Villisca: A horror story like no other

Villisca: A horror story like no other

It’s a case which still shocks people almost 99 years later and makes the infamous Lizzy Borden axe murders look like child’s play in comparison.
It all happened on the morning of June 10, 1912, when a grisly discovery shook the foundation of trust in Midwest America and blood ran through the quiet cornfields of a small Iowa community.
It has come to be known as the Villisca Axe Murder House and it’s the site of one of the most heinous crimes one could perpetrate — and it’s the next destination for the Midwest Paranormal Files research team Sunday, April 10.
A MPF crew of six will leave the comforts of home of Detroit Lakes and travel eight hours south to Villisca, Iowa, to spend the night in what is one of the most infamous murder houses in America.
The group consisting of Brian (Detroit Lakes Newspaper Sports Editor) and Chrisy Wierima, Detroit Lakes Newspaper writer Vicki Gerdes, Brian Halstensgaard, Kristy Sletta and Jodi Felice will be overnight guests in the Villisca Axe Murder House, along with a bevy of equipment of infrared cameras, digital audio recorders and other tools to capture potential paranormal evidence of what has been reported by dozens of groups over the course of the last several years.
“Comforts of home” are also three words which do not describe the little three-bedroom house which resides on a quiet street in Villisca.
It’s a case which horrified people across the nation and one which still perplexes even the most seasoned crime solver.
It’s the Villisca Axe Murder House and its walls are still keeping its bloody secrets safe.
It’s too quiet
A typical early morning in the Moore household was filled with the sounds of a busy family of six. Chores were started and the four children of Josiah and Sarah Moore were already beginning at the crack of dawn.
That’s why it was strange on the morning of June 10, 1912, when the yard and house of the Moore’s was quiet, in fact, it was much too quiet, as neighbor Mary Peckham started to realize.
Peckham started to hang her laundry at 5 a.m. of that June 10 morning, and by 7 a.m., she still had seen no signs of any movement coming from the Moore’s. After knocking on the door and receiving no response, she telephoned Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore.
Soon after, Ross Moore found out there was a reason for the stillness which emanated from the small three-bedroom house, because what was inside its walls on that June 10 morning was bloody horror and the end of innocence in Villisca.
Lying in their beds were eight slaughtered victims, all hacked apart by one axe.
The victims included the Moore parents — Josiah, age 43, and wife Sarah Montgomery Moore, age 39.
Even more disturbing, the monster who wielded the axe, also took the lives of six children, four of them the Moore’s and two family friends’ kids.
The axe ended the lives of Herman (age 11), Katherine (nine), Boyd (seven) and Paul (five) Moore.
But the carnage didn’t just wipe out the Moore family, it also took a pair of visitors for the night, the two Stillinger children, Lena (12) and Ina (eight).
News about the mass murder hit the nation with a massive media wave, even knocking the sinking of the Titanic off the front pages of newspaper across the United States.
But the savage murders and that night of chaos was just the beginning of one of the most intriguing and darkest days in U.S. history.
Not only has there ever been a conviction in the eight-person killing spree, the exact path the murder took through his night of life-taking has never been solved.
The murders, scene and impending investigation
What Ross Moore witnessed inside his brother’s house was no doubt gruesome.
But the investigation after the murders were committed was just as gruesome.
The day before the murders happened, the “Children’s Day Program” was being held at the local Presbyterian Church. Each of Lena and Ina Stillinger left home that Sunday morning to have dinner with their grandma and were to head home after the Children’s Day Program.
But Sarah Moore called the Stillinger parents and offered to keep the sisters overnight at their home.
All the Moore’s children and the two Stillinger sisters participated in the program, which ended around 9 p.m.
The group of eight made it back to the Moore residence by 9:45 or 10 p.m.
But they were not alone.
It is theorized by investigators at the time, that the intruder broke into the Moore home when the family was at church.
There are two theories which abound of where the axe wielder sat and waited, while the Moore’s and Stillingers were at church.
Police found a heel mark in a magazine, which was found inside the closet of the downstairs bedroom, where the two Stillinger kids were sleeping.
In a June 15, 1912 article published in an Omaha, Neb., newspaper, it stated, “Had Mr. Moore or Mrs. Moore looked into a closet, off from the room where the Stillinger girls slept, they would have seen the murderer, and probably have prevented the crime,” said Mrs. Johnson (who accompanied Minnie Moore — Josiah’s sister — to the funeral in Villisca).
“Several bags of cotton batting found in the closet showed the marks of a man having sat and stood upon them.”
Also, investigators found cigarette butts up in the attack, where the murderer could have skulked before he started his path of destruction.
After the bodies were discovered, the town’s peace officer Hank Horton was called to the scene. Horton was undoubtedly untrained in preserving a crime scene of this magnitude — as was proven later.
Horton found the blood-stained axe upon entering the dark house, which all the shades were drawn and the doors all locked from the inside.
Another odd note was the fact all the mirrors in the house were draped over with blankets.
The two Stillinger girls were found in the downstairs bedroom, while the two upstairs rooms had the bodies of Josiah and Sarah in one, with the remains of their four children in the other upstairs bedroom.
By the time Horton and his deputy were done going through the house, the crime scene was already contaminated with townspeople gawking through the house.
When it was all said and done, the scene itself was well trampled over, with one rumor even reported that a piece of Josiah’s skull was taken by one of townsfolk as a souvenir.
To say that the axe murder left behind was a wake of carnage is an understatement.
It was determined that all the victims were bludgeoned with the one axe which was recovered inside the house — and was apparently grabbed from the barn area outside.
The Stillinger girls were hit repeatedly with the axe in the head area. Both had items of clothing put over their faces, with a Bible laid at the foot of their bed. The elder Stillinger girl looked to have put up a struggle — the only victim to do so that evening.
Upstairs, Josiah suffered the most damage, in what resembled rage from the assailant. Sarah was next to her husband, with similar hacking wounds to the head.
It appeared one of Sarah’s blood-filled shoes, which was lying on her side of the bed, was placed there intentionally.
In the other upstairs bedroom, lay the rest of the Moore children.
One of the sons had wounds to the head, along with a gauze undershirt over the open wound. Not far from him, the little girl lay, with a sheet pulled over her head.
On the single bed next to the pair, were the two murdered boys with similar axe wounds to the head area.
The coroner estimated that well over 150 swings were taken, causing scratches in the ceilings of two of the rooms after the axe hit it during the upswing, which still remain today.
It was also estimated, the murders took place between midnight and 5 a.m.
There were plenty of oddities left by the killer, including candy left on a table near one of the kid’s beds, a four-pound slab of bacon wrapped in cloth and an untouched plate of food in the house, as well.
By midday of June 10, the National Guard was called in for crowd control and the bodies were not removed from the house until midnight.
Also, by the time M.W. McClaughry made it to Villisca as a fingerprint expert, the house was so badly contaminated, no useful fingerprints were lifted.
To make matters worse, later in the week, Mrs. Stillinger gave birth to a stillborn child, making it her third one she lost within seven days.
There was even a $3,500 reward offered up by the citizens of Villisca, which eventually went to pay for the headstones of the Moore family.
But the investigation continued, with many suspects detained, but none ever convicted.
Suspects gathered up, then let go
With the Villisca Axe Murders a national story, there were plenty of suspects accused, but none came to fruition.
There also was the similar axe murders which happened in Colorado to the Burnham-Wayne families — where both were axe murdered in successive nights — in which the mirrors in the house were covered like in the Moore house and all the doors locked.
After the two axe murders in Colorado, two weeks later, the William Dawson family of three were murdered with an axe in Monmouth, Ill., while on Oct. 15 and June 5, just one week before Villisca, two more families were ended under the axe.
A Henry Moore (no relation to Josiah) was looked upon as a serial axe murderer in the Midwest. It was thought by Major R.W. McClaughry that Moore was responsible for up to 23 murders in the Midwest — but not necessarily the Villisca murders.
Only one man was brought to trial for the axe murders and that was Rev. Lynn Geo. J. Kelly, who was a Methodist minister.
Kelly confessed to the murders in 1917, but recanted later. The reverend was known to be insane and there wasn’t any physical evidence linking him to the murders, thus he was freed after a hung jury occurred.
Plenty of others were implicated in the murders, including Frank Jones, who was Josiah Moore’s business rival and a former state Senator.
The theory came up was Jones hired a hitman, who allegedly was William Mansfield — who also was a suspect of axe murdering his own family two years later and was seen boarding a train after the Villisca murders the morning after.
But payroll records proved Mansfield was in Illinois at the time of the Moore murders and was released.
The case went cold and even up to today, plenty of theories still abound, but with the same conclusion — nobody may ever know who swung that bloody axe on that fateful night.
The renovation
 The history of the three-bedroom house spans back to 1868, when it was built by George Loomis and eventually bought by Josiah Moore in 1903.
The house remained in the Moore estate until 1915, when it was purchased by J.H. Geesman. Over the next 90 years, there were seven additional owners to make 13 total owners through its history.
The house was often a rental property, with an abundance of renters living in it — and leaving — before Villisca’s Darwin and Martha Linn purchased it.
Linn started renovations of the house in 1994, as he tried to restore it back to its 1912 look.
“We were very lucky there was still a lady living here named Bernadine Miller, who gave us detailed information of what the house looked like before we started renovating it,” Linn said. “The house itself was abused and neglected and the neighbors next door to it called it an eyesore.”
Linn — who also runs the Olson-Linn Museum in town — restored it in three years back to its 1912 look and eventually opened it to the public. Now, groups can stay overnight in the house or take daylight tours, as well.
The Moore home also was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Left behind?
With the violence which took place in the Moore house, could there still be remnants left over from 1912?
Over the years, residences who stayed in the house have mixed emotions about it.
Linn said in 1915, John Geesman and his wife and three daughters moved into the house.
“After the first night, John moved out of the house and lived in the barn for the next 12 and a half years,” Linn said.
The house stayed in the Geesman family, with John’s granddaughter and her husband, John Figgins, moved in.
It took only two nights before Figgins left, never to sleep in the house again.
Linn said he was never a believer in the paranormal, but working on the Moore house might have changed those beliefs, though.
“It took about three years of me working in the house to let it sink in,” Linn chuckled. “I never believed in such a thing, but when the stools were moving by themselves, it kind of sunk in.”
With Linn opening the house up to the public, many have flocked to experience the house and some of its potential paranormal activity.
Just in the month of April, there are only six days open for overnight stays and only five are open in the month of June.
Nationally broadcasted paranormal shows such as “Ghost Adventures” of the Travel Channel, “My Ghost Story”, “Ghost Lab” and CBS’ “Scariest Places on Earth” have featured the Villisca Axe Murder House.
“And I never solicited any of them,” Linn said. “It tapers off in the winter a bit (there is now heat in the house), but we have five to six bookings a week on average,” Linn added.
The first paranormal experience reported in the Moore house came in the early 1930’s, by renters Homer and Bonnie Ritner.
Bonnie awoke every night to an image of a man holding an axe at the end of their bed. Eventually, Homer heard footsteps coming up the stairs and the pair promptly moved out.
Plenty of photos and electronic voice phenomena evidence has been captured by many paranormal groups over the years and first-hand accounts are published at
Most do leave with an impression they were not alone on their overnight stays inside the Moore house.
A family who was renting the house somewhere between 1963 and 1971, moved out abruptly after several occurrences happened to the two daughters and the father.
The two sisters kept hearing kids sobbing and crying, while finding their dresser doors open and clothes strewn about.
The final straw came one night when the father was sharpening his pocket knife and it flew out of his hands and ended up cutting him. The family moved out the next day.
Linn also received an email from an old resident of Villisca, stating, “I always thought there was something about that house. My horse always ran past it. She had good sense. I always liked that horse.”
No matter if the house which resides on lot 310 in the quiet town of Villisca, Iowa, has eternal guests or not — the horror and blood spilled there on June 10, 1912, is enough to stain generations to come.

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