Sometime around midnight between Sunday, June 9, and Monday, June 10, 1912, a person or persons entered a modest house in Villisca, Iowa, and bludgeoned to death eight people sleeping there, including two adults and six children aged 5 through 12. The killings became known as the “Villisca Axe Murders,” and are easily the most notorious murders in Iowa history.
The shocking Villisca axe murders occurred between the evening of June 9, 1912, and early morning of June 10, 1912, in the town of Villisca in southwestern Iowa.
Six members of the Moore family and two house guests were found bludgeoned in the Moore residence.
All eight victims, including six children, had severe head wounds from an axe. A lengthy investigation yielded several suspects, one of whom was tried twice and acquitted. The crime remains an unsolved mystery.
On Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, Josiah (Joe) Moore and his wife Sarah took their four children, Herman, 11, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and 5-year-old Paul to the Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian Church. Accompanying them were Lena (12) and Ina Stillinger (8), neighbors who had asked their parents’ permission to stay overnight with the Moore children.
The Children’s Day service was an end-of-the-year Sunday school program. Sarah Moore was a co-director and her children performed their little speeches and recitations along with the other Sunday school members.
The service ended with a social mingling that lasted until at least 9:30 p.m. When parishioners left on that cloudy, damp and cool night, no one suspected that neither the Moores nor their overnight guests would be seen alive again.
They walked the three blocks to their home. Cookies and milk ended the festive evening, and all went to bed.
Sometime after midnight, the killer or killers picked up Joe’s axe from the back yard, entered the house, and bludgeoned to death all eight of its occupants.
The killer had added two bizarre touches to the murder scene. The first was a four-pound piece of slab bacon leaning against the wall next to the axe. The murderer also had searched dresser drawers for pieces of clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and the glass in the entry doors. On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water.
All the victims were found in their beds, their heads covered with bedclothes, and all had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an axe.
The ceiling in the parents’ bedroom and the children’s room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the axe.
Once the murders were discovered, the news traveled quickly. As neighbors and curious onlookers converged on the house, law enforcement officials quickly lost control of the crime scene. It is said that up to 100 people traipsed through the house gawking at the bodies before the Villisca National Guard finally arrived around noon to cordon off the area and secure the home.
Investigators believed that all of the victims except for Lena Stillinger had been asleep when murdered. They thought that she was awake and tried to fight back, as she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm. Lena’s nightgown was pushed up to her waist and she was wearing no undergarments, leading to law enforcement speculation that the killer(s) sexually molested her or attempted to do so.
Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore. George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. The first ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in an acquittal. Other suspects in the investigation were also exonerated.
Every transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was a suspect in the murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. No real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.