Villisca Axe Murder House

The ghosts of this infamous, unsolved murder still reportedly linger in the rooms where they died

Villisca Axe Murder House’s Famous Paranormal Claims

  • Photos taken in the home often carry odd anomalies
  • Toys left in the house are often moved or played with by unseen entities
  • The sounds of footsteps are frequently heard on upper floors
  • Unsettling feelings are reported from the attic
  • Strange odors of cigarette smoke are also encountered in the attic
  • Disembodied voices, often those of children, are heard throughout the house

Villisca Axe Murder House:
History Written in Blood

About 40 miles from the nearest Interstate highway, Villisca, Iowa, isn’t used to far-off visitors. That is, unless they’re one of the many people who visit this rural village just to visit the famous ‘murder house.’ The tiny farmhouse on 2nd Street, despite being home to a murder so grisly it took the Titanic disaster off of newspaper front pages, now forms the backbone of Villisca’s cultural economy. A directional sign on the state highway running beside the town directs travelers to it, and, once in Villisca, a large sign is posted in the home’s front yard, denoting it as the ‘Villisca Axe Murder House.’

Villisca Axe Murder House, one of the largest draws of tourist for this small Iowa town

Step inside and you’ll be transported back to the days of the infamous octuple homicide. Meticulously restored to its 1912 appearance, air conditioning is about the only modern convenience you’ll find in the compact wood frame house. But, spend a little time inside the murder house, and you might find that there are more reminders of its history than just the restoration. From strange sounds to shifting shadows, many are drawn to this historical crime scene by the claims that the murder victims still haunt the home today.

The Moore Murders & The Making of
The Villisca Axe Murder House

One of the town’s most prominent businessmen was Josiah Moore, who had spent the previous nine years running the popular Jones Store in Villisca, owned by another prominent local, Frank Jones. Moore had lived in Villisca for 13 years prior to this, and had built a respectable family in that time, including his wife Sarah and their four children: Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul.

The day of June 9, 1912, started like any other day for the family, beginning with morning chores while Josiah tended to his business, and ended with a trip to the local church with all the kids in tow, along with two neighbor girls, Lena and Ina May Stillinger, who were friends with Katherine Moore. The group went to mass, attended a Children’s Day Program that Sarah operated, and then they all retired to the Moore family’s home. Lena and Ina May were allowed by their parents to spend the night with the Moore family, and soon the six Moores and their two young house guests settled down to bed.

What greeted the town of Villisca the following morning would define the village’s history for the rest of its days.

By 7:00am on June 10, Villisca residents were up and moving with the early morning sun, getting chores done and opening up town shops. But when Mary Peckam stepped out to do her morning yardwork, she noticed that her neighbors, the Moores, hadn’t stirred yet.

Concerned for her neighbors’ unfed chickens, Peckam knocked on their door, only to get no answer. She opted to let out and feed their chickens for them, but then immediately went to Ross Moore, Josiah’s brother.

Discovering the scene at the
Villisca Axe Murder House

Ross, too, attempted to knock and shout at the door, but no one answered. Finally, he used his copy of their key and entered. Blood ran through the kitchen, which was not entirely uncommon, as perhaps the family had slaughtered a chicken for dinner the night before. It wasn’t until Ross checked the first floor guest bedroom that he found the bludgeoned bodies of Lena and Ina May Stillinger, and a blood-caked axe set beside them.

Ross immediately called for the town lawman, Hank Horton. Horton arrived swiftly and investigated the rest of the house, finding all those inside murdered with the axe found in the guest room. Immediately, the calm existence of Villisca was shattered to pieces.

Horton organized an investigation and called in doctors, Ross and the Stillingers started their funeral preparations, and all through town, a heavy pall fell.

The investigation found that the murders likely took place between midnight and 5:00am on the morning of June 10. Cigarette butts left in the attic indicated that the killer was waiting for the family when they returned from evening church, and continued to wait until everyone was asleep before striking. Josiah and Sarah were killed first, with Josiah being the only victim to receive blows from the bladed end of the axe.

All other victims were bludgeoned with the blunt end. Following that, the killer bludgeoned the children in the adjoining upstairs bedroom before moving downstairs and killing the Stillinger girls. After the eight murders were finished, signs indicated the killer lingered in the home for a short while, ate breakfast from the Moore’s pantry, and deposited the axe neatly in the guest room before leaving.

Who Did the Deed at the
Villisca Axe Murder House?

In the days following the murders and investigation, several suspects were identified. There was Frank Jones, the store owner who employed Josiah. The motive being that Josiah had recently opened up his own competing store and taken valuable business away from Jones. Then there was a traveling preacher, Rev. George Kelly, who was known for his oddball personality and his sexual deviance, having been caught peeping several times and accosting local young women. Another suspect was Andrew Sawyer, a drifter and transient who just happened to be in town during the murders.

William Mansfield was another named suspect, with investigators believing Frank Jones hired him as a hitman. Henry Lee Moore (no familial relation) was also named, believed to be a serial killer in a string of similar killings. Josiah’s hot-headed brother-in-law, Sam Moyer, was also briefly suspected. A more recent suspect has been Paul Mueller, a traveling farm hand suspected of being a nationwide spree killer.

The Eternal Mystery of the Villisca Axe Murder House

Despite all the suspects, no one was successfully convicted of the murders. William Mansfield was arrested on suspicion, but released due to lack of evidence and never charged. The only other person arrested for the murders was Reverend Kelly, who was tried twice for the crimes.

Police had gotten a confession from him, but it was gained under duress and a jury refused to accept the confession, given Kelly’s history of mental instability. After the two trials, Kelly was formally acquitted of the murders. The brutal killings remained unsolved in the years that followed, and over the decades eight different people came to own the house.

Villisca Axe Murder House: Haunted Relic

By the 1990s, the house was hardly differentiated from the other modern homes on the block, though the horrid history remained. But, in 1994 the home fell into new hands, hands that were interested in bringing the era of its infamous crime back to life. Under ownership of Darwin Linn, the home was restored with meticulous detail back to its 1912 condition. It went on to be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, and was awarded the Preservation at its Best Award by the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance that same year.

Since its restoration, the Villisca Axe Murder House has become legendary location for fans of all things morbid and potentially paranormal. As interested Americans traveled from far-and-wide to see the historic crime scene, some tourists left with odd encounters under their belts. Aside from being the site of an octuple homicide, the Villisca Axe Murder House was developing a legacy as one of Iowa’s most haunted houses.

Ghost Stories of the
Villisca Axe Murder House

The paranormal claims surrounding the Villisca Axe Murder House are long-standing and numerous. Reports of strange occurrences have been common since the home was restored to its 1912 appearance, and range from the intriguing to the downright spine-tingling.

Photos taken by tourists around the home often come back with strange anomalies present in them. While some have captured supposed ‘orbs’ inside the house, others have caught long streaks of mysterious light, and others still have come away with images curiously half-blacked out, as if the photos themselves were cut up.

During tours, visitors often report hearing loud footsteps from above them only to find no one on the upper floors.

In the small attic space, some people report experiencing odd or unsettling feelings, while others say they get the strange odor of cigarette smoke there, as if the spirit of the killer is still enjoying some smokes to pass the time in hiding.

Playful Phantoms in the
Villisca Axe Murder House

Disembodied voices, often the voices of children, are sometimes heard in the house. Given that six children were amongst the dead in the aftermath of the murders, many who come to visit bring toys for the children, and these toys are often found moved to strange places or arranged in ways no employee put them in.

It’s believed by many that the spirits of the six children are moving these toys and playing with them. Many investigators have attempted to actively play with the young children, and some report having balls or toy cars rolled over to them by unseen forces.

Villisca Axe Murder House’s Train Terror

The activity in the house is noted by some to increase as trains roll through town at night. The Villisca Axe Murder House is very close to the town’s train line, and the rumble and roar of trains often envelop the entire town with noise and racket. Some believe the killer used the cover of train rumbles to mask the swings of his axe, and the sounds of any potential screams.

Now, visiting ghost hunters often say noises and disembodied voices in the house can often be heard right after the trains are done rolling through.

Villisca Axe Murder House: Paranormally Popular

Since the 1990s, the Villisca Axe Murder House has attracted attention from national media for both its bloody history and its paranormal claims. The house has been featured on a long list of paranormal television shows since its restoration, including ABC’s Scariest Places on Earth; Travel Channel’s popular programs Most Terrifying Places in America, Ghost Adventures, and Destination Fear; and on the Buzzfeed Unsolved web series.

Additionally, the home has been the subject of several popular podcast episodes, including episodes of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, Karen Kilgariff’s My Favorite Murder, and Amy Bruni’s Haunted Road.

Villisca Axe Murder House:
Tourism Tentpole

Ghost tours and overnight investigations remain highly popular at the house and bring in the vast majority of tourism to the Villisca area. Some visitors come in hopes of both finding ghosts and solving the century-old cold case.

And though most evidence is long gone now, the haunting tales remain as alive as ever. Perhaps one day the spirits of the Villisca Axe Murder House will share the identity of their killer. And, if you visit, they might just share it with you.