“On Sunday night, or early on the morning of Monday, June 10, 1912, Villisca was the scene of one of the most vicious crimes in all the history of the world. While the city lay sleeping, following a peaceful Sabbath, some fiend incarnate entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Moore on East Third Street, and, wielding an ax, six members of the J. B. Moore family and the two daughters of Mr. & Mrs. J. T. Stillinger were brutally murdered with the heads of all crushed with an ax..” Villisca Review reprint copyright 2000
The murderer was never found. The murders did not happen within a vacuum. Family stories were interwoven in the fabric of community life. Following the murders, folks in town picked sides and pointed fingers. Children from one camp were told not to play with those in the other. Adults would not patronize merchants in opposing camps.
Villisca was labeled “A nice little town where something awful once happened” by Chuck Offenberger, a renown columnist for the Des Moines Register in the 1990s. The murders remain one of the most intriguing and unsolved mysteries of all time. Non-fiction and fictionalized books have been written about the murders, as have film and TV presentations. The murders inspired a 50-year inquiry by Dr. Ed Epperly. The award winning documentary Villisca: Living with a Mystery by Kelly and Tammy Rundle tells the story not only of the murders but the impact they had on life in Villisca for decades to come. In recent years, Darwin Linn, a local businessman purchased the house in which the murders happened and promoted it as a tourist attraction, with an emphasis on the paranormal. The murders inspired a number of media pieces and books including a novel Blood Ran Red by Stephen Bowman and a factual retelling Villisca by Roy Marshall. They have also been featured in TV segments on “ghost hunters” and are a feature narrative project entitled Haunting Villisca, co-authored by James Serpento and Kimberly Busbee. Haunting Villisca combines a fictionalized present-day scenario with scenes suggested by courtroom transcripts, folklore and current paranormal investigations of the house where the murders occurred.
As we start the tour of places related to the 1912 Unsolved Murders, it will be helpful to know that all the north and south streets in Villisca are Avenues and the east and west streets are Streets.
We start our tour at the corner of 6th Avenue and 2nd Street where the Axe Murders took place. The home was owned by Josiah Moore where he and his wife, Sarah, and their four children lived. The Stillinger girls were in the back downstairs bedroom, the Moore children were in the front upstairs bedroom and the parents in the back upstairs bedroom. After the murders, the house remained in estate until 1915. It has been owned by 8 individuals since that time, often being rented and used as a family home. The house was purchased in 1994 by Darwin Linn who proceeded to restore it to how it was in 1912. The Moore home received the "Preservation at its Best" award in the small public category from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance in 1997 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Tours of the home are available which have a blend of historical highlights of 1912, information on the axe murders and a perspective on the impact on community life, the subsequent controversy the town found itself embroiled in during the grand jury investigation of Frank Jones and the trial of Rev. Kelly, a window peeping preacher and more recently the talk of ghosts and paranormal activities.
It was a dark night, that night of the murders. The streets were darker than usual because of a dispute between the city council and the electric company, which actually turned off the city street lights.
Mary Peckham lived in the first house west of the Moore home. She was the one who called Ross Moore, Joe Moore’s brother, the morning after the murders indicating that she thought something was wrong at the home. She had not heard the normal hustle and bustle of chores being done. Later in the year, her son took her out west where was put in a home for the mentally disturbed.
Go west on Second Street to Fifth Ave. and head north. The eight victims are buried at the Villisca Cemetery located at the north end of Fifth Avenue. As you enter the cemetery – count 7 trees on your right. To the left of the 7th tree, across the roadway, are the Moore and Stillinger’s family lots. To the right of that tree is the Jones family lot.
Mrs. Stillinger gave birth to a stillborn son the same week her daughters were brutally murdered. That fall, their farm house burned and they lost everything, only to rebuild and to have another fire in 1932. They again rebuilt.
Going south again on 5th Ave, on the NW Corner of 1st St and 5th Ave is the location of the then home of State Senator F. F. Jones. Jones lost his bid for reelection in 1916. By then he was considered a suspect in the axe murders. Joe Moore had been an employee of Jones until a disagreement over wages. Moore opened a competing hardware store across the street. John Deere pulled its product from the Jones Store, giving the line to Moore. Jones was known to cross the street to avoid Moore, his business rival. A detective, James Newton Wilkerson, was hired by Ross Moore. In 1916 F.F. and his son, Albert, were openly accused of having hired William "Blackie" Mansfield to kill Joe Moore and his family. Jones fired back with a slander suit against Detective Wilkerson which he lost. Detective J. N. Wilkerson investigated the case for 32 years. The community was split for many years over the guilt or innocence of the former State Senator. F.F. Jones was never brought to trial. This house was built by Jones in 1898, a three story house which at the time was the largest home in Villisca. The Jones family suffered much politically and socially from the tragedy.
Turn west on 1st St and turn south onto 3rd Ave. On the east side at the corner of 2nd St. you find the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches which were directly affected by the murders. The Moore family had attended a Children’s Day program that Sunday evening. The F.F. Jones’ were Methodists.
Moving on south, crossing to the west side of 3rd Ave., just south of Bank Iowa is the location of the corner drugstore owned by Ross Moore. Ross, Joe Moore’s brother, received the call from Mary Peckham. Upon arriving at the house, Ross attempted to wake up the Moore family, but ended up using his set of keys to enter the house. He searched the first floor of the house until he came upon the bodies of Lena and Ina lying in dried blood in the guest room. Ross immediately told Mary to call the Sheriff.
It was reported that there were nearly 7,000 people in Villisca for the funeral which was held in the square because there was no place large enough to hold all the mourners. The caskets were placed in City Hall during the funeral. At that time, City Hall was located slightly east of the corner of 3rd Ave. and 3rd St where the Villisca Community Center now stands.
Dr. Cooper, the first doctor at the Moore home following the murders, had his offices upstairs on the NW corner 3rd Ave at 4th St.
On the west side of 3rd Ave, just south of the square on the north side of the alley is where the Villisca Farmers Mutual Telephone Office was located in an upstairs office. Here switchboard operators heard talk between Joe Moore and Dona Jones. In the fall of 1911, Moore had engaged in an embarrassing affair with the Senator F. F. Jones’ daughter-in-law.
Heading south we reach the railroad which has a place in the story surrounding the axe murders. At the time of the murders, Villisca’s Depot was a bustling place. During WWII, Lt. Col. Robert Moore was pictured in the Pulitzer Prize winning photo ‘Homecoming’ taken at the Villisca depot. The Lt. was 7 years old when his uncle, aunt, four cousins and two visiting children were killed in the unsolved axe murders.
Ed Epperly said there is plenty of evidence to buttress the confessions and build a case against Rev. George Kelly. Kelly was said to be unbalanced and perhaps a pedophile. Kelly, a traveling minister who happened to be teaching at the Children's Day services attended by the Moores, and his wife left by train in the early morning hours on June 10, the day the bodies were discovered. According to one couple, Kelly talked of the massacre in animated detail on the train in the early morning hours of June 10, 1912, well before the crime scene was discovered. Despite this, he was acquitted after two separate trials.
There was a theory promoted by Wilkerson that Senator Frank F. Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It was said that Mansfield was a serial killer because of tales that he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law two years after the Villisca crimes; committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes; and committed the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Colorado. The locations of these crimes were all accessible by train, which is a major link. However, railroad payroll records documented that Mansfield was working in Illinois at the time of the murders.
The documentary “Villisca” raises the possibility that the murderer was a railroad worker who killed his mother and grandmother in Missouri with an axe in December of 1912, months after the Villisca massacre. They also make some connections to other murders. Rundle said Henry Lee Moore, no relation to the slain in Villisca, could have committed the murders there and elsewhere randomly.
The murderer was never found. No one was ever convicted of these crimes. This certainly altered the lives of all those who were close to the incident. Even now, nearly 100 years later, there is speculation.