The Villisca Ax Murders

By Grace Taylor

(ShaniMiller/Getty Images)

One of the coldest cases in Iowa may also be its most haunting. An astounding eight people lost their lives in a single night in Villisca thanks to a crazed madman with an ax. The victims, six of whom were children, were all found in their beds and likely asleep at the time of the attack. How is that possible? How could a person sneak through a house unnoticed while committing so much gruesome violence?

The Victims

The victims comprised the Moore family (including Josiah, a successful and well-liked businessman; his wife, Sarah; and their four children, aged five through eleven) and two other girls, the eight- and twelve-year-old Stillinger sisters, who picked a very unfortunate night to have a sleepover. Though the Moores were known as churchgoers and pillars of the community, Josiah had run into his fair share of conflicts during his years running his business, and Sarah's extended family featured a few rough characters.

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, June 14, 1912, depicting five of the victims and the house. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library/Wikimedia Commons)

The Villisca Ax Murders

On the night of June 9, 1912, a mysterious figure crept through the Moore house, first striking upstairs in Josiah and Sarah's room before continuing on to the children's. Interestingly, Josiah was the only one killed with the sharp end of the ax; every other victim was bludgeoned with the blunt side, suggesting that perhaps the attack was personal against him. The Stillinger sisters, who slept downstairs, may have been the only ones to wake during the attack, as they were the only ones not found tucked in their beds. Twelve-year-old Lena Stillinger, who was found in a state of undress and bearing defensive wounds, is believed to have fought off an attempted sexual assault before she died. The victims were discovered the next morning by Josiah's brother, who had been called by neighbors concerned that they hadn't seen the Moores perform their typical morning chores outside.

The police couldn't determine how the murderer entered the house, although it was not uncommon at the time for families in rural areas to leave their doors unlocked. However, the fact that the murderer struck Josiah's upstairs bedroom first led them to believe that the killer had some knowledge of the home's layout. More disturbing were the two fresh cigarette butts found by a chair in the attic, possibly meaning that the killer had patiently waited for hours until the family went to sleep before sneaking down to the second floor. Additionally, all the mirrors in the house had been covered, and a four-lb. slab of bacon was left on the floor in the room where the Stillinger girls slept. The unremorseful killer even took the time to have a nice meal at the kitchen table before taking the keys and locking the house as he left. 

Moore family house, also known as Villisca ax murder house, renovated in 1990s. (Ryan Moomey/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Committed The Villisca Ax Murders?

Though the police had little to go on, they did compile a list of suspects ranging from a nearby transient to the local reverend, George Kelly. The latter had met the family earlier that day at the church's Children's Day event and was known on several occasions to have sexually harassed women and children. He actually confessed to the crimes and was put on trial twice, but due to his severe emotional instability and time spent in psychiatric facilities, juries found him unconvincing and acquitted him both times.

Another compelling suspect was William Mansfield, wanted for a string of ax murders spanning from Kansas to Louisiana but never convicted and ruled out by Villisca police after they confirmed his alibi. Likewise, ax murderer Henry Lee Moore was thought to be a likely culprit after it was discovered that he killed his grandmother and mother just a few months earlier in an eerily similar manner. The police also looked into several men who may have held grudges over failed business opportunities with Josiah, but in the end, there was never enough evidence to pin the murders on anyone. Today, the Villisca ax murder house is open to the public as a macabre tourist attraction, complete with haunted house tours and overnight bookings.

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Grace Taylor

Author