The Villisca axe murders took place in the American town of Villisca, Iowa, between the evening of June 9, 1912, and the early hours of June 10, 1912.
The six Moore family members and two visitors were discovered bludgeoned inside the Moore home. Six of the eight victims, all minors, had suffered severe head injuries from an axe.
Numerous suspects were identified after a protracted inquiry; one of them was tried twice. The verdicts from the first and second trials were both acquittals. The crime has not been solved.
Background the Moore Family
The Moore family included Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (age 7), as well as parents Josiah B. (43) and Sarah (née Montgomery) (39). The Moores was a well-known and well-liked wealthy family in their neighborhood.
Ina Mae (age 8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (age 12) were asked to spend the night at the Moore home by Mary Katherine Moore on June 9, 1912. The Moore family and the visiting girls went to the Presbyterian church that evening, where they participated in the Children’s Day Program that Sarah had organized.
The Moores and the Stillinger sisters walked to the Moores’ home after the show ended at 9:30 p.m. They arrived between 9:45 and 10 p.m.
Who Discovered the Villisca Axe Murders Victims?
The Moores’ neighbor Mary Peckham got concerned at 7 a.m. on June 10 when she saw that the family had not come outside to perform their morning duties. Peckham rang the Moores’ doorbell. After hearing no response, she attempted to unlock the door but found it locked. Peckham contacted Ross Moore, Josiah’s brother, and let the Moores’ chickens out.
Like Peckham, Moore shouted and banged on the door but got no answer. Ross used his duplicate house key to unlock the front door. Ross entered the parlor and unlocked the guest bedroom door, where he discovered Ina and Lena Stillinger’s bodies on the bed while Peckham remained on the porch.
When Henry “Hank” Horton, Villisca’s chief peace officer, arrived shortly after, Moore quickly instructed Peckham to contact him. The Moore family as a whole and the two Stillinger girls had all been bludgeoned to death, according to Horton’s search of the home.
The Stillinger sisters were discovered in the guest room where the murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was discovered.
How Did the Villisca Axe Murders Take Place?
Doctors determined that the murders occurred between midnight and five in the morning. Two used cigarettes in the attic suggested that the killer or killers calmly waited there until the Moore family and the Stillinger visitors were fast asleep.
In the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah Moore were asleep, the murderer(s) started their spree. Josiah was the victim who took the most hits from the axe; his face was so badly damaged that his eyes were gone. The murderer’s lifting of the axe to kill him left a gouge mark on the ceiling of his room.
Josiah was struck by the axe’s blade, while the other victims were struck by the blunt end. After their parents, Herman, Mary Katherine, Arthur, and Paul received the same headbutt. The killer then moved downstairs to the guest bedroom and killed Ina and Lena.
After returning to the master bedroom to continue beating the elder Moores, he or she knocked over a shoe that had become bloody. A 4 lb. slab of bacon was apparently taken out of the refrigerator later and placed next to the axe.
During their investigation, investigators also discovered unopened food and bloodied water.
With the exception of Lena Stillinger, investigators thought that all of the victims had been asleep when they were killed. She was discovered lying crosswise on the bed with a defensive wound on her arm, indicating that they believed she was conscious and trying to fight back.
Lena’s nightgown was pushed up to her waist, and she had no underwear on, which led police authorities to believe that the killer(s) either attempted or committed sexual molestation on her.
Villisca Axe Murders Main Suspects
Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell, Paul Mueller, and Henry Lee Moore were among the numerous suspects who eventually came to light.
Kelly faced two murder trials. While the second trial resulted in an acquittal, the first trial ended with a deadlocked jury. The investigation’s other suspects were also cleared.
Every wandering stranger who was also unaccounted for was a suspect in the killings, and Andrew Sawyer was one of them. He was questioned but not put on trial.
He also slept fully clothed as though he were prepared to make a clean getaway and kept an axe by his bed since he was obsessed with the murders.
Reverend George Kelly
Traveling priest Reverend George Kelly, who was born in England, was in the area on the night of the killings. Kelly was characterized as odd and was said to have experienced a mental breakdown as a teenager.
He was accused of peeking as an adult and of repeatedly requesting girls and young women to pose nude for him. He arrived in Villisca on June 8 to provide instruction at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9.
On June 10, 1912, he departed town between 5:00 and 5:50 a.m. before the bodies were found. Although Reverend Kelly had admitted to the killings in court, the jury did not accept his admission.
He expressed interest in the case and wrote numerous letters to the police, detectives, and the deceased person’s family in the following weeks. Due to this, a private detective wrote to Reverend Kelly, raising suspicions and requesting any information the priest could have on the deaths.
Kelly answered in considerable detail, saying she had heard noises and perhaps even seen the killings. Authorities questioned if he was remembering his narrative or was just making it up because of his known mental disorder.
Two years after the murders, in 1914, Kelly was detained for mailing pornographic material (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary). He was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the city’s primary mental health facility. Once more, investigators conjectured that Kelly might have killed the Moore family.
Kelly was detained in 1917 on suspicion of the Villisca killings. He eventually confessed to the police, but only after extensive questioning, during which Kelly later changed his story. He was exonerated following two different trials.
Senator from the state of Iowa and citizen of Villisca, Frank Fernando Jones, is another suspect. Before opening his own business, Josiah Moore worked for Frank Jones at his hardware store for several years.
According to rumors, Moore stole business from Jones, including a thriving John Deere dealership. There is no proof to back up the notion that Moore had a sexual relationship with Jones’ daughter-in-law.
The Moore family was killed by William “Blackie” Mansfield, according to a different theory.
An axe murder case comparable to the ones at Villisca happened in Colorado Springs nine months earlier. Two axe murder investigations followed it in Ellsworth and Paola, Kansas. The similarities between the cases suggested that the same person might have perpetrated them.
Numerous unsolved axe murders that occurred between 1911 and 1912 along the Southern Pacific Railroad, the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans homicides, and several other such murders during this time period are among the other deaths that have been suggested to be connected to these crimes.
The murders in Colorado Springs were committed in a manner that was very similar to that of the Moore house. Mrs. A.J. Burnham, H.C. Wayne, and their kid were all discovered dead, having been killed with an axe or axes.
Bed sheets were used to cover the windows to keep outsiders from peering in. The murderer draped skirts and aprons over the windows of the Moore residence. The murderer in Colorado Springs used bedclothes to cover the victims’ heads after wiping the blood off his axe, just like in the killings in Villisca.
Mansfield was also the main suspect of the Kansas City-based Burns Detective Agency and Detective James Newton Wilkerson, who said he was a cocaine-dependent serial killer.
Wilkerson believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe killings of his wife, infant child, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and other family members in Blue Island, Illinois, on July 5, 1914 (two years after the Villisca murders), the axe killings in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca murders, and the killings of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Illinois.
News reports from the time supported this belief.
Wilkerson’s investigation revealed that all the killings were performed similarly, suggesting that the same person likely killed them. Mansfield was present at each of the many crime scenes on the night of the killings, according to Wilkerson, who claimed to be able to substantiate this claim.
Each murder involved using an axe to cut the victims to death, and the residences’ mirrors were covered. The murderer’s washbasin was discovered in the kitchen, and a lit lamp with an open chimney was left at the foot of the bed.
Wearing gloves in each case prevented the murderer from leaving fingerprints, which in Wilkerson’s opinion, was compelling evidence that the victim was Mansfield, who was aware that his fingerprints were on record at the federal military prison in Leavenworth.
In 1916, Mansfield was detained and taken from Kansas City to Montgomery County after Wilkerson got a grand jury to launch an investigation. On the other hand, payroll records gave Mansfield an alibi that put him in Illinois at the time of the Villisca killings.
He was let go due to a lack of proof, and after suing Wilkerson, he was given $2,225 as compensation. Wilkerson thought Jones’ pressure was responsible for Mansfield’s release and Reverend Kelly’s later arrest and trial.
However, Mansfield was recognized by R.H. Thorpe, a restaurant owner from Shenandoah, Iowa, who witnessed Mansfield boarding a train at Clarinda the morning following the Villisca slayings.
This individual claimed to have come from Villisca on foot. If confirmed to be accurate, this testimony would refute Mansfield’s story.
In addition, it was said that Mrs. Vina Tompkins of Marshalltown was going to testify that she overheard three men discussing how to kill the Moore family in the woods just before the killings.
Henry Lee Moore
Several months after the murders in Villisca, Henry Lee Moore—a suspected serial killer who was unrelated to the Moore family that was murdered—was found guilty of killing his mother and grandmother with an axe.
There is a strong suspicion that an axe-wielding serial killer committed some or all of the murders in Villisca. Like “Blackie” Mansfield, the axe-wielding Henry Moore can also be considered a suspect in some of these killings.
These killings were committed before and after the similar axe murders of the victim’s mother and grandmother, and all of the cases showed striking similarities.
Sam Moyer (Josiah’s brother-in-law) allegedly threatened to kill Josiah Moore frequently throughout the inquest, but additional inquiry revealed that Moyer’s alibi exonerated him of the charge.
The Villisca murders are discussed in Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James’ 2017 book The Man from the Train as a part of a broader string of homicides that they think were all committed by a single serial killer.
They conclude that the murderer was Paul Mueller (or Miller), an immigrant who may have been from Germany and the sole suspect in the 1897 slaying of a family in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, who had hired him as a farmhand.
Mueller was the subject of a fruitless year-long manhunt.
James began his investigation in an effort to solve the Villisca killings, and together with his daughter, they discovered old newspaper articles describing dozens of families who had been slain in similar ways across the US.
Therefore, James thinks Mueller committed the murders in Villisca as part of a killing spree that lasted more than ten years and resulted in at least 59 deaths in 14 different instances, including the crimes in Colorado Springs and Paola.
James points out recurring elements in these crimes, many of which can be seen in the Villisca site.
The killer targeted families who lived close to railroad tracks, which is why the killer was assumed to have traveled (hence the title of their book); the victims were apparently ambushed at around midnight while they were asleep; the killer used an axe found at the victims’ house and left in plain sight after the murders.
The victims were covered in blankets to prevent blood splatter, and the windows were covered with sheets to prevent the killer from being seen.
As with Lena being partially undressed, sexual motivation toward a pubescent girl was frequently but not always present in Mueller’s alleged offenses.
Professor and crime author Harold Schecter claims in a blurb on the dust jacket of the hardcover version of The Man from the Train that James provided the most likely explanation for the Villisca killings to date.
The Dark Connection Between Villisca and Hinterkaifeck
The background of Paul Müller brings up an intriguing global correlation. My German readers will be familiar with Hinterkaifeck, which inspired Tannöd, Andrea Maria Schenkel’s 2006 prize-winning debut mystery novel, and Germany’s most infamous unsolved murder.
A family of six was murdered with an axe on a remote Bavarian farm called Hinterkaifeck on March 31, 1922, less than ten years after Villisca. Many of the characteristics of the American axe killer are present in those killings, including the use of an axe as the murder weapon, head wounds, body stacking, hay covering, and different treatment of a young female victim.
Similarities Between Villisca and Hinterkaifeck Murders
- The whole family is killed.
- Nighttime murders.
- Ax murderer employed a tool he discovered at the scene.
- The ax’s blunt side (Hinterkaifeck – screw sticking out caused holes in the heads).
- The body of a young girl is handled differently.
- Stacked bodies covered bodies.
- Solitary home.
- Easily accessible by foot from the train station
Next, read How an Entire Community of Kids Committed Suicide in The Welsh Town of Bridgend In 2007, and after that, Read the Blood-Curdling Story of The Cowden Family Murders!
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