Revisiting a shocking and famous century-old Iowa murder mystery
The Moore Family of Villisca, Iowa
Josiah Moore and his wife Sarah, were a fortunate couple. They had a modest house at 508 E. 2nd Street in the sleepy community of Villisca, Iowa. They were well-liked and felt safe. They had four healthy, beautiful, and kind children who made their house a home. Namely, Herman Montgomery — age 12, Mary Katherine — age 10, Arthur Boyd — age 7, and Paul Vernon — who was just 5.
The Moore family attended Presbyterian Church faithfully. On June 9, 1912, they took their children to an end of year Sunday school program, the Children’s Day Service, that Sarah co-directed. Each of the Moore children participated in the production. The entire family stayed after for a social, including neighbor children Lena and Ina Stillinger — ages 12 and 8, respectively.
After a church social, the Moore family walked home with the Stillinger girls who they had invited to spend the night. They left around 9:30 PM, and the church was just three blocks from their house on 2nd street. The children had cookies and milk before bedtime. What happened next, would shake the innocence off of Villisca forever.
A Death in Every Bed
June 10, 1912, started as usual for the Moore family neighbor, Mary Peckham. She did her laundry and began to hang clothes out to dry at around 6:00 AM before it got too hot. By 7:30, she noticed something odd. The Moore house was unusually quiet. Mary assumed her neighbors were asleep. When she tried to wake them by knocking, they didn’t stir. Being neighborly, she let the Moore’s chickens out and checked on their livestock before asking Josiah’s brother Ross Moore to look in on the family.
Ross telephoned Ed Selley, Josiah’s employee, and asked him if he had any insight as to why the house was so quiet. Ed called around to check if they were with family, and they weren’t. He decided to go to the home to check on the horses and make sure all was well inside.
Ross arrived on the scene just as Ed was entering the barn. Ross located a house key, unlocked the front door, and went inside. Nothing looked out of place until he entered the room just beyond the parlor, where he saw sheets covered with blood. He ran back outside and told Mary that something terrible happened, and asked her to get Marshal Hank Horton.
When Hank reached the Moore home, he entered along with Mary, Ross, Ed, and Harry Moore — another brother of Josiah. In the room near the parlor, wrapped in bloody sheets, lay the bodies of both Lena and Ina Stillinger. Upstairs they found Josiah and Sarah, both deceased in their blood-soaked beds. Down the hall in the children’s room were the bodies of the four Moore children in an equally grisly scene. Hank remarked that a murder occurred in every bed.
Marshal Hank ascertained that the killer had left the scene. He immediately went to the office of Dr. J Clark Cooper and said, “Come with me… Joe Moore and all his family were murdered in bed.”
An Unusual Crime Scene
By the time the pair returned, the townsfolk had begun gathering at the Moore home, including Reverend Wesley J Ewing of the Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Cooper first saw a tiny arm sticking out from the bloody bedclothes. He lifted the covers and exposed the body attached to it, and another body cowering at the back of the bed. He realized he was looking at the bodies of two children, but didn’t recognize the young Stillinger sisters. They were mutilated beyond all recognition. A kerosine lamp sat on the floor near the foot of the bed. The Moore’s ax rested against the wall and was partially wiped clean.
Dr. Cooper checked the second floor, accompanied by three men. First, he entered the master bedroom. A lamp sat out of place at the foot of the bed, just as in the previous room. Dr. Cooper pulled back the blankets and saw Mr. and Mrs. Moore, both dead with bludgeoned faces. He next headed for the children’s room, where all of the Moore children lay lifeless in an equally gory scene.
Dr. Cooper didn’t touch the bodies. He noted that the blood dried and stiffened the fabric of the sheets and pillows. The brain matter that splattered onto the beds and walls was gelatinous by that time. He estimated it took five or six hours for that to happen after the initial injuries. The killings, then, occurred between 12 and 5:00 AM. Edward Landers, a nearby visitor, testified that around 11:00 PM, he heard yelling, “…like one boy hooting for another.”
The murderer struck with such frenzy, he damaged the ceiling above Josiah and Sarah’s bed with each ax swing. Yet, he took care that the victims’ faces, mirrors, and windows in the house were covered. Strangely, the killer left a 4lb slab of pork next to the murder weapon. In the kitchen, a half-eaten plate of food sat on the dining table next to a bowl of blood-tinged water and yet another slab of pork. Could this have been the work of a butcher?
Dr. Williams noted that the younger sister, Ina, had an ax wound to the skull, whereas all of the others were bludgeoned. The killer covered her head with a boy’s gray coat.
The older sister, Lena, was perhaps the only victim who woke during the attack. Blood patterns suggest that she moved after the first blow. Her blood-free underclothes were at some point placed beneath the bed. During the inquest, Dr. Williams stated that sexual assault couldn’t be ruled in or out.
The coroner, Dr. Linquist, arrived at 9:00 AM. He assembled a coroner’s jury late that afternoon, but didn’t enter the crime scene for several hours. The district attorney didn’t release the bodies to the undertaker until well after 10 PM.
The community of Villisca lost its innocence that night. Residents once felt safe enough to leave doors unlocked, were now looking at their neighbors through a lens of suspicion. Three theories, in particular, might hold water.
William “Blackie” Mansfield was the prime suspect, as far as the Burns Detective Agency and Detective James Newton Wilkerson were concerned. Mansfield had many aliases — George Worley, or Jack Turnbaugh, for instance. Wilkerson suggests Mansfield was a serial killer and cocaine addict.
Mansfield, formerly of Blue Island Illinois, was implicated in the ax murders of his wife, her parents, and his own infant just two years after the Villisca incident. Wilkerson also believed he committed two other ax murders in Paola, Kansas, and Aurora, Colorado, four days before the death of the Moore household. In each murder, the mirrors were covered, and a kerosine lamp left at the end of the bed. Also, the other crimes included a bloody washbowl on the kitchen table.
Although the science of fingerprinting was in its infancy, Mansfield knew his prints were on file at Leavenworth, and all of the crime scenes appeared to be wiped clean of prints.
Detective Wilkerson had insurmountable evidence against Mansfield, who was arrested in 1916 for the crimes. However, Mansfield provided a solid alibi; he was in Illinois when murder visited Villisca and proved it through payroll records. He was cleared of all charges and awarded $2,225 in a suit he brought against Wilkerson.
Reverend George Kelly, a traveling preacher, lived with his wife in Macedonia, Iowa — around 40 miles from Villisca. He spent many years preaching the gospel in the midwestern United States. Reverend Kelly suffered tremendously with mental health issues as an adolescent. He was a voyeuristic man who asked women and girls to pose nude for him and sometimes peeped at them through windows.
Kelly was, in fact, present at the Children’s Day presentation at the Villisca Presbyterian Church on the days leading up to the murders. He left Villisca abruptly mere hours before the bodies were discovered. On the train out, he told other passengers that eight people were butchered in their sleep. The problem was, the killings hadn’t been found yet.
These facts came to light in 1917, and Reverend Kelly was arrested. He even confessed to the crime, stating that voices told him to “slay utterly.” Although, he later recanted, claiming that arresting officers forced a confession from him through torture. His trial then went to a jury twice. The first jury was deadlocked, and the second acquitted him of the eight homicides.
A strong possibility exists that the Villisca ax murders were the work of a serial killer, as suggested with Detective Wilkerson’s accusations against Mansfield. In fact, federal officer and pioneer criminologist Matthew W McClaughry who was assigned to the Villisca case claimed that when he solved this crime, he would simultaneously solve 25 others. He believed that these crimes were so similar and geographically close, they could have only been committed by one man: Henry Lee Moore.
McClaughry postulated that the murders in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Monmouth, Illinois, in 1911 were committed by Henry as well as the murders in Paola, Kansas; Villisca, Iowa; and Columbia, Missouri, in1912. The last killings, being that of his mother and grandmother.
McClaughry based this theory on the similarity of the crimes, which is entirely circumstantial. In the end, Henry was convicted of the Missouri murders after a short trial, and sentenced to life. His sentence was overturned in 1956.
The Villisca ax murders will likely never be solved. Too much time has passed, and everyone who could have solved it is now dead.
Mary Peckham, friend and neighbor to the Moore family, suffered a nervous breakdown and died that same year.
The surviving Stillinger family suffered again when their infant son passed away just two months after the murder of their daughters. With just three surviving children, Joseph and Sara Stillinger buried half of their six children, and one can only imagine their grief.
Today, the Moore House still stands at 508 East 2nd Street. The site of this brutal murder is now a haunted museum anyone can visit. People report observing a ghostly ax-wielding figure, finding blood-filled shoes, and recording the disembodied voices of the murdered children. Haunted or not haunted, the house and land are sacred to the memory of the lives lost within its walls. The city of Villisca does its very best to honor those precious lives.