25. The Villisca Axe Murders

Episode 25. The Villisca Axe Murders.

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the victims and the house.

Today’s blog is particularly violent and involves the murder of children and a mention of assault against a child. If this is a topic that you are not comfortable with, I advise you skip this post or read with caution. As with all Good Nightmare blogs, I try to keep the gruesome details to a minimum, except where they are necessary to the detailing of a crime. 

The Villisca axe murders took place on June 9, 1912, in Iowa. 

The Moore family included Josiah and Sarah Moore, parents to Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7) and Paul Vernon (5). They were an affluent and well-known family, well liked by their community and involved in the local church. The weekend of the murders, the family was hosting guests Ina May (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12). 

Sarah and the children visited the Presbyterian Church the night of the 9th. The children attended the Children’s Day Program which Sarah presided over. The program ended at 9.30pm, and with a short walk home, the family returned to their house by 10pm. There were no reports of any disturbance or unusual behaviour on this night. 

The following morning, on June 10 at 7am, neighbour, Mary Peckman, was concerned to see that the usually punctual family had not appeared around the house for their morning chores. Mary approached the home and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, she tried the handle but it was locked. There was nothing she could do at this point to rouse the family from their apparent sleep, so she let out their chickens and called Josiah’s brother, Ross, for assistance. 

Noting Mary’s concern, Roy arrived at the house shortly after. He tried knocking and turning the door handle to no avail, so used his spare key to enter the house. What he would find was unfathomable. 

Ina and Lena’s bodies were discovered in the guest bedroom in a gruesome scene. 

Roy more immediately sent Mary Peckman to call for the town peace officer, Hank Horton. 

The search continued upon Hank’s arrival and the rest of the family was discovered. Each family member had been bludgeoned to death with an axe belonging to Josiah himself. The axe had been left in the guest room by the bodies of the two young guests. 

Given the family’s recorded arrival at their home around 10pm and their inability to be called forth from the home around 7am, it was determined that the murders took place somewhere between midnight and 5am. 

Officers found two smoked cigarettes in the attic, which lead them to believe that whomever had murdered the family and their guests, had waited inside the house for them to arrive home. It was determined that Sarah and Josiah had been killed first, while sleeping. Sarah and the other victims had all been bludgeoned with the blunt side of the axe, whereas Josiah had been attacked with the blade. He was attacked so severely that his eyes were missing, having been destroyed. This lends to the idea that either Josiah was considered enough of a threat to the killer to put a stop to the murders, that he needed to be taken out so to speak, or that this attack was specifically targeted towards the destruction of Josiah and his family, consequently. 

The Moore’s children were attacked next, and lastly, the two guests. 

All residents of the home were determined to have been asleep at the time of the attacks, except for Lena. Lena had a defensive wound on her arm that suggested she woke up during the attack or may have tried to fight back. Her nightgown was found pushed up and her underwear was missing when her body was found, suggesting an attempted assault. 

While there was minimal evidence, there was an abundance of suspects. 

Reverend George Kelly, Frank F Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell, Henry Lee Moore (of no relation) and Andy Sawyer were all investigated as suspects in the murder. I’ll let you decide which suspect you feel most fits the crime, and if you have other theories, please be sure to share them in the Facebook group. 

Reverend George Kelly was a travelling minister who was in town at the time of the murders. He was known for being peculiar and mentally unwell and was a suspected peeping Tom. Kelly was in attendance at the church on June 8, as he had come to teach at the Children’s Day Service and so could be connected to the Moore’s in this way. Kelly left town around 5am, June 10, the morning after the Moore murders. Kelly actually confessed to the crime but he was not believed. He showed a remarkable interest in the case and stayed in contact with investigating officers, claiming to have been at least a witness. 

In 1914, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene images via mail to a secretary he was had been consistently sexually harassing. He was subsequently sent to St Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital for treatment and detainment. In 1917, Kelly was arrested for the axe murders of the Moore family. He confessed to the crime but recanted shortly thereafter and was acquitted at his second trial. 

Frank F Jones was a local resident. He was also a previous employee of Josiah’s and it was rumoured that he had been involved in a sexual affair with one of Moore’s family members. This, combined with bad business experiences between the two led to the rumour that there was bad blood between the pair. The rumours, however, were unfounded. 

William Mansfield was a suspected serial killer. Two years after the Villisca axe murders, Mansfield murdered his own wife, infant child and in-laws. He was also a suspect believed to have committed the 1912 Paola, Kansas axe murders. The crime scenes were both accessible by train, and it was suggested that this is how he had moved around to commit various crimes. These axe murders were also said to have been linked to the New Orleans axe murders. Mansfield was released from custody having given a solid alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the murders. 

Henry Lee Moore, of no relation to the victims, was also a suspected serial killer. He murdered his own mother and grandmother just months after the Villisca axe murders, and as with Mansfield, was suspected in a slew of axe murders that had taken place around the same time. 

Andrew Sawyer was a transient. He traveled from place to place and stopped for work as he went. At 6am, the day the bodies were discovered, Sawyer approached a foreman looking for work. He was wet and muddy, and noted as being very interested in the murders. He would read articles about the murders alone on breaks and would mention them to other workers. Sawyer was said to be anxious about being alone and he would often sleep with an axe. Afraid of being considered a suspect, Sawyer attempted to leave Villisca. Though he seemed to have information about the crime, including how the murderer may have escaped the scene and skipped town, he was released from custody. He had a solid alibi. He’d been arrested for vagrancy the night of the murders and had been sent out of town at about 11pm, about an hour before the murders were said to have taken place. 

Cases could be made for any of these suspects, or at least for most of them. 

The case remains unsolved to this day. 

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy, in their novel, The Man From the Train, look at a series of axe murders that took place over 10 years, including the Villisca axe murders. They conclude that Paul Mueller was the perpetrator of each murder. However the pair admit that they only had about 500 words of information about the man’s skills, appearance and family. Regardless of who you believe is the killer, this novel would be an interesting read if you’re keen for mass consumption of detailed axe murders. I may have to keep an eye out for it myself. 

Who do you think the killer is?






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