Thriller Thursday: Villisca Axe Murders Revisited

The Moore Home and location of the grizzly murders. Photo courtesy Miller’s Paranormal Research.

I’m leaving later today to visit my best friend in the Twin Cities, so I’m reblogging this post. The Villisca Axe Murders were my second ever Thriller Thursday, and this is a new, much improved version.

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 went to the house to check on the family and found them all brutally murdered.

The victims.

Word of the bodies spread and inexperienced police lost control of the crime scene. Historical counts have more than one hundred people traipsing through the house to gawk at the bodies before the National Guard arrived.

In town, shock and grief led to frightened citizens taking up arms and suspecting one another. Reporters and private detectives came from all over the country for the story while law enforcement agencies in neighboring counties and states assisted the overwhelmed town police.

With such a muddle crime scene and a century having past, it’s hard to keep the facts straight. The official site of the Villisca Murders lists the following as facts:

  • Eight people were bludgeoned to death with an axe left at the scene.
  • Doctors estimated time of death at shortly after midnight.
  • Curtains were drawn in the windows except for two. They were covered with the Moore’s clothing.

Crime scene photos of Villisca were thought to have been lost (or non-existent) but this recently discovered photograph is thought to be taken shortly after police arrived on scene.

  • All of the victims faces were covered with bedclothes.
  • A kerosene lamp was found at the foot of the bed of Josiah and Sarah Moore. The chimney was off and the wick turned back. The chimney was found under the dresser.
  • A similar lamp was found at the foot of the bed of the Stillenger girls.
  • The axe was discovered in the room occupied by the Stillenger girls. It was bloody, although someone had clearly attempted to clean it. The axe belong to Josiah Moore.
  • The ceilings in the rooms where the murders took place showed gouge marks made by the upswing of the axe.
  • A pan of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table along with a plate of uneaten food.
  • The doors were locked.

The grave of Lena and Ina Stillinger, the sisters who spent the night at the Moore’s.

  • The bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger were found in the downstairs bedroom off the parlor. Ina was closest to the wall with Lena on her right. A grey coat covered her face. Dr. F.S. William said Lena, “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. But in 1912, 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.

Josiah (left), Katherine, Herman, and Sara Moore.

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.

Senator Frank F. Jones.

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.

Reverend Kelly

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.

Chicago’s notorious H.H. Holmes and Texas’s Servant Girl Annihilator were also discussed as suspects.

The third school of thought is that someone unknown to the area killed the Moore’s and Stillinger girls–a serial killer. Federal Agent McClaughry, assigned to the Villiscia murders, believed Henry Moore (not related) was the killer.

Henry Lee Moore.

In December 1912, six months after the Villisca event, Henry Moore was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of the murders of his wife and maternal grandmother in Columbia, Missouri.  In that incident, he’d used an axe. Known to be a mean drifter, prone to fits of anger, Moore is a fitting suspect as many experts believe the killings were committed by a transient.

Agent McClaughry interviewed Moore in prison and decided he was responsible for at least 23 murders. McClaughry believed Moore was the Iowa killer, but no one followed up, and he was never prosecuted.

Visit, the official site of the murder house, to learn more.

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.

Source: Katherine Ramsland – Villisca, Mass Murder in Iowa.
Source: The Villisca Mystery.
Source: The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog.

Who do you think killed the Moore family? Is it possible to solve a hundred-year-old murder?

About Stacy Green

Stacy Green is the best selling author of psychological thrillers and mystery with a dash of romance. As a stay at home mom, she's blessed with making writing a full-time career. She lives in Iowa with her supportive husband, daughter, and their three fur-babies.
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52 Responses to Thriller Thursday: Villisca Axe Murders Revisited

  1. Diane Carlisle says:

    It’s so interesting how times have changed. I can’t imagine the horror of such a thing happening to an entire family. I enjoy these articles on past crimes. I know they are awful things to have happened, but fascinating either way.

    Thanks for sharing them.

  2. talhea says:

    Eerily fascinating! Nowadays, this would probably be solved within weeks, but not back then. Hard to imagine how one person could systematically kill that many people without disturbing the others. Definitely makes one go, hmmm…

    • Stacy Green says:

      See, that’s my thing. I’ve always thought there may have been more than one person, but I’ve never read that theory anywhere. But that’s a lot of people to kill, in their sleep, without one waking up. Unless they were drugged, which is possible.


      • Ed Epperly says:

        Detective Wilkerson tried to make the case there were three in the house, but he had only, William Mansfield swing the axe. I don’t think multiple killers helps much. Did we have one on each floor? How did they coordinate their blows. Doctors insisted there was no evidence for drug at the scene. The one thing all officials at the scene agree on is that there was no evidence that anyone had left their beds before or after they were attacked.

  3. Ooh, that’s an eerie story. It gives me chills. I’m so glad crime solving has changed since then.

    • Stacy Green says:

      It’s definitely eerie. I do want to visit the murder house some day. Of course it’s claimed to be haunted, and if any place were, would probably be the Villisca house. Thanks!

  4. christinagps says:

    I’m interested to see what the show Dead Files finds out this week. I am not a fan of psychics but still am interested because Ghost Adventures caught the famous EVP saying “?I Killed Six Kids”…but who said it….???

  5. tomwisk says:

    My money’s on the travelling preacher.

  6. corajramos says:

    Very gruesome, but definitely interesting, story. Amazing that 100 people traipsed through the house before it was secured! Who would want to view all that trauma-eegads!

    • Stacy Green says:

      Yes, it’s definitely gruesome. But also incredibly tragic. I especially feel for the family whose little girls were just visiting. Yes, I can’t imagine so many people going through a crime scene. Just proves human nature hasn’t changed that much in 100 years.

  7. DM Yates says:

    Sad that they couldn’t solve the crime. It was definitely very gruesome and unnecessary. Great post.

  8. What a sad and terrible story. Do you write events like this into your work?

    • Stacy Green says:

      Not like this – not yet, anyway. My books do have murder victims, but so far I haven’t gone in this direction. I am, however, planning a series that is going to be dark. So stay tuned.

  9. I am curious. You don’t speak of Andy Sawyer as a suspect in your history at the top of this page. He was the hobo that was detained by the Creston Sheriff. He seemed to know quite a bit about the murders including the escape route of the “killer”. But the Sheriff in Osceola claimed that he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a train at 11:00pm the night of the murders. Sawyer was witnessed by the sheriff of Creston, rubbing his head and screaming “I will cut your god damn heads off.” to himself and made striking motions while detained. But since the sheriff in Osceola seemed to confirm his where abouts on the night of the murder, he was released. He seemed infatuated by the news story about the murders. My question is, if he did not commit the crime, how could he have known the exact escape route of the killer and able to show his former boss these landmarks in Villisca if he was not in Villisca the night of the murders? Since there is no recorded times in which the Moores returned home from church and the times they went to bed, is it possible for Sawyer to have committed the murders, hopped a train and wound up in Osceola only to be arrested by the sheriff there? What do you think?

    • Stacy Green says:

      It is possible, however, I’m just not sure someone as disorganized and unhinged as Sawyer could have committed the crime. Maybe he was one of a team – I really believe there were either two killers or the family was drugged. I don’t see how one person can kill an entire family plus two more without someone waking up.

  10. kevin says:

    they were all awake,after joe was killed-paranormal evidence supports this. youtube apra paranormal and tricounty paranormal

    • Stacy Green says:

      Yes, but that’s not something that would stand up in court. Paranormal evidence (and I do believe) can be very subjective. Thanks.

      • Kevin says:

        Yes I agree- but Andy sawyer didn’t do it- evidence clearly shows, and I’ve heard the residual many times – 2 men- and the kids have said that Sarah knew one of them, and the other was at the church that night. I live near here and I’ve captured te name” blackie” as well as Mansfield when asking about the crime- although not court evidence but you can come away with the thought indeed the German Mansfield was involved- German language has been picked up at the home, the kids did reply” foreigner” as well when asked who it was. Pieces seem to fit, that it was someone who knew the home, planned attack on the family.

  11. Edgar Epperly says:

    I agree with most of the facts you report but where did you get the information there was a plate of food in the kitchen? No official, early on the scene mentions such a thing. They did report that their was evidence at the scene that the family had eaten milk and cookies the night before.

  12. ginny arellanes says:

    I would have to .say that thhe murderer seemed to display an awful amount of anger towards this family but was also ashamed of his actions,hence the covering of their faces afyerward…I was wondering if any leads were followed as to maybe Lena being the real”target”.as u explained her nightclothes were up.and .she .had no undergarments,plus the blood stain on het knee and the covering of her face as maybe.a. gesture to covet whaty had taken place? Just a thought…

    • Stacy Green says:

      Yes, I think so do. That’s a really interesting point about Lena, and as far as I know, that wasn’t explored. Of course it may have been and there just isn’t much out there about it.

      Thanks for stopping by. Great comment:)

    • Edgar Epperly says:

      From the first the state authorities who investigated the case believed Lena was the key figure in the murders. They also believed the killers motive to be largely sexual in nature. Local citizens tended to dismiss this conception of the murder because there had be no sexual assault or rape. When Rev. Kelly was brought to trial in 1917 he was charged with Lena’s murder only since the Iowa state attorney general believed her position and undress fit Kelly’s history of voyeurism.

  13. Hello.
    On the note of Ghost Adventures. I absolutely loathed their dramatics and over-the-top acting. But the more I have participated in ghost hunting and had my own experiences I have grown to realize that much of it is not too bad (with really dramatic reactions of course.) On the episode of their Valiska investigation they caught an EVP saying that the killer is “with Reverend Kelly”. When asked the name of the murderer they caught the name “Andy”. Previous investigators apparently caught “I am Legion” in their recording. And the other mentioned “answers” lead to other opinions. Perhaps the evil entity there is just the negative energy trying to confuse and give different names so that it remains the terrible mystery that it is. I would like a team to record a session where they REPEATEDLY ask the question, “What is the name of the person who murdered eight people in this house.” Perhaps a consistent answer would have more “closure”. And perhaps the Reverend Kelly EVP supports the theory of multiple murderers. Perhaps multiple psychics to one visit is the answer. Was the killer’s energy really caught in the house with those who he killed? Were the mirrors covered like their faces? Were they awake to leave their terrified energies behind? Great writing bytheway 🙂

  14. Sherry says:

    Would they be able to solve the crime now? Frankly, I doubt it. To make even a crude guess, I’d want to know what actual evidence from the crime scene still exists. From what I’ve read on the ‘net (haven’t seen the documentary or read any books) it seems like the axe has been preserved (and I assume cleaned countless times over the decades), but other than the house itself – what else? The lamps, the nightclothes the victims were wearing when killed, the skirt(?) placed over the mirror? So, other than exhuming the victims and the bodies of every known suspect, being able to conclusively isolate the murderer’s or murderers’ blood or other organic material from the crime SCENE or retained evidence, and from all that making a DNA match between victims and killer(s) . . . uh, NO – I don’t think this horrific crime can be solved.

    The best that could be done now, I think, might be to possibly ascertain whether there was one or

  15. Sherry says:

    Could the murders be solved now? I seriously doubt it. Actually, let’s say I feel there is a . . . 93% chance the answer is, “NO.”

    To identify the culprit(s) beyond a reasonable doubt, one or both of the following scenarios would have to exist:
    1. A confession from the murderer or murderers that could be verified per the evidence,
    – and/or –
    2. A conclusive DNA match between victim(s) and murderer(s.)

  16. Sherry says:

    Sorry. I’m typing all this on my cell phone and I keep hitting a key that’s sending my stuff before I’m finished! So THIS POST is really #3. *sigh*

    Anyway, to wrap up what I was saying at the end of POST #2 – I think the only thing that could be ascertained NOW might be whether there was one or two killers in the Moore house that night. And to be even reasonably sure, the entire Moore family and the two Schillinger(sp?) girls would have to be exhumed and then perhaps certain wounds left in the bones could be forensically matched to the blunt and sharp sides of the ax. They might find that another weapon had been used in the murders, too – which MIGHT indicate a second killer. Maybe. Perhaps. *lol*

    • Stacy Green says:

      Hi Sherry. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I think this would be a solvable crime if it happened today. Awful as it sounds, it’s not nearly as out of the ordinary now as it was then. As for whether or not modern forensics could do anything for the murders, as you said, I doubt it. The crime scene was poorly preserved and tarnished, and I don’t know how much evidence has been kept. One of the most fascinating things about this case is the idea that one killer pulled all this off. It’s something I have a lot of trouble buying.

      Thanks so much for your comments!

      • amanda says:

        Can I just say this case is really interesting. There r a few things that stand out to me. The first being that the children were each only struck once while the parents were struck multiple times. This almost seems to indicate that the parents were the target of the persons anger. Lena possibly being the target is possible but why would the Jilleen’s kill everyone else first. Also why would the killer kill her at a friends home.another thing that stands out to me is the parents were killed first indicating that the killer may have been familiar with the family. If he had just casually come to the house at random why would he go straight uppstairs to kill the parents leaving the two sisters in a downstairs bedroom asleep. It seems odd that one person could kill eight people and not wake anyone in the house. It seems that someone would have heard something. Even in the parents room u would think one of them would of woken up at the sound of the other getting hacked. And the fact that the two lights were left in the rooms of the first and last victims. Anyway it is interesting and will forever hold our interest let me know what ya think.

  17. Candace Kaluna says:

    This might be the strangest comment you probably ever had. But how I came to know about this story, one day I was listening to music on my cd player and browsing the internet, I came across a picture of the Moore Family, it was a website of ghosts. I got really interested in the story, I ordered the book Roy Marshall’s “A murder in Villisca” and then I ordered the documentary. Now, the weird part about this is the song I was listening to while coming across the Villisca story was a song called “Aubrey” by Bread. It never really dawned on me about the lyrics but one day I was listening to it when it said “June”. It was creepy. I’ll write the song down so you could see what I mean. Do you think that there’s a clue in this song???

    “And Aubrey was her name, a not so very ordinary girl or name
    but who’s to blame
    for a love that wouldn’t bloom
    for the hearts that never played in tune
    like a lovely melody that everyone can sing
    take away the words that rhyme it doesn’t mean a thing.

    And Aubrey was her name
    we tripped the light and danced together to the moon
    but where was June
    no it never came around, if it did, it never made a sound
    maybe I was absent or was listening too fast
    catching all the words but then the meaning going past.

    But god I miss the girl
    and I’d go a thousand times around the world just to be closer to her than to me.

    And Aubrey was her name
    I never knew her but I loved her just the same
    I loved her name
    wish that I had found a way
    and the reasons that would make her stay.

    I have learned to lead a life apart from all the rest
    if I can’t have the one I want, I’ll do without the best.

    But how I miss the girl
    and I’d go a million times around the world
    just to say she had been mine for a day”

  18. Boofey says:

    I was watching Americas Most Terryfying Places last night and saw a peice about these murders. I had never heard about this before. The Serial Killer angle is one strong possibility. Also the angry ex-business partner. He might have hired someone but it would seem that the hit would be on the father only. Also this crime feels very personal accounting for the brutality and the covering of the bodies and mirrors. Maybe also staged to look sexual in nature? Could the family have invited the strange minister back to their home after church? Who doesn’t trust a man of God? Maybe they went to bed telling him to let himself out as he had to catch an early train in the morning. Or did someone else they trusted visit the home that evening. Maybe a family member? I believe in those times children had milk and cookies before bed and adults perhaps had tea. The killer could have put something in those drinks to eventually render the family unconscious or sedated before killing them with the axe. Might have been more than one killer. Not many women commit these types of crimes but it does happen. Maybe it was a trusted woman. It was rumored that the husband was having an affair. Could it have been that woman or another woman filled with rage and staging the crime scene to look like it was a man that did it. Very interesting about all the doors being locked. I don’t know if all the windows were locked too. Looking foward to comments.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Your theories are really interesting. I really believe there was more than one killer unless there was some drugging involved. I just don’t think it’s feasible that no one would have woke up. One of the victims would have made some sort of noise, screamed, etc. Thanks for sharing your theories!

    • Stacy Green says:

      Your theories are really interesting. I really believe there was more than one killer unless there was some drugging involved. I just don’t think it’s feasible that no one would have woke up. One of the victims would have made some sort of noise, screamed, etc. Thanks for sharing your theories!

  19. Susan F says:

    Has any psychic gone into the house and put themselves into a trance to see the killings in action. They could describe what the killer looked like.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes- millers paranormal research google them and see the site. You can youtube the residual recordings on youtube of the murder as it took place by different groups. Apra paranormal tri county paranormal. We live close by and in our 102 yr old home we have recorded replies to us asking about that murder.

  20. thank you for all you information on the Villisca Iowa murders, I appreciate i very much! Blessings to you and yours

  21. terri collins says:

    Is there any new evidence?

  22. Megan says:

    I know this place is haunted! I have been there twice and I have a picture of a little boy in the upstairs attic! You can see it plain as day! Just the overwhelming feeling I got in that house is undescribable.
    I think joe moore was having an affair with ff jones sons wife. He found out and hired william mansfield to do the crime.

    • kevin says:

      megan, I would love to see youre photo,i too belive Mansfield was involved as well and that everyone was awake as joe and sara was attacked first. my email is xsouthomahax at gmail

  23. Dale says:

    Thank you for posting this article. Having read extensively about this subject, my money would be on Henry Lee Moore as being the murderer.

  24. Sharon says:

    I heard from a physic the the little girls said they were shut in the attic.One by one brought down to bedroom and murdered.That they said it was the banker.

    • Ed Epperly says:

      All the records are in agreement, All victims were killed in their beds just where they were found. There was no blood except in the beds and on the wall behind Joe and Sara’s bed.

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