The Villisca Axe Murders

Villisca murder house

The Villisca, Iowa home where two adults and six children were slain June 10, 1912.


Montgomery County
Montgomery County in Iowa
Villisca in Montgomery County Villisca in Montgomery County

Multiple Murders

Josiah B. “Joe” Moore, 43
Sarah (Montgomery) Moore, 39
Herman Moore, 11
Katherine Moore, 10
Boyd Moore, 7
Paul Moore, 5
Lena Stillinger, 12
Ina Stillinger, 8
508 E. 2nd St.
Villisca, IA
Montgomery County
June 10, 1912

Case summary compiled by Jody Ewing
Josiah "Joe" Moore

Josiah B. “Joe” Moore

Sometime around midnight between Sunday, June 9, and Monday, June 10, 1912, a person or persons entered a modest house in Villisca, Iowa, and bludgeoned to death eight people sleeping there, including two adults and six children aged 5 through 12. The killings became known as the “Villisca Axe Murders,” and are easily the most notorious murders in Iowa history.

Sarah Moore

Sarah Moore

The murders spawned nearly ten years of investigations, repeated grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit and murder trial, and numerous minor litigations and trials. The horrific crime made and broke political careers.

Legislation was written in response to the murder, including the establishment of the current State Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s predecessor.

The Night Before the Murders
Herman Moore

Herman Moore

On Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, Josiah (Joe) Moore and his wife Sarah took their four children, Herman, 11, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and 5-year-old Paul to the Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian Church. Accompanying them were Lena (12) and Ina Stillinger (8), neighbors who had asked their parents’ permission to stay overnight with the Moore children.

Katherine Moore

Katherine Moore

The Children’s Day service was an end-of-the-year Sunday school program. Sarah Moore was a co-director and her children performed their little speeches and recitations along with the other Sunday school members.

The service ended with a social mingling that lasted until at least 9:30 p.m. When parishioners left on that cloudy, damp and cool night, no one suspected that neither the Moores nor their overnight guests would be seen alive again.

Paul Moore

Paul Moore

They walked the three blocks to their home. Cookies and milk ended the festive evening, and all went to bed.

Sometime after midnight, the killer or killers picked up Joe’s axe from the back yard, entered the house, and bludgeoned to death all eight of its occupants.

Lena and Ina Stillinger

Lena and Ina Stillinger

By 7:30 a.m. on June 10th, Mary Peckham, an elderly neighbor to the west, became concerned that the Moore house seemed quiet and deserted. She called Joe’s brother Ross, a local druggist, who arrived at about 8:00 a.m. to look around. His cautious inspection of the downstairs revealed two figures covered with a sheet in the back bedroom, and he also saw blood on the bedstead.

Boyd Moore

Boyd Moore

Ross stepped back and away from the crime scene and called Joe’s hardware store, telling employee Ed Selley to fetch Marshall Henry “Hank” Horton, because something “terrible had happened.”

Hank arrived about 8:30 a.m., went through the house, and found — as he told Ross when he came out — “somebody murdered in every bed.” The partially cleaned murder weapon was left leaning against the south wall of the downstairs bedroom where the visiting Stillinger girls were found.

“Bizarre” Murder Scene

The killer had added two bizarre touches to the murder scene. The first was a four-pound piece of slab bacon leaning against the wall next to the axe. The murderer also had searched dresser drawers for pieces of clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and the glass in the entry doors. On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water.

The funeral procession for the Moore family and Stillinger sisters. (Courtesy photo - "The Funeral in the Park")

The funeral procession for the Moore family and Stillinger sisters. (Courtesy photo – “The Funeral in the Park”)

All the victims were found in their beds, their heads covered with bedclothes, and all had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an axe.

The ceiling in the parents’ bedroom and the children’s room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the axe.

Though Lena Stillinger’s nightgown had been pushed up and she’d been left exposed, doctors concluded she had not been sexually abused. Lena also had a bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm.

The Moore-Stillinger funeral services were held in Villisca’s town square on June 12, 1912, with thousands in attendance. National Guardsmen blocked the street as a hearse moved toward the firehouse, where the eight victims lay. Their caskets, not on display during the funeral, were later carried on several wagons to the Villisca Cemetery for burial.

The funeral cortege was 50 carriages long.

Rev. George Kelly

The Reverend

At 5:19 a.m. the morning following the murders, the Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly left Villisca on board the westbound number 5 train and allegedly told fellow travelers there were eight dead souls back in Villisca, Iowa — butchered in their beds while they slept, he said — even though the bodies had not yet been discovered.

Kelly had arrived in Villisca for the first time the Sunday morning of the murders and attended a Sunday school performance by the Stillinger girls before departing early Monday. He returned two weeks later, and, posing as a detective, joined a tour of the murder house with a group of investigators.

Authorities first became interested in Rev. Kelly a few weeks after the murders after being alerted by recipients of his rambling letters.

The Moore family was buried at the Villisca Cemetery. (Courtesy

Kelly — the son and grandson of English ministers — had suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. Since immigrating to America with his wife in 1904, Kelly had preached at Methodist churches across North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa. He’d been assigned as a visiting minister to several small communities north of Villisca, where he developed a reputation for odd behavior. He’d also been convicted of sending obscene material through the mail and had spent time in a mental hospital.

A Grand Jury indicted Kelly for Lena Stillinger’s murder, and he was interrogated throughout the summer of 1917 while in jail awaiting trial.


Lena and Ina Stillinger are buried together at the Villisca Cemetery. (Courtesy photo Hiesela,

On August 31 at 7 a.m., Kelly signed a confession to the murder, saying God had whispered to him to “suffer the children to come unto me.”

Kelly recanted his confession at trial, and his case went to the jury on September 26. The jury deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal. A second jury was immediately empanelled, but acquitted Rev. Kelly in November.

No one else has ever been tried for the murders, and the crime remains one of the most horrific, unsolved mass murders in American history.

Villisca: Living with a Mystery

On June 10, 2004, Fourth Wall Films released a documentary feature film, “Villisca: Living with a Mystery,” which first premiered in Des Moines. Filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle combined period photographs, computer animation, original art, limited re-enactments, and interviews with historians, eyewitnesses, town residents, and forensic experts to shed light on the then-92-year-old mystery and to reveal the face of a new suspect.

The documentary, now available on DVD, features Dr. Edgar Epperly, the historian considered the foremost authority on the Villisca murders.

Ten years in the making, the documentary explores the possibility that the Villisca crime and similar murders in Monmouth, Illinois, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Ellsworth, Kansas, may have been the work of one of America’s first serial killers.

CourtTV reporter Catherine Crier interviewed Kelly Rundle and Dr. Epperly for a program that aired November 21, 2006. The interview is shown below.

“Villisca” director Kelly Rundle and historian Dr. Edgar Epperly are interviewed by Catherine Crier
November 21, 2006 | CourtTV

The 100-Year Anniversary

On June 10, 2012, a number of Iowa newspapers covered the 100-year anniversary of Iowa’s most highly profiled crime. KCRG-TV9’s piece featured an additional video with a tour inside the notorious home. Both videos may be found below.

100 Years After Iowa Ax Murders, Case Remains Unsolved — KCRG TV-9, Airdate June 10, 2012


Villisca Murder House Tour: 100 Years After Iowa Ax Murders, Case Remains Unsolved — KCRG TV-9, Airdate June 10, 2012

New documentary coincides with 101st anniversary

A new documentary about the slayings made its debut Monday, June 10, 2013, on Facebook. Rockford, Ill., filmmaker Stuart Wahlin premiered The Ax Man Enigma: The real-life inspiration behind “Slay Utterly” to coincide with the Villisca murders’ 101st anniversary.

“Villisca is the most well-known in this series of crimes, largely attributable to the popularity of paranormal TV shows that have featured the house where the murders occurred,” Wahlin said in a Rock River (IL) Times article published June 7, 2013. “But what few people realize is that the Villisca crime scene was not unique.”

During a two-year period (1911-1912), a rash of eerily similar ax murders swept across the Midwest. Leaving unique crime scene signatures in his wake, it is believed the “Ax Man” may have been responsible for at least two-dozen murders, said Wahlin. No one was ever brought to justice.

“The documentary is really aimed at educating people about the case, while also generating interest in our upcoming feature film,” Wahlin added, noting The Ax Man Enigma’s release also coincided with a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign for Slay Utterly, a modern crime thriller inspired by the case. That film is slated for a 2014 release.

Wahlin, a former Rockford journalist, was awarded Best Director at the Prairie State Film Festival in Chicago last year for his film, Hand of Glory.

Sources and References:
Copyright © 2016 Iowa Cold Cases, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


140 Responses to Villisca Axe Murders

  1. […] house in small-town Iowa is the site of one of the most brutal and notorious murders in American history. One June morning in 1912, all six members of the Moore family — including […]

  2. Edward leroy says:

    Who ever did it, died many years ago. I’m just saying

  3. Mandi Marie says:

    Malinda Maria Sharp 104 years and 1 day

  4. Iowa Public Television has been showing the documentary about it, which is also available on Netflix. Very good movie, and also names the most likely culprit.

  5. I did a Halloween tour – VERY interesting!!

  6. Spent the night at that house. Pretty crazy.

  7. Joyce says:

    Sorry to find no one reads these comments anymore. As in 1912, and thru the hundred years since, thousands of people have learned of this tragic event, but must have moved on, as each piece of evidence and theories were dis-proven. The right evidence has been overlooked or otherwise discarded, in the interest of public decency. The key to this case is child sexual abuse within the Stillinger family, and the eldest sister orchestrated the murders, after the Lizzy Borden event, 20 years earlier…using the slab of bacon as the purpose for going to the Moore’s home, late that night. She created the opportunity whereby Mr and Mrs Moore were murdered first, by masquerading as Lena in the closet to use the ‘pot’. Determined to protect her family name, there was only one way to keep secret (the ‘unmentionable behavior) of sibling incest’. But if Josiah hinted or even explained the reason he would keep Lena and Ina overnight, Edith was the one person of interest, and the only person to hear what was discussed in the call. Despite laws, the silent crime continues in families today (as prison inmate statistics support), it is the one secret that explains clearly, why they all had to die…including Lena and Ina) who had told their ‘secret’ to Sarah and Josiah on the walk home, that night.

    • Joyce says:

      i apologize for possibility the name used in my previous comment…it may be incorrect

      • Angela says:

        Joyce, I’m curious here. This is the first time I’ve read about this scenario anywhere and I’ve done a lot of reading up on this case. Where is this information coming from?

  8. Joyce says:

    The reason for the murders was “unmentionable’ in those days…which allowed the truth of the matter to go ‘un-exposed’. All investigations have tried to connect the event to the Moore family, when all they did was protect the 2 little neighbor girls from walking home with their abusive brothers…

  9. Jim Farrell says:

    I’ve always had a theory that Josiah and/or Sarah called out the name of the murderer during the attack which prompted him(her?) to murder everyone else in the house for fear of being found out. This of course would mean they knew the murderer.

    • Tom says:

      The flaw in your theory is that the person or persons unknown found the children asleep. There was no need to worry about anyone having heard anything. The murderer(s) would have got out of Dodge (quietly) as soon as it was ascertained that the children were still asleep.

      It actually increased the risk of someone being awakened when the killer(s) bludgeoned the children. No, the culprit(s) wanted everybody dead.

  10. Amyana says:

    I just read a book about this recently, called Morning Ran Red! The author, Stephen Bowman had some interesting ideas.*Version*=1&*entries*=0

  11. agnes says:

    Was a very interesting experience! Totally spiritual…Believe it or not.

  12. Kim says:

    Found a link about Henry Lee Moore being a strong suspect in this case:

  13. Richard Brockus says:

    I cannot figure out how they were all murdered without awaking some of them. I visited the inside of the house and the parents bedroom really wasn’t that far away. Could they have been poisoned before being axed? And if Mansion or someone was hired to do it, why would they kill the whole family and two neighbor children? They could have found Mr. Moore alone and knocked him off. ???

    • Joyce says:

      Josiah was not the intended victim! But the murderers could not be sure who else had heard what was said in the conversation from the Moore’s home to the Stillinger’s home. The Stillinger girls knew the people they let into the house that night…they all recognized their assailants, and would have exposed the ‘unmentionable’ secret, (child abuse)

      • Joyce A (Moore) K. says:

        Much of the evps, pics and testimonials validate this POV

        • Richard Brockus says:

          Joyce, what you said does make sense.But still, how do all these people get murdered without awakening someone. I read the book (Murdered in Their Sleep). I still think about the whole thing a lot and cannot help to believe from everything I read that the crazy perverted preacher wasn’t involved.

  14. I have visited this house. It don’t believe it is the traveling preacher. I believe it was someone else in the town that had a vendetta. From what I understand, it’s possible that Josiah had an affair and had another child.

  15. Pam Ingham says:

    They do tours and I believe overnights. Ghost Adventures did an episode there too.

  16. Andrea Marie says:

    Loved doing a investigacion on this place!! Got tons on evidence back!! Going to go again this year!!

  17. Heather Cramblit Whitmore

  18. Matt Nesbitt says:

    I think it was Jeremy Draman!

  19. People still call it the Villisca Axe Murder House

  20. Anna Bierman De Leon

  21. Kris Starks says:

    I have read about this case (very interesting) and have a couple of DVD’s about it.

  22. Makayla says:

    If you’re so sure the reverend did it because “There was no possible way he could’ve known all that information without being there”, you’ve obviously never lived in a small town where everyone knows everybody. The reverend may have been perverted and mentally ill, but that surely doesn’t automatically make him a killer. In all honesty, we have the technology to find out who truly committed the murders, but we never will because they’re too busy making money off of the house, the case, and the story. The way they look at it: if they leave the case unsolved, it keeps people interested and gives them more time to make more money. Just saying. Mason is right: Unclean, Unseen, Modesty. The killer was more than likely brought up in an unsanitary/unclean environment, and was surrounded by abuse (it doesn’t necessarily mean he/she was the one abused. It could just mean they were forced to witness it). The covered mirrors, being unseen…This could mean that maybe he/she had a deformity or was shamed and forced to stay hidden from the public.

    • Judie Delano says:

      He probably just forgot to take the bacon with him when he left, as to the covers over the mirror that was a common practice when there was a death, as well as stopping the clocks. They would not be restarted until after the funeral. Henry Moore, not related to the family was a transient who rode the trains. He was thought to have committed similar murders by creeping in while the owners were sleeping and killing them in their beds.

    • gracie says:

      According the time frame, Kelly left and told people on the train, before anyone went to go check out the family. So how would he have known about it before anyone else in town knew?

    • Joyce A (Moore) K. says:

      I agree, Makayla….covering the mirrors was customary, to keep the soul of the departed safe…but in this case, the windows were likely covered at the time the windows were closed and blinds were pulled. It is likely, too, Lena was made to look at all the people who were killed because she told Sarah the secret behavior that they feared, if they walked home with their brothers that night.

  23. Mason says:

    The Bacon represents Unclean! The ccovered mirror means Unseen! Which means the whole exsposed girl means modesty

  24. delicia says:

    was he mentally impaired

  25. delicia says:

    why did he kill the family

  26. chekan says:

    Are you fucking kidding me? He admits to doing this, leaves that same morning and tells people what happened BEFORE anyone knew it had happened, and he STILL gets acquitted TWICE?? Get the fuck outta here. He either did it, or the police did, and tried to pin it on him for propaganda. It WAS election time, smh.i hope whomever did this,dies. Im suspicious about this coroner who denied sexual assault to Lena, even though she was exposed. FBI/cops do so much dirt, i believe they have alot of blood on their hands

    • Judie Delano says:

      There was no FBI involved. There was a man named Henry Moore who is also considered a likely suspect. He is accused of at least two other murders with the same MO. There is a paper written by relative of his.She believes he was the killer. Check it out.

  27. One thing that I found interesting is the senator at the time had taken the ax and left it at a masonic temple and a fake one was in use at the trial

  28. Brennen says:

    so i went and investigated the villisca iowa house november 12th 2014 , and im just curious about what all did people catch threw the spirit box or on a digital recorder ,im not going to say what my group caught until i hear other peoples feed back just because maybe someone will hear a name or something we caught and say they caught the same thing and maybe it was completely different, i dont know im really curious so , if your willing to inform me or conversate about your experience or information , anything please give me an email _ . our group is also called TCPRI , visit our website _ – Thank you.

  29. Terry Woods says:

    that was fucking wrong to judge the lady Owen that house she didn’t
    make money off if it the thing is u need to be burn to the ground

  30. What is your problem? Who are you to judge? And that's nasty of you to say you hope she burns in hell. SHAME on you, jerk

  31. its is obvious that a member of the church, that was present that night, committed the murder. the Rev's activities and actions were very suspicious but i think a tall man in their mid to late 30s that was present at the church that night, not necessarily having close relationship with the family, was at fault. the attack didnt seem to have been committed by someone that knew the family well… likely a new member of the church that recently joined within the last month or two…

  32. The two littlee girls that were not related that were neighbors We're my bffs family

  33. Me to I want to stay in it with my mom and friends.

  34. My husband and I stayed the night there overnight and got a ton of evidence that it haunted. Such a sad story

  35. Maggie Hiatt says:

    I love this case and the Villisca Axe Murder House so so much.

  36. Nick ; I really can’t see the house good, but to me, it looks like your house

  37. I’m sorry but this is making me I’ll.

  38. That house is beautiful but eerie. And the land surrounding it is amazing.

  39. This is really sad! It is a horrific murder, & dad it was never solved!

  40. Ashley Lewis says:

    Heather Mesmer Amber L Harrington

  41. It was a one of a kind experience staying here…wish we could have gone up tonight. Such a terrible tragedy

  42. Carrie Cusher i want to go so bad

  43. Andrea Marie says:

    Loved doing an investigation there!! So awesome!!

    • patsy hellums says:

      Why did it happen? What did the Moore family do to be murder? Was the girls sexually absurd? And who ever did that, killed everyone to keep them quite patty hellums

    • patsy hellums says:

      Did that ever find out the murder of the boy in the box?. 1959. Who had killed him only the one or persons involved did that.

  44. Autumn Rosie says:

    this case has always intrigued several books on the matter…. this along with all of the other midwestern ax murders

  45. Bob Cooper says:

    Jennifer Edge Taylor Edge Tori Nicole Cooper

  46. Amanda Welter we need to plan a trip to go :)!

  47. Jen Poulter says:

    Jessica Hendrikson today would have been awesome to go!

  48. Alex Ahart says:

    Uh no Haley Moritz.. I have enough nightmares!

  49. Haley Moritz says:

    Alex Ahart we should have went today ;)

  50. Jerri Noell says:

    they were relatives

    • Joyce says:

      relatives of the Stillinger girls coaxed them to open the screen door to the front porch…they knew the killers and the reason all died that night. Lena was the last one alive and her dress held the evidence. I DO hope someone kept it.

  51. Jerri Noell says:

    David Wildeboer i was told that they did know and the wife left a symbol that she knew there was an intruder–her wedding ring, under her pillow

  52. Jerri Noell says:

    was my grandmothers family

  53. I am a sensitive at least that's what they call me. My friends called me one night and said they were going to spend Halloween in this house and wanted me to come, since I can feel, see, and communicate with the dead. As soon as I stepped out of the car I was consumed by death. The house gave me images I wish I could wash away. The killers face was never clear. Yet I felt like I was struck with every blow of the axe that night. I stayed until morning but will not go back into that house again. It was the most unnerving thing I have ever felt and I have felt a lot of things.

  54. Diane says:


  55. Becky Harmon says:

    I would not stay there, The woman that bought the house is not because of the historical value but to make a meant off the tragic deaths of this family and no justice was done for this family. That woman claimed she has not felt a thing in the house that own's it, She should be made to stay in the house for a whole weekend. She is getting rich off this poor family's murder. Shame on her. I hope she burns in hell for this.

  56. kyara says:

    Sad I wish it didn’t happen poor kids

  57. Adam says:

    I’m watching the episode of Ghost Adventures that covers this incident. It prompted me to look it up and I came across this site. I believe it may lead to some answers from that sad and fateful night.

  58. For real? That's crazy. Idk if I would be emotionally stable or mentally stable to have dreams like that.

  59. Terry Woods says:

    Misty Darst i would love to spend the night at that house

    • blondmyk says:

      I’ve done that. It’s rather creepy since there is no electricity in the house. If you do an overnight there you’ll have to use the old kerosene lights. We paid I think either $35 or $50 for a night there with my old paranormal group.

  60. Its only a half hour from me. I've taken a tour in it.

  61. Terry Woods says:

    i would love to go in that house i heard stories about it

  62. I also thought , they thought there was a butcher involved and possibly his competition. When i went there , we were told he ran a store and had an argument with the person who was his friend also running a store. Also being the mayor or something of the town he hired someones to kill and they killed everyone. Thats missing in the various stories and documentaries that are out there .

    • justin little says:

      He was the senator at a time and he was a mason and he took the murder weapon to a masonic temple at the time of the trial and another one was used while the trial was going on.

  63. I visited the house and listened to the stories by the person giving the tour I really think the reverend did it how would he know this type of info if no one new about it that time no one knew the neighbour called the brother so it was told. but it broke my heart to hear that innocent lives were taken…. I heard he was a real pervert and they way he treat his female employees

  64. I lived in Boone, Iowa my entire life and only heard about this murder after I moved away to England! Had no idea this had taken place.

  65. DELIA SCHERR says:


    • Mini Jackson says:

      I agree with you Delia. Although i have just discovered this there is no such thing as a perfect murder. I also believe that the had interviewed the murderer at least once.

  66. lisa says:

    i can’t imagine someone would even think about killing a person, let alone, two adults and children… and for that matter! someone they trusted!

  67. i can understand your feelings angela, i could not imagaine how that night went in that house, i feel they know who did it, i would really like to visit that house and i plan on it soon.

  68. rev. kelly looks like a pedophile and crazed killer!

  69. Frank Pint says:

    Nope, they went before I started going, but hope to go yet this year, cause I had to work on the last big trip 2 months ago

  70. thought you went to this one already? with the tripp'ses's lol

  71. Frank Pint says:

    Gotta check this out real soon

  72. I've been to the house and it really consumes you. I've had numerous dreams that I'm in the house alone, sitting in the childrens room in the rocking chair. Reverend Kelly is just standing in the doorway stairing at me with this sinister grin and tells me he did the murders and got away with it. Creepy!

  73. sara says:

    what that person said in that comment its true you can spell legion…

  74. Beka Shakur says:

    When the people say Legion did the killing, look at the reverends name, LyGeIn, that’s Lyn George Jacklin, all in 1 word

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