Josiah B. Moore (1868-1912)
Sara Montgomery Moore (1873-1912)
Herman Montgomery Moore (1900-1912)
Mary Katherine Moore (1902-1912)
Arthur Boyd Moore (1905-1912)
Paul Vernon Moore (1907-1912)
Lena Gertrude Stillinger (1900-1912)
Ina Mae Stillinger (1903-1912)
By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2010
There has never been a more famous or infamous crime in the history of Iowa. Brutal, sadistic, methodical, and horrifying, the Villisca Axe Murders have fascinated the state for a century.
The gruesome murders have been so thoroughly researched and written about over the years that it’s challenging, in fact, to find new information.
Newspaper accounts document its every aspect. Books have been written; fictional and documentary films made. History can be “lived” at the scene.
But, no discussion of unsolved Iowa murders is complete without at least some mention of the mass tragedy and its innocent victims.
The basic facts are stark and sickening.
During the early morning of Monday, June 10, 1912, Sara Montgomery Moore, 39, and her 43-year-old husband Josiah “Joe” B. Moore as well as their four children — Herman Montgomery, 11, Mary Katherine, 10, Arthur Boyd, 7, and Paul Vernon, 5 — and the children’s friends Lena and Ina Stillinger, ages 11 and 8, were slaughtered with an axe as they slept in the Moore home in the small Montgomery County town of Villisca in southwestern Iowa.
☛ Grisly, Mysterious Crime Scene ☚
After the bodies were found, there was no protection of the crime scene and evidence. Quite the contrary. Villisca townspeople tramped through the house for over 24 hours between the discovery of the murders and the removal of the eight victims.
Those who filed through the house came out reporting eerie details of what they’d seen:
- ☛ The victims’ faces were covered by bedclothes and clothing.
- ☛ Kerosene lamps were placed at the foot of two beds with the chimneys discarded and the wicks turned back.
- ☛ Mirrors and other reflective surfaces were draped with clothing.
- ☛ A plate of partially-eaten food sat on the kitchen table next to a bowl of bloody water.
- ☛ The axe used to kill the victims was propped against the sewing room wall.
- ☛ A two-pound slab of bacon was placed beside the axe.
☛ Spectacular Funeral ☚
The eight caskets were kept at the local firehouse during the victims’ June 12 funeral in the Villisca town square. Afterwards, as horse-drawn hearses and wagons carried the bodies to the Villisca Cemetery, Iowa National Guard troops kept order among the crowd of between five and seven thousand mourners who watched the 50-rig and -carriage procession pass.
The event was remembered as “The Funeral in the Park.”
☛ Mass Burial of Six, Two Together ☚
After the large funeral and long procession, the six Moores were buried in a mass plot marked by a large family monument with smaller stones for each individual.
The Stillinger girls were buried side by side in the same cemetery and share a stone.
☛ Aftermath ☚
The murders panicked the little town of Villisca, which was torn apart by worry and rumors.
Bloodhounds roamed the streets and surrounding areas, tracking whatever scent was left on the axe after the murderer wiped it off. Posses were formed.
Lurid accusations were made — some against prominent citizens — alleging overheard plotting.
Suspicion fell on everyone, including a state senator who allegedly hired the murders because Joe Moore was having an illicit affair with his daughter-in-law.
Some townsfolk claimed a moccasin print was found near the front porch, indicating the murderer was Native American.
One rumor had it that detectives obtained a photograph of the murderer from the retina of Lena Stillinger’s eye because she was the only one who woke up and saw him.
Authorities searched for a mentally ill minister named Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, who was fixated on the phrase “slay utterly” from Ezekiel 9:6. When Kelly confessed to the murders five years later, he seemed more delusional and obsessed than guilty.
After grand jury hearings, confessions, trials, and acquittals, there were no answers. Scholars still debate the trial testimonies and pore over lists of potential suspects.
☛ “Most Terrifying Place in America”? ☚
The Moore house, built in 1868, saw numerous residents after the murders. In 1994, it was purchased by Darwin and Martha Linn and returned to its original condition without plumbing and electricity. At present, period furniture is arranged inside according to photographs of the scene.
Regular tours are offered of the nearby Olson Linn Museum, as well as the former Moore home.
For a fee, the house can be reserved for all-night visits. The Linns encourage those who spend the night to take photographs and record their experiences on audio and video tapes. The official website for the murder posts pictures from visitors and nearly two dozen videos can be viewed on Youtube.com
Seeds from a Love Lies Bleeding plant that once grew by the Moore house and is now thriving near the barn can be purchased from the official website for the house.
Click here to go to the endlessly fascinating official website for the Villisca Ax Murder house.
☛ “Heritage” Celebrated ☚
In 1987, the town of Villisca made the axe murders the centerpiece of its annual “Heritage Days” celebration, partly in response to a perceived negative portrayal of their village by author Stephen Bowman in his fictionalized account of the murders, Morning Ran Red.
The centerpiece of the celebration was the display of the axe used to kill 8 people.
The murderer came upon the axe in the Moore backyard and brought it with him into the house. Although it now resides at the Villisca Historical Society, for years it was passed from one person to another and was once even traded for a box of chocolate-covered cherries.
☛ Endlessly Fascinating ☚The Villisca murders have spawned articles and books, two documentaries, a feature-length film, and a segment on Court TV’s “Catherine Crier Live.”
The house was also examined by the hosts of the TV program “Paranormal State,” and the Travel Channel named it the “Most Terrifying Place in America.”
Dr. Edgar Epperly, retired Luther College professor, is the foremost researcher on the case. His meticulous work, begun in 1955, is compiled in several co-authored books. The murder weapon was in his possession for a time before he donated it to the Villisca Historical Society.Epperly was the primary consultant for the 2007 documentary Villisca: Living With a Mystery, produced by Fourth Wall Films. The same production company will soon release Exploring Villisca’s Axe Murder House & Reverend Kelly’s Confession featuring Dr. Epperly.
In 2009, a feature-length film, Haunting Villisca — filmed at the Moore home and featuring known screen and television actors — was released by AriesWorks Entertainment along with a companion documentary titled A Ghost of a Chance: The Making of Haunting Villisca.
Villisca: The True Account of the Unsolved 1912 Mass Murder That Stunned the Nation by Roy Marshall was published in 2003.
In March of 2010, On the Road to Villisca: The Hunt for the Midwest Axemen by Hank Brewster was released.
Interest in the famous murders shows no sign of waning. If the ghosts of the victims still inhabit the murder house, it’s unlikely they’re finding much peace.
For further information not available in newspaper accounts, see these sources:
- ☛ “Axe Murder House overnight stabbing,” KMALand, November 7, 2014.
- ☛ The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog.
- ☛ A Ghost of a Chance: The Making of Haunting Villisca, AriesWorks Entertainment.
- ☛ Haunting Villisca, AriesWorks Entertainment, 2007.
- ☛ “Interview with Dr. Edgar Epperly,” CLEWS Your Home for Historic True Crime.
- ☛ Morning Ran Red, Stephen Bowman, 2010.
- ☛ On the Road to Villisca: The Hunt for the Midwest Axemen, Hank Brewster, 2010.
- ☛ Photos: Villisca Axe Murders Official Site and Haunting Villisca.
- ☛ Villisca Axe Murder House (official website for the murders).
- ☛ Villisca: Living With a Mystery, Fourth Wall Films, 2004.
- ☛ Villisca: The True Account of the Unsolved 1912 Mass Murder That Stunned the Nation by Roy Marshall, 2003.