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Missing and Murdered Podcast Halloweek Episode 3: The Villisca Ax Murders

In a small quaint town in southwest Iowa, on a road that leads to a dead end, sits an inconspicuous two story house with a white frame.
Josiah and Sarah Moore

MISSING AND MURDERED IN THE MIDWEST: A podcast looking into crimes that made the headlines, starting in the Quad  City area and expanding throughout the Midwest. Podcast host and News 8 Executive Producer Toria Wilson, dedicated her time into researching the murder cases that shocked us and the missing persons cases that left us with unanswered questions.

Halloweek Day 3, Episode 10: In a small quaint town in southwest Iowa, on a road that leads to a dead end, sits a two story house with a white frame.

The old house lives in a neighborhood with other similar looking homes near some churches, a park and a middle school, but this house, unlike the others, has been abandoned for decades.

Back in the 1900’s, the town of Villisca, Iowa was just starting to come onto the map. Villisca, by definition, means “pleasant view” and that is what it was becoming with more and more businesses moving in. A thriving town, it wasn’t long before the Moore family set down their roots. 

What was once a “pretty place” would hold a house of nightmares. Even to this day, there are many unanswered questions about what truly happened in the Villisca Ax Murder House.

Over a century ago, on an early Sunday morning, Lena and Ina Stillinger left for church.

The two had planned on spending the afternoon with their grandmother and having dinner before going to another church program for children.

On that fateful June 9, 1912, Josiah Moore called the Stillinger home asking if the girls would want to stay the night with his daughter, 10-year-old Katherine Moore. Together, the Stillinger girls went to that children’s program, along with Katherine, her older brother Herman Moore, who was 11-years-old, and her two younger brothers, 7-year-old Boyd Moore and 5-year-old Paul Moore.

Missing and Murdered Podcast Halloweek Episode 3: The Villisca Ax Murders

Once the services and socializing ended at about 9:30 p.m., the Moore family and the Stillinger girls walked the three blocks back to the Moore home.

Josiah and Sarah Moore slept in their bed on the second floor and their children, Katherine, Herman, Boyd and Paul, rested in a room down the hallway. Lena and Ina Stillinger, stayed in a guest room on the first floor of the house.

Around midnight on June 10, 1912, someone, or some people, grabbed Josiah’s ax from the backyard. They entered the house through an unlocked door and initially ignored the guests in the first floor room, heading upstairs instead to Josiah’s and Sarah’s room.

The killers bludgeoned Josiah with the ax at least 30 times. His face was completely mauled and his eyes were missing or completely disintegrated by the number of blows he suffered.

On the first floor, Lena Stillinger likely woke up from the alarming noises coming from throughout the home. She even might have tried to fight off the attacker(s).

But Sarah, the Moore children and the Stillinger girls all suffered identical fates and were killed with 20 to 30 blows to the head.

By 7 a.m., Mary Peckham, the Moore’s elderly, next door neighbor had not seen the family saying the house was “unusually still”. She decided to knock on the door and called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore, when there was no answer. Using a spare set of keys, Ross stepped inside, opened the first floor guest bedroom and saw two bodies on the bed covered in deep, dark red stains.

Missing and Murdered Podcast Halloweek Episode 3: The Villisca Ax Murders
Missing and Murdered Podcast Halloweek Episode 3: The Villisca Ax Murders

News of the murders quickly spread throughout the town

By the time the police, the coroner, a minister and doctors arrived at the crime scene, a large crowd began to gather around the Moore home. Law enforcement quickly lost control of the scene and at least 100 people stormed the home gawking at the bodies before the national guard came to secure the home.

One of the townspeople even left that day with a fragment of Josiah’s skull as a “keepsake”.

Investigators noticed some key facts about the scene.

All eight victims were covered with bed sheets after they were killed and the curtains were drawn on all the windows, besides two which were covered with the Moore’s clothing. Mirrors inside the home were also covered and all of the doors were locked. The coroner reported a slab of bacon wrapped in a towel was lying on the floor in the first floor bedroom next to a bloody ax. A second slab was also found in the ice box.

Had this case happened in the past 10 years, it likely could have been solved. With DNA testing, fingerprinting and other technology, it’s probable a suspect would have been identified.

While the case has gone cold and no one has ever been convicted, newspapers from the time and historians who have since studied the case reported at least four suspects.

Missing and Murdered Podcast Halloweek Episode 3: The Villisca Ax Murders

Frank F. Jones: A prominent resident and Iowa State Senator

Josiah worked for Sen. Jones, but the two had a complicated business and personal relationship, according to local rumors. Townsfolk suggested Josiah had an affair with Sen. Jones daughter-in-law. Did Sen. Jones have enough of a motive to execute a family of six and two young girls?

William Mansfield: A possible hitman

One investigator said Sen. Jones hired William to murder Josiah and his family. He already has a reputation as a serial killer, believed to have murdered his own family and several others with an ax during this time period.

Suspiciously, all of the murders William was accused of were under similar circumstances. But, payroll records served as an alibi that he was in Illinois when Josiah and his family were brutally killed.

Rev. George Kelly: The traveling preacher

Rev. Kelly left Villisca mere hours after the children’s church service the Moores and Stillingers attended. On a train headed west, he reportedly told passengers there were eight dead souls back in the small Iowa town who were butchered in their beds.

Two weeks later, the reverend showed back up in Villisca posing as a detective, even joining a tour of the murder house with a group of investigators. He gave himself away after writing long, rambling letters claiming God told him to kill the family.

Further, from blood splatter analysis, police determined the killer was left-handed, which Rev. Kelly was. He also had dropped off bloody clothing to a dry cleaners sometime after the murders.

Rev. Kelly confessed to the crime and was arrested in 1917.

He immediately retracted his statement and was found not guilty after two trials.

Andy Sawyer: The bizarre outsider

The morning the bodies were discovered, Andy approached a railroad crew in Creston, Iowa, about 45 minutes away from Villisca. He asked for a job and as a clean shaven man dressed in a suit, he was hired on the spot.

Andy’s odd behavior and fascination with the murders concerned his coworkers. His foreman turned him into police when Andy told people he was afraid he may be named as a suspect.

Andy was later dismissed when it was discovered he had actually been in Osceola, Iowa the night of the Villisca Ax Murders.

Now, the case is cold.

No one has ever been convicted of this heinous crime and the home has had several owners over the years. It’s currently open for tours and overnight bookings for ghost hunters and true crime fanatics.

Those who visit claim to experience some sort of paranormal activity. Some insist on hearing footsteps, others to seeing shadowy figures and feeling strange gusts of cold wind. Some even report being attacked by a force that left marks on their skin…

Click here to take a virtual tour of the Villisca Ax Murder House.

Click here to listen to podcast on Spotify.

Now streaming on all podcast services.