In June of 1912, barely two months after the sinking of the Titanic, an unspeakable tragedy in the most unlikely of places took over the headlines for a time. The heinous crime that occurred in Villisca, Iowa was neither myth nor legend; that came afterward—and it continues on to this day, a century later.
Villisca, located in Iowa’s southwest corner, is typical of the numerous small towns that comprise the Hawkeye State. Its current population is about 1,200, but in 1912 the number was twice that, as it stood along a busy railroad line. Businesses flourished due to the many trains that stopped there on a daily basis. One railroad employee insisted that Villisca translated to “Pretty Place,” which indeed it was. Later, others would liken it to the Native American word “Wallisca.” Translation: “evil spirit.”
One successful businessman was a good-natured fellow named Josiah Moore. He and his wife, Sarah, had four children, ranging in age from five to eleven: Paul, Boyd, Katherine and Herman. A deeply religious family, they attended church as usual on Sunday, June 9th, then participated in a number of other church-related activities
throughout the day and evening. Katherine invited two of her friends, sisters Ina and Lena Stillinger, to spend the night, a common occurrence. All eight walked to the nearby Moore home after the last church activity concluded at about 9:30 p.m.
The next morning a neighbor noticed that the Moore house was uncharacteristically still. No one had even let the chickens out to be fed. The neighbor knocked on the front door; no answer, and it was locked from the inside. Nor could she see in any of the windows. Concerned, she called Josiah Moore’s brother, who arrived with keys. He opened the door and entered…
…entered the screaming Hell that had once been the Moore family’s peaceful refuge.
The Stillinger sisters had been bludgeoned to death in the first-floor guest room, their caved-in heads covered with blood-soaked bedclothes. Upstairs, all of the Moores had met a similar fate. A bloodied ax—the presumed murder weapon—belonging to Josiah Moore was found in the guest room, with a huge slab of bacon alongside it. One of the sisters’
bodies had been left in a sexually explicit pose. Kerosene lamps had been left at the foot of Josiah and Sarah’s bed and that of the Stillinger sisters. Windows without curtains had been covered with more of the bedclothes.
CSI procedures being what they were in 1912—all but non-existent—at least a hundred curious townsfolk traipsed through and contaminated the scene before the local peace officer could summon what passed for professionals back then. Ultimately, the scene yielded few if any clues.
Subsequently, theories abounded as to who committed the murders, with opinions so varied that they divided the once peaceful town of Villisca. Over the next few years the many suspects included Josiah Moore’s former employer, or a “hit man” he might have hired; a hobo; even a known Midwest serial killer curiously named Henry Moore.
But the only person to ever stand trial was a traveling preacher named George Kelly—a suspected sexual pervert and peeping Tom. A forced confession was thrown out at his first trial, which ended in a hung jury. Kelly was acquitted at a second trial in 1917.
To this day the true identity of the Villisca ax murderer remains shrouded in mystery.
Many believe that the spirits of those who died sudden, violent deaths remain trapped where they perished, too confused or too angry to move on. (See my posts, “Myths and Legends: The Ghost of Kate Morgan” and “Ghostly Legends of the Whaley House.”) In the decades following the murders the house on 2nd Street in Villisca underwent many changes of ownership, much deterioration, and the stigma of being the site of the most heinous crime in the state’s history. At times the house was rented out, but only for short periods. One has to wonder what drove the residents away.
In 1994 the run-down house, in danger of being leveled, was purchased by its current owner, and an extensive renovation began to restore it to how it appeared in 1912. In 1998 the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Daytime tours are now offered at the “Villisca Ax Murder House,” and you can even stay overnight—if you dare.
Why do I say that? Since its renovation (and perhaps prior to that), the house has been researched by many ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, and some of their findings—both video and audio—can give you chills. Much of the activity takes place starting around 2 a.m. (In 1912 the coroner determined that the murders
occurred between midnight and 5 a.m.) That is when a train passes through Villisca and blows its whistle, as it did even back then. Some believe that the murderer might have used the sound of a passing train to mask the screams of his victims. In any case, a fog appears and moves from room to room—as the killer did. As it dissipates, investigators report the sound of dripping blood. Orbs of light have been seen flitting about the upstairs rooms.
A non-profit organization that goes by the acronym of P.R.I.S.M. (Paranormal Research & Investigative Studies Midwest) is privately funded to respond to any reported paranormal event in that region. They have investigated the Villisca house a few times, as recently as last summer, and some of their findings are amazing. Among other things they have recorded children’s voices, photographed spectral images of what appears to be three children, and have a video record of the moving orbs of light, as well as a door closing. I urge you to visit their website at (I love this!) http://www.doyouseedeadpeople.org/21/
Perhaps someday one of the spirits in the Villisca Ax Murder House will utter the name that has eluded law enforcement for over a century. Once revealed, they may find some peace.
For more details about the Villisca Ax Murder House visit the official website at http://www.villiscaiowa.com/index.php