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The Villisca Axe Murders

The story begins thus, it's the early 1900's and the town of Villisca, Iowa, is booming. Businesses are growing, and dozens of trains stop at the depot on a daily basis. The town consisted of about 2500 people, and among those we meet the Moore family.

Josiah B. Moore

Herman

Katherine

Sarah M. Moore

Boyd

Paul

Josiah Moore was one of the most prominent businessmen in all of Villisca, he had lived there for thirteen years, and it was also there that he married his wife, Sarah Montgomery Moore, and had four children. 

The oldest was Herman who was 11, and next was Katherine who was 10. Boyd was 7 and Paul, the youngest, was 5. 

They were very involved in their town, and were even strong members of the Villisca Presbyterian Church, and often organized events for the children. 

It was on the night of June 9th, at around 8:00 PM that one of these youth events took place. It was the annual Children's Day exercise, coordinated by Sarah Moore herself. All of the Moore children participated in the event and Josiah sat in with the audience to watch. 

Alongside the Moore children, were two others of interest. 

 

Lena

Ina

Lena and Ina Stillinger participated alongside the Moore children in the exercise, and being friends of the family, it was agreed that Lena and Ina would spend the night with the Moore family. 

At around 9:30 that night the Moore family, and the Stillinger girls, made their way home, never to be seen alive again. 

The Moore Family Home

It was the morning of June the 10th, that Mary Peckham, the Moore's next door neighbor, went out to hang her laundry. She notes that the house is unusually quiet. Typically at that time of the morning, the home is lively, with Josiah heading off to work, and the children doing their chores. 

Wondering what could be the matter, Mary Peckham goes over to the Moore home, and knocks on the door. 

No answer. 

She tries to open the door, only to find that it is locked from the inside. Investigating around the house Mary finds that the chickens are still in their coop, and many of the other things that should have been done in the morning, hadn't been done. This was definitely strange, and implied that perhaps the family had never even left the house. 

So Mary Peckham calls Ross Moore, who is Josiah's brother, and he comes over to the home to see what is up. Using his copy of the house key, Ross enters the quiet home, and realizes something isn't right. 

Entering a first floor guest bedroom, Ross finds the bodies of the two Stillinger girls. Their faces are covered by clothes, and there is blood on the bed. Ross rushes from the home and informs Mary that something terrible has happened, and she runs off to contact the sheriff. 

When Sherriff Henry Horton arrived on scene, a search of the home revealed the dark tragedy that had taken place. Both the Stillinger girls, and the entire Moore family, had been killed. Two spent cigarettes were found in the attic, suggesting that perhaps the killer waited patiently for the family to fall asleep. The murder weapon was also discovered in the guest bedroom where the Stillinger girls were. It was an axe belonging to Josiah, that was covered in blood, but had also been wiped down, as if someone had attempted to clean it.

 

A physician by the name of Dr. J. Clark Cooper was called in to help lead the medical investigation. Dr. Cooper discovered that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5AM. The killer, or killers, started with the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah were sleeping. It was noted that Josiah received more blows to the face than any of the other victims, and he was the only one on whom the blade of the axe had been used. All of the other victims had been bludgeoned to death by the back of the axe. 

The killer then went on to murder the Moore children, before going back to the parent's room, and dealing more blows to them. Finally, the killer went to the guest bedroom, and murdered Lena and Ina. 

When the Stillinger girls were found, Lena, who was 12 years old at the time, had been found lying across the bed, rather than the other bodies who were lying long ways. Her nightgown had been pulled up, and she wasn't wearing any underwear, leading police to wonder if she had been sexually assaulted. There was also marks on her knee, and arm that investigators believed to be marks of resistance. 

It is thought that Lena was the only one to see the murderer while she was alive. 

Investigators also noticed some strange things about the crime scene. All of the victims had their faces covered with clothes, and all the window curtains had been drawn. Even the windows that didn't have any curtains had been covered by sheets. Stranger still was the fact that all of the mirrors in the house had been covered as well. 

Also very odd was that a 2lb slab of bacon was found in the guest bedroom next to the murder weapon. On the kitchen table was an uneaten plate of food, and a bowl full of bloody water, where the killer potentially cleaned themselves. 

Another strange coincidence was that two lamps were found, one at the foot of Josiah and Sarah's bed, and one at the foot of the bed the Stillinger girls were found in. Every door to the house had also been locked from the inside, leaving police to wonder how the killer ever left the house, if indeed, he had.

In search of the culprit the police were able to identify a few potential subjects. One of whom was Reverend Lyn George Kelly.

 
 
 

Rev. Lyn Kelly

At 5:19AM, June 10th, Reverend Kelly left Villisca on the Number 5 train, and allegedly told some of the other passengers that "there were eight dead souls back in Villisca, butchered in their beds while they slept." However, at that time, the bodies hadn't even been found yet.

Kelly was known as a strange man. He'd had a mental breakdown as a child, and was always known to be a peeping Tom, even going so far as to ask young women if he could take nude photographs of them.

He had a strange fascination with the Moore case, often writing letters to the police in regards to the investigation. This of course aroused suspicion, and the police wrote back asking Rev. Kelly if he might have any information about the killings. Kelly responded in great detail, and later on even confessed to the crimes. 

However, because of his mental illness, and the fact that he was also at the Children's Day event with the Moore family, the police simply were not sure whether or not he'd truly committed the crime. Perhaps he'd been a witness, but there was no evidence to actually tie him to the murders. 

Despite the obvious suspect being Rev. Lyn Kelly, there were others who were just as suspicious. 

William Mansfield, a cocaine addicted serial killer, was also thought to be a suspect. In each of Mansfield's killings the victims were killed with an axe, and the mirrors in the home were always covered. Other striking similarities were found between the Villisca case, and Mansfield's previous murders, however payroll records provided Mansfield an alibi, saying that he was in Illinois at the time of the murders.

Another possible suspect, not thought of until many years later, was Paul Mueller. Mueller was the sole suspect of the murder of a family in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, in 1897. He was a German immigrant who had been employed by the family as a farmhand. However after a year long manhunt, no one was able to capture Paul Mueller. 

According to a 2017 Novel, The Man From The Train, Bill James and Rachel McCarthy (Bill's daughter) piece together old newspapers that detail dozens of families that had been killed in ways identical to the Moore family. It is thought that Mueller killed over 59 people in roughly 14 different incidents, over the length of a decade. 

All of Mueller's alleged victims were found near train tracks, were attacked sometime after midnight, and were killed by the blunt side of an axe that the family owned. Victims were covered by a cloth to prevent blood splatter, all the window curtains would be drawn and he would lock the doors before leaving.

Not to mention, almost all of Mueller's alleged murders carried with them a sexual motive towards pubescent girls. 

However despite all of the suspects, the police have never been able to identify the killer's identity. 

The truth remains elusive. 

What we do know for sure, is that there are monsters in the world. Keep your eyes and your mind sharp, dear Reader, and make sure there aren't any cigarettes in your attic.

 

Resources/References

The Crime of the Villisca Axe Murder House. (2009). Retrieved 28 December 2020, from https://www.villiscaiowa.com/the-crime.php

Villisca axe murders. (2020). Retrieved 28 December 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villisca_axe_murders

Sarian, B. (2020). Retrieved 28 December 2020, from https://youtu.be/-WnrqXbcCpA

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