Vintage Crime: The Villisca Ax Murders

Vintage Crime: The Villisca Ax Murders

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In 1912, eight people were brutally murdered in their beds. Despite the sensational nature of the crime and multiple suspects, police never figured out who killed them.

A Wholesome Day Turned Into a Nightmare

The date was Sunday, June 9th, 1912. Villisca, Iowa, was by no means a thriving metropolis, but it was a pleasant place where people knew their neighbors. The Moore family, as well as two neighborhood children who were spending the night, had just enjoyed a lovely evening at the Presbyterian church. It was the annual Children’s Day service, and the kids had recited poetry and performed skits as part of the pageant.

The eldest Moore daughter, Mary Katherine, had asked if her friends, the Stillinger sisters, could spend the night after the program. They all went back to the Moore’s modest, white clapboard house at around 9:45 p.m. and enjoyed a snack of cookies and milk.

None of them ever left the house alive again.

Eight Souls Stolen in a Single Night

The following day, another neighbor noticed that the Moore house was too quiet for a workday morning. She called Joe Moore’s brother, who unlocked the house and found the two neighbor girls murdered in the guest room. He called the local law enforcement, in the form of Marshal Hank Horton, to come quick.

They discovered that every single person in the house had been hit on the head with an ax at least 20 times. Their skulls were caved in, and yet almost all the victims were tucked up in bed with covers pulled over their faces.

The victims were:

  • Josiah “Joe” Moore (43)
  • His wife, Sara (39)
  • Their children Herman (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur (7), and Paul (5)
  • As well as Lena (12) and Lina (8) Stillinger, neighbors of the family

Only Lena Stillinger seemed to have been awake at the time of the murders. She was found with defensive wounds, as if she’d fought back, and had fallen across the bed instead of being tucked in.

Strange Details of the Case

Cigarette butts found in the attic suggested that the killer had lain in wait for the family. But there were other, stranger clues left behind.

For one thing, the killer had covered all the mirrors in the house with clothes scavenged from the victims’ wardrobes and dressers.

Investigators found an uneaten meal and a bowl of bloody water on the kitchen table. The killer might have washed his hands before making the snack, or he might have been tidying up the murder weapon. The ax had been partially cleaned before being propped against the wall of the guest bedroom. Next to the weapon was, strangest of all, a four-pound slab of bacon.

The police questioned many potential suspects, but they quickly focused on Reverend George Kelly, a traveling minister who left town early in the morning before the bodies were found. He confessed to the crimes before recanting. Eventually, Kelly went to court, but the first trial ended in a hung jury. He was tried again and acquitted, leaving the mystery of who killed the Moores and the Stillingers unsolved.