Monday Mystery: Villisca Axe Murders

A few years back, as part of this series, I wrote about the Hinterkaifeck murders of 1922. Today I’ve decided to blog about something similar, the murders this time taking place ten years prior in the state of Iowa.

The crime

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1912. Summer. A small town in a sleepy corner of Iowa. The Moore family (father Josiah, mother Sarah, and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (5)) prepare to attend a Children’s Day Program in the local Presbyterian Church. The Moores were well-known and well-liked in the community. They even invited Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12), neighbours, to spend the night at their residence after church. The program ended at 9:30 p.m.; the party arrived back to the house roughly fifteen to thirty minutes later.

Early the next morning, about 7 a.m, Mary Peckham, the Moores’ neighbor, emerged from her house and started her day’s work. She soon became concerned when she noticed the Moores didn’t join her. Peckham went over to their house and knocked, waited for someone to answer. Nobody came, and so she attempted to open the door and discovered that it was locked. She let the Moores’ chickens out and called Josiah’s brother. He arrived, knocked on the door and shouted, but Ross Moore heard no response. He decided to try a spare key that he’d been given, unlocking the door and pushing inside. While Peckham stood on the porch, he stepped into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door. Inside, he found the bodies of Ina and Lena Stillinger. He shouted to Peckham to call the sheriff, Hank Horton. His subsequent search of the house revealed the bodies of the Moore family, all of them bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room with the Stillinger sisters.

Local doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Investigators later found cigarettes in the attic, suggesting that the killer or killers waited in the attic until the Moore family and the Stillinger guests fell asleep. They then began in the master bedroom, killing Josiah and Sarah Moore first. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his eyes were missing and while the killer used the blunt end of the axe on the rest of their victims, Josiah had been killed with the sharp edge. The killer(s) then went into the children’s rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the same manner as their parents. They then returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the Josiah and Sarah, knocking over a shoe that had filled with blood. Afterward, the killer(s) stepped downstairs and killed the Stillinger guests.

It is believed that Lena Stillinger was the only victim awake when murdered. There were signs she may have fought back; she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm.

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The suspects

  1. Andrew Saywer: No real evidence linked Sawyer to the case, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies. Thomas Dyer, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, testified that Sawyer approached his crew at 6:00 a.m on the morning the bodies were discovered. He was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit, but his shoes were covered in mud, his pants soaked to the knees. He asked for employment and was given a job on the spot. Dyer informed police that later that evening Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The front page showed the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer “was much interested in it.” Dyer’s crew were uneasy that Sawyer slept with an axe next to him and talked much of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended. Dyer later testified that prior to Sawyer’s arrest, he walked up behind him. Sawyer was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, “I will cut your god damn heads off.” At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.
    Dyer’s son testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer showed him “where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town”. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1½ blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away. But he was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there and was sent away by train about 11pm.
  2. Reverend Kelly: An English-born traveling minister, Kelly was in town on the night of the murders. He was described as odd, accused of peeping and several times asking young women to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. He left town between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered.

    In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, writing many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed them. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details intimately or was only imagining them.

    In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail. In 1917, he was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.

  3. Frank Fernando Jones: a Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator, Jones used to employ Josiah Moore at his implement store for years before Jones left and set up his own. This may have taken business away from Jones, including a tractor dealership. Moore was rumored to have had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence suggests this.
  4. William Mansfield: One theory suggests Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He is also linked to axe crimes in Kansas only a few days after the murders. He was also a suspect in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each of the crime sites was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in roughly the same manner.

    The Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, a similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two further axe murder cases occured in Kansas. Overall, there’s strong evidence they were carried out by the same person. Other murders that may be linked include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad (1911-1912), the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other such murders.

    The murders in Colorado Springs were closely related to the Villisca case in particular. Bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passersby from looking in, as was seen in the Moore house (the murderer hung aprons and skirts to cover the windows). The murderer in both cases also covered the heads of their victims with bedclothes. 

    Investigator Wilkerson stated he could prove Mansfield was present on the night of ech of the murders. In each case, a burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. The murderer also avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves (Mansfield would have known his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth).

    Mansfield was tried but never convicted.

Did the killer gain access to the house after nightfall, or did they really wait in the attic? Was the killer known to the family, or was it part of a serial spree? Who carried out the Villisca Axe Murders?

And why?

(If you would like to learn more about the murders, or visit the infamous house, click here)

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