Friday, August 28, 2020

Killer Unknown: the Villisca Axe Murders

The daybook, Chicago, 14th June 1912.
 Public domain

Every town has it's haunted house, a grim-looking place where terrible things have happened or are
rumoured to have had happened. But not many can boast of a crime quite like the Villisca Axe Murders of 1912. A crime so brutal that it replaced the recent Titanic disaster on the front pages of many American newspapers. People were fascinated by true crime, even 108 years ago.

June 9th, 1912.
The Moore family returned to their home after an enjoyable, but busy, day out. The family was made up of Josiah (43 y/o), Sarah (39 y/o) and their four children, Paul (5 y/o), Boyd (7 y/o), Katherine (10 y/o) and Herman (11 y/o).
Joining them were Lena (8 y/o) and Ina Mae Stillinger (12 y/o), two of Katherine's friends, who had been invited over for a sleepover. They'd spent the day at their local church, attending a Children's Day event organised by Sarah and they didn't get home until late, around 9:45 or 10:00.
It's not known what time they all went to bed, but it's safe to assume they had some tea first and spent some time unwinding before they did. Eventually, the household would go to bed, the Moores and their brood in their own rooms upstares and the Stillinger girls in the guestroom downstairs.
None of them would ever wake up.

June 10th, 1912
The Moores neighbour, Mary, has started her day. But, as she goes about her morning routine, she can't help but notice that something is missing and that something was the Moores. See, at that point in the morning, the children should have been out and about, starting their daily chores. To Mary's growing concern, as the morning went on there was no sign of life over at the house next to hers. She assumed that the family had fallen ill and went to check on them. The curtains were still drawn and the house seemed dark. Mary first tried knocking on the door, then calling out to the people inside, but got no response. Her attempt to let herself in was met with something unusual; a locked door. It was unusual because in those days, in those sleepy, safe little towns, people would leave their doors unlocked. They had nothing to fear, or at least thought they didn't, but what would be discovered inside that house would have the whole town locking their doors and windows. Unable to get in, Mary called Ross Moore, Josiah's brother and owner of a spare door key. And, being the good person she was, while Ross let himself into the house, Mary fed the families chickens, thinking she was doing her friends a favour. She wasn't expecting him to come running out, calling to her to call the police.
Inside the house had been ominously silent, Ross may have been expecting to find something grim but nothing could prepare him for the horror contained inside that building. Wandering around the ground floor, calling for his family, he came across the guestroom and its chilling contents. And having guessed why the family was nowhere to be seen, he fled.
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0

Town Marshal Horton and his men arrive to discover a human abattoir and a rapidly growing crowd of onlookers. A search of the house reveals that somebody has taken the families axe from the woodshed and, starting with Josiah and Sarah, killed everyone. These murders were methodical and precise. Everything seems to indicate a lot of anger and most of this rage seems to have been aimed at Josiah. Mr Moore had been struck at least thirty times, with both the blade and back of the axe. The force of the blows rained down upon him were strong enough to pop his eye right out of its socket and the murderer had gone out of his way to demolish Josiah's face. Investigators even found chunks gouged out of the ceiling above the bed, where the axe had been swung back so far that it had struck it. After finishing of the adults, he went after the children and, after he was finished, he went back to the parent's room to beat Josiah's face into an unrecognisable mush. Once he had done so he went downstairs and killed Lena and Ina Mae. And this is where it starts to get weird. Or weirder. You see, killing someone with an axe, especially when using such extreme brute strength, is going to make a lot of noise. And yet no one woke up, except for possibly Lena Stillinger. She was found lying sideways across her bed and there were signs of a struggle, defensive wounds on her arms. But other than Lena, it looks like everyone just slept through the carnage. Sarah, tucked up in bed with Josiah didn't stir as her husbands head was caved in. The children didn't wake as their siblings, in the same room as them, had their short lives ended. And Ina Mae Stillinger didn't wake as her sister fought off her attacker. Stranger still, after finishing off his victims, the killer had covered their faces, mirrors and other reflective surfaces with bedsheets and items of clothing. This could indicate two things. The first possibility is that it was an act of remorse, the killer knew they'd done wrong and this was some strange way of showing respect to the victims, much like wrapping a body in a burial shroud. The second possibility is that he was covering his tracks, much like how serial killer Andrei Chikatilo would put out his victim's eyes for fear that they somehow contained his image burnt onto them. Is it possible the killer thought this act could prevent him from being caught? For some reason, the killer also removed a 4lb cut of bacon from the pantry, only to discard it in the living room along with the murder weapon, which he propped up against the wall. Was this some bizarre attempt at making the murders look like a robbery gone wrong, or had the killer intended to take it with him but forgot it or changed his mind? Police also found a bowl of bloody water, as if the killer had tried to wash himself clean, before leaving and locking the door behind him.
Doctors on the scene work out that the crime had been committed sometime between 12:00 am and 5:00am, but it doesn't seem that they looked into why no one had woken up while it was happening. 
Considering how much of a shambles the investigation was, it's possible that they did look into it but the evidence was lost. 

Crime Scene or Circus?
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0
The local law enforcement's half-hearted attempts at investigation pretty much ensured the killer would never be found and the suspect list they came up with was based on rumours and mudslinging rather than actual evidence. They didn't rush to start a manhunt, believing that it would be a waste of time and the killer would be long gone. Some even dismissed the case as just part of a string of similar murders that had been taking place at the time. Worse yet, in a time where forensic science was still developing and relied on an untampered with crime scene, the police didn't properly secure the building. All they did was warn the crowd outside not to go in and made no real attempt to stop them when they started to do so anyway. It was a small town and news travelled fast. The crowd that had been outside when the police arrived had swelled in numbers. Driven by morbid fascination, they ignored the police and proceeded to enter the house. Over 100 people treated a tragic crime scene full of gore as a sideshow, wandering around the house like it was a museum and, most likely, destroying vital evidence. The desecration didn't stop there, as one of the ghoulish visitors took a chunk of Josiah's crushed skull home with them, as a souvenir. 
All this while the families of the dead watched on in grief and horror.

The Suspects
Despite the lack of real evidence, there was no shortage of suspects, with people being blamed left, right and centre. There were seven suspects in total, most of it comes across as a bit of a witch hunt. In some cases, it looks as if the police were trying to cover up their incompetence at the crime scene by desperately scrabbling for someone to blame. But, as you'll see, there are a couple of potential suspect here.

Sam Moyer
It's said that when a murder happens, it's usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows. And the Moore's definitely knew Moyer, as he was a family member, Sarah's brother. He became a suspect when it came to light that he'd often threatened the life of his brother-in-law, but his alibi was a solid one and resulted in him being cleared of all charges at the inquest.
It's worth noting that while Sam had a history of threatening Josiah, there are no reports of those threats being extended to his sister, nieces and nephews. 

Henry Moore
Henry's surname is just an odd coincidence, since he was in no way related to the victims. I've mentioned before that there was a slwe of violent axe murders being commited at the time, which some consider the Villisca murders to be a part of. Henry was one of the suspects for those murders, incriminating himself even further when he took and axe to his own grandmother, wife and infant child.
Despite this he wasnt officially charged for the Villisca murders, remaining only a suspect and it's worth pointing out that the murder of his family was one fueled by greed. He'd taken out insurance on each of them and it appears that he was hoping to pass the murders off as one of the many commited at that time, so that he could make a claim.

Reverend George Kelly
To the people of Villisca, Reverend George was a bit of an oddball and a creep. A travelling minister, he attended the same church event that the Moores did before their deaths and left Villisca sometime around 5:30am, not long after the murders had happened. What made people even more suspicious of him is that he'd often been seen peeping through peoples windows and had been accused, multiple times, of asking young girls to pose for naked for him. Young girls around Lena Stillinger's age and up. He was also completely obsessed with the crime, bothering the families and the police with letters and attempting to sneak onto the crime scene, when it was secured, by pretending to be a policeman. He even told a P.I. that he'd been around the house the night the murders took place and may have witnessed it, but the police didn't bother to take him into custody for the murders until 1917. That's a whole five years after the murders took place. After hours of interrogation, they got a confession out of him and sent him off to court. He would go to trial two times and be acquitted on both occasions. At the first trial, the jury looked at his history of mental illness and refused to sentence him. At the second he went back on his claim that he'd committed the crime, insisting that the police had beat the confession out of him. 

Andrew Sawyer
Andrew was a railroad worker, a bit of a loner, with no link to the Moore family. And like the rest of the nation, he was fascinated by the murders that had taken place, but fascinated to the degree that his constant talking about it unnerved his co-workers enough that they complained to the crew's foreman. The foreman, a man named Dyer, took him aside to speak to him about it, hoping to solve the strange problem. He was shocked when Andrew admitted to being in Villisca the night of the murder and told him that had heard it happen, but ran away for fear of being blamed for it. As a transient, he would have made the perfect scapegoat. Dyer was so unnerved by this that he immediately reported the man to the police. Despite his bizarre claims, Andrew was able to provide the police with a pretty solid alibi, as on the night of the murders he had been arrested for vagrancy in Osceola, Iowa. This lead to him being dismissed as a suspect.

Paul Mueller 
A European immigrant, Paul Mueller was never arrested or charged for the Villisca axe murders and is a relatively new suspect in the case, having been suggested as the murderer in Bill James and Rachel McCarthy's 2017 book The Man from the Train. Evidence against him includes him being tracked in a year-long manhunt, accused of killing a family in Massachusetts in 1897.

Frank F. Jones
Out of all the people on this list, it seems that Mr Jones had an actual reason for wanting Josiah Moore dead. An Iowa State Senator living in Villisca, before he turned to politics he had owned a store there. And who worked for him? None other than Josiah. Josiah who turned out to be so good at his job that he would go on to leave Jones' employment and open a store of his very own, taking a lot of high paying customers with him in the process. On top of that, there was an unfounded rumour going round that Josiah was having an affair with Jones' daughter in law. 
Although he went uncharged for the murders, many of the locals, including the father of the Stillinger sisters and Ross Moore himself, still strongly felt that he was the guilty party. It was suggested that he'd hired someone to commit the deed, rather than risk dirtying his own hands and reputation. Josiah's family and their friends? Collateral damage. But who could he hire to do such a terrible thing? Well, that would be William Mansfield, the next suspect on our list.

William Mansfield
I chose to place Mansfield after Jones on this list, because of their possible link to each other. He was a deeply unpleasant person and one who wasn't just a prime suspect for the string of axe murders that had been going on, some even suspect him of being a potential suspect in the Axeman of New Orleans killings. He even killed his own wife, parents-in-law and infant child with an axe just two years after the Moores murders. Yet he wasn't investigated for killings in Villisca until 1916 and was quickly acquitted as he had a seemingly solid alibi. A witness would later come forward stating that he'd seen Mansfield in Shenandoah, Iowa, heading to the train station. If this is true then it blows Mansfields alibi clear out of the water, but he was never re-arrested. At the same time of his first arrest, Frank Jones was pushing for the arrest of Reverend Kelly, an investigator at the time believes this led to Mansfields release and the subsequent trial of Kelly.

A Crime Unsolved.
There are few crimes as chaotic as the Villisca Axe Murders, with the surviving family members being failed so abysmally by those who should have been supporting them and solving the crime. Even with seven suspects, no killer was ever bought to justice. I'll leave it to you to make up your mind which one of the accused committed the crime, if any and I'd love to hear your theories in the comments. Or, as always, if you'd prefer to do so, then you can tag me in a post on Twitter. Personally, I side with the theory that it was Jones and Mansfield. Being popular in the community, Josiah Moore would have been an even bigger thorn in Jones' side had he decided to jump into politics as well, not to mention the rumours about the alleged affair would have damaged Jones' families reputation to a degree. Out of everyone on that list, Jones was the only person to have a real reason to want Moore out of the way, Mansfield was the perfect tool to get the job done and Reverend Kelly was the perfect sacrificial lamb. I'm not saying Kelly was an angel. Far from it, he was a complete dumpster fire of a human being who had already had numerous complaints raised against him for his odious behaviour, but he'd never shown signs of being violent before and seems to be the only person to be interrogated to such a degree that he admitted to the crime. Kelly was a very scrawny, malnourished looking man whom I doubt would have had the strength to kill one person with an axe, let alone do that amount of damage. Mansfield could though, and proved it by committing a near-identical crime two years later when he slaughtered his own family. It would also make sense that Jones would approach someone who didn't live locally to kill the Moores.
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0

One thing has always fascinated me though; why didn't the family wake up? Again, the murders wouldn't have been quiet. If they were sleeping naturally then they would have woken up, there would have been panic and screaming, and survivors. One theory does come to mind and that is that the family had been drugged. Barbiturates were readily available in many forms in those days, buying them was as easy as buying a packet of sweets. You picked your poison and you paid for it. If the family had a late tea planned for when they got home, Sarah probably would have prepared it in advance and left it out ready to reheat, making it easy for a home intruder to slip something a bit stronger than salt and pepper into the mix. There is a theory that instead of entering the house after everyone had gone to bed, the killer was already hiding in the house when they got home, in the attic. When searching the house for clues, the police found cigarette butts up there, adding weight to this theory, but they also could have come from one of the many townfolk who trudged through the house that day. However, the possibility of someone lurking up there, waiting for the unfortunates below to go to bed, ties in very well with the family being drugged, since the suspect would have had to enter the house to do so. It also adds another level of horror to the situation. Even if the family had locked their door, they wouldn't have escaped.

A Murder House in Modern Times
These days, the Moores home remains unlived in, but not completely abandoned. It would seem that the Moores never left. Visitors to the house have reported the sound of children playing and running from room to room, doors slamming on their own and opening just as easily, plus unexplained banging and dripping noises. The temperature will drop without warning, a feeling of darkness and heaviness will invade the atmosphere, and both shadow figures and an odd mist have been seen roaming the halls. Evidence has been caught on camera too. Subsequently, the house is on most paranormal enthusiasts bucket list and has featured on many ghost hunting programs and documentaries.
The strangest thing to happen in the house to date (other than the hauntings and the murders.) would have to be the accident that occurred there in 2014. honestly, I can't think of any other way to describe it than as an accident, but a visitor staying the night for a paranormal investigation stabbed himself, in the chest. There was no warning that it was going to happen and he didn't give a reason as to why he'd done such a thing, but the police did out foul play. Because of the building bloody history and alleged hauntings, a lot of people have linked the visitors odd behaviour to that, but he would appear to be the only person who has felt the need to harm themselves in the house.
Speaking of paranormal investigations; the house had various different owners after the 1912 tragedy, until it was bought in 1994 and renovated. All modernities were stripped back and the house returned to it's early 1900's glory, to how it would have been when the murders occurred, complete with historically accurate furnishings, decore and accessories. The owners now allow people to visit the house, running daytime tours and night experiences that allow you to sleepover. And if you're unable to travel to Villisca for a tour (or are just too scared to.), you can take a virtual tour of the house instead. 

Photo by The Man-Machine, CC0 1.0

Have you visited the Villisca Axe Murder house? Have a story of your own to tell, maybe some evidence of the paranormal or just your own theories as to who committed the terrible deed? Let me know in the comments below or tag me in a Tweet! As always, I adore getting comments from you guys and hearing any fascinating stories you have to tell.

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