Today, it’s called the Villisca ax murder house, but in the early 1910s, it was known simply as the home of the Moore family. Villisca is a sleepy town in southwestern Iowa that became the scene of a gruesome crime the night of June 9, 1912.
That night, an unknown assailant snuck into the home of Josiah and Sarah Moore and murdered them with an ax, along with their four children and two girls who were sleeping over. All were killed in their sleep except one.
House guest Lena Stillinger fought back. She was found across the bed with a defensive wound on her body. Her undergarments were removed and her nightgown pushed up, leading the police to speculate she had been molested.
The victims had been stuck in the head with an ax that belonged to the family. Josiah was attacked more brutally than the rest, and his body was found without eyes.
The next morning, the family’s neighbor became concerned. She tried to check on the family, but the door was locked so she called Josiah’s brother who had a key. He discovered the bodies.
“There were no cries from the sleeping rooms of the family that were heard by the neighbors,” the Des Moines Tribune said June 10. “… the slaying of the entire family promises to become a mystery which will take much time to unravel.”
When the police arrived, they found some curious details.
- All the windows in the house had been covered.
- The victims’ heads also had been covered.
- In two of the bedrooms, a lamp was left at the foot of the bed.
- The murderer had tried to wipe clean the ax and to wash himself.
- A slab of bacon was found in one of the bedrooms that matched a slab in the icebox.
- One of Sarah’s shoes was found completely covered in blood.
- Days before the murder a stranger asked the Moore’s niece for directions to the Moore house. Sarah complained the man had been seen loitering about their property.
Bloodhounds were used to track the killer, and detectives from nearby cities arrived to investigate. The case was placed under the management of the Red Oak, Iowa, sheriff.
Dozens of people came to gawk at the bodies, tainting the crime scene before the house could be cordoned off.
The Villisca ax murder has never been solved, although there have been numerous suspects:
- Frank Jones: Jones was angry Moore had taken business away from him.
- George Kelly: A traveling minister, Kelly attended the same church service the Moores did the night of their death and left town before 6 a.m. the next morning. He had a fascination with the case. Five years later, he was arrested and confessed but later recanted. One trial ended in a hung jury; another ended in acquittal.
- William Mansfield: Mansfield killed his family with an ax in 1914 and is believed to have killed another family with an ax in 1912. There were several other unsolved ax killings in the 1911-1912 time frame. Details of many of the cases were similar. Mansfield was arrested but a grand jury did not indict him.
- Henry Moore: Another suspected serial killer whose weapon of choice was an ax.
- Sam Moyer: Josiah’s brother-in-law who had threatened to kill him.
- Andrew Sawyer: A transient and railroad worker, he was turned in to the police by his boss who thought he was behaving suspiciously. Sawyer had a fixation with the case and spoke about it often. He slept with an ax and apparently had knowledge of the Moore’s property. However, he had an alibi: he was arrested in another town.
- Joe Ricks: He was arrested because he came to town with blood on his shoes. The Moore’s niece said he was not the man who asked for directions.
- Negro tramps: The Tribune reported four African-American men who had been sleeping at the railroad yards were suspicious. They had been in town only a few days and left on the morning of the murder. Since no African-Americans lived in Villisca, their presence caused much speculation, the Tribune said.
“From the condition of the heads of the eight people,” the Tribune said, “it seems as though the murders were the deed of a mad man, who took maniacal delight in chopping open and crushing the heads of his victims. The fact that nothing else was disturbed in the house throws a dark cloud over the robbery and murder theory which was entertained early this morning.
“That the slayer was a maniac or an enemy of the Moores, who was seeking revenge, are the most probably theories entertained.”
Paranormal Hot Spot
The Villisca ax-murder house has been restored to look like it did when the Moores were alive and now is a museum. It offers tours and overnight stays.
The house reportedly is haunted, and many people who lived in the house prior to it becoming a museum fled in terror.
Paranormal investigators have visited the home. EVP recordings taken in the home supposedly named Andrew Sawyer as the killer.
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Updated: 16 October 2020
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