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Southwestern Iowa's Most Grizzly Unsolved Murders, The Villisca Axe Murders Of 1912.

by Jason Ray Morton 6 months ago in investigation · updated 4 months ago

By Jason Morton

In the fall of 2010, in my darkest of places, I traveled to visit a young female friend that attended college in North-Western Missouri. Truthfully, at that time in my life, the long drives on the weekends were a very cathartic experience. During one of those eight-hour drives that I made, I took a side trip. I'd noticed signs and found the distraction online as I plotted different routes. In a small town in South Western Iowa, a town I had never heard of before, there is an allegedly haunted home that was once the scene of a horrifically shocking multiple murder. Before I knew it, I was now entering Villisca, Iowa. I was, down the rabbit hole, as they say. This place is just a bizarre little piece of midwest history but I couldn't help but visit it, to get the feeling of the place, and the sense of dread that comes with knowing about such a dreaded crime. Perhaps, as a professional curiosity, having been in law enforcement, I'm intrigued by such events. Or, perhaps I am like many, just drawn to mysteries and the bizzare.

Villisca Iowa, Population just over 1100

Even as I'm writing this, realizing that it's the 109th anniversary of the dreaded day in Villisca Iowa's storied history, the story and the crimes are still chalked full of questions without answers. In 109 years the crimes have never been solved. The mystery goes on.

On Sunday, June 9th, 1912 as the history goes, Josiah Moore and his wife Sara took their four kids Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul to a children's day service at the Presbyterian church. They had in tow, the Stillinger children, Lena and Ina, two kids that had wanted to spend the night with the Moore children.

Sara, who was a co-director at the church, must have been quite proud of her children that evening. The Moore children performed little speeches and read recitations along with other members of the church. A festive evening that ended with a social gathering, the night carried on until sometime after 9:00 p.m. before all returned home. When the Moores and their guests for the evening left, making the 3 block journey home on a damp, cloudy, and cool late spring night, nobody knew that was the last time any of them would be seen alive.

Mass Grave of The Moore Family, Villisca Iowa

Sometime after midnight, a killer, or killers picked obtained an Axe, entered the residence of Josiah and Sara Moore, and bludgeoned them all to death. It wasn't until after around 7:30 am on the morning of June 10th, that an elderly woman living nearby, became worried that everything seemed quiet and deserted. No doubt, Mary Peckham, was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of a family with four children and the gleeful joy of the children playing, Joe and Sara doing their daily chores around the home, and the general livelihood of a large family. She called Joes' brother, Ross, who came to investigate and found the first two bodies in the downstairs bedroom and blood. Ross called the local Marshall who came and searched the house. Marshall Horton came out and informed Joes' brother that there'd been someone murdered in every bed.

The scene was described as "bizarre" because of the unique touches the killer(s) added to the scene. There was a four-pound piece of slab bacon that leaned against a wall next to where the ax was found. The assailant had searched the dresser drawers, presumed to have wanted clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and glass on the doors. In the kitchen, authorities located a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water.

The victims were all found in their beds with their heads covered with bedclothes and their skulls caved in after being battered with the ax between an estimated 20 to 30 times. The ceiling in the parents' bedroom and the children's room upstairs showed gouging, presumably from the ax as the killer made multiple swings with the weapon. I'd note, that after being there, visiting the scene of this horrendous and infamously unsolved crime, it would only take a man of average to slightly above average height to have hit the ceiling with an ax head while swinging it overhead inside the home.

By Bill Oxford on Unsplash

There was one key suspect in the gruesome crime. A reverend, George Kelly, had left Villisca on a train that morning before the discovery of the bodies. Reverend Kelly informed fellow travelers that there were eight dead souls back in Villisca, Iowa butchered as they slept in their beds. Kelly had only arrived in Villisca for the first time the day of the murders and attended a Sunday School performance of the Stillinger girls before departing the morning of June 10, 1912. Kelly would later return a few weeks later, posing as a detective as he joined a tour of the crime scene with a group of investigators.

Kelly was the son and grandson of English ministers and had suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. After immigrating to America with his wife in 1904, he preached at Methodist churches across the Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas, and Iowa. After being assigned as a traveling minister in some small communities north of Villisca, Kelly allegedly had a reputation for odd behaviors, being convicted of sending obscene materials through the mail and having spent time in a mental hospital.

Kelly was actually indicted for Lena Stillinger's murder and authorities questioned him during the summer of 1917 while in jail awaiting the trial. On August 31st, 1917, Kelly confessed to the murder.

"God whispered to suffer the children to come unto me."

Rev. George Kelly

Kelly, later, recanted his confession at trial and his case went to a jury on September 26th, 1917. The jury deadlocked eleven to one, one voting for acquittal. There was a retrial due to the hung jury, and in November of 1917, Reverend George Kelly was acquitted. To this day, nobody else has ever been tried or formally named as responsible for the murders of Josiah Moore, Sara Moore, Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7), Paul (5), or Lena (12) and Ina Stillinger (8).

November 7th, 2014

It was on November 7th, 2014, that the last notable news story about the Villisca Axe Murder House occurred. Proclaimed by paranormal investigators to be one of the most haunted places in America following the 1912 murders of the Moores and the Stillinger girls, the house is a familiar site to investigators and so-called, "Ghost Hunter" groups. Visitors to the house have consistently reported experiencing emotional, physical, and supernatural disturbances during their overnight visits.

In 2014 Martha Linn, then 77, had bought the house in 1994 and restored it to its 1912 condition, stripping the place of all electricity and plumbing, turning it into a tourist attraction.

They play with the children, they hear voices, they get pictures of anomalies. I have notebooks from the last two years full of what overnight experiences people have had. Very few of them go away without experiencing something.

Martha Linn

On November 7th, 2014, Robert Steven Laursen, then 37 and of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, was a visitor. He came to the famed Axe Murder House for what was described as a "recreational paranormal investigation" according to Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson.

Sometime after beginning their investigation, Laursen was alone in the northwest bedroom when he radioed his companions for help. His companions found him stabbed in the chest, apparently a self-inflicted wound. According to police reports, the incident happened around 12:45 am, which is allegedly the approximate time of the original Axe Murders of Josiah, Sarah, their children, and the Stillinger girls.

It is now June 9th, 2021, the 109th anniversary of the last day anybody saw Josiah, Sarah, their four children, or the Stillinger girls alive. Sometime after midnight tonight will mark the 109th anniversary of their demise at the hands of yet unknown assailants and while they're in all likely hood deceased, the mystery of that night lives on, and at the Villisca Axe Murder House, their spirits may still dwell if the stories are to be believed.


Jason Ray Morton

I have spent a life in uniform, adventuring through this muddled-up world as time passed. I've lived, loved, fallen on my face only to try again. Now, as I get older, my only regret was not writing it down. It's time to start.

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