The Villisca Axe Murders occurred during the night of June 9–10, 1912 in the southwestern Iowa town of Villisca.
The Moore family consisted of parents Josiah (aged 43), Sarah (39), and their four children: Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7) and Paul (5). An affluent family, the Moores were well-known and well-liked in their community. On June 9, 1912, Katherine Moore invited Ina (8) and Lena (12) Stillinger to spend the night at the Moore residence. That evening, the visiting girls and the Moore family attended the Presbyterian church where they participated in the Children’s Day Program, which Sarah Moore had coordinated. After the program ended at 9:30 p.m., the Moores and the Stillinger sisters walked to the Moores’ house, arriving between 9:45 and 10 p.m.
At 7 a.m. the next day, Mary Peckham, the Moores’ neighbour, became concerned after she noticed that the Moore family had not come out to do their morning chores. Peckham knocked on the Moores’ door. When nobody answered, she tried to open the door and discovered that it was locked. Peckham let the Moores’ chickens out and then called Ross Moore, Josiah Moore’s brother. Like Peckham, Moore received no response when he knocked on the door and shouted. He unlocked the front door with his copy of the house key. While Peckham stood on the porch, Moore went into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door and found Ina and Lena Stillinger’s bodies on the bed. Moore immediately told Peckham to call Hank Horton, Villisca’s primary peace officer, who arrived shortly thereafter. Horton’s search of the house revealed that the entire Moore family and the two Stillinger girls had been bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an ax belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room where the Stillinger sisters were found.
Doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5a.m. The killer or killers began in the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah Moore were asleep. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his face had been cut so much that his eyes were missing. The killer(s) then went into the children’s rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the head in the same manner as their parents. Afterward, the killer(s) moved downstairs to the guest bedroom and killed Ina and Lena.
Investigators believed that all of the victims except for Lena Stillinger had been asleep at the time of the murders. Investigators also believed Lena attempted to fight back. She was found lying crosswise on the bed, and a defensive wound was discovered on her arm. Furthermore, Lena was found with her nightgown pushed up to her waist and no undergarments on, leading to speculation that the killer(s) sexually molested her or attempted to do so.
Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore. George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. The first ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in a verdict of not guilty. Other suspects in the investigation were also exonerated. Every hobo, transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was also a suspect in the murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. As with many other suspects, no real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.
According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 am on the morning the murders were discovered. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and as Dyer needed an extra man he was given a job on the spot.
He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 11⁄2 blocks away and then showed where he crossed the rail-road track and there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. He then said for J.R. to look on the other side of the car and he would show him an old tree where he said the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away. Sawyer, however, was apparently dismissed as a suspect in the case when it was discovered that he was able to prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train at approximately 11 pm that evening.
Rev. Kelly was a travelling minister who was in town on the night of the murders. Kelly was said to be peculiar, having suffered from some kind of mental breakdown as an adolescent. As an adult, he was accused of peeping and asking young women and girls to pose nude for him on multiple occasions. On June 8, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services that the Moore family attended on June 9. He and his wife left the town between 5:00 and 5:30 am on June 10, hours before the bodies were discovered. In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, and wrote many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly asking for details Kelly might know about the murders.
Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly even witnessed the murders. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he had these details about the murders because he committed them, or if he imagined them. In 1914, two years after the murders, he was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary) and was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. This again raised the possibility in the minds of the investigators that Kelly could be the murderer. In 1917, he was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him, however, the confession was obtained questionably after many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.
Frank Jones was a Villisca resident and an Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones at his implement store for many years before leaving to open his own store. It is said that Moore took away business from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. It is also rumoured that Moore had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence supports this.
Another theory was that Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes; and is believed to have committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes; and committed the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. The locations of these crimes were all accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in exactly the same manner.
However, Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, another similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two additional axe murder cases followed in Ellsworth, Kansas, and Paola, Kansas. All cases were similar enough that the possibility that all were committed by the same person was impossible to dismiss. Other murders mentioned as being “linked” to these crimes include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1911-1912, the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other axe murders during this time period.
According to the “Villisca Axe Murders House” website, the murders that took place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, were mysteriously closely related to the murders that took place in Villisca. Only nine months before the Villisca murders took place, H.C. Wayne, his wife and child and Mrs. A.J. Burnham were also found dead, murdered by axes. The Colorado Springs Police found it difficult to believe that the same person could do the same crime, just in different cities. Like the Villisca murders, bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passerby’s from looking in, only in the Villisca case, aprons and strung skirts were used. And similar to how the murderer in Villisca wiped the blood off his axe and covered the heads of the victims with bed cloth, the same situation was found in Colorado.
Mansfield was also the prime suspect of the Burns Detective Agency of Kansas City and Detective James Newton Wilkerson, who put forth the theory that he was a cocaine addicted serial killer. Wilkerson also believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914 (two years after the Villisca murders), the axe murders committed in Paola, Kansas, four days before Villisca murders and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Illinois.
According to Wilkerson’s investigation, all of the murders were committed in precisely the same manner indicating the same man committed them. Wilkerson stated that he could prove that Mansfield was present in each of these places on the night of the murders. In each murder, the victims were hacked to death with an axe and the mirrors in the homes were covered. A burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. In each case, the murderer avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves, which Wilkerson believed was strong evidence that the man was Mansfield, who knew his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth.
Wilkerson managed to convince a Grand Jury to open an investigation in 1916 and Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided an alibi that placed Mansfield in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence and later won a lawsuit he brought against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225. Wilkerson believed that pressure from Jones resulted not only in Mansfield’s release but also in the subsequent arrest and trial of Reverend Kelly.
However, a mister “R.H. Thorpe”, an apparent restaurant owner from Shenandoah, identified Mansfield as the man he saw the morning after the Villisca murders boarding a train at Clarinda. This man said he had walked from Villisca. If this is substantiated it will break down Mansfield’s alibi. Furthermore, it was reported that a “Mrs. Vina Tompkins”, of Marshalltown, was on her way to testify that she heard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings.
Henry Lee Moore, also a suspected serial killer (who was not related to the slain Moore family), and who was also convicted of the murder of his mother and grandmother several months after the murders in Villisca, his weapon of choice being an axe. Before and after the murders in Villisca, the very similar axe murders mentioned above were committed, and all of the cases did show striking similarities, leading to the strong possibility that some, or all of the crimes were committed by an axe-murdering serial killer and, just like “Blackie” Mansfield, the axe-murdering Henry Moore can also be considered a suspect in some of these slayings as well, yet the case remains open.
At the inquest, it was reported that Sam Moyer (Josiah’s brother-in-law) often threatened to kill Josiah Moore. However, upon further investigation, Moyer’s alibi cleared him of the crime.
Villisca’s murder is over ninety years old and still remains unsolved and will probably remain that way.