1912 takes us back a ways to a very different time, but not different enough to prevent heinous crimes such as the Villisca axe murders. It also includes what some people believe to be a paranormal activity today. There are believers who swear walls still protect the identity of the murderer or murderers who hacked to death the entire family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests, sadly they were children, on June 10,1912. An official Villisca site swears that almost 97 years later, the house’s secret continues to draw many visitors to its door. If you believe in such nonsense, visits by paranormal investigators have provided audio, video and photographic proof of paranormal activity. Tours have been cut short by children’s voices, falling lamps, moving ladders and flying objects. Psychics have confirmed the presence of spirits dwelling in the home and many have actually communicated with them, and skeptics have left believers (I doubt I would be among them). It’s quite easy to rig the place in order to keep drawing tourists and making dollars off of a dreadful history. But I digress.
In the early 1900’s, Villisca, Iowa, a Mid-Western town of 2500, was flourishing. In 1912, the town built the only publicly funded Armory in the state of Iowa. Little known to its residents was the possibility that their town was named, not after a “pretty place” but for the Indian word “Wallisca” which means “evil spirit.” On June 10, 1912, the tranquility of this “Pretty Place” was shattered by the discovery of the Villisca axe murders. The Moore family consisted of parents Josiah (aged 43), Sarah (39), and their four children: Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7) and Paul (5). An affluent family, the Moores were well-known and well-liked in their community.
Lena and Ina Stillinger, the daughters of Joseph and Sara Stillinger, left their home for church early Sunday morning. They planned on having dinner with their
grandmother after the morning service, spending the afternoon with her and then returning to her home to spend the night after the Children’s Day exercises concluded. The girls, however, were invited by Katherine Moore to spend the night at the Moore home instead. Prior to leaving for the exercises, Mr. Moore placed a call to the Stillinger home to ask permission for the girls to stay overnight. Blanche, Lena and Ina’s older sister told Mr. Moore that her parents were both outdoors but she would pass the message along to them.
The Children’s Day Program at the Presbyterian Church was an annual event and began at approximately 8:00 p.m on Sunday evening June 9th. According to witnesses, Sarah Moore coordinated the exercises. All of the Moore children as well as the Stillinger girls participated. Josiah Moore sat in the congregation. The program ended at 9:30 pm and the Moore family, along with the Stillinger sisters, walked home from the church. They entered their home sometime between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m. Based on the testimonies of Mary Peckham and those who saw the Moore’s at the Children’s Day Exercise, it is believed that sometime between midnight and 5:00 a.m., an unknown assailant entered the home and brutally murdered all occupants of the house with an axe.
The two bodies in the room downstairs were Lena and her sister Ina. 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. Except for Lena, all of the victims faces were covered with bedclothes after they were killed, suggesting the killer knew the victims quite well. 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. This confirms that the killer knew the Moore family intimately: he knew where to find the axe and had enough confidence in his crime to leave it behind. The ceilings in the parent’s bedroom and the children’s room showed gouge marks apparently made by the upswing of the axe
Once the murders were discovered, the news traveled quickly. As neighbors and curious onlookers converged on the house, law enforcement officials quickly lost control of the crime scene. It is said that up to 100 people traipsed through the house gawking at the bodies before the Villisca National Guard finally arrived around noon to cordon off the area and secure the home. Good job, boys.
Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including
- Reverend George Kelly
- Frank F. Jones
- William Mansfield
- Loving Mitchell
- Henry Lee Moore
Rev. George Kelly
George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. Rev. Kelly was said to be unbalanced and perhaps a pedophile.Where the pedophile rumour came from is uncertain. He was a traveling minister who happened to be teaching at the Children’s Day services on June 9, where the Moore family attended church. He and his wife left the town early on June 10, the day the bodies were discovered. That was the only evidence the town needed to place the “good” Reverend on trial. The first trial ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in a verdict of not guilty a fair decision in my opinion. Strangely, the New York Times printed an article claiming the Reverend confessed to the murders after he heard voices telling him to kill the family. It is highly doubtful that the Reverend said any such thing. Nowadays, he’d sue the Times in an out of court settlement for an undisclosed sum.
Every hobo, transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was a suspect in the murders. One such suspect (I’m not sure whether he was a hobo or a transient), was a man named Andrew Sawyer. As with many other suspects, no real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime but his name was bandied about in grand jury testimonies. Thomas Dyer of Burlington Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A., testified that Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 a.m on the morning the murders were discovered. He had purchased a newspaper which he went off by himself to read. The newspaper carried a front page account of the Villisca murders and according to Dyer, Sawyer “was much interested in it.” Well, who wouldn’t be? People today remain “much interested in it.” Dyer’s crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on (sweet God – arrest him) and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy about the fact that Sawyer slept with his axe, often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.
Dyer stated that Sawyer told him he was in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders. He was afraid he might be a suspect (how right he was) which was why he left and showed up in Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18th of 1912.There’s something about murders that capture nationwide attention that seems to bring out the melodramatic in people. Perhaps it’s the chance to dominate the media spotlight. Whatever the reason, Dyer gave the unlikely testimony that he walked up behind Sawyer, who was rubbing his head with both hands. Sawyer jumped up and said to himself “I will cut your god damn heads off” while making striking motions with the axe, and hitting the piles in front of him. Sawyer, however, was dismissed as a suspect in the case when it was discovered that he was able to prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. It was probably Sawyer’s most fortunate arrest in his life for vagrancy: the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train at approximately 11 p.m. Had there been no arrest, Sawyer might have gone to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Frank F. Jones
Frank Jones was a Villisca resident and an Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore worked for Frank Jones at his implement store for many years before leaving to open his own store. It was said that Moore took away business from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. It was also rumored that Moore had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence supports this. Let’s examine this theory: if you take business away from a successful and wealthy Senator and have an affair with his daughter-in-law (rather than his wife, for instance), you are bound to die in your sleep from a few hacks of an axe to the head. Nope. I’m not buying into that one either.
Another theory was that Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield, a cocaine addict, was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He was also believed to have committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes and committed the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. The locations of these crimes were all accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in exactly the same manner. However, Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him on grounds that his alibi checked out.
However, a mister “R.H. Thorpe“, a restaurant owner from Shenandoah, 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 this is substantiated it will break down Mansfield’s alibi. It was reported that a “Mrs. Vina Thompkins”, 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. Hoo, boy. She must have ears like a hawk to have overheard that conversation. Two additional axe murder cases followed in Ellsworth, Kansas, and Paola, Kansas. All cases were similar enough that the possibility that all were committed by the same person was impossible to dismiss. This must imply then that Mansfield (if he was the killer) would have covered the faces of all his victims at all locations. This hasn’t been confirmed. While we’re at it, why not convict him of the murders of the Borden family in Massachusetts? Lizzie would be much appreciative.
As residents of this small town reinforced locks, openly carried weapons and huddled together while sleeping, newspaper reporters and private detectives flooded the streets. Accusations, rumors and suspicion ran rampant among friends and families. Bloodhounds were brought in. Law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties and states joined forces. Hundreds of interviews filled thousands of pages. The speculation was almost too much to bear and in 1912, townspeople began to distinguish and identify themselves by who they believed committed the crime. Friendships became strained and in many cases, irretrievably broken. The town stood then and in many cases still stands divided. In an interesting irony, the crime that nearly tore apart a village has manifested tourism in the area and saved the village from obscurity.
Another notorious house known for its family murders of the Defeo family, is in Amityville, These dreadful murders however were solved: the mentally unbalanced son, Ronald Defeo Jr., shot his entire family to death before he calmly arrived at work with his grandfather and went about his usual tasks. The murders are immortalized in a film called The Amityville Horror.
Ninety-seven years later, the Axe Murder House, as it is known, has been placed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. A fictional feature-length film entitled Haunting Villisca is part of the Axe Murder House history (available on DVD).