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Horrifying Murders of Villisca, Iowa

Updated on July 17, 2011

In the early 1900s, Villisca, Iowa, was a quiet, sleepy little rural town. Community residents believed the name of their town meant "Pretty Place" or "Pleasant View." However, it was later discovered the Indian word "Wallisca" for their town, located in Montgomery County, possibly meant "evil spirits." The events on the night of June 9, 1912, lent convincing evidence to that translation.

On that night an unknown assailant, or assailants, entered the house of Josiah and Sarah Moore and brutally murdered eight people by hacking them in the face with an axe. The victims were the Moore’s, their four children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul and two young girls, Lena and Ina May Stillinger, who were sleeping over. Whoever committed the horrific crime disappeared after the murder and no apparent motive for the murders was ever found. There were a few suspects, including a traveling minister and a local businessman. But no one was ever charged.

Josiah Moore

Sarah Moore

The slain victims were found in their beds and had apparently slept throughout the entire ordeal. The attending coroner believed the killer returned to the bed of Josiah and Sarah to inflict additional blows. The axe used to brutally slay the family and two visiting girls was found in the downstairs guest bedroom, where the sisters Lena and Ina May had been. Faces of the deceased, along with the windows and mirrors in the house, were covered with either curtains, blankets, or clothing.

At that time, crime scene investigation wasn’t what it is today. Much of any incriminating evidence may have been destroyed by an estimated one-hundred people milling about the scene.

The investigation produced many possible suspects, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, and Henry Lee Moore (no relation.) But, as the investigation progressed, they were all eliminated for one reason or another, although it was strongly felt several may have been guilty.

For instance, Reverend Kelly was said to be crazy. He was a traveling minister who was teaching at the Children's Day services on June 9, at the Moore family church. Kelly and his wife had quickly left the town early on June 10, the day the bodies were discovered. Despite this, he was never charged. Fourteen witnesses, all related to victims, testified on June 11, but no suspect was ever identified.

Then there was Frank Jones, a Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore had worked several years for Jones until he opened his own implement company in 1908. Apparently Jones had become extremely angry Moore had left his employ and managed to take away a very profitable John Deere franchise. Detective Wilkerson of the Burns Detective Agency openly accused Frank and his son Albert in court of hiring someone to kill Moore, which they both vehemently denied.

Many still believe Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. Mansfield was the prime suspect of the Burns Detective Agency of Kansas City and Detective James Newton Wilkerson. The Wilkerson Investigation revealed the murders were committed by Mansfield.

According to Wilkerson, Mansfield was a cocaine addict and serial killer. Wilkerson also believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois 2 years after the Villisca murders, Axe Murders committed in Paola, Kansas, 4 days before the Villisca murders and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Colorado.

All of the murders had been committed in precisely the same manner. Wilkerson stated he could prove Mansfield was present in each of these places on the night of the murders. In each case, the murderer avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves.

In 1916 Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided an alibi placing him in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders.

There was one other who was suspected…Henry Moore who was convicted of murdering his mother and grandmother with an axe several months following the Villisca incident. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, similar cases had occurred in Colorado Springs, Ellsworth, Kansas and Paola, Kansas. However, some town residents believed the murders were committed by someone passing through town on a train.

The house was originally built in 1868 and the Moore family purchased it in 1903. After the murders, the house went through the possession of eight people. In 1994  Mr. Darwin Linn and his wife purchased the property and successfully restored it to its original condition at the time of the murders. In 1998, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Prior to the renovation in 1994, there were several recorded paranormal occurrences in the house. Former tenants said they had seen the figure of a shadowy man with an axe standing at the foot of their bed. Another report tells of a closet door that opened and closed one evening. Later the same night, the tenants were seen fleeing the house, screaming.

There were additional reports of child tenants waking up to the sound of children crying. They often found their clothing strewn about the room. Their father was also said to have been sharpening a knife in the kitchen when it flew from his hands and stabbed him in the chest. The family immediately left the house and never returned.

Multiple paranormal investigations have been conducted at the house. The results strongly suggest the place is haunted.


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    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      It would seem like some one would wake up and run from the home, or maybe they did and were dragged back. An errie story indeed.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      It is a very intriguing case.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Come on JY, there's trillions of stars we don't see the light of they tell us....we believe that don't

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, I couldn't flat out say it was haunted. Ethics ya know? LOL

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Very Good one JY. It reminds a little of Lizzie Borden but many extra victims. That's intriguing about the faces, mirrors, etc. being covered up. Superstitious murderer or murderers? Have read some on killers doing that but forget the reason. 'Strongly suggest the house is haunted' kidding. Bizarre & tragic case.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Vicki, I try to find interesting subjects. Otherwise, no one would read them.

    • vicki goodwin profile image

      Sojourner McConnell 6 years ago from Winchester Kentucky

      Very interesting how simple mysteries like these are solved now with modern scientific methods. It is a story I had never heard and I found it quite intriguing. I never would have believed that so many ax murders took place in the early 1900's. I love a good history story, and this one had so much involved, including ghosts.