Villisca Axe Murders

9 June 1912, a night when an unthinkable event would cast fear over the quiet, small Iowa town, Villisca, even today.

Having ended their evening's at a local church celebration, the town's people went to bed, oblivious that a killer was planning an attack.

For the sake of our story, we will refer to the killer as "he." No one knows exactly who the sinister attacker was, only speculation exists now,  with two trials ending in hung juries and any last suspects free from punishment.

He sat alone, in the attic of a now famous house, smoking cigarettes, flicking the sniffed butts, and plotting his strike. His actions ended the lives of a family of six and their two house guests, while they slept. The house still bears the scars and visitors can still sense the horror when touring the infamous Villisca Axe Murder house.

A breakdown of events follows:

First, the family - Josiah B. Moore (father) and Sarah Moore (mother), had four children: Herman Montgomery, Mary Katherine, Arthur Boyd, and Paul Vernon. The guests were two neighbor girls.

The Moore family took part in a Children's Day Program held at the local Presbyterian church, which was being coordinated by Sarah Moore.  Katherine Moore had invited two friends to the event and offered them a place to stay for the evening (Ina Mae and Lena Gertrude Stillinger). The night seemed like typical, but at the Moore's home, a killer was waiting to make his move. 

At around 7:00 am the following morning, Mary Peckham, the Moore's neighbor, grew suspicious when she noticed that no one was around doing the morning chores. Not thinking anything was out of place, she knocked on the door but was met with no response. When she checked the door, it was locked. She let the Moore's chickens out and then called Ross Moore, asking him to check the house. Ross had a copy of the key and obliged to check the house. The scene was gruesome!

Upon walking through the parlor, into the guest room, he was met by the bodies of Ian Mae and Gertrude Stillinger. He asked Mary to call the town's Peace Officer, Hank Horton. Horton arrived on the scene soon after and began to walk the house. Officer Horton uncovered the bodies of the Moore family on the second floor. All eight murders had been committed with an axe. All except for Lena slept peacefully while they were bludgeoned to the head. Lena had wounds on her arms as if she was trying to protect herself from the oncoming blows. It also appeared that Lena might have been sexually assaulted during the murders, as well. Her body was discovered with her nightgown above her waist, and her undergarments were missing.

While investigating the scene odd things had been noticed: doors in the house were all locked, curtains had been pulled shut except for two that did not have curtains, all of the victims were covered in bedding after they were killed, the axe was found and it appeared as if the murderer had attempted to clean the blood but chose not to, in the kitchen there was a bloody wash pan and a plate that contained some uneaten food the killer may have prepared after the killings took place, two pounds of bacon were found wrapped in a dish towel on the ground story bedroom, and another two pound slab was discovered in the icebox. Aside from these details, nothing of monetary value seemed to be missing from the house.

As I read over details of the case, I was reminded of other axe murder cases from this period. I will return to that thought shortly. First, lets take a look at the possible list of suspects. 

While no one was found guilty, plenty of finger pointing happened, and one suspect even claimed to be the killer, but that was not found guilty. I like to keep these case studies brief, but I highly recommend that you check out some of the witness testimonies and look into the suspects. 

Here is a quick rundown of the suspects though...


Senator Frank F. Jones - Senator Jones was a prime suspect in the case because of some known bad blood between himself and Josiah Moore because of some business dealing and that Josiah may have even had an affair with Jones's daughter. Much of this was residential hearsay, but some thought that Jones had hired our next suspect, William Mansfield. 

William "Blackie" Mansfield - Believed by some investigators to have ties with Senator Jones and the main perpetrator, Mansfield was brought forward as a suspect because of allegations that he committed the ax murders of the Hudson Family in Paola, Kansas two years after the killings at Villisca. The crimes shared many similarities, but Mansfield was able to give payroll records that he was in Illinois during both murders.

Reverend George Kelly - Kelly was a traveling preacher who was present the night of the Children's Day event at the Moore's church. Kelly was suspected to have played some part in the murders because of how abruptly he left Villisca the day of the murders. Kelly even admitted that he was the murderer, and was a convicted sexual predator, but later redacted claims and declared police brutality. It is possible he was telling the truth, but the court was unable to find him guilty. 


So despite all the investigations, and even suspect taking responsibility for the murders, to this day the case remains unsolved. One would think that an event like this would be singular, but there are many cases of axe murders during this time frame that had very striking similarities to Villisca. Entire families had been killed at night, neatly tucked in their beds, windows covered, doors locked, nothing of value had been taken, and the killer had even made themselves a snack after the killings. It is a theory, but one may presume that these events are linked. In fact, they followed a popular railroad line allowing for quick escape. A string of murders spanned all across the United States all characteristic of the Villisca murders.

We will never know who killed the Moore family and their guests, or who murdered scores of families across the nation, but they are a part of our history and deserve to be remembered.