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The Villisca Axe Murders in Iowa – A Century Old Cold Case

“The suspect’s DNA was found at the crime scene. It’s an open and shut case.” We often encounter lines like this in the news; our current society and judicial system has come to rely heavily on forensic science to determine who the perpetrator of a crime is.

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One can only imagine how difficult it was to solve crimes over a century ago, when fingerprinting was a technique that was still a novelty and rural police departments had minimal resources and facilities to conduct in-depth investigations. Such were the conditions surrounding the tragic mass murder, dubbed “The Villisca Axe Murders”, of eight residents in Villisca, a sleepy town in southwestern Iowa, in the year 1912. To this day, the case remains unsolved despite numerous suspects and the circulation of various theories.

The Villisca Axe Murders

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On the evening of June 9th, 1912, Sarah Moore, after coordinating a successful Children’s Day program at the local Presbyterian Church, headed home along with her husband, Josiah, and her four children, Herman, Catherine, Boyd, and Paul. Lena and Ina Stillinger, who were friends of the Moore children and had planned to sleep over at the Moore house, accompanied them. That was the last time any of them were seen alive.

Mary Peckham, the Moore’s next-door neighbor, emerged from her house on the morning of the 10th to hang her laundry on a clothesline in the backyard. As some time passed and she continued to do her chores, Mary noticed that conspicuously, none of the Moores had emerged from their home, and the house seemed to succumb to an eerie stillness. This was odd, as the Moores had many children who often went in and out of the house in a lively and rambunctious manner. Furthermore, Josiah ritually left for his office in the morning and Sarah was always up and about, doing her own chores. Out of concern, Mary knocked on the Moores’ door, but there was no response. Upon trying the door handle, Mary discovered the house was locked.

As Mary’s worry began to grow, she decided to call Josiah’s brother, Ross, who came over as soon as he could. After trying the door handle again failed, and peering into the window revealed nothing but darkness, Ross thumped loudly on the door calling repeatedly for his brother and sister-in-law, to no avail. Eventually, Ross used his own key to enter the house and gingerly opened the door to one of the bedrooms where he met a terrifying sight: two bloody bodies were laying on the bed and the sheets were stained with even more blood. Ross didn’t wait to see who the victims were; he rushed out of the house and told Mary to call the police.

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, June 14, 1912, depicting five of the murder victims and the house.
An article in The Day Book, Chicago, June 14, 1912, depicting five of the murder victims and the house.

When Hank Horton, the City Marshall arrived, he made a gruesome discovery. The two bodies that Ross had seen were that of Lena and Ina Stillinger. However, they were not the only victims in the house. Upstairs, Horton also found the lifeless bodies of the entire Moore family. All eight victims were killed in the same manner; their skulls had been brutally smashed with an axe. It is estimated that each victim had suffered twenty to thirty blows to the head.

As soon as the townspeople became aware of the murders, the Moore house was deluged with hundreds of them, with many freely entering and leaving the premises. The small police department in Villisca had never encountered a crime of such enormity and were therefore inexperienced in dealing with homicides and the need to secure the crime scene. With so many people coming in and out of the Moore house, it became nearly impossible to detect any physical evidence left by the perpetrator. Of course, considering the primitive technology available back then, finding any physical evidence would not have likely been helpful anyway.

Many Suspects, Many Theories

From the initial days following the murder until now, detectives and historians have come up with several theories regarding the killer’s profile. Some claim it must have been a person who was relatively well known to the Moores. After all, the door had been locked before Ross came, so the person may have been willingly invited into the house by the Moores. Others postulate that the viciousness of the crime points in the direction of a serial killer. Yet others believe it could have been a traveling preacher or a hobo, someone who was always on the move and therefore difficult to pinpoint. Five suspects have been repeatedly mentioned over the years, but no concrete evidence was found to convict any one of them for the crime.

Of all the suspects in the case, only one ever made it to trial. He was Reverend George Kelly, a traveling preacher who had been present at the Children’s Day program which Sarah Moore had organized the night before the murders. He disappeared from town on the day of the murders, which cast further suspicion on him. Additionally, he seemed to possess an unusually high interest in the case for a civilian; he corresponded frequently with authorities by mail, and his letters seemed to indicate not only an obsession with the case, but also knowledge of critical facts that only the murderer would have known. Perhaps the most incriminating factor, however, was that Kelly was said to have confessed to the Villisca axe murders while riding a train to Macedonia. Witnesses heard Kelly say he was compelled to kill the Moores and Stillingers because he had a Biblically-inspired vision that commanded him to “slay and slay utterly.” Although Kelly publically recanted his statement, in 1917 he was arrested for the murders, but his first trial ended up in a hung jury and the second in acquittal.

Several people who believed the murders were carried out by a local, pointed the finger at Frank F. Jones as the mastermind behind the heinous crimes. A senator, and prominent socialite, Jones had previously been Josiah’s employer, until Moore left that position and took a profitable franchise with him. Jones was said to have been exceedingly resentful of Josiah for his actions, which may have been a motive for committing the crimes. Moreover, a rumor had been spreading at the time that Josiah was having an affair with Jones’ daughter. Although no evidence exists to support that rumor, it may have been enough to infuriate Jones and his son, Albert.

Those who believed Jones was guilty also believed he stayed away from the “dirty work” of carrying out the murders himself. They suspect Jones hired a man named William Mansfield, and he was the one to actually wield the deadly axe. Most of the so-called evidence they cite comes from one of the detectives on the case, James Newton Wilkerson. Wilkerson became convinced of Mansfield’s guilt, because he believed Mansfield was also responsible for a number of other murders in which the mode of operation was found to be exactly the same, bludgeoning the victim with an axe. However, there was nothing to definitively link Mansfield to these other crimes. Wilkerson managed to convince a grand jury to have Mansfield arrested, but upon reaching the Montgomery Court, Mansfield produced an alibi: payroll records which demonstrated he was in Illinois during the time of the murders. He was released, and thus this angle also arrived at a dead-end.

Out of the many wanderers and transients that passed through the area and were scrutinized, Andy Sawyer was one of a few that were seriously considered a possible suspect. Like Mansfield, Sawyer had no real evidence to tie him to the crime, but his boss, a member of a railroad crew, claimed Sawyer knew more than he should about the murders. Furthermore, Sawyer was bizarrely attached to his axe, to the point where he slept with it, and talked to it. On June 9th, the night before the bodies were discovered, Sawyer was arrested for vagrancy in Osceola, Iowa, a town 70 miles away from Villisca, and the sheriff had put him on a train that was to go out of town at 11:30 pm that night. The possibility of Sawyer being in Villisca that night in order to commit the murders, therefore, is doubtful.

M.W McClaughry, a federal officer, who had been invited by the Villisca police department to assist in investigating the case, professed he had found the man responsible for the murders. McClaughry determined that the Villisca murders were not unique; there had been several similar massacres in other locations of Illinois and surrounding states, in which the weapon of choice had been an axe. When McClaughry’s father, a warden of a federal penitentiary learned about an inmate named Henry Moore, a man convicted of murdering his mother and grandmother with an axe, he passed this information to his son as a possible lead. After interviewing Moore and examining the cases, McClaughry declared that twenty three homicides in the Midwest, including the Villisca murders, could certainly be attributed to Moore. However, few took McClaughry seriously, as many were convinced that Reverend Kelly was guilty, given that he had, after all, made a confession.

No Justice

The conclusion of this tragedy, is that there is no conclusion. Some of the suspects have circumstantial evidence suggesting that they may have been involved, and other suspects have little against them except mere accusations and hearsay testimony. A $3,500 reward had been offered and publicized in order to provide an incentive for catching the killer, but as no one was able to do so, it was utilized to purchase gravestones for the Villisca massacre victims. The infamous Villisca Axe Murders case remains open to this day, and remains one of the most baffling mysteries of the twentieth century.