"8 People Murdered in their Beds in Villisca"

The Villisca Review ~ Villisca, Iowa, Thursday, June 13, 1912

Almost 97 years ago, long before serial killers and mass murders had become a way of life, two adults and 6 children were found brutally murdered in their beds in the small mid-western town of Villisca, Iowa. During the weeks that followed, life in this small town changed drastically.

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.

And yet, the murders remained unsolved, the murderer unpunished.

In 1994, Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning, Iowa purchased the former home of murder victim J.B. Moore and his family. The house was returned to it's original condition at the time of the murders on June 10th, 1912. It was listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and opened for tours.

Films and books on the murders have recently captured the interest of an audience who had never heard of this horrendous crime. Psychics claim they've identified the murderer and history buffs continue collecting piles of documents they say point to the truth.

In all honesty though, we will never really know what happened on that dark night inside the home of J.B. and Sarah Moore. The murderer or murderers were never caught and given the many years that have passed, their dark secret was obviously carried with them to their own graves.

For some, 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.

I have visited the home, read the newspaper articles of 1912, pored over the grand jury testimonies and the coroners inquest. I have spent hours looking into the eyes of the victims in the few tattered photographs that remain. I have come, in a sense, to know the townspeople of Villisca in 1912. I share their frustration, their anger, their suspicions and their fear. But most of all, I share their pain.

The pain of the unknown. The pain of a terrible tragedy that forced neighbors to look with suspicion upon neighbors. The pain of the 20th century.

Originally, the construction of this website was simply a favor to a friend. Over the past several years, however, it has become a way of life. The Moores have become family. Once you've entered this site and been drawn into this story, I can guarantee that it will become a part of your life. At first, you'll feel an insatiable need for information. Until this site went live, that was difficult if not impossible to find. Secondly, you'll find within yourself a desire to know the truth, to unmask the identify of the murder or murderers and see justice done. Finally, you'll feel the pull to the house. You won't be satisfied with anyone else's experiences there and you'll need to have your own. I know. I've been in your shoes.

I can only hope that as you sift through the information I have compiled, that you will find the peace that ultimately comes with this story. According to Sarah Moore, "we can heal and we can overcome" ~ even a tragedy as gruesome as this. Read the documents, know the people, and if you must- play detective. But know that each lesson learned in Villisca is personal. Each person that visits this site or this home will come away with something that will change their lives. The murders will never be solved. The tragedies we'll face in our lives, however, can be. The work on this site is dedicated to the victims of the Villisca Axe Murders.

The Dates: June 9th and 10th, 1912

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.

The following morning, at approximately 5:00 a.m., Mary Peckham, the Moore's next door neighbor stepped into her yard to hang laundry. At approximately 7:00 am. she realized that not only had the Moore's not been outside nor the chores began, but that the house itself seemed unusually still. Between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., Mary Peckham approached the house and knocked on the door. When she received no response, she attempted to open the door only to find it locked from the inside. After letting out the Moore's chickens, Mary placed a call to Josiah's brother, Ross Moore, setting into place one of the most mismanaged murder investigations to ever be undertaken.

The Crime

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 of J.B. Moore and brutally murdered all occupants of the house with an axe.

The Victims

Upon arriving at the home of his brother, Ross Moore attempted to look in a bedroom window and then knocked on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. When that failed, he produced his keys and found one that opened the door. Although Mrs. Peckham followed him onto the porch, she did not enter the parlor. Ross went no farther than the room off the parlor.

When he opened the bedroom door, he saw two bodies on the bed and dark stains on the bedclothes. He returned immediately to the porch and told Mrs. Peckham to call the sheriff. The two bodies in the room downstairs were Lena Stillinger, age 12 and her sister Ina, age 8, houseguests of the Moore children. The remaining members of the Moore Family were found in the upstairs bedrooms by City Marshall Hank Horton who arrived shortly. Every person in the house had been brutally murdered, their skulls crushed as they slept. Josiah Moore, age 43, Sarah Montgomery Moore, age 39, Herman Moore, age 11, Katherine Moore, age 9, Boyd Moore, 7 and Paul Moore, 5 -as well as the Stillinger Sisters.

The Crime Scene

Once the murderers were discovered, the news traveled quickly in the small town. 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 a hundred 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. The only known facts regarding the scene of the crime were:

  • Eight people had been bludgeoned to death, presumably with an axe left at the crime scene. It appeared all had been asleep at the time of the murders.
  • Doctors estimated time of death as somewhere shortly after midnight.
  • Curtains were drawn on all of the windows in the house except two, which did not have curtains. Those windows were covered with clothing belonging to the Moore's.
  • All of the victims faces were covered with the bedclothes after they were killed.
  • A kerosene lamp was found at the foot of the bed of Josiah and Sarah. The chimney was off and the wick had been turned back. The chimney was found under the dresser.
  • A similar lamp was found at the foot of the bed of the Stillinger girls, the chimney was also off.
  • 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.
  • The ceilings in the parent's bedroom and the children's room showed gouge marks apparently made by the upswing of the axe.
  • A piece of a keychain was found on the floor in the downstairs bedroom.
  • A pan of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table as well as a plate of uneaten food.
  • The doors were all locked.
  • The bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger were found in the downstairs bedroom off the parlor. 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.
  • Dr. Linquist, the coroner, reported a slab of bacon on the floor in the downstairs bedroom lying near the axe. Weighing nearly 2 pounds, it was wrapped in what he though may be a dishtowel. A second slab of bacon about the same size was found in the icebox.
  • Linquist also made note of one of Sarah's shoes which he found on Josiah's side of the bed. The shoe was found on it's side, however it had blood inside as well as under it. It was Linquist's assumption that the shoe had been upright when Josiah was first struck and that blood ran off the bed into the shoe. He believed the killer later returned to the bed to inflict additional blows and subsequently knocked the shoe over.

Had these murders been committed today, it is almost certain that law enforcement officials would have easily solved the crime and brought the murderer to justice. Almost 100 years later, however, the Villisca Axe Murders remain a mystery. The murder or murderers are probably long dead, their gruesome secret buried with them. In hindsight, it's easy to blame the officials at the time, for what could only be considered a gross mismanagement of what little evidence may have remained.

It's important, however, that we also realize that in 1912 - fingerprinting was a fairly new venture, and DNA testing unimaginable. Although a local druggist had the forethought to attempt to enter the crime scene with his camera, he was promptly thrown out.

It is quite probable that even if the crime scene had been secure, the evidence would not have provided any real clues. There was no central database of fingerprints so even if any had been recovered, the murderer would have had to have been apprehended for a comparision. Granted, prints may have either convicted or cleared Kelly and Mansfield. Frank Jones, however, was suspected only of masterminding the plot, not actually committing the murders himself. Fingerprints would not have exonerated him.