not available, so I had to take in what I could from outside the house.

History

Let’s take a look at the history of the house for those unaware of the case.

Sometime between midnight Sunday, June 9 and Monday, June 10, 1912, a person or a group of people entered a small house in Villisca, Iowa, and bludgeoned eight people sleeping there to death. Included in those eight victims were two adults and six children ages 5 through 12.

Villisca Axe Murder house
The site of a horrific murder that took place in 1912 looks so unassuming.

The murders set off ten years of investigations, grand jury hearings, trials, and other litigation. Legislation was written in response to the murder, including the establishment of the current State Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s predecessor. Still, the case remains unsolved to this day.

June 9, 1912, before the murders, Josiah Moore and his wife, Sarah, took their children, Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7), and Paul (5) to a Children’s Day service at their local Presbyterian Church. Two neighbor children, Lena (12) and Ina Stillinger (8) accompanied them as they were having a sleepover with the Moore children that night. The Children’s Day service was an end-of-year Sunday school program in which Sara was a director and her children performed.

After the service, the family spent some time socializing with other parishioners and walked three blocks home. After a snack, everyone retired to their beds.

Sometime after midnight, the killer(s) took Josiah’s axe from the back yard of the home, entered the house, and murdered all of its occupants.

By 7:30 AM on June 10, 1912, an elderly neighbor, Mary Peckham, noticed the no one from the house had been out to take care of their morning chores. She contacted Josiah’s brother, Ross, who arrived at the house around 8:00 AM. Upon inspecting the downstairs, he found two bodies covered with a sheet in the back bedroom and a concerning amount of blood. Soon, the rest of the victims were discovered as well.

Strange Leavings

The killer(s) left two strange touches to the murder scene that have never been explained. The first was a four-pound slab of bacon leaning against the wall next to the murder weapon. The murderer had also covered all the mirrors in the home and the glass in the entry doors with pieces of clothing from the Moores’ dressers. A plate of half eaten food and a bowl of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table.

All the victims were found in their beds, heads covered with bedsheets, and all had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an axe. The ceilings in the adults’ bedroom and in the children’s room upstairs showed gouge marks, assumed to be made by the upswing of the axe.

Scary windows at the Villisca axe murder house
These windows are uncannily reminiscent of Amityville Horror, are they not?

The Moore-Stillinger funeral was held in the town square on June 12, 1912, with thousands in attendance. The caskets, not on display during the funeral, were later carried on several wagons to the cemetery for burial.

As I’ve already mentioned, to this day, no one has been held accountable for this bizarre murder. One suspect, Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, left Villisca via train the morning following the murders and told fellow passengers that eight people were butchered in their beds as they slept before the bodies had even been discovered. He was later indicted for Lena Stillinger’s murder, and on August 31, 1917, he signed a confession to the murder. However, during the trial, he recanted this confession, and he was never convicted of the crime.

No one else has ever been charged in connection with the murders, and no other suspects have been identified.

A few documentaries have been created taking a look at the case, one such being Villisca: Living with a Mystery. If you’re looking for deeper speculation or just a taste of the macabre, The Axe Murders of Villisca is a fictional account based on the true story.

Today

Today the house has a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the United States and is still the source of much speculation as to who may have committed such an atrocity.

A gray cat sits on a porch railing at the Villisca axe murder house
I mean, its an adorable cat. But is it the spirit of someone murdered in the house?

On my trip to the house, I can’t say that I saw anything out of the ordinary; however, I did get an uneasy feeling just parking in front. The town was eerily quiet—there was NO ONE around—and immediately upon stepping out of the car onto the boulevard, a gray cat came up to me out of nowhere and rubbed against my leg. That unnerved me, to say the least. Soon, another cat came up looking for attention too. As I walked around to the back of the house, the two felines followed, and one even perched on the deck of a small shed on the back of the property, where I assume tour tickets are purchased and merchandise is sold. He sat and seemed to be looking off at something behind me. I found some cat treats that happened to be in my car, offered them to my host, and returned to the road.

Once in the car, I found that my GPS wouldn’t work, and I had to follow my own instincts to get out of the town. Coincidence? I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ll be returning anytime soon.

2 Comments

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  1. What is your source for the half eaten plate of food on the kitchen table? It is not mentioned by the Marshal or any of the doctors first on the scene, I suspect it was a rumor, or a item in a newspaper account which was written on a slow news day.

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Written by Audrie Bretl Roelf

Audrie Bretl Roelf is a full-time communicator and a lover of all things pop culture. She holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Augustana College and a master's degree in Strategic Communications from the University of Iowa.

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