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Haunted; the Villisca Ax Murder House

Updated on October 2, 2019
Jade Hassenplug profile image

I have a curiosity for humanity's darker side and I love doing research so I've combined those two things to write in depth articles.

Who were the victims?

The family that resided in the home consisted of the mother, father, and, their four children ranging from 11 and 5 years of age. Two neighboring children had been spending the night when the incident occurred.

Josiah B Moore was the father and was a prominent businessman in Villisca. He lived in Villisca for fifteen years and was employed by Frank Jones in his store for nine years until he left to start his own rival business. Josiah married Sarah Montgomery on December 6, 1899, in her parent’s home. They later had four children together.

Sarah Montgomery Moore was the mother and was born in Knox County Illinois 1873. Her family moved to Iowa in 1894 where she later met and married Josiah. Sarah was an active member of the Presbyterian church and led the Children’s Exorcise on June 9, 1912.

The Moore children

Herman was born in 1901 and often was seen close to his father. He was 11 when he was killed

Kathrine was born two years after Herman in 1903. She was 10 when she was killed. Kathrine was friends with the two sisters who she had asked to spend the night.

Boyd and Paul were the youngest at just 7 and 5 years old.

The Stillinger Sisters

Their parents were Joseph and Sarah Stillinger and both the girls had been born on their family farm just outside of Villisca. They were both a part of the Presbyterian church that the Moore children attended and on June 9, 1912, they had decided to spend the night at the Moore house.

Lena Gertrude was 12-years-old and experts believe she had tried to fight off the killer.

Ina May was just 8-years-old when she was killed. She was sleeping in the same room as her sister.

Mr. and Mrs. Moore on top, their four children in the middle and the Stillinger sisters on the bottom row.
Mr. and Mrs. Moore on top, their four children in the middle and the Stillinger sisters on the bottom row.

The Incident

On June 9, 1912, the Moore’s and the Stillingers attended church early that morning. The Stillinger’s sisters had plans to stay with their grandmother after church and have dinner with her. They planned to go to the church for the event then spend the night with their grandmother but Kathrine Moore invited the sisters to stay the night with her. Mr. Moore called the Stillinger’s home and left a message asking permission for the girls with their older sister.

The Stillinger sisters did have dinner with their grandmother and spent the afternoon with her but returned to the church later that night. At 8:00 Pm the Children’s Day exercise event started at the church. Mrs. Moore was the coordinator for the event and the Moore children along with the Stillinger’s children participated in the events. The event ended around 9:30 PM and the Moore’s and Stillinger sisters walked home, They arrived home between 9:40 and 10:00 PM.

It is believed the killer broke into the home between midnight and 5 AM. Others believe the killer broke in while the family was out of the house and hid in the attic or a small room waiting for the family to come home. It is still unclear when the killer entered the home.

The parent’s bedroom was on the second floor of the home and the children’s bedroom was down the hall. The Stillinger sister’s slept in the guest bedroom on the first floor. He killed the parents first, then made his way to the children’s room down the hall and killed all four of them. Next, he went downstairs and killed the sisters. Ina Stillinger slept closest to the wall and Lena was next to her. Lena appeared to have been either awake or tried to fight off the killer that night. She had blood under her right knee and defensive wounds on her arm. Her nightgown was pulled up and she was missing her undergarments, this led authorities to believe the killer had sexually assaulted her. Her face was covered with a gray coat after she was dead.

All the windows in the house beside two of them had been covered with the Moore’s clothing and he covered every mirror in the house as well. The ceilings in the parent’s and children’s room had gouges from the ax, these had been made when the killer lifted the ax on the upswing. The murder weapon was found in the guest room where the sisters had been sleeping. It was covered in blood but looked as though the handle had been whipped off.

There was a kerosene lamp found at the foot of the bed in the parent's room that had been used. There was a second lamp found in the guest room that had also been used recently. There was a pan full of bloody water found in the kitchen along with a plate of uneaten food on the table. A slab of bacon, about 2 pounds was found in the icebox and a second slab of bacon was found wrapped in a dishtowel on the floor next to the murder weapon. It is unclear why the bacon was in the bedroom or if it has anything to do with the killer. All of the victims had been hit with the ax so many times their skulls had been crushed. Before leaving, the killer washed his hands and locked all the doors to the house.

The Investigation

The next morning the Moore’s neighbor Mary Peckham knocked on the door of the small house. She noticed the usually busy and lively home was eerily quiet. After knocking got her no response, she tried the door and found it locked. For a small town in 1912, it was uncommon for homes to have their doors locked, and this led to more concern. Mary let out the Moore’s chickens from their coop and into the pen and went home to call Mr. Moore’s brother. She also called Ed Selley, one of Mr. Moore’s employees, to come tend to the livestock as the horses had still been tied and not fed. Ed left for the Moore house after opening the store to feed the livestock, then he returned to the store believing the family simply was not home.

Ross Moore, Josiah’s brother, came to the house and proceeded to knock on the door, look into the windows and shout to try and get someone’s attention in the home but to no avail. He proceeded to use his copy of the house key to open the door. Mary followed him to the front porch but went no further. Ross continued into the home just outside the parlor. He opened the bedroom door on the first floor and saw the two lifeless bodies in the bed, on blood-soaked bed sheets. He informed Mary and asked her to phone the police.

The violent nature of this crime drew the curious residence of Villisca to the house. It was said over 100 townspeople entered the home to gawk at the victims, destroying the crime scene and one person reportedly even stole a fragment of Mr. Moore’s skull as a keepsake. City Marshall Hank Horton was the first officer on location and called for backup.

Horton left the house to gather Dr. J. Clark Cooper. He asked Dr. Cooper for his assistance at the Moore house and the two arrived at 8:15 am. Dr. Hough and Mr. Ewing, the Presbyterian minister, were waiting for them at the house. All four men entered the home and began to look around and the doctors visually examined the bodies. Dr. Cooper said he didn’t touch any of the bodies, he simply looked and gave his thoughts.

Local police quickly lost control of the situation and crime scene due to the curious community. They did what they could to gather evidence and move the bodies to the morgue. They eventually had to call in the Villisca National Guard to secure the crime scene. Police did a few searches of the town and surrounding areas for the killer and brought in bloodhounds but had no success. The police didn’t seem to put much effort into searching for the killer as they said with the five-hour head start he has, he would be long gone by now,

The crime made headline news for weeks and sent the town into a frenzy. People started to open carry, lock their doors and windows, and, huddled together when they slept at night. Friends and families started to accuse each other, suspicion and rumors tore apart the town.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
From left to right- Frank, William, Lyn and HenryJosiah Moore's rival business to Frank Jones.
From left to right- Frank, William, Lyn and Henry
From left to right- Frank, William, Lyn and Henry
Josiah Moore's rival business to Frank Jones.
Josiah Moore's rival business to Frank Jones.

The Suspects

At first the police had no suspects, but as time went on and more evidence was gathered the suspect list grew. They went through a lot of suspects yet nobody was ever formally charged with the crime. There are still a few suspects today that have never been charged but are thought to have been the killer. It was also noted that Lee Van Gilder, Sarah’s ex-brother-in-law who had a grudge against the family was a suspect but was later found to not be the killer.

Frank F. Jones- Frank was a prominent resident of Villisca and was the Iowa State Senator. After Josiah quit working for Frank to start up a rival farm equipment business, there grew a strong hatred toward one another. It was also rumored that Josiah was having an affair with Frank’s daughter but these claims were never founded. Some in the town didn’t believe the hate between the two men could result in murder though others think it did.

Lyn George Jacklin Kelly- Lyn was an English immigrant and a traveling preacher who also happened to have a history of mental problems and sexual deviancy. He admitted to the police he was in Villisca that day and had left early that morning. Kelly and his wife moved to Macedonia Iowa after he was finished being a preacher in 1912. Kelly claimed he was at the Children’s Day activities and witnesses said he kept a close eye on the Moore family. Kelly was said to have dropped off bloody clothing at a dry cleaner in a nearby town. Kelly was also left-handed and from the blood spatter in the house it was thought the killer could have been left-handed.

In 1917, Kelly was arrested and charged for the murders of the Moore family and Stillinger sisters. Through barbaric police tactics, Kelly confessed though he quickly recounted claiming he was tortured into giving a false confession. This resulted in the trial ending with a hung jury and him being acquitted of the crimes. Kelly and his wife later moved to New York to spend the rest of their days.

William Manfield- William also went by two other names, George Worley and Jack Turnbaugh. He was from Blue Island Illinois and was reportedly a cocaine addict and suspected serial killer. It is believed he killed his wife, infant child, mother-in-law and father-in-law in Illinois on July 5, 1914. He is also thought to be behind the ax murders of Papola Kansas four days before the Villisca murder and he is thought to be behind the murder of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora Colorado. These murders all have very similar circumstance. All murders were done by ax, the mirrors were covered in each house and there was a basin, or pan in the kitchen full of bloody water. This indicated it was the same person who had killed all these people.

William was arrested in 1916 for the murders of the Moore house but was later released due to his alibi being a payroll record putting him in Illinois at the time of the murders. A witness came forward though on July 15, 1916, that claimed to have seen William in Shenandoah Iowa boarding a train. The witness said William told him he was coming from Villisca. William said this strange man was not him and that the witness was mistaken. William was never charged.

Henry Lee Moore- Henry Moore shares no relation with Josiah Moore or the Moore family that was murdered. Henry was convicted of killing his mother and grandmother in Columbia Missouri on December 17, 1912. This was months after the Villisca murders. Henry had killed his mother and grandmother just as brutally as the Moore’s had been and he also had done the deed with an ax. Henry worked as a farmhand in Franklin County Iowa and was rumored to have had a child with the farmer's youngest daughter. He was later arrested on forgery charges but released after he spent his time in 1911. He told police he was living with his mother and grandmother during the winter and summer of 1912 so he wouldn’t have been in Villisca at the time of the murders. He said after that he went to work on the railroad.

After the Murders

In 1994, the house was bought by Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning Iowa. They decided to restore the house to its original look from that day in 1912. The house was then listed on the National Historic register and is now a Historic Place that is open for tours.

People today will claim that they know who the killer was, or that the killer was someone in their family. The case will most likely never be solved as the killer took this secret to their grave. This didn’t stop many people from writing books and making movies about the Villisca murders. A lot of it has been twisted into an urban legend of sorts of the infamous Ax Murderer, though it’s not entirely untrue.

Paranormal Activity

You can find numerous testimony online from the visitors of the Villisca house as well as videos. People have claimed to see apparitions and voices of young children in the house. People also claim to hear knocking and have a feeling of being watched. There seems to be a dark presence in the home as well. Flashlights have gone on and off for no clear reason, people have heard residual sounds as well as gotten intelligent answers when asking questions. Spirit boxes are often used and have a lot of results as well.

The famous TV show Ghost Adventures did an episode at this location. If you wish to watch it is season 4 episode 13.

Famous TV show Ghost Adventures did an episode at the Villisca house.
Famous TV show Ghost Adventures did an episode at the Villisca house.

How you can visit

The house is located on 508 E 2nd street in Villisca Iowa. Day tours are from March till December and are from 1 PM till 3:30 PM. The days open are Tuesday through Sunday but the house is closed on Mondays. Day tours are cash only but it’s just $10 per adult, $5 for children 11 years of age to 5 years. Senior citizens are also just $5.

You can also reserve an overnight stay, though you’ll need to give a $200 deposit over the phone. An overnight stay will cost you $428.00 for a group of one to six people with $75 for each additional person. The overnight stays usually start at 4 pm and you’ll need to be out of the house by 9:30 am. If you wish to reserve an overnight stay or just want more information about how you can visit, you can click here.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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