The house, very similar to thousands of others sprinkled across the Midwest, is the site of a yet unexplained stain in the fabric of Iowa life. Josiah “J.B.” Moore, 43, his wife Sarah, 39, and their four children — Herman, 11, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and Paul, 5 — along with two visiting neighbor girls — Lena, 12, and Ina Stillinger, 8 — were brutally murdered with an axe while they slept. The attacks took place sometime after the family went to bed on Sunday, June 9, 1912 and when neighbors checked on the family the next morning. The killer or killers, depending on who you ask, have never been found and the case has become one of the most notorious in Iowa history.
On that fateful evening the Moore family and their two guests walked home from the local Presbyterian Church, where the children had been participating in a special Sunday School performance for the adult congregants. Accounts from the time indicate that a social event (fellowship dinner?) followed the performance, which Sarah Moore as organizer of the church’s youth program had directed. Like many early June evenings in Iowa, the weather was damp as the group exited the church and headed home at about 9:30 p.m. It is believed that the group had a snack of milk and cookies before turning in for the night, but what happened after the family fell asleep and before concerned neighbors checked on them next morning remains a subject of speculation.
Most believe whomever committed the crime entered the home while the family was at the church and hid until everyone was asleep. The murder weapon, was believed to have been taken from the Moore’s own yard, and was discovered, partially cleaned, in the house the next morning. An oddity of the case was the 4-pound slab of bacon that it is believed the killer propped beside the murder weapon. In addition, pieces of clothing were taken from dresser drawers and used to cover the household mirrors and other glass panes.
Understandably, the event both outraged and frightened the roughly 2,000 residents of the town. They formed teams to search for the killer, who they assumed would be in the area and easily tracked due to the amount of blood. In the years following they also attended grand jury hearings as first one person and then another were considered as the killer.
Much more regarding the case can be found by watching the video below or visiting the Villisca movie website.
While I’m unsure if such a legacy can ever be embraced, the house has been purchased and opened for tours and paranormal investigations. The house has been investigated by several local and regional groups as well as the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures.
Unfortunately, I failed to visit the official website for the site and arrived at a time when day tours were not being offered. During the spring, summer and fall, daylight tours are offered for $10 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and children under age 12. Those interested can also arrange to spend the night in the house. The cost for over night stays is $400 for up to 6 people, additional guests are $70 each. (Based on the calendar, it appears the house does quite a bit of overnight business.)
Viewing the Villisca Axe Murder House, even if only from the outside, is a surreal experience when the history is known — and it’s hard to drive up to the property without having an inkling given the large sign with dripping red letters proclaiming it to all as the “Ax Murder House.” The area was quiet on the day of our visit. There were no children playing or people milling about. Except for the graphic signage, it could have been any number of residential streets in any number of Iowa towns. A quick check of the area revealed no one to interview or ask for additional information about the town or the events of so long ago.I took several photographs during the visit, and was somewhat taken aback by what I found in them. In one photograph, in the front windows, there is a figure. Photographs taken from a different angle did not show similar, so I’m thinking this may be a photograph inside the house.
For what it is worth, I can tell you that I felt no ill will while on the property grounds. It was actually a fairly peaceful spot with birds chirping in a nearby bush. As for what reaction I might have to the interior of the house? Well, that will have to come in a separate post following my next visit to Villisca.
Before leaving the community, which like most rural towns is struggling economically, I visited the local cemetery where the Moore family is buried in one large plot and share an elongated gravestone and the two Stillinger girls share a nearby gravestone. It was here — and not at the murder site — where I felt … well … I felt sad and empty. It isn’t unusual for me to visit a cemetery and, truth be known, I typically find them interesting from an historical perspective and calming. As I stood before the Moore grave site, I felt more off-balance, like I was late for an appointment and couldn’t remember what it was, and then just felt truly sad, depressed and numb. Because of this I didn’t stay very long.
While at the cemetery and visiting the grave of the Stillinger girls I also noticed a nearby grave engraved with the same year and only the statement “baby boy.” Since this was placed with the Stillinger family, I was curious. According to a local I met, Edith Stillinger, mother of Lena and Ina, was pregnant at the time of the murders and her son was subsequently stillborn after the tragedy.