The Villisca Axe Murders

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

 


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 Moore

Josiah B. “Joe” Moore

Sometime past 12 midnight on 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

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

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

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 Ancestry.com – “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 Ancestry.com)

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-gravestoneCourtesy photo Hiesela, findagrave.com
Lena and Ina Stillinger were buried together at the Villisca Cemetery.

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 © 2014 Iowa Cold Cases, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Add a Comment

10 Responses to Villisca Axe Murders

  1. 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

    • Angie says:

      I believe that it’s Legion that stays in the attic. He had nothing to do with the murders. The demon was brought to the attic about 10 years ago.

  2. sara says:

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

  3. 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!

  4. DELIA SCHERR says:

    I THINK THAT THE CLUES THAT THE MURDERER LEFT,ARE IMPORTANT.tHE PIECE OF BACON,THE COVERED MIRROR,THE GIRL EXPOSED.mAKE ME THINK OF A SORT OF A RITUAL,OR,WHO KNOWS…A PIECE OF BACON,THERE IS A SPECIFIC MEANING TO ALL OF THESE.iT’S A TERRIFYING STORY,HAUNTING…

  5. 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 .

  6. 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.

  7. kyara says:

    Sad I wish it didn’t happen poor kids

  8. Diane says:

    dfgdfg

  9. 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 _ brennenhanson@gmail.com . our group is also called TCPRI , visit our website _ tcpri.webs.com. – Thank you.

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