the axe murders of villisca

Jennifer Kirkland

Villisca Axe Murder House: Details of the Axe Murders of Villisca House

On the morning of June 11, 1912, the small town of Villisca in southwestern Iowa awoke to a grizzly scene as the bodies of 8 people, the Moore family along with two guests, were discovered bludgeoned to death at the Moore family residence. The gruesome crime struck fear into the residents of Villisca, and the horrid acts committed on that cold night on June 10th have stood the test of time, having never been forgotten. The axe murders of Villisca took place at the now-infamous Villisca Axe Murder House, and here we’ll take you inside the Villisca house.

axe murders of villisca house
Des Moines Register

Villisca Axe Murder House

Believed to have been built in 1868, this American colonial home was the site of one of the most horrific murders of the 20th century. A simple structure in appearance, the residence was typical of what you’d expect from homes of that period, less than 1000 (913 to be exact) square feet of living space with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. On the front lawn, a wooden sign reading “The Villisca Axe Murder House: June 10, 1912” acts as a marker and a morbid reminder of the land’s dark history. 

Walking past the threshold of the entrance to the home, you’ll instantly be greeted by the kitchen – here, you’ll find the entrances to the back porch, the parlor (aka the living room), and the staircase that leads to the upper level directly to the right of the front door. On the right wall of the parlor is another door that leads to the parlor bedroom, the only bedroom on the first floor. The stairs in the kitchen take you directly into the master bedroom, where Mr. and Mrs. Moore slept. To the left of the room is another door that leads to the attic closet and through that the entrance to the attic itself can be found. Across from the master bedroom is where the south bedroom, which is where the Moore children slept, can be found. In addition to the first and second levels of the home, there is also a cellar (accessed from outside).    

axe murders of villisca house
Des Moines Register

Josiah B. and Sarah Moore House

The Moore family purchased the home on East 2nd Street in 1903 and lived there until their deaths in 1912. Josiah B. Moore was a well-respected businessman in Villisca and married Sarah Montgomery, an Illinois native and active member of the local Presbyterian church in Villisca, on December 6th, 1899 at her family’s residence. They had 4 children; Herman, Katherine Moore, Boyd & Paul.

Villisca Axe Murders House Address

The Villisca axe murder house is located at 508 East 2nd Street, Villisca Iowa, 50864.

Villisca Axe Murders House Tours

If you’ve ever wanted to get a closer look inside the Villisca axe murders house, you’re in luck! Because the residence offers daytime tours that are priced as follows:

  • $10 per person 12 and over
  • $5 for children between ages 7-11
  • $5 for seniors age 65 and over

Daytime tours are between the hours of 1 pm-3:30 pm Tues-Sun. No reservations are required. It is important to note, however, that daytime tours close in the winter and typically reopen in March.

As for overnights stays, those brave enough to actually stay through the night at the Villisca house can do so for the price of $428 for a group of 1-6 people and an extra $75 per additional guest. Reservations are required to stay overnight, and you will likely be treated to a tour, starting at 4 pm, before the keys to the home are handed over to you for the night.      

the axe murders of villisca house
Des Moines Register

Haunted Places in Iowa

The Villisca axe murder house is not the only location in Iowa that’s known for its spooky happenings; in fact, the state is loaded with historical buildings and locations that are famous for their ghostly guests, but we’ve compiled a cheat sheet of sorts to help you determine some of the best, and scariest, places to visit during your stay in the Hawkeye State.   

Stony Hollow Road

Stony Hollow Road in Burlington, Iowa, is said to be haunted by the spirit of a woman, named Lucinda, who is said to have thrown herself off the nearby cliff upon learning that her beloved had left her for another. Much like other classic ghost stories, it’s said that if you say Lucinda’s name 3 times, her apparition will appear at the cliff’s edge. Only adding to the spooky factor, it’s also said that if this scorned lover places a rose at your feet, you will die the next day.

Stony Hollow Road
Travel Iowa

The Mason House Inn

The Mason House Inn, a bed and breakfast located in the historic town of Bentonsport, Iowa, is over 2 centuries old and has been used as a haven for steamboat travelers, a hospital on several occasions, and was even part of the underground railroad long before its current use as a B&B. It is believed that the Mason House Inn is one of the most haunted locations in Iowa. Definitely worth a look if you’re interested in things that go “bump” in the night.

The Mason House Inn
Distilled Opinion

Banwell Bridge

If the previous locations don’t quite quench your thirst for paranormal activity, maybe this old bridge in Fort Dodge, Iowa, will do the trick. Banwell Bridge in Fort Dodge, IA, has been the product of endless ghost stories, but one, in particular, stands out above the rest for its horrid and tragic story. In this story, a woman and her children traveled to the bridge to watch the passing train below, but what was originally supposed to be a simple family outing would quickly take a dark turn, when the woman is said to have thrown her children off the bridge one-by-one before finally jumping in front of the oncoming train herself. Fort Dodge locals warn that parking your vehicle on the bridge without locking your doors may result in the spirit of this murderous mother trying to throw you from the bridge. Those who have visited the location and gotten out of their vehicle to explore have witnessed disembodied voices, orbs, and strange handprints on the windows of their car.

The Mason House Inn
Travel Iowa

Axe Murders of Villisca: What Happened?

On the morning of June 11, the Moore’s next-door neighbor, Mary Peckham, noticed a strange stillness at the Moore’s home at around 7 am, a time when the family could usually be seen performing morning chores. Initially, Mrs. Peckham assumed the Moore family was simply still slumbering, but as time passed and she was unable to reach anyone at the door upon knocking at the residence, she began to suspect something was truly wrong at the home and decided to call Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore, who accesses the home with a spare key and begins to explore the unusually quiet residence. Upon entering the parlor bedroom, however, Ross is greeted by the sight of blood-covered sheets on the small guest bed. In a state of shock, Ross Moore quickly exits the home, taking Mary Peckham with him, and the town’s marshal, Hank Horton was immediately summoned to the scene.

Upon his arrival, Horton entered the home and made note of how dark the house was since there were no lamps lit and all the curtains were drawn. He first made his way into the parlor bedroom – walking across the dark, eerie room in order to open the curtains and shine light into the space. Once illuminated by the morning sun, Horton discovered the bodies of two girls, Lena Stillinger (age 12) and her younger sister, Ina (age 8), both still lying in the bed with bloody bed cloths covering their faces. At the foot of the bed sat a kerosene lamp with a missing chimney and worst of all an axe, Mr. Moore’s axe, sitting head down and covered in blood. For reasons unknown, the killer even covered the mirror in the small room – perhaps for superstitious reasons, or maybe he was trying to avoid his own reflection after the deed was done, in the end, the reason remains a mystery.

Villisca Axe Murders House Photos
Lena and Ina Stillinger (left to right)

Moving back through the kitchen and up the stairs to the master bedroom, Marshal Horton would find the next grisly scene – blood splattered across the headboard and the nearby washstand as well as a 2’ long gash in the ceiling above the bed. As for what was in the bed itself, the bodies of Josiah B. Moore and Sarah Montgomery Moore, both still lying on their backs with bloodied cloths draped over their faces. Like the guest bedroom, there was a kerosene lamp in the room that was missing a chimney and the dresser mirror was covered.

Villisca Axe Murders House Photos
Josiah and Sarah Moore

Finally, Horton passes through the master bedroom and makes his way to the bedroom where the Moore children slept, only to be met with yet another gruesome discovery, all four of the Moore children; Herman Moore (11), Katherine Moore (10), Boyd Moore (7), and Paul Moore (5) dead, murdered the same way as the others and all covered with bed linens. Having seen enough of the sickening scene, Horton returned to the kitchen, noticing the children’s shoes and hats still casually lying on the kitchen table after the family had returned from Sunday church services the previous night. Upon exiting the house, he was quoted as saying “There is someone dead in every bed.”

Villisca Axe Murders House Photos
Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul Moore (left to right)

After further examination of the scene was conducted, it was determined that the murderer likely snuck into the home and hid inside the attic upstairs before the Moore family and their two young guests arrived back to the residence from church. This theory would explain how the murderer was able to get to the second level without rousing his victims and why he started with those sleeping upstairs and not in the guest bedroom on the first floor. There were also cigarette butts found in the attic that added further weight to this theory of events.

Moore Family Murders

Each member of the family, along with the Stillinger girls who were given permission to spend the night after church service had ended, was bludgeoned with the dull side of an axe. The only victims who were struck with the sharp side of the weapon were Mr. and Mrs. Moore, who are believed to have been struck roughly 20 to 30 times total, with the blunt end being used to kill the couple and then the sharp end being used post-mortem.

It is also believed that the murders were committed sometime around 5 am that morning, and all the victims, except for Lena Gertrude Stillinger, were fast asleep when the murders occurred. It’s suspected that Lena, due to her position on the bed and some defensive wounds on her arm, put up a fight before succumbing to her attacker.

Villisca Axe Murders House Crime Scene Photos

Though there are no actual crime scene photos of the victims themselves, there are a few photos that exist of the home shortly after the murders were committed. One such photo shows a re-enactment of the murder of Josiah B. Moore – with a man lying in the bed, where Josiah would have slept, and another man standing above him with axe raised in a striking position. In this photo, the damage that was inflicted on the ceiling from the axe is still visible, only adding to the image’s eerie appearance.

Additionally, there is another photo, also taken from Mr. and Mrs. Moore’s bedroom, that shows the mirror which the killer chose to cover during his night in the home. In the image, the skirt the killer pulled from the nearby closet is still clumsily draped across the mirror.

villisca axe murders house crime scene photos

Serial Killers in Iowa

Though the Villisca axe murders were one of the most gruesome crimes to occur in the state of Iowa at the time, it would certainly not be the last time the state would cross paths with a serial killer; in fact, one of the most notorious serial killers in the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy Jr., actually lived in Waterloo, IA. Gacy tortured, sexually assaulted, and murdered at least 33 young men and teenage boys between 1972-1978, with most of the victims being murdered at his Norwood Park ranch house in Cook County, Illinois. Gacy was sentenced to death in 1980 but would not actually be executed until 1994.

Another notorious killer, Robert Ben Rhoades, nicknamed “The Truck Stop Killer”, is believed to have raped, tortured, and killed over 50 women from 1975-1990. A resident of Council Bluffs, IA, Rhoades earned his morbid title from the fact that he was a truck driver that transformed his sleeper cab into a murder room/torture chamber for his victims. He was finally captured in 1990 after an officer by the name of Mike Miller discovered the semi parked on the side of I-10 with its hazard lights turned on. Upon investigating the interior of the truck, Miller discovered a woman handcuffed and naked in the sleeper cab screaming. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1994 for the murder of Candace Walsh.  

The Truck Stop Killer Robert Ben Rhoades
Robert Ben Rhoades

Reverend George Kelly

In 1917, a traveling preacher by the name of Reverend George Lyn Kelly was arrested and charged with murdering one of the victims, Lena Stillinger, in the Villisca axe murders case. The reason Lyn George was looked at as a prime suspect at the time was due to the fact that he was in attendance at the Children’s Day exercises at the local church, where the Moore family and Stillinger girls were only hours before their murder, and Kelly abruptly left Villisca, despite just arriving in town the previous day, on the morning the murders were committed – only 3 hours prior to the discovery of the bodies, to be exact. In the week the followed the murders, Kelly became increasingly obsessed with the case, even writing letters to the victim’s families, detectives, and to the state regarding the murders. Two weeks after the murders, Kelly even arranged to visit the scene of the crime with a fellow reverend. It seemed even a visit to the home, however, was not enough to satisfy his new morbid obsession, as Kelly would continue writing letters and would eventually attract the attention of those investigating the crime. One detective on the case, Detective Tom O’Leary, wrote Kelly asking him if he had any details about what exactly happened at the time of the murders, to which Kelly replied with claims that he had been out for a night walk in the area and heard the thud of the axe inside the home.

Villisca Axe Murders House Photos
George and Laura Kelly

Kelly was believed to be a peeping tom and was once convicted for sending letters of an obscene nature to young girls asking them to pose nude for him. Additionally, he also sent a bloodied shirt to laundry in Omaha anonymously. A couple who rode the train with Kelly on his way out of Villisca Iowa claim that he disclosed details about the murder prior to the crime even being discovered. Given his obsession with the case, his pension for young girls near Lena’s age, and the fact that the body of Lena Stillinger was found with her nightgown lifted and wearing no undergarments, it was theorized that George Kelly could easily be the perpetrator of the crime. While in custody, Kelly confessed twice to the Villisca house murders but recanted shortly before his trial. The first jury to examine the case and claims against Kelly was hung, while the second jury acquitted him. The acquittal was likely for several reasons; Kelly was mentally unstable and only signed a confession after spending hours undergoing thorough interrogation, the couple that claimed Kelly spoke in detail about the murders on the train later changed their story, and finally, several similar murders had occurred during that time that Kelly could not have been part of. 

To date, there has been no major breakthrough in the Villisca axe murders case and the identity of the killer remains a mystery.  

The Man From the Train

The man from the train is a true crime novel, published in 2017, from author Bill James and his daughter and co-author Rachel McCarthy James. The novel explores the theory that a serial killer by the name of Paul Mueller, who is believed to have killed anywhere from 40 to 100 people in his active years throughout North America, may have been the true face behind the Villisca axe murders. Through in-depth analysis of news archives from the early 1900s, James and his daughter discover numerous murders, most often entire families, between 1898-1912 that occurred throughout the US and were attributed to Mueller. Since Mueller was a lumberjack by trade, and would have likely been skilled with an axe, this only adds to the theory that Paul Mueller may have indeed been the perpetrator behind one of Villisca’s most vile crimes to date. 

Sources

https://docublogger.typepad.com/villiscamystery/2013/06/june-10-1912-villisca-iowa-part-two.html

https://www.villiscaiowa.com/the-crime.php

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fe1gY0k650

https://www.villiscaiowa.com/the-victims.php

https://www.villiscaiowa.com/tours-overnights.php

https://www.traveliowa.com/getinspireddetails/13-of-iowa-s-most-haunted/88/

https://docublogger.typepad.com/villiscamystery/2010/01/city-marshal-of-villisca-who-discovered-murder.html

Sarah Carneal
Written by

Sarah Carneal

Sarah has written and edited for numerous media outlets in a variety of different niches – though entertainment is her all-time favorite topic to cover. When she is not hard at work researching and writing about Hollywood’s top talents for Velvet Ropes, Sarah enjoys working on her fiction novels, developing her blog, and gaming. You can follow Sarah on Twitter at: Twitter.com/tuspock91