by Shelly Gatto
Perhaps the most unsettling crimes are those that are never given proper justice. An otherwise unremarkable white frame house stands along a residential street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa. Passing by it, an unsuspecting visitor would never know the horrors that took place within its quiet walls decades ago.
There is a belief that when something terrible happens, it can leave behind a permanent scar that may not be visible right away. This scar does not present itself as physical damage but rather spiritual. Those who know the story of the Villisca axe murders believe that the house possesses such scars. Many who have entered the home or spent any length of time there verify this belief.
Haunted History: A Shocking Incident in a Quiet Town
Josiah B. Moore married his wife Sarah Montgomery in December of 1899. They had four children together. Josiah was a successful business man and their family life was typical of other families living in the area at the time. The eldest son, Herman was only eleven years old when he was murdered, his sister Katherine was ten. The two youngest children, Paul and Boyd, were seven and five.
Two other victims lost their lives do to an unfortunate case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Twelve year old Lena Gertrude Stillinger and her nine year old sister, Ina May, were spending the evening at the Moore house at the request of their friend, Katherine Moore. The family along with their two young house guests participated in a Children’s Day event at the Presbyterian Church, where Mrs. Moore was an active member. She was responsible for coordinating the activities for the event. After the Children’s Day celebration concluded on June 9th, 1912 at 9:30 pm, the group walked home. It is believed they arrived between 9:45 pm and 10:00 pm that evening.
Exactly what happened next is unknown. Doctors estimated that based on the time of death, the crime happened sometime after midnight and before 5:00 am. A statement made by Mrs. Retta Johnson, who accompanied Minnie Moore (sister of Josiah), revealed that bags of cotton batting stored in a closet had been flattened and pushed down, as if a man stood or sat on them. This could have been done by the killer as he waited in a closet for the family to retire for the evening.
After the family and houseguests were in bed and well asleep, the killer crept from his hiding area and slaughtered each with an axe. The only victim believed to have awoken before being killed was Lena Stillinger, who was sleeping with her sister in a downstairs bedroom adjacent to the parlor. Based on the position of her body, with one foot extended sideways and a hand under the pillow on her right side, the investigation believes she may have been struck and tried to fight. Some also believe that she may have been sexually assaulted.
All the doors in the home were locked with no indication of a break in. All the curtains had been drawn except for two windows which did not have curtains. These windows had been covered using clothing found in the house. The face of each victim had been covered in garments after being killed. The murder weapon, an axe that belonged to Josiah, was discovered in the bedroom where the Stillinger sisters had been sleeping. Although it was covered in blood, it was obvious the killer had attempted to wipe the axe off before discarding it. The ceilings in the bedrooms also had gouge marks which most likely came from the axe head as it was swung up and down.
Other details included a pan of bloody water found alongside a plate of untouched food on the kitchen table. A small piece of keychain was found on the floor in the downstairs bedroom. The coroner, Dr. Linquist, stated that a 2 pound slab of bacon was found on the floor in the downstairs bedroom close to the axe. It had been wrapped in a dish towel or similar piece of cloth. Another slab of bacon was found in the icebox.
One of Sarah’s shoes was discovered lying on its side with blood in and under it near Josiah’s side of the bed. Linquist speculates that the shoe may have been upright before the murder and had filled with blood after Josiah was first attacked. Linquist also believes that the killer may have returned to batter the bodies a second time, knocking the shoe over while doing so.
Suspects and a Botched Investigation
Given the technology law enforcement has available today, the Villisca axe murder incident would most likely have been given some closure through justice. Unfortunately, nearly one hundred years ago, protocol and investigation methods were not as refined. Quick response is vital as well as thorough investigation of a crime scene which has been unaltered. In the Villisca axe murder case, neither of these things occurred. Nearly a hundred people were able to wander the property and tour the house, looking at the bodies and possibly altering the crime scene before the Villisca National Guard arrived to secure the home around noon that day.
A local druggist arrived with his camera to tape the crime scene. He was thrown out and not permitted to film. Had the druggist been allowed to film, he may have been able to help preserve and present other notable clues through the footage.
After the initial shock, many leads pointed to a number of potential suspects. Each lead seemed to run to a dead end. No one was ever convicted of the murders. Today, those who study the case have three schools of thought on who the murderer really was. The first focuses on Josiah’s former employer, Frank F. Jones. Many claimed that Jones was very unhappy about Josiah leaving his company and starting his own successful John Deere franchise. To add to his displeasure, rumors had spread that Josiah had an affair with Jones’ daughter in law.
Detective Wilkerson from the Burns Detective Agency was very open about accusations that Jones and his son hired William Mansfield to kill Josiah.
Detective Wilkerson was further driven by his belief that Mansfield had killed his wife, infant, father in law and mother in law two years prior to the Villisca murders. The crime was committed in Blue Island, Illinois. Wilkerson also believes Mansfield was responsible for axe murders in Paola, Kansas four days before the Villisca incident as well as the murders of Jennie Miller and Jennie Peterson in Aurora, Colorado.
A second key suspect in the Villisca murders was traveling preacher Reverend George Jacklin Kelly. He had been invited to join in the Children’s Day activities and had departed during the early morning hours the following day, placing him at the right location at the right time to fit what was already known about the crime. Kelly was later acquitted and believed to have moved to Kansas City, Connecticut and finally New York City. Where he went after that and where he eventually died is not known.
A third suspect was named as serial killer Henry Moore (no relation to the victims). Henry Moore was convicted of murdering his maternal grandmother and mother in Columbia, Missouri months after the Villisca incident. The murder weapon and method were very similar in each case. Henry Moore had a bad history and had spent 36 years of a life sentence in prison before the governor commuted his sentence in 1956. He was 82 years old at the time of his release. Where he went after that is unknown.
Other axe murders were reported around the time of the Villisca incident, which lead some to believe that perhaps yet another serial killer could have been responsible. Strong similarities were noticed by authorities who compared the Villisca murders to a Colorado Springs case.
A Curious Theory
The Villisca Review published yet anther theory behind the Villisca axe murders on November 19th, 1987. The author, Don Patton, claimed to have interviewed a former resident of Villisca. The 86 year old woman, who remained anonymous, had relatives who lived in the area at the time of the murders. She stated that late in 1911, the son of a prominent family in Villisca was accidentally caught in the crossfire of a race-related riot in Oklahoma. The son was shot to death and his body was brought back to Villisca to be buried.
His widow returned with the body to attend funeral services. The interviewee states that there were serious relationship problems between the son’s family and the widow. The family forbade the widow from attending funeral services which were held in the family home.
A prominent Villisca businessman heard about the injustice and instructed the funeral director to reserve two seats in the front row at the service. Just minutes before the ceremony commenced, the businessman arrived, escorting the grieving widow. After the conclusion of services, the family again instructed the widow she was not permitted to join the funeral procession to the burial site. The businessman again accompanied her to the location.
The interviewee said that after the events concluded, the widow left Villisca and returned home. She did not know if the widow ever came back to the town. However, given their reaction, it was clear that the widow and her late husband’s family had a strong dislike for one another.
At this point, it is no secret that the investigation did a very poor job of collecting pristine evidence and properly recording details. According to Patton’s interviewee, a pair of footprints was discovered at the end of the porch. Given the position and shape, it looked as though someone wearing moccasins had jumped down from the porch. The interviewee also commented that this evidence was not reported in any local papers or through other media sources. Those who knew about this evidence believed that the scorned widow had enlisted the help of a Native American to exact revenge on the family that had treated her so poorly in her time of grief.
The interviewee stated that the Moore family had nothing to do with the case, but rather were victims of misfortune and miscalculation. She believes that the widow gave instructions using a landmark to direct the killer to the home of her husband’s family. She may have used the Presbyterian Church as the key landmark, and directed the murderer to travel eleven houses north to find his victims. The Moore’s lived eleven houses to the east. A simple directional miscalculation would put the killer at the Moore’s house instead of the intended victim’s (who lived eleven houses north of the church).
Unexplained Incidents After the Murders
With so much back story and so many potential explanations, little progress was made in finding the murderer. This left the bloody death of eight individuals, including six innocent children, to endure eternity without proper justice. Many believe that the Moore and Stillinger children still remain in the house. Some have tried to disprove the haunting as a hoax instigated by Darwin Linn, who had purchased the house and was trying to make good on his investment. What they do not realize is that long before Linn finalized the purchase, reports of strange incidents had already been made.
Early in the 1930s, the house was rented out to Homer and Bonnie Ritner, a young couple married in November of 1930. Shortly after the marriage, Bonnie was expecting and the family had little money. Using money saved from his labor job, Homer managed to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on the house.
Shortly after the couple moved in, Bonnie told Homer on multiple occasions that she thought someone was in the house. She heard strange noises throughout the night. She also began seeing images of a man with an axe looming over the foot of their bed. Bonnie became hysterical and woke Homer, who could only try to calm her. The occurrences were so frequent and intense that the couple went to a local physician, Dr. Cooper, who advised Bonnie that if she continued to raise her stress levels so high she may lose her unborn baby.
Homer did his best to cope. He decided to stay awake during the night and watch over Bonnie while she slept. He remained in a chair at the end of the bed. They had no money to move, so this seemed like the only solution for the couple. Staying up night after night was taking a serious toll on Homer. Eventually, he also began hearing strange noises, similar to those that Bonnie described.
One evening, Homer heard the sound of someone walking up and down the stairs. The incident was unsettling enough for Homer to decide it was time to take drastic measures and get out.
The following day he went to a local pool hall searching for the house’s owner to discuss refunding his deposit and rent so that he and his wife could move. There he found the pool hall’s bartender. Homer explained what was happening and was shown a cigar box that the bartender claimed contained a piece of Josiah Moore’s skull. Homer rushed home, collected up his belongings and left with his wife immediately. They decided to live with relatives and never did get a refund on the deposit or rent.
Another incident was reported by John and Allie Geeseman, who purchased the home. Darwin Linn interviewed Dale Miller, grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Geeseman. Miller stated that his grandfather would not sleep in the house and had actually gone so far as to make a bed in the barn. Neighbors believed this was due to marriage problems, when in fact it had much more to do with a story Miller was told when he was young.
Miller’s aunt and her husband were staying with the Geeseman family. They claimed that the door that led from the front porch to the parlor kept opening throughout the evening. Every few minutes they would get up and close it only to find it opened again a short time later. At about 3:00 am, Miller’s aunt and her husband were seen running down the sidewalk with their nightclothes billowing behind them. Miller was never told exactly what made his aunt her husband run terrified from the house. Perhaps they observed the door opening on its own. Mr. and Mrs. Geeseman never spoke about what happened there, although something was clearly wrong because Miller’s grandfather refused to sleep inside the house.
Two young girls and their parents rented the property from the Villisca State Bank between 1963 and 1971. The father was a truck driver and was gone for long periods of time often. The girls would awaken in the night to hear children crying. On occasion, they would return to their rooms to find drawers open and clothes thrown around the room. They told their parents, but their claims were mostly dismissed until one final incident occurred involving their father.
During the evening, their father was sharpening his pocketknife at the kitchen table. Without explanation, the knife flew from his hand and stabbed him in the palm. There was no logical way for the knife to have slipped accidentally. This was the final straw for the family: they packed up and left that evening.
Strangely, former resident Vickie Sprague, who was very outspoken against Linn’s claims that the house was haunted, had a brief conversation with an individual who runs the official website for the house. She claims that she lived in the home for twenty years and never once saw, felt or heard anything out of the ordinary. Curiously, when she met the individual who had just spent the night in the home in 2003, she asked if anything happened. The individual invited her to spend the night and her only response was “no thank you” before driving away.
The Villisca Axe Murder House Today
We will probably never know who is responsible for the Villisca axe murders. A century ago, crime scene investigation was much different. Some claim that the whole haunting is a hoax, while those who experienced it believe it is very real. Perhaps the mid 1990s renovations and tours may have stirred the spirits permanently residing there. For now, all we have are stories, a long, sordid history, and speculation. The victims, and their murderer, have long since perished, lost to the undeniable effects of time.