The Villisca axe murders and hauntings
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Most of my blogs fall into one of two broad categories: haunted places and the paranormal, or true crime. These two genres often overlap, but I think this is the first video I’ve done that falls squarely into both categories. This is the story of a brutal murder in a small town that is still unsolved over 100 years later, and the supposed hauntings that still plague the house where it happened. This is the story of the Villisca axe murders.
Villisca is a small town in southern Iowa — and when I say small, I mean small. The population today is estimated to be just over 1,500. I used to live in a town about that size and, if Villisca is anything like that town, not a whole lot happens there. But Villisca does have one dubious claim to fame. This event happened back in 1912, when the population was slightly larger, at about 2,500.
E 2nd Street was a quiet, residential street, and the house at 508 E 2nd Street belonged to the Moore family. Josiah and Sarah Moore had been married since 1899 and had moved into the house in 1903. The couple lived there with their four children — 11-year-old Herman, 9-year-old Katherine, 7-year-old Boyd and 5-year-old Paul. From all accounts, the Moores seemed to have a decent, normal life. Josiah had recently gone into business for himself and the family attended the local Presbyterian church. But their happiness wouldn’t last.
On the night of Sunday, June 9, 1912, the family attended a Children’s Day celebration at their church, organized by Sarah. The program ended around 9:30 pm, and the Moores walked home — but they weren’t alone. 12-year-old Lena Stillinger and her 8-year-old sister, Ina, were friends with the Moore’s daughter, Katherine, and didn’t want to walk back to their grandmother’s house alone in the dark. So they went home with the Moores to spend the night. It’s estimated the Moore family, along with the Stillinger sisters, got back to 508 E 2nd Street between 9:45 and 10 pm. That was the last time anyone ever saw them alive.
Around 5 o’ clock on the morning of June 10, the Moore’s next door neighbor Mary Peckham went outside to do laundry. Around 7, she realized she hadn’t seen or heard anyone in the Moore house that morning, which was unusual. She knocked on the door but got no response, and when she tried to open it, it was locked, which was also strange. So she let their chickens out and called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore. At first, she only asked Ross if the family had planned a trip or anything else that might have explained their absence. But apparently they weren’t, and this was probably concerning to Ross, who arrived soon after.
Once he arrived, Ross tried to get someone’s attention by looking in a bedroom window, knocking on the door and shouting. When there was no response, he unlocked the door with one of his keys to the house and went inside. Everything appeared normal…until Ross reached the downstairs bedroom.
When he opened the bedroom door, he saw dark stains and the bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger on the bed. Their skulls had been crushed, and Lena had her underwear removed and was posed in a way some believed was sexually suggestive. Fortunately, most sources say she was not sexually assaulted.
Ross ran back outside to Mary, who was standing on the porch, and told her to call the sheriff. The City Marshall arrived at the house soon after and found the bodies of the Moore family in the upstairs bedroom. Just like the Stillinger sisters, their skulls had been crushed with an axe that would later be found in the room with the Stillinger girls. The axe belonged to Josiah Moore. All the curtains in the house had been drawn, and the two windows without curtains as well as all the victims’ faces had been covered by the Moore’s bedclothes. All of the victims were thought to be asleep when they were killed, and it’s been speculated the killer hid in an upstairs closet while waiting for everyone to go to sleep.
Around 8:15 that morning, Dr. J. Clark Cooper arrived at the scene. He estimated the murders had occurred around midnight. The coroner, Dr. Linquist, got there around nine. He found two slabs of bacon in the house — one near the axe and another in the icebox.
But doctors weren’t the only people at the crime scene. News of the murders travelled quickly in the small town, and dozens, maybe even up to a hundred people traipsed through the house before it was finally cordoned off around noon — hours after the City Marshall had arrived. A local druggist who tried to photograph the scene (presumably for evidence) was promptly kicked out. As far as I could find, this was the only person who took any sort of crime scene photos.
But even if there hadn’t been contamination at the crime scene (which was apparently pretty common back then), there wasn’t much evidence for investigators to go on. There were no footprints at the scene, no witnesses and no fingerprints found. Fingerprinting was a relatively new thing at the time, so even if fingerprints had been found, there was no national database where they could have been stored.
And the Moore’s weren’t the only people who had been killed in this manner. Between 1911 and 1912, there was a string of axe murders across the midwest, most of which remain unsolved today. In most of the murders, the weapon was found at the scene and the victims were in bed at the time. Many of them were also near railroads and in several, the killer stayed at the scene after the murders.
Another string of crimes I thought about when researching this case were the murders of the New Orleans Axe-man. I’ve talked about this case in a previous video. Those murders occurred a little later, between 1918 and 1919 in New Orleans. Some people believe they started as early as 1911, though that is just a theory. I haven’t found anything definitive that suggests these murders are connected to the axe murders in the midwest. But I do wonder if it’s possible.
Now, let’s get into some of the suspects in the Villisca axe murders — as well as more details suggesting they might have been the work of a serial killer.
a drifter or transient
Early on in the case, there was speculation the crimes had been committed by a drifter or transient. According to this theory, the killer got away with the murders because they simply couldn’t be found. By the time the bodies were found, they could have been hours away, and as long as they stayed away from Villisca, they could have avoided suspicion.
I talked about this a little bit in my Santa Rosa hitchhiker video because there was similar speculation in that case. However, I don’t think this was the case here. Even if the murderer had stayed in Villisca for the rest of their lives, I think a combination of other things, namely crime scene contamination and lack of physical evidence, would have allowed them to get away with it anyway.
The next suspect I want to talk about is Joe Ricks. Like most of the men on this list, he was never officially considered a suspect, but his name has come up in the years following.
A few days after the murders, Ricks stepped off a train in Mansfield, Illinois, nearly 400 miles from Villisca. His shoes were covered in blood. He later said he got the shoes from a “tramp” he traded with. Apparently there wasn’t anything else that made him suspicious or caused investigators to look into him, because that’s all the information I could find on him.
Lee Van Gilder
Lee Van Gilder was Sarah Moore’s ex brother-in-law. Like Joe Ricks, there wasn’t anything to tie him definitively to the crime, but he had been in trouble with the law before and was known to be violent. He had previously been married to Sarah’s sister, and still had bad blood with the family. This would offer motive, but not much else.
the man in the hotel
This next theory is a bit unusual, but very interesting. In 1917, Oklahoma pastor Reverend J.J. Burris came to police with some interesting information. According to Rev. Burris, he was in a hotel in 1913 when a man made a deathbed confession to him, saying he committed the Villisca axe murders. The Reverend had never seen this man before, but said he looked about 25 years old. I’m not sure why the Reverend waited four years to tell police about this, and I couldn’t find any evidence that they ever followed up on it.
As a former pastor’s kid, I was skeptical about this at first. In my dad’s 40 + years in ministry, I don’t think he was ever at the deathbed of a stranger — most sick or dying people he visited were church members. But when I asked him about this, he said in the early 1900’s, hotels would sometimes offer information to guests about pastors in the area, maybe in case they were doing something they shouldn’t have and didn’t have a clergy member nearby to confess or talk to. I’d never heard of this before, but it does make sense in relation to the rest of the story.
There must be something about brothers-in-law, because Sam Moyer is the second one on this list. He was the brother-in-law of Josiah Moore, though I’m not 100 % sure of the details (like who was married to who). A couple of sources have said Sam threatened Josiah’s life a few times in the past, but I couldn’t find solid confirmation.
Regardless, Sam was arrested a few days after the murders, presumably on suspicion of committing them. However, it turned out he was actually in Nehawka, Nebraska, about 80 miles away, by the time of the murders. Nowadays you could make this trip in an hour and a half, maybe two hours if there was traffic. But in 1912 this probably wasn’t feasible, as this was considered a solid alibi and Sam Moyer was soon let go.
Andy Sawyer is one of the so-called “transients” some have theorized committed this crime. On the morning of the murders, Andy approached a railroad pile driver in Burlington and asked for a job, which he was given. When he approached his new boss, he was covered in mud and his pants were wet. The boss would also report more strange behavior over the coming days; Andy slept with his axe, frequently brought up the Villisca murders, and said to no one in particular that he would cut their hands off. He also told his boss he’d been in Villisca the night of the murders and was afraid he’d be a suspect. So after hearing this, his boss turned Andy over to the sheriff. As it turns out, Andy was actually in Osceola the night of the murders, about 70 miles away so he too was let go. I do find it interesting that Andy was under suspicion when he was in Burlington, over 200 miles away from Villisca, the day after the murders, yet he was in Osceola the night of the murders which is much closer. It also makes it very interesting to look back at Sam Moyer being let go because he was just 80 miles away.
Frank F. Jones and William Mansfield
At the time of the murders, Iowa state senator Frank Jones lived in Villisca and was a member of the Methodist church in town. There was also some bad blood between he and Josiah Moore.
Josiah, a farm implement dealer, and Frank Jones used to work together. But when Josiah left and opened his own store, their relationship began to sour. By 1912, it was so bad that if they encountered each other on the street, one would cross the street to avoid the other. In a small town like Villisca, this didn’t go unnoticed. To make matters worse, there were also rumors that Josiah had an affair with Frank’s daughter-in-law.
Naturally, people were quick to point fingers at Frank Jones, and this only divided the town. The members of Frank’s Methodist congregation insisted he was innocent, while the Presbyterians who went to church with the Moores said he was guilty.
However, people didn’t think Frank committed these murders alone. At 57, he wasn’t seen as someone who wouldn’t be physically capable of brutally killing eight people. As the theory goes, Frank hired a man named William Mansfield to actually carry out his dirty work.
There was plenty of circumstantial evidence, or at least red flags, against William Mansfield. He was suspected in the murders of at least nine other people, including his wife, infant child, father-in-law and mother-in-law. Most of the murders he’s suspected in were committed with an axe and the mirrors in the house were covered, just like the ones in Villisca. The only exception to this was a 1915 case in which a 21-year-old woman was beaten to death was a gas pipe. In addition to being at least potentially responsible for so many other murders, a restaurant worker in nearby Shenandoah said he saw William Mansfield the morning after the murders boarding a train. William was arrested in 1916, but there was evidence that place him in Illinois at the time of the murders. He was soon released; I believe the case was brought before a grand jury, but he wasn’t indicted. He ended up filing a lawsuit against Detective James Newton Wilkerson, who led the investigation against him, and was awarded $2,250.
Despite his career as a traveling preacher, George Kelly was no saint. A “known sexual deviant,” George supposedly hired a stenographer to do his “confidential work” and then told her she’d have to type in the nude. He was also in Villisca the night of the murders and even attended the same Children’s Day service as the Moores. He left town the next morning, but returned a week later. He was reportedly “obsessed” with the crime, even posing as a Scotland Yard detective in order to gain access to the Moore’s home. He was also left handed, and the killer was thought to be left handed due to the way blood was splattered in the house.
George was arrested in 1917 but only charged with the murder of Lena Stillinger. He confessed to the murders but later recanted; his confession was said to be coerced and was withdrawn before the trial started. The trial ended in a hung jury, and he was retried. The second trial ended in an acquittal. Despite the many suspects and arrests in this case, George Kelly is the only person to have actually gone on trial for any of the murders.
In 1931, George Meyers, a prisoner in Detroit, confessed to the murders. In prison for burglary at the time, detectives received an anonymous tip about him which prompted questioning. He confessed after five hours of interrogation.
He claimed to have committed the murders because he was paid by a pastor and businessman he’d connected with. I haven’t seen anyone name this man or speculate about his identity. If he was a pastor it might have been George Kelly, but I have nothing to back that up. Anyway, the man said he’d pay George Meyers $5,000 for the crimes. According to Meyers, the man paid $2,000 up front and said George would get the rest after the murders. However, the man refused to give him the rest until he was sure the family was dead. Meyers left town before daybreak, never collecting the remaining money. He also denied killing the Stillinger girls. He was given a 14 year sentence a few years later, but I’m not sure what it was for. He’s never been charged in connection with the Villisca murders.
In 2017, father/daughter team Bill and Rachel McCarthy James released their book, The Man From the Train. The book concerned the Villisca murders and the man they believed committed them: Paul Mueller. As far as I can tell, Paul Mueller is not related to Robert Mueller of the recent Mueller Report fame.
There’s not much information about Paul Mueller out there. But the Jameses scraped together what they could and weaved a narrative about a man who travelled the U.S. in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, slaughtering people with an axe and setting their homes on fire. I admittedly haven’t read the book, but if this man really committed murders like this — or was at least suspected to — it’s not hard to see why he’d look suspicious in the Villisca murders.
Henry Lee Moore
Like I said earlier, the Villisca murders weren’t the first or only ones of their kind. There were about 15 separate axe murders in the midwest between 1911 and 1912. DOJ special agent M.W. McClaughry thought at least six of them were the work of Henry Lee Moore. (No relation to the Moore family.)
Unlike the other suspects listed here, Henry Lee Moore actually was convicted of two murders. A few months after the Villisca murders, he killed his mother and grandmother in Missouri with an axe. He was sentenced to life in prison for those murders, and released on parole in 1949. In 1956, his sentence was commuted by the governor (presumably the Missouri governor). After that, we’re not really sure what happened to him. He was 82 at the time, so he probably didn’t live very long after that.
Henry Moore was also suspected in another murder in Colorado in 1911. An entire Colorado Springs family — a husband, wife and three children — were all killed with an axe. Another married couple was killed a month after that. Henry Moore is thought to be responsible for all these murders, though he was never charged.
Over the next century, ownership of the house switched hands at least seven times. In 1994, it was bought by its current owners, Darwin and Martha Linn, who restored it to its 1912 state — including stripping it of electricity and plumbing — and opened it up for tours. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Everyone I’ve come across in my research seems to think these tours have done the town good. Like I said earlier, all the finger pointing and accusations after the murders divided the town. Many people left, and the ones who stayed had strong opinions but were reluctant to talk about the case. Once the house was open for tours, it brought some commerce back to the town that people had been reluctant to visit. But if the stories are to be believed, tour guides and guests are not alone in the house.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the house has acquired ghost stories. The house’s co-owner Martha Linn keeps a notebook full of experiences from overnight guests — and, according to her, almost every guest had something paranormal happen to them.
Supposed activity includes children’s voices during tours, falling lamps, moving ladders, tugging on clothing and reports of a man with an axe roaming the halls. And the anecdotes are endless. One visitor asked the Stillinger sisters to turn his flashlight on and off, and his flashlight immediately turned on, then off by itself. People have also claimed to be trapped in the closet where Lena was thought to have hidden from the killer. On a related note, others reported seeing tiny pale fingers from the closet door. Footsteps have been heard upstairs when there was nobody up there, as well as children who sounded like they were roughhousing — again, presumably when there were no children there. Other reports claim the door in the childrens’ room opened and closed by itself during the night. One visitor claimed they played in the attic with a ghost boy named Paul — the same name as the youngest victim.
In 2010, the house was featured on the show Ghost Adventures. In the house, the hosts recorded EVP’s and believed they got the name Andy on one of them. Remember, Andy Sawyer was one of the suspects in the murders early on. The team also interviewed two former residents of the house who said they used to hear little girls crying.
In 2014, the house was almost home to another tragedy. 37-year-old Robert Steven Laursen Jr. came to the house with a group of friends to do a paranormal investigation. Around 12:45 am, he was alone in the house and called out for his friends, who found him stabbed in the chest. He was airlifted to a hospital and eventually made a full recovery.
Remember, the murders were thought by investigators to have been committed around midnight. But some people think they were actually committed closer to 12:45, and that there was a supernatural element to this stabbing. But if there wasn’t, and there was something much worse going on with Mr. Laursen, I certainly hope he’s okay now.
But with any good ghost story comes a dose of skepticism. Even if you do believe in the supernatural, there’s always the possibility that the hauntings aren’t real. In the 1990’s, filmmaker Kelly Rundle visited the house to film the documentary Villisca: Living With a Mystery. Just looking through the official plot summary, the movie doesn’t seem to mention paranormal activity in the house. And, according to Rundle, there wasn’t any. He never experienced paranormal activity in the house, and neither had any former owners he interviewed for the film. In fact, the first paranormal investigators didn’t visit the house until 1999. Remember, the house was opened for tours in 1994. When Rundle began filming his documentary, there wasn’t much talk of paranormal activity in the house at all. Were the rumors started to drum up publicity for the house? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.
Whatever the case, the house continues to operate today as a tourist attraction-slash-mini hotel. A group of up to six people can stay in the house overnight for the low, low price of…$428. You can also bring up to an additional four people for an extra $75 each. That does seem pretty steep…then again, you do get the place to yourself all night, as well as a private tour. People are also said to bring the axe from the original murders into the house, though I’m not sure how they managed that. Guests are also encouraged to share any photos, videos or audio recordings they make with the public.
Personally, I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to EVP recordings, which is what most of the videos I’ve found consist of. Most of them come with subtitles, but when you listen to them without the subtitles, to me it usually just sounds like gibberish. But there are a couple out there that seem convincing…if you believe in ghosts at all. I’ll link some videos down below that people have made of their own paranormal investigations, so you can watch and decide for yourself.
The case has also found its way into the media. There are tons of books and movies about the case, including The Man from the Train and Villisca: Living with a Mystery, both of which I mentioned earlier. A couple other books I found were Morning Ran Red: The Villisca Axe Murders by Stephen Bowman and Murdered in their Beds (Dead Men do Tell Tales) by Troy Taylor. Murdered in Their Beds explores the theory that the murders were committed by a transient serial killer.
The case has also inspired a few movies. Of course, there is Villisca: Living With a Mystery which didn’t seem to have anything to do with the paranormal. The other two aren’t documentaries and deal more with the supernatural aspect of the case. Among them are Haunting Villisca (which was actually filmed in Villisca), and The Axe Murders of Villisca. The latter movie goes with the premise that George Kelly committed the murders and had a sexual motive. It quickly transforms into a typical supernatural teen horror movie that, if you’re into horror, you’ve probably seen hundreds of times before. But if that sounds like something you’d enjoy, purchase links, as always, are down below.
So what do you think of this case? Who do you think is responsible for the murders of the Moore family and the Stillinger girls? Do you think any of the murders mentioned in this video were committed by the same person? Do you think the Moore’s former home is really haunted, or is it just rumors, maybe spread to drum up publicity? Let me know in the comments.
#unsolvedmysteries #serialkillers #truecrime #hauntedplaces #coldcases