This piece contains very lurid descriptions of a very brutal crime scene. One so brutal and bizarre it knocked the Titanic disaster off of many of the front pages in American newspapers when it happened 105 years ago and remains unsolved to this day. Please do not read this if you are squeamish or easily troubled. The lurid description reflects historical facts and is necessary to understand the barbarity and psychopathic disregard for human life that was inflicted upon 8 human beings. The main fact being that the victims of this crime have not had justice for 105 years: either in the courts or in the cultural consciousness in art. Their tragedy has been turned in much of the art about the subject into a ghost hunter filled side show (ghost hunters go to haunted house, ghost hunters get killed, you’ve seen it in innumerable B-Budget horror flicks) abstracted from all the historical facts of the case. The victims of the Villisca Axe Murders deserve justice, if not in the courts then in some form of responsible exposition of their tragedy, that we may never forget what happened. Throughout this article, the description of the crime scene itself, the generally accepted time of day that the events happened, is stressed. This is necessary in understanding any crime scene, as one must construct the most likely timeline over which the events happened. If you are fine with that disclaimer, please read on. If you are not, you have been warned. Read on at your own risk.
The Villisca Axe Murders have left questions burrowed deep in my mind for quite some time, and I’m sure they will do the same to you if you have never dissected this most bizarre case. A historical fiction piece on the subject has never been effectively developed to my knowledge, that is where it tells the details of the crime in a historically accurate fashion in the actual time period, likely with a fictional hero to at least give the victims some measure of justice on film. I have been working on a screenplay that does just that for some time. That, however, is for future posts. For now, on the 105th Anniversary of this tragedy in middle America, I wanted to take the time to remind the world of what happened, and call fellow artists to responsibility in how we treat the subject. We owe the victims that much.
It is a calm June night, in the American heartland in 1912. It is cloudy, damp, and unseasonably cool out, but it is not raining. Josiah and Sarah Moore are walking home from their Presbyterian Church’s Children’s Service that ended around 9:30 PM with milk and cookies, with their four small children, and two child guests, along a dirt road in the small, religious, farming community of Villisca, Iowa, population in 1910 2,039 (source: 1910 U.S. Census). They hear the corn fields rustling in the wind along their path into their calm, residential neighborhood and allegedly something making a bit of a noise in the bushes when the family reaches their home that they probably shrugged off as an animal. They would have no way of knowing the horror that would await them around the stroke of midnight on June 10.
Mary Peckham, the next door neighbor of the Moores, woke up early on the crisp Monday morning of June 10, 1912, as was her habit. She flittered about her home, occupying herself with the usual domestic tasks of the day, when something struck her as very odd: there was no activity at the Moore house next door.
At first, Mary thought the family must be sick. So, she did what most people in a close-knit community in the Midwest would do: she called a relative of the Moores that she knew, Joe’s brother Ross, a local druggist. The time now is about 7:30 in the morning. Ross arrives at his brother’s home about a half hour later to check on them.
Ross let himself in around 8:00 AM to look around. He immediately saw two bloodied figures, covered by beedsheets in a back bedroom of the house, and blood on their bedstead.
Ross did a smart thing at this juncture, when forensic science was barely a fledgling field: he immediately stepped out and called the agricultural store his brother worked in, telling employee Ed Selley to call town marshal Henry “Hank” Horton to come investigate because “something terrible had happened.”
The time now being 8:30 in the morning, Marshal Horton had arrived at, and inspected, the Moore home. He came out of the house, shaking his head, a look of sheer terror on his face, drained of color, telling Ross that he had “found somebody murdered in every bed.” Marshal Horton also found Josiah’s axe, coated with blood and hair, and a four pound slab of bacon (theories on the bacon abound), both leaning against the house’s interior south wall.
A walk-through of the home only brought things into their more bizarre focus. All reflective surfaces, mirrors, glass, etc. were covered by bed linens and clothes from the family’s ransacked drawers. The two bodies first seen by Ross in the back downstairs bedroom were that of the visiting Stillinger girls: Ina, age 8, and Lena, age 12. Both were battered beyond recognition (around 20–30 times) by the blunt end of an axe. Lena was also sexually posed. The coroner, however, found no evidence of rape or sexual abuse. A gash was found on her knee, and a likely defensive wound was found on her arm. Lena is the only Villisca victim with some evidence suggesting she was awake when the killer made his way to her.
Walking upstairs, the other Moore children, Herman, aged 11, Katherine, aged 10, Boyd, aged 7, and Paul, aged 5, were all found in the other children’s bedroom, each also beat, beyond recognition, about 20 to 30 times by the blunt end of an axe, their bodies and faces covered with bed linens.
Walking into the room of the Moore patriarch and matriarch saw just as grizzly a sight. Josiah Moore, aged 43, lay dead next to his wife Sara, aged 39, a children’s director at their church, both battered beyond recognition by 20 to 30 blows by both the flat and blunt end of an axe.
The reason we know the killing of Joe and Sara was different from the murder of the children was the coroner’s reconstruction of the crime the next day, when he found gouges from the axe in the ceiling of their bedroom. The coroner found on the basis of this reconstruction and the testimony of Mary Peckham, that an unknown intruder or intruders likely entered the Moore house through the backdoor sometime around the hour of midnight with Josiah’s axe from the back coal shed.
Once inside the modest home, he took an oil lamp from a dresser, put the chimney from the lamp under a chair, bent the wick to keep the flame very low and lit it, only the tiniest glimmer of light being cast over each person as he went from bed to bed. He then worked his way upstairs to Josiah and Sara’s bed, bludgeoning both of them quickly and without enough noise to wake the Moore children in the next room. Dispatching them in the same fashion and also without sufficient noise to wake the Stillinger girls downstairs, he walked down the wood stairs to the downstairs bedroom to kill the two girls. After all of this depravity, he took the time to revisit each body and beat them beyond recognition with the axe.
The main suspect in the Villisca axe murders, the only one ever charged, the Reverend George Kelly, was brought to trial twice. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second, in his acquittal. Kelly gave a confession, in which he alleged the voice of God told him to “slay utterly the little children” (a reference to Ezekiel 9:6). More on his confession here. Sources here describe in great detail the other suspects and the crime itself.
I recommend crime historian Roy Marshall’s book on Villisca here, and historian Dr. Edgar Epperly’s work on the subject here as to why there was no justice for Villisca in the courts. Dr. Epperly particularly gets into the psychology of the crime in all its weird barbarity quite well. Kelly Rundle’s documentary here is some of the best cinema on Villisca, and one of the only movie’s responsibly done on the subject (there really isn’t a work of historical fiction that has treated the tragedy responsibly). A source on the serial theory of “the Midwestern Axeman” (similar crimes occurred at this time in other states) can be found here.
There’s some fiction that does tell the Villisca story, but abstracts the actual time period out, making it instead today. This, in my view, can get a pass from my other criticisms because it makes the Axeman’s crimes relevant to a new audience, while not sacrificing the real details. Stuart Wahlin’s Slay Utterly (2017), from what I have read of it, will likely do a good job of keeping the details of the barbarity of the original crime, just changing the time period, and without any of the ghost hunting sideshows. I recommend checking the project out here and Wahlin out here as well.
This article is not meant as a look at the theories of the crime so much as it is a reminder of the tragedy on its 105th anniversary, and a call to action for us artists when we use real tragedy to motivate our stories. Let us not distort history with unsubstantiated tales from ghost hunters (plenty of ghosts wander the pages of history without the need for us to upset them for thrills) or abstract it away as many of the movie treatments of Villisca do. There is no need to do this when the truth is plenty strange and savage. We have a responsibility to the victims to ensure that their story is told properly.