In the early hours of June 10th, 1912, eight people, six of whom were children, were slaughtered in a brutal attack. The Villisca Axe Murders were never solved despite several suspects been put forward. Was the killer fuelled by revenge after business dealings soured? Or were the murders just one of many committed by an unknown serial killer? Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the case.
The Night Of The Murders
On the evening of June 9th, 1912 the Moore family made their way home after enjoying a day of festivities at the local Presbyterian church. The family of six consisted of Josiah and Sarah Moore and their four children. Of the children, eleven-year-old Herman Montgomery was the eldest, followed by his ten-year-old sister Mary Catherine, seven-year-old brother Arthur and the youngest child, five-year-old Paul.
The Moore family were not alone that night as they were accompanied by two of Mary’s friends, twelve-year-old Lena Stillinger and her eight-year-old sister Ina. The Stillinger sisters had been afraid to walk home in the dark, so Sarah Moore said they could spend the night with them. After Sarah had informed Ina and Lena’s family of the arrangement the eight gathered for milk and cookies before settling into their beds for the night.
Early the next morning neighbour Mary Peckham was out hanging her laundry and found it peculiar that no one from the Moore household had yet begun their daily chores. A little later, at around 7 am Mary noticed that there had still been no movement from the Moore residence, so becoming concerned she visited the house. Mary knocked on the door. After receiving no reply she tried the door handle and found the door to be locked, a strange occurrence in 1912.
Deciding something was amiss Mary Peckham paid a visit to the home of Ross Moore, Josiah’s brother. After also failing to get a response from within the house Ross used his spare front door key and let himself into the property. Slowly making his way into the home Ross soon made a gruesome discovery. In the downstairs guestroom, he saw the headboard soaked in blood. Looking down on the bed itself two bodies lay lifeless with the heads covered by items of clothing.
Ross Moore quickly made his exit, immediately calling for the assistance of Marshall Henry Hank Horton. Horton swiftly arrived at the scene along with two doctors, Edgar Hough and J Clark Cooper, and Wesley Ewing, a minister from the Presbyterian church. Inside they found a scene worse than any could have ever imagined. All six members of the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters had been brutally slain.
The Crime Scene
All eight victims had been savagely battered to death with the blunt end of an axe. Their skulls struck with such power and velocity as to make each victim unrecognisable. Only the family matriarch Sarah Moore showed any evidence of been slashed with the sharp end of the murder weapon, with clear slice wounds on her face.
It was theorized that the killer, or killers, started with Josiah and Sarah before making their way into the rooms of the Moore children and then finally making their way down the stairs to where the Stillinger sisters were sleeping. Except for Lena Stillinger, the evidence seemed to point to the fact no one had awoken during the attack. This led some to believe the killer had first struck each of the eight victims with a single deadly blow before returning to each individual to continue the macabre onslaught.
However, the positioning of Lena Stillinger’s body pointed to the terrifying reality that she had awoken during the horrific events of that summer night. The young girl was found slightly hanging out of the bed with her nightgown pulled up to near her chest and her underwear had been slung under the bed on which she was found. Despite the seeming removal of Lena Stillinger’s underwear no evidence that she, or any of the other victims, had been raped was discovered.
It was believed that the killer had hidden themselves away somewhere within the Moore family’s property prior to them returning home from the festivities that day, with some even suggesting the killer had been watching the family for days from their barn. After the family had retired to their beds it is then theorized the assailant came out of their hiding place, picked up Josiah’s axe and went about their killing spree sometime between 12 am and 5 am.
Investigators struggled to find an immediate motive at the crime scene. A search of the property found no clear evidence that anything had been taken from the home, except Josiah’s keys, which seemingly ruled out robbery. A sexual motive also appeared unlikely given none of the victims were sexually assaulted. A two-pound slab of bacon found at the scene wrapped in a dishcloth near Lena Stillinger’s body led to the suggestion it may have been used as a makeshift vagina by the killer but no evidence was found to suggest that was the case, it was far more likely the perpetrator meant to take it with them but simply forgot.
Other than the slab of bacon a recently cleaned yet still bloody axe was found at the scene alongside a bowl of bloody water on the kitchen table. Cigarette butts were also found in the attic, pointing to this been the likeliest hiding spot of the killer. Unfortunately, any chance of gathering more useful evidence from the crime scene was soon eroded. Word had quickly spread among townsfolk and it wasn’t long before the house was bombarded by ghoulish sightseers trampling over any possible evidence the assailant may have left behind.
Initial Suspect – Frank Jones
Suspicion soon fell on an Iowa State Senator named Frank Jones. The Villisca-based businessman had once employed Josiah Moore as a salesman at his farming equipment business. After working for Jones for seven years Josiah Moore left the business to start up his own rival company, supposedly taking with him some of Jones’s most lucrative contracts. This led to animosity between the pair that, if local rumours were to be believed, were only made worse when Josiah had an affair with Frank Jones’s daughter-in-law.
Opinion within Villisca was split. On one hand, the Presbyterians largely believed in Frank Jones’s guilt, on the other the Methodists offered their unwavering support to their fellow Methodist Senator. An investigation was ordered with Frank Jones quickly ruled out in terms of having committed the heinous act himself. However, that didn’t rule out Frank Jones involvement in the slayings.
It was hypothesized by James Newton Wilkerson, a member of the Burns Detective Agency, that a man of Jones standing and wealth wouldn’t get his hands dirty but would instead hire someone to partake in the dastardly deed on his behalf. To that end, suspicion eventually fell on a man named William Mansfield.
William “Blackie” Mansfield was suspected by Wilkerson of murdering his wife, infant daughter and in-laws with an axe in Blue Island, Illinois two years after the Villisca Axe Murders took place. Other than murdering his own family Wilkerson also believed Mansfield was responsible for the murders of Rollin Hudson and his wife Anna. This murder took place just four days before the Villisca killings in Paola, Kansas which had, according to Wilkerson, many similarities to the Moore family murders.
In 1916, two years after first been identified as a suspect William Mansfield was arrested. Despite Wilkerson’s claims that he could prove Mansfield was in Villisca at the time of the murders, the accused could prove otherwise. Payroll records confirmed that at the time of the killings the suspect was in Illinois.
After his release Mansfield filed a lawsuit for damages against Wilkerson which he won, Wilkerson was ordered to pay $2,225 to Mansfield. Despite this, Wilkerson still believed Mansfield was a strong suspect and it was feasible Frank Jones was responsible for somehow providing Mansfield with his alibi.
Reverend George Jacklin Kelly
In 1917, five years after the Villisca Axe Murders and a year after William Mansfield had been accused another suspect was arrested, Englishman Reverend George Jacklin Kelly. Kelly had been in Villisca on the day of the murders and had attended the same Children’s Activity Day at the Presbyterian church as the Moore’s. The wandering preacher also had something of a reputation as a sexual deviant and as suffering from mental problems. He had previously been arrested for sending lurid letters to several women and in the days before the murders, he had been caught peeping through windows in the area.
At around 5 am on June 10, 1912, the morning the bodies were discovered in the Moore family home, Kelly boarded a train out of Villisca. Whilst onboard Kelly was reported to have had a conversation with a couple. During the friendly chat, he supposedly told of the horrific murders which had just taken place – two full hours before the discovery of the victims of the Villisca Axe Murders. To add to the suspicion against George Kelly, he had also sent some clothing items to a nearby town for dry cleaning which had blood on them.
On his return to Villisca a few days after the murders George Kelly seemed to become fascinated, almost obsessed, with the murders. He wrote letters to both investigators and family members hoping to learn further details about the slayings. It was even said that at one point he approached those working the case and informed them he had been sent by Scotland Yard, demanding a tour of the home in which the Villisca Axe Murders took place.
After his arrest in 1917, Kelly confessed to the murders under intense and forceful interrogation. He told detectives he had first killed the children upstairs before killing the downstairs children, claiming he was doing the work of God. Kelly, however, soon recanted on his confession. The couple who had also claimed to have spoken to Kelly about the murders before they became public knowledge also retracted their statements.
A first trial resulted in a hung jury before a second trial cleared Reverend George Kelly of the murders. Despite the oddities surrounding George Kelly, many believe that at just 5 foot 2 and weighing only 119 lbs it seemed unlikely he would have the strength to inflict the savage wounds inflicted on the Moore family.
A final theory is that the Villisca Axe Murders were just one crime in a series of attacks carried out by a madman that brutally annihilated several other households around the Midwest area of the United States. Attacks bearing several striking similarities to the atrocities carried out on the Moore family took place in the region between 1911 and 1912.
- The aforementioned murders of Rollin and Anna Hudson in Paola, Kansas was one such attack.
- In an attack that took place in September 1911, six members from the neighbouring Burnham and Wayne families in Colorado Springs were murdered with an axe, the killer washed his hands and left the axe at the scene just as the Villisca killer had done.
- In October 1911 William and Pauline Ellsworth and three children were murdered in their home in Ellsworth, Kansas.
- Further attacks also took place in Monmouth Illinois, Mount Pleasant, Iowa and Rainier, Washington over the period.
Despite the distance between locations, proponents of the serial killer theory say this wasn’t an issue as the railway system would be a realistic option.
In four out of the six attacks, the killer had covered the faces of their victims, just as the Moore/Stillinger assailant had done. Not all were done the same, in the Hudson attacks for example the faces were covered first and then caved in, the opposite to the Villisca murders, but the similarity was still there. The perpetrator had also washed their hands and left behind the murder weapon in at least three of the attacks. It also appeared that in nearly every case the attacker had hidden away waiting for their future victims to fall asleep before unleashing their hellacious attack.
Henry Lee Moore
On December 17, 1912, in Boone County, Missouri, thirty-eight-year-old Henry Lee Moore used a rusty axe to brutally murder his sixty-three-year-old mother Georgia and eighty-two-year-old grandmother Mary Wilson. Moore, who was no relation to the family slaughtered in Villisca, then left the scene to return to a nearby hotel at which he had been staying. At the hotel, he cleaned up the blood of his family members off his person as best he could before settling down for the night.
The following morning Henry Lee Moore returned to the family home and quickly reported his “ghastly discovery” to his neighbours. The police soon arrived on the scene and hastily went about dismissing Henry Lee Moore’s tale that he had just arrived back in town that morning to celebrate Christmas. Investigators soon discovered that Moore had spent the night at a nearby hotel. On searching his room they found items of clothing covered in blood, with more blood found on his bedsheets. When questioned about the discovery Henry Lee Moore was unable to give a response and he was arrested for the murders of his mother and grandmother.
Henry Lee Moore was found guilty of the murders of his relatives on March 14, 1913. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the men investigating the Villisca Axe Murders, W. M. McClaughry, soon came up with a theory that Henry Lee Moore was possibly the man responsible for the murders of the Moore family in Villisca and the other similar murders. Despite looking at Henry Lee Moore extensively little in the way of evidence was ever found to link him to any of the other murders that took place between 1911 and 1912. Henry Lee Moore was released from prison in 1956 aged 82 after having his sentence commuted.
The Moore family and the Stillinger children may well have been the victim of a serial killer but it is unlikely that individual was Henry Lee Moore.
To this day, over a hundred years later, the house in which the Villisca Axe Murders took place still stands. It remains a major tourist attraction in Iowa for the morbidly curious and paranormal investigators alike, even featuring on shows such as Ghost Adventures.