The Villisca Axe Murders
This is a full chapter from one of the stories of my book True Crime Stories Vol.2.
In 1912, Villisca was a small Midwestern town in Iowa with a population of just 2,500. Despite its size, it was a busy little town with trains coming and going every day, businesses up and down the streets, and it was home to the first publicly funded armory in the whole state. For many, the name ‘Villisca’ meant ‘pleasant view’ or ‘pretty place’. But regardless of the business successes and the beauty of the town, its history would be forever marred by one single event—the brutal and horrifying murder of eight people in one house, on one night, with an axe.
The Moore family was well liked in the community, and their affluence was well known. The members of the family were Josiah, who was 43 at the time, his wife Sarah, aged 39, and their children, Herman Montgomery, aged 11, Mary Katherine, 10, Arthur Boyd, 7, and Paul Vernon, 5. They were regular church attendees, and on the evening of June 9, 1912, the children had been participating in the Presbyterian Church’s Children’s Day Program. This program lasted until 9:30 p.m., and the Moore family invited two young girls, Ina Mae Stillinger, aged 8, and her sister Lena Gertrude, who was 12 years old, to stay the night in their home. All walked back to the home of the Moores, arriving somewhere between 9:45 to 10 p.m. No one is sure what time the family and their guests retired to bed that evening, or what if anything was amiss in the house when they got home. What is known, however, is that what did occur during the night in that house would become legendary, for all the wrong reasons.
A Gruesome Scene
On the morning of June 10, the next door neighbor, Mary Peckham, found it strange that the family next door was not up and about at 7 a.m. as they usually were. She was used to hearing and seeing the family members as they started their morning chores, but they hadn’t appeared, and the curtains were all closed. Mary decided to check on the family and went and knocked on the door, but nobody responded. She tried to open the door, but it was still locked. Fearing something was very wrong, she called Josiah’s brother Ross to investigate. Oddly, she first let the Moore’s chickens out of their coop—goodness knows why.
Ross arrived at the house, and like Mary he knocked on the door, shouting out in the hopes that someone inside would hear him. On receiving no response, he proceeded to unlock the door with his copy of the key to the house. Mary waited anxiously on the porch as Ross entered the house and made his way into the guest bedroom. The scene that greeted him was horrific—the bodies of the Stillinger sisters dead in the bed. Moore instructed Mary to call the local officer, Hank Horton, who arrived within a short period of time. It was Horton who further investigated the rest of the house, finding body after body of the Moore family, all with horrific head wounds. In the guest room where the bodies of the Stillinger sisters lay was a bloodied axe, and that was immediately identified as the murder weapon.
Though the injuries to each of the victims were gruesome, it was Josiah who seemed to have been dealt the most vicious blows. Unlike the others who had been bludgeoned to death with the blunt end of the axe, it was the sharp end that had been used on Josiah. In fact, his wounds were so horrific that his eyes were missing in his cut-up face. Gouge marks in the ceilings of the bedrooms had been created by the swinging of the axe; in some cases, these gouges were in the center of the room, not near the beds, and it was surmised that the killer must have been in some sort of wild frenzy, swinging the axe triumphantly after each kill.
The pillows on the beds were soaked in blood and spattered with brain matter. By the time the first doctor entered the house, the blood had congealed into a jelly, and clots were noticeable, and this indicated they had been killed somewhere shortly after midnight. Each of the victims had their faces covered with their bedclothes, and all lay in their beds as though they had been killed while sleeping, except for Lena Stillinger. Her body showed defensive wounds, suggesting she had tried to fight off the attacker. Her nightgown had been pushed up and her underwear removed, and her body had been posed in a sexual manner. Naturally consideration was given to the possibility she had been sexually assaulted or raped, but this was never determined without a doubt.
There were other strange things about the crime scene that made no sense at all. Although it is normal to pull the curtains closed on the windows, those which did not have curtains were covered with clothing that had belonged to the victims. Every mirror in the house had also been covered, which was truly bizarre. At the foot of Josiah and Sarah’s bed sat a kerosene lamp with the chimney missing and the wick turned to black. The chimney was eventually found beneath a dresser. Another lamp was found at the end of the guest bed, where the bodies of the Stillinger girls lay. It too had the chimney missing. The axe itself, although covered in blood, showed signs that the killer had tried to wipe away the blood to no avail. The axe was found to belong to Josiah. In the bedroom downstairs, a small piece of keychain was found that didn’t seem to belong to anyone in the house. On the table in the kitchen was a pan containing bloody water and a plate of food that hadn’t been touched. Up in the attic, two cigarette butts were located, and it was assumed that the killer (perhaps killers) had waited up there for the family to return home. This was perhaps the most terrifying piece of evidence—to think that this innocent family returned home following a pleasant evening only to be ambushed by someone waiting inside.
Who Were the Suspects?
There were numerous suspects on the list, and one was even arrested and tried for the crime, though eventually he was acquitted. They ranged from transients to a reverend, and even a serial killer, but nobody was ever held accountable and brought to justice for this horrific massacre of the Moore family and the Stillinger girls.
Naturally, any transients or strangers were considered suspicious during the investigation into the murders. This is generally because people as a rule don’t trust strangers, and nobody wants to consider that maybe it was someone they knew. In small towns in particular, people are more wary of those they don’t know. One such man that fit this bill was Andrew Sawyer.
There was never any concrete evidence to suggest Sawyer had played a part in the killings. Instead, he was brought to light by a gentleman who worked for the railroad and had interacted with Sawyer on the morning of the murders in nearby Creston. Thomas Dyer alleged that Sawyer had appeared around 6 a.m. that morning looking for work. He was dressed in a brown suit, was shaven, his pants were wet almost up to his knees, and his shoes were covered in mud. Workers were highly sought after, so he was hired there and then. Later that evening, Sawyer apparently bought a newspaper with the murders broadcast across the front page, and he went off alone to read it.
Apparently, Sawyer was very interested in the murders, and he talked about them often with his fellow workers. Even more strange, he had a habit of sleeping with his axe next to him. He would later tell Dyer that he had been in Villisca the night of the murders but had left for fear of being considered a suspect. When considering all of the strange behaviors he had exhibited, Dyer handed Sawyer over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.
Despite the statements Sawyer had made to his work colleagues and the intense interest he seemed to show in the murders, even placing himself in town on the night in question, it would later be proven that he was innocent. On investigation, it turned out that Sawyer had been arrested on that very night in a town called Osceola, also in Iowa, for vagrancy. Therefore, he had an alibi.
The Reverend George Kelly
Kelly was a man with a disturbing background who happened to be at the very same Children’s Day services the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters attended that day, June 9, 1912. Born in England, Kelly was a traveling minister who many regarded as being rather odd. It was claimed that he had suffered some type of mental breakdown when he was younger, and his adult behavior included lewd acts such as peeping and trying to get young girls to pose for him in the nude. Strangely, he left Villisca somewhere between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., just hours after the murders had occurred and before the bodies were found.
Over the following weeks, he showed a strong fascination with the case. He began to write letters to the investigators, the police, and even the mourning family members. As expected, this behavior seemed suspicious to the investigators, and they in turn wrote back asking if Kelly happened to know anything about the killings. Kelly replied that he may have witnessed the crimes being committed and had heard sounds that evening. However, due to his history of mental illness, the police were unsure whether he was recalling facts because he was involved or whether he was just making it all up.
Kelly was arrested on a different matter in 1914, after having sent obscene material to a woman who had applied to work for him. As a result he was sent to a mental health hospital in Washington, which left the police unsure if he was the killer or not. However, in 1917 they decided to interrogate Kelly again, and following several hours of questioning, Kelly confessed to the crimes. Later he would recant this confession, claiming to be innocent after all. Two trials followed, and the jury obviously agreed with him, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second led to an acquittal.
State Senator Frank F. Jones
As a suspect, Senator Jones was perhaps the least likely to have been behind the murders. However, there was a rumor that he had hired William ‘Blackie’ Mansfield to commit the crimes following an issue that had arisen between the Senator and Josiah Moore. Josiah at one time had worked for the Senator at his implement shop for several years and then left his employment so he could open up his own store. This resulted in the Senator losing a lot of his customers to Josiah, including a very lucrative dealership with John Deere. There were also rumors around town that Josiah and the Senator’s daughter-in-law had an affair, though this was never substantiated. Would a man such as the State Senator have ordered the assassination of an entire family over something such as lost business and possible adultery? The investigators clearly didn’t think so, as this matter was not taken any further, at least where the Senator was concerned. Mansfield, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.
William ‘Blackie’ Mansfield
Mansfield came to light as a potential suspect not only because of the rumor of his being hired by the Senator, but also because of murders he subsequently committed following the massacre in the Moore household. Two years after the murders in Villisca, Mansfield was suspected of murdering his wife, child, father-in-law and mother-in-law in very similar circumstances, which made the authorities take a much closer look at Mansfield. He was linked by circumstance to the axe murders in Colorado Springs just nine months before Villisca and another axe murder in Ellsworth, Kansas. He was also suspected of being the perpetrator of axe murders in Paola, Kansas, just four days before the tragedy at Villisca. Furthermore, he was a prime suspect in the axe murders in Illinois of Jennie Miller and Jennie Peterson. More axe murders occurring around the same time period were also considered to be the work of one man. The similarities between all of these murders were spine-tingling.
Each of these murders was committed in the same manner, which would indicate they were done by the same person. All victims were attacked with an axe, and the mirrors in each home had been covered. A kerosene lamp was left burning with the chimney removed at the foot of each bed. A basin containing bloody water was found at each scene, where the murdered had obviously tried to clean himself. Gloves were worn at each crime scene, leaving no trace of fingerprints. The coincidences were just too good to be true, and although we have more access to media information these days, back then the chances of there being a copycat killer or killers roaming the streets were less likely.
In 1916, the Grand Jury agreed to embark on an investigation and Mansfield was arrested. He was transported from Kansas City to Montgomery County to face questioning. Despite all of the evidence that seemed to indicate he was the murderer, Mansfield was found to have a legitimate alibi for the night of the murders in Villisca and so was set free without being charged. He would then bring a lawsuit against the detective who had pursued him as a suspect, Detective James Wilkerson. Mansfield won his case and was awarded the staggering amount of $2,225. This was a huge amount in those days. Some speculated that the Senator played a part in getting Mansfield released, but this was never proven.
Henry Lee Moore
Henry, who was no relation to Josiah Moore and his family, had been convicted of a double axe murder months after the murders in Villisca. Henry had killed his mother and his grandmother, and there was much suspicion that Henry was actually a serial killer. The crimes were very similar, especially as the same type of weapon was used, but there was never any evidence to link him to the Moore family murders. He was always considered a suspect, however, and he was never completely ruled out.
Fourteen Witnesses Called to Coroner’s Inquest
Remarkably, the coroner called the jury together and began the inquest on June 11, 1912, just two days after the murders had taken place. Nowadays it can take months or years for an inquest to take place, let alone in the same week! Anyway, the county coroner at the time was Dr. Linquist, and he and the members of the jury all visited the Moore house to view the scene and the bodies before they were removed. A temporary morgue was set up at the local fire station, and the bodies were finally moved there around 2 a.m. on the June 10.
A total of fourteen witnesses were called to testify at the inquest, and they were as follows:
- Mary Peckham—the neighbor who raised the alarm that something was wrong at the house
- Ed Selley—an employee of Josiah, Ed had arrived to take care of the animals
- J. Clark Cooper—the first doctor to enter the house following the discovery
- Jessie Moore—Ross Moore’s wife, who took the call from Mary
- F.S. Williams—the doctor who examined the bodies
- Edward Landers—was staying just up the road at his mother’s house and claimed he heard a noise around 11 p.m.
- Ross Moore—Josiah’s brother, the first person to gain entry to the house
- Fenwick Moore—also Josiah’s brother
- Marshall Hank Horton—the first officer to enter the house
- John Lee Van Gilder—Josiah’s nephew
- Harry Moore—Josiah’s brother
- Joseph Stillinger— the father of the murdered Stillinger girls
- Blanche Stillinger—sister of the murdered Stillinger girls
- Charles Moore—another of Josiah’s brothers
Most of the witnesses were called to testify regarding what they had seen when entering the house that day. The descriptions given by some were gruesome to say the least, but their testimony was all consistent. Josiah’s brothers were called largely to speak of any troubles Josiah may have had or been in, such as business problems. None could say that they were aware of any issues or of anyone who wished to cause the family such terrible harm. One brother, Charles, was asked to testify regarding whether the axe belonged to Josiah or not. Although he couldn’t say it was for sure, he did state that Josiah owned one similar. It must have been a terrible burden on both the Moore and Stillinger families to have to endure the inquest so quickly after the tragedy. They barely had time to digest what had happened before being thrust into a courtroom to discuss it, and the details must have been truly shocking. Particularly for the father of the two little Stillinger girls who had simply gone to a friend’s house for the night.
Deathbed and Jailhouse Confessions
On March 19, 1917, a reverend by the name of J.J. Burris, who was the pastor of the Church of Christ in Oklahoma, traveled to Red Oak because of a deathbed confession he had received. Burris was subpoenaed by the grand jury of Montgomery County to give evidence regarding this confession of the murders of the Moore family. Burris had claimed that a man whose name he could not remember had summoned him to his hotel room so that he could confess his sins before dying. This took place in July 1913, just over a year after the murders had been committed.
Burris stated that when he arrived at the man’s room, he could tell straight away that he was near death, and despite his physical state, the man began to talk the minute he entered the room. The man claimed that he had committed many sins, but the worst was the murders in Villisca. He had been living in the town at the time, working in the blacksmith industry, and his sister had been married to a physician in Villisca before moving to Radersburg. He was unable to speak for long due to his deteriorating condition, and as such was incapable of giving any details. Burris estimated the man to be around twenty-five years old, and it was believed he had part ownership in a blacksmith business in Radersburg.
Because the story was unclear, Detective Wilkerson decided that it would not stand up in court, as too little information was available. The man who had made the confession was dead and unable to stand trial anyway. The story was pushed aside as irrelevant.
George Meyers Confesses in Jail
In March 1931, a prisoner in a county jail in Detroit who was awaiting sentencing for burglary made a startling confession, stating he was the one who had committed the axe murders in Villisca. Meyers had been under interrogation for around five hours by detectives at the time of his confession, following an anonymous tip that he was the man they were looking for. It was believed that Meyers’ fingerprints had been found at the murder scene; however, this was unlikely as no fingerprints were found in the Moore house.
Meyers’ confession stated that he had been hired to kill the family by a businessman, though he could not recall his name. The price on offer was $5,000—a huge amount. He claimed his name had been given to these people through acquaintances in the Kansas City underworld. This acquaintance escorted him to Villisca to meet with the man who wished to hire him. He was shown the house where the family lived and told to kill them all. A deposit payment of $2,000 was given, and Meyers was told he would receive the rest after the job was done. Meyers then entered the house shortly after midnight and slaughtered the two adults and four children with an axe. When meeting with the businessman afterwards he was told he would have to wait for the rest of the money. Meyers decided it was best to flee town before the sun came up for fear of being caught.
Now, if you read that carefully, you would see what the problem was with Meyers’ confession. George Meyers only confessed to killing six people that night—two adults and four children. But there were eight killed in that house, not six. He flatly denied killing the Stillinger girls, only the Moore family. Although there had been a witness story that claimed three men had been overhead talking in the forest near the house the night of the murders about committing the crime, and this seems to fit with Meyers, his acquaintance, and the businessman, there is no way Meyers would have gotten the number of victims wrong. Therefore, it was decided that this confession was nonsense, and no further action was taken against him for the crime. To date, nobody has ever been charged with these murders, so the case remains unsolved.
Check out True Crime Stories Vol.2 and see more chilling cases like this.