Slaughtered in their Sleep: The Villisca Axe Murders

Dec 9, 2022 | Crime, Unexplained Mysteries

December 9, 2022
14 min read

As Mary Peckham arose and began her chores early on the morning of June 10th, she noticed her neighbors house was unusually dark and quiet. The Moore’s were early risers as well and were typically out starting their day as well. Approaching the quiet house, she found no response to her knocks and a locked door. She would call Josiah Moore’s brother Ross to check on the family, and hoped that all was well.

A Quiet Community

At the turn of the century, Villisca Iowa was a small but growing town of 2,500. With several rail lines making stops in the town daily, it was a thriving town full of businesses.

In traditional mid-western charm, many neighbors knew each other and were close. Families often didn’t lock doors, as this was the type of town that big city crime just didn’t happen in.

Josiah B. and Sara Moore House. Jason McLaren, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sitting on a quiet residential street was the home of Josiah and Sarah Moore. Josiah was a prominent businessman, and he and his wife were involved in the local church. In this home they were raising their four children, Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7) and Paul (5).

The Night of the Murder

On Sunday June 9th 1912, Lena (12) and Ida (8) Stillinger, two friends of the Moore children, came over to play. The Children’s Day Service, an end of year Sunday school program, was planned at 8pm and the Stillinger girls were going to attend with the Moore family.

At about 6pm Josiah called the Stillinger household and spoke to Lena and Ida’s older sister Blanche. He explained that the girls were still playing with his children and that they would all attend church that night. Since it would end after dark. he asked if it would be alright for the girls to spend the night and return home in the morning. Blanche thought this would be fine and that she would let their parents know.

After the service, the Moore’s and the Stillinger girls returned home and got ready for bed. By about 10pm, all eight were tucked soundly in their beds. Josiah and Sarah in their bedroom upstairs, the four Moore children in another upstairs bedroom, and the Stillinger sisters sharing a bed in a downstairs bedroom.

Something is Wrong

At about 5am on June 10th, the Moore’s neighbor Mary Peckham went out to hang her laundry and start the daily chores. By 7am, she noticed the Moore house was dark and unusually quiet. It was odd for the family to not be tending to their chores or Josiah preparing for work.

Mary knocked on their door to no response. Trying the door handle, she found that it had been locked from the inside. Unable to get in, she let out the Moore’s chickens and checked on the livestock before calling Josiah’s brother Ross.

Ross soon arrived to check on the family. He knocked loudly and shouted but there was no answer from the family. He tried to peek through a window but found the curtains closed and he could not see anything. Using his own set of keys to the house, he entered as Mary waited on the porch.

Nothing in the parlor seemed out of place, everything was just as it should be. Exploring the first floor he walked into the bedroom and was confronted with a horrible sight. Two people were laying in the bed and their faces were covered with a cloth covered with blood.

Ross immediately ran out the front door to the porch and told Mary to call for the marshal because something “terrible happened”.

Investigating the Crime Scene

The marshal arrived at 8:30am and toured the house with Ross, taking inventory of the crime scene.

On the first floor, they began with the bedroom that the Stillinger girls had stayed in. Approaching the bodies in the bed, they lifted the cloths covering the faces and were met with a horrifying sight. Their heads had been completely bashed in, their faces too mutilated to identify.

Leaning against the wall was Josiah’s axe that he kept in the backyard. It had been partially cleaned but blood was still visible. Sitting next to it was a large slab of bacon.

Royalty-free stock photo ID: 531514507

They noticed the mirror in the bedroom was covered with a blanket and the curtains were closed on all windows. At the foot of the bed was a kerosene lamp with the chimney removed.

On the kitchen table they found a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water. Nothing else was amiss or out of place and all doors were locked.

Travelling upstairs, they found a similarly gruesome scene in the bedrooms. The bodies of the Moore family were found in their beds with bloody cloths over their faces. Doctors later determined that their faces were covered after death.

All of their skulls had been bludgeoned with an axe. It was later estimated that each victim received 20-30 strikes with the blunt end of the axe, with the exception of Josiah who had received the worst beating with the sharp side of the axe.

In two of the bedrooms were gouge marks on the ceiling, concluded to have been made by the upswing of the axe during the violent attack.

All mirrors and windows were covered. Clothes and linens had been flung across the room as the killer had searched the dressers and closets for items to use. At the foot of Josiah and Sarah’s bed was also a kerosene lamp with the chimney removed.

It seemed that all in the house were soundly asleep with the exception of Lena. Upon examination, she had defensive wounds on her arm, indicating that she may have been awake and tried to fight back. Her nightgown was pushed up, but doctors determined that she was not sexually assaulted.

Concluding their investigation of the house, they checked the attic and found cigarette butts. It is believed that the killer entered the house while the Moore’s and Stillinger girls were at church, and sat in the attic waiting for them to come home and go to bed. Once all were soundly asleep, the killer came out from the attic and began butchering them.

A Terrified Town

The marshal and Ross called for the sheriff and coroner for assistance. Word quickly spread and many in town swarmed the house to learn more. Before the crime scene could be locked down by the Villisca National Guard at noon, it’s said that up to 100 people toured the house and saw the bodies.

By the end of the day on June 10th, all information that could be gathered from the crime scene had been collected and the bodies were removed from the home. The fire station was used as a temporary morgue.

Additional resources were brought in from around the state to assist with the investigation. No footprints were found at the scene and as forensic evidence was still in its infancy, little could be done with the clues left at the crime scene. Bloodhounds were brought in and locals formed search groups to look for the killer. Anyone who was a stranger to the town was considered a suspect.

An article on Villisca axe murders in The Day Book, 14 June 1912. The day book, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The small town was gripped with terror. If an entire family could be murdered in their sleep it could happen to anyone. Citizens began locking doors and carrying weapons. In the nights following the murder, people gathered together for safety, fearing they could be next.

On June 12th, the funeral for the Moore’s and Stillinger girls commenced. It was a massive event with thousands attending. A 50 carriage long procession followed to lay them to rest.

Searching for Suspects

A months long inquest began and everyone was interviewed and testified what they knew. The neighbor Mary Peckham said she heard no noises from their house on the night of the murder.

One of Josiah’s brothers testified that the Moore family typically locked the doors of the house when they went to bed. He said there were times he had stopped by in the morning and had to wait for the door to be unlocked for him.

The doctor, coroner, marshal and sheriff testified to what they found at the crime scene and the conditions of the bodies.

Revered George Kelly was a travelling minister who came to Villisca on June 9th to attend the Children’s Day Service and left the following morning. Witnesses said that at 5:19 am on June 10th as he was boarding a train to leave, he told someone that eight people had been murdered in their beds as they slept. Interestingly, this was hours before the bodies were found.

During the investigation it was found that he had a history of odd behaviors and spent time in a mental hospital. He seemed obsessed with the murders and wrote long, rambling letters to the investigators about it and even visited the house a few weeks after the murders.

He was arrested and even signed a confession that he was guilty of the murders. However, at trial he recounted the confession and was ultimately acquitted due to lack of evidence. No one else was brought to trial.

Rumors circulated around potential suspects. One of Josiah’s employees mentioned Josiah saying he had a brother-in-law that didn’t like him and wanted to get even. One of Josiah’s former employers, Frank Jones, had been bitter about him leaving his employment and starting a competing business. Perhaps either of them were guilty of the heinous crime.

The Work of a Serial Killer?

Strangely, there had been a string of axe murders in the mid-west in the early 1900’s. People speculated this could be the work of a serial killer.

One suspect considered was William Mansfield, who would murder his own family with an axe two years later, and was suspected of several others. Reportedly, his murder was committed in a nearly identical fashion to the Villisca murders (an axe was used, the mirrors were covered, a kerosene lamp with the chimney removed left at the foot of the bed, and a bloody bowl of water in the kitchen). However, Mansfield had an airtight alibi for the night of the murders.

Newspaper excerpt containing a photo of Henry Moore, a serial killer suspected in Villisca axe murders. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Moore murdered his mother and grandmother with an axe in Missouri a few months after the Villisca murders and he was suspected in up to 22 other axe murders in the mid-west around the same time.

Charged with the murder of his mother and grandmother, he served 36 years of a life sentence before being paroled at 82 years old. Nothing is known of what happened to him after leaving prison.

To this day, no one besides the traveling reverend has been brought to trial and these murders remain unsolved.

A Haunted House

The Moore’s house has changed owners many times over the years before being restored to it’s early 1900’s condition and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is reportedly haunted and visitors can tour the house or stay overnight for a paranormal experience.

Previous tenants have claimed to see a shadowy figure with an axe at the foot of their beds, doors that open on their own, clothes that seemed to be thrown from closets on their own and even the sound of children crying. One family ran from the house screaming one night and promptly moved out the next day.

Moore Family House. Ryan Moomey (photos · sets), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Visitors have experienced a variety of activity ranging from objects moving, to hearing whispers and unexplainable sounds. The attic reportedly has a strong evil presence, and one guest claimed that while trying to enter the attic they were stopped by and invisible force pushing them backwards.

In 2014, the house made headlines as a visitor was rushed to the hospital was a self inflicted stab wound to the chest that could not be explained. They have refused to comment or explain what happened to them that night.


Originally published on The Crime Wire on November 30, 2022.


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