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The Villisca Axe Murders: Iowa’s Most Infamous Unsolved Crime

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

It was Sunday evening June 9th of 1912. Josiah ”Joe” Moore and his family were off to the Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian Church. The service was an end-of-the-year Sunday School program of which Sarah Moore was co-director. Her children, eleven-year-old Herman, ten-year-old Katherine, seven-year-old Boyd, and five-year-old Paul were preformers in the program. The children all preformed songs and recited speeches with the other Sunday School members that evening. The Church ended the night’s service with mingling and fellowship among congregants that lasted no longer than 9:30 that night. It was during this fellowship that the children asked if their two friends, Lena Stillenger, age twelve and Ina Stillenger, age eight could spend the night.

Upon calling home, the Stillenger girls couldn’t get a hold of their parents. It was their oldest sister, Blanche that answered and okayed the overnight excurtion. This was a desicion that would haunt the eldest Stillenger child for the rest of her life. With that, the family of six returned home with their two houseguests in tow. The walk back to the house was dark as the street lamps were out. That very day the entire city’s power had been cut off following a dispute between the town council and the Villisca Public Service Company.

The two sides had been embroiled in an acromonious dispute involving better lighting and the replacement of light poles in the business district. The demand for upgraded lighting coincided with the laying of brick on Third Avenue in 1911. With the scwabble reaching the District Court, the private utility company played its ace in the hole against the council. They terminated the entire city’s power. It was rumored that the city commissioned the killings to force the Public Service Company to turn the power back on. Regardless, the power was restored on Monday night following the grusome murders. With the investigation overshadowing the dispute, it’s likely that it just didn’t seem that important anymore.

Upon returning home from their three block walk in the dark the children enjoyed milk and cookies. After this timeless and wholesome snack everyone turned in for the night. It was some time around midnight between Sunday June, 9 and Monday June, 10 that the unthinkable occured. An unidentified person or persons entered the home and bludgeoned the Moore family and the two young Stillenger girls. The intruder or intruders grabbed Joe’s axe from the back yard and used it to murder the household.

They entered the house through an unlocked door. This being a usually safe, small town with friendly inhabitants, unlocked doors weren’t uncommon. It’s doubtful that most of them ever thought about locking their doors before this occurance. An oil lamp was found on a table nearby and rigged to burn low, providing enough light for barely one person to see by. The killer moved about the house, oil lamp in one hand and the axe in the other. It’s also believed from evidence at the scene that killer hid in either the barn or the attic for the family to go to bed. It’s also believed that one waited in the barn while another assailant waited in the attic, watching and listening for the family to turn in for the night.

The sleeping Stillenger girls in the downstairs guest room were passed up. Instead, they made their way upstairs directly to Joe and Sarah Moore’s room. After bludgeoning the couple the killer went to each of the children’s rooms one by one. All four children suffered the same fate as their parents. Before exiting the home, the person or persons entered the guest room. The Stillenger sisters were killed last. Lena’s nightgown was pushed up and the little girl was left exposed at the scene. Though an examination revealed that no sexual assault had taken place, a four pound slab of bacon was left beside the axe outside the guest room.

It has been theorized that the killer or one of the killers used the bacon to masterbate. The reason for this would be unknown. That wasn’t the only strange clues left at the scene. The mirrors and the glass on the doors were covered with pieces of clothing that had been retrieved from the dressers in the home. On the kitchen table a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water was found.

Monday June, 10, by 7:30 in the morning the family’s elderly nighbor, Mary Peckham noticed the silence and the inactivity around the house. Thinking the house seemed quiet and deserted in contrast to the life and excitment that you could normally expect from it, she grew concerned. Her worries mounted when she realized the chickens hadn’t been let out and the other farm animals fed so she called Joe’s brother Ross, a local druggist, to investigate. Ross arrived at around 8:00 that morning to find his brother’s door locked, one more thing that the intruder had done before leaving. Ross used his own key to the house and let himself in. He cautiously checked the downstairs and discovered Lena and Ina Stillenger covered with a sheet. Upon finding the bodies and seeing the blood on the bedstead he backed away and called Joe’s hardware store. He informed employee Ed Selley to fetch Marshal Henry ”Hank” Horton because ”something bad has happened.”

At around 8:30 Marshal Hank Horton arrived at the scene. After walking through the house he told Ross that he had found ”somebody murdered in every bed.” The murder weapon was found leaning up against the south wall next to the downstairs guest bedroom. It was partially cleaned, but then the killer probably thought, ”hey, there’s no DNA testing yet so I don’t have to be that thorough.” It was found next to the four pound slab of bacon. After Lena Stillenger was found exposed the theory was formed that the bacon was used as an aid to materbate. The strange detail about clothing from the family’s dressers being used to cover the mirrors and entryway glass was also noted. The victim’s heads were also covered with nightclothes.

All were found in their beds and all had their skulls battered twenty to thirty times. Only Lena was found exposed, though. Gouge marks were found in the ceilings in the parents’ and the children’s bedrooms upstairs. These marks were apparently made by the ferocious upswing of an axe. An oil lamp had been found at the end of Joe and Sarah’s bed. The chimney was missing and the wick was turned back. Upon further investigation the missing chimney was found under the dresser in the room. A similar lamp was found at the foot of the bed the Stillenger sisters were found in, its chimney was also off and the wick turned back.

The scene was the bloodiest any of the investigators had ever seen. A shoe belonging to Sarah Moore had been found on Joe’s side of the bed for unknown reasons. The shoe had blood on the inside and underneath. The coroner, Dr Linquist, theorized that the shoe had been filled with blood running down from a first attack on Joe. It’s believed at some point the killer returned to inflicted more blows on Joe and knocked the shoe over in the process. Hank Horton brought along Drs. J. Clark Cooper, Edgar Hough, Wesley Ewing, minister of the Presbyterian Church. County coroner L.A. Linquist and a third doctor, F.S. Williams, who was first to examine the bodies and esimate a time of death, arrived afterward.

There was little hope in gathering any kind of useful evidence from the scene. Upon exiting a visiably shaken, Dr. Williams annouced to the growing crowd outside the house “don’t go in there boys; you’ll regret it until the last day of your life.” As many as one hundred townspeople decided not to heed to the good doctor’s warning. They decended upon the crime scene, not only trampling what evidence they left behind, but also taking pieces of the home and even Joe’s skull as morbid keepsakes. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that crime scene tape was not available yet. Fingerprinting turned out to be a daunting task as so many townspeople had trampled the scene and touched everything in the house. What would’ve been a cut and dry, easy to solve crime today with forensic testing turned into the mystery of the century for a time that had no such scientific advancements yet.

A clumsy search of the countryside for a transient killer proved fruitless. The person or persons had vanished. They could’ve either disappeared into their own home nearby unseen without working street lamps. They could’ve also left town easily with a five hour head start and a train station in town that nearly thirty trains came through each day. Bloodhounds were also brought in and paid for by an unlikely source. A well known rival of Joe Moore’s, F.F. ”Frank” Jones paid to have the hounds brought in by train. With Frank being a prominate figure in town, politics, and and in the Methodist Church this didn’t seem surprising to some. To others that knew the pair and their disdain for each other this seemed strange.

Elmer Noffsinger’s famous bloodhounds were brought in at a cost of $174. Adjusted for inflation that would be more than $4000 today. The crowd at the Moore house waited for the hounds for arrive. They got in on the 9pm train the night that the scene was discovered. Rain threatened to wash away any scent the dogs could pick up. The anxious crowd just waited with bated breath until Elmer got there with his hounds. By evening the crowd had become almost lethargic as it became more and more evident with every passing hour that the killer had gotten away.

When the dogs finally arrived to the house they were given the axe that probably a hundred people or more had handled. They were expected to get a clear scent of the killer from this axe and the cloth that was used to partially wipe it off with. After they got their clouded and obscured scent they took off with a mob of upward of two-thousand chasing after them. Though the dogs couldn’t follow a cold and contaminated trail, that didn’t stop investigators from sending the dogs out a total of three times. They took the same trail all the three times. Once upon arrival off of the 9pm train, another that night that wasn’t finished until after midnight, and one more the following morning. They took off through town with a crowd on their heels every time and all three times ended up at the west fork of the Nodaway River. With no clues or suspects found in their search, the dogs and their handler returned to Nebraska defeated.

Throughout this entire days the bodies of the deceased just lay in their beds. This negligence was due to the fact that county coroner, Dr. Linquist refused release of the bodies until authorized to do so by County Attorny, Mr. Ratcliff. Ratcliff was visiting in Cedar Rapids when informed of the murders. He had to head back on a westbound train, arriving within minutes of Elmer Noffsinger and his famous bloodhounds. When Ratcliff was finally able to authorize the release of the victims, Dr. Linquist had already taken off to follow the bloodhounds on their wild goose chase. The Moores and the Stillenger sisters lay in their deathbeds until after eleven o’clock that night.

Another misstep in this investigation was the fact that Marshal Horton wasn’t an actual police offical. He had no offical police training of any kind. He was just considered to be pysically strong enough to collar the occaisional drunk or wrangle teenagers vandilizing outhouses in the area on Halloween night. For this reason he was named the city Marshal, but had been a carpenter all his life. He was not prepared at all for the bloody scene that greeted him at the Moore house on that chilling Monday morning.

Unsure of what else to do, he left the scene and rushed to find a doctor. Dr. J. Cooper was the first doctor he found. Dr. Cooper had been a 1902 graduate of the University of Iowa’s medical school. He had spent his career as a county doctor in Villisca. He preformed only a cursory survey and did little to confirm the deaths. He did test the onset of rigor mortis, but did little else. The doctor only spent a total of fifteen minutes inside the house before leaving. It was another hour before the county coroner showed up commenting that “it was a mad house, with people shouting and running from room to room.”

The scene wasn’t finally contained until after George Whitmore, Sheriff of Page County arrived. Seeing the utter chaos surrounding the house he quickly worked to seal off the scene. Marshal Horton had already sent his deputy, a young man in his twenties named Mike Overman while he was getting the doctor. The poor man was ill equipped to handle the massive crowd gathering all on his own and quickly lost control of the scene. Whitmore deputized several men in the crowd upon arrival and had them to push the rest of the crowd back from the property. Bruce Stillians, who had already walked through the house, returned with a coil of barbed wire. With the barbed wire strung from tree to tree, they had a perimeter set up. Now only officials with the police and the press could enter.

The following day would see the only police official involved in this case trained in forensic science arrive by train. Montgomery County officials got in touch with the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas to acquire help from Warden R.W. McClaughry’s son and assistant warden, Mr. M.W. McClaughry. Mr. McClaughry was recognized as a leading expert in the field of crime scene analysis and criminal identification. He used the Bertillon system of body measurements along with the brand new procedure of fingerprinting to identify criminals.

As impressive as his credentials may have been that didn’t make up for him staggering off the train stinking drunk. Disgusted, Marshal Horton took the inebriated forensic expert to a hotel to sober up. The investigation was stalled for several hours while he rested and sobered. When he was finally able to he conducted the only forensic analysis of the crime scene. First, all the victims were fingerprinted to rule their prints out at the scene. Then, he searched the house thoroughly for useable prints, but to no avail. He focused on the axe handle, but as it had been handled by so many people the day before there was no use in it. He also paid special attention to the oil lamp chimneys.

As thorough as his search was, it was fruitless. The trampling of the crime scene the day prior ruined any kind of fingerprint evidence he would’ve collected. There wasn’t a single useable print anywhere in the home. It’s unclear what technique he used, but it seems he was unable to lift latent prints. Apparently he needed clear prints that could be photographed and the killer or killers hadn’t left any such prints. If they had they were no longer clear after so many people had entered the home and touched everything.

When his frustrating search for prints turned up nothing he conducted a visual analysis of the house. He took precise measurements of the gouge marks in the ceilings made by the axe. According to measurements taken at the scene the axe gouges in the ceilings were seven feet, four inches above the floor. As a later suspect would turn out to be a rather small man, these measurements proved very useful. McClaughry analyzed blood spots and the cuts to the ceiling. He believed that the cuts had not been made when the killer struck the victims, but rather when he was dancing around the room swinging his axe in one hand excitedly afterward, then spattering blood around the rooms. He also deduced that from the angle of the cuts in the ceiling and on the bodies that the killer was swinging the axe with his left hand.

The suspect pool was large in the beginning, but dwindled over time as leads were exhausted. Only one suspect really makes sense, but there’s never been a way to prove it. The first and most obvious suspect of all was the well known rival of Joe’s, F.F. Jones. Joe had worked for Frank Jones at his hardware store for seven years in the past, but quit his job. He was no longer interested in working long fourteen hour days six days a week as top salesman and manager to never see a pay raise. He’d been happily employed with the previous owners of the company for some time before F.F. came along and bought it. After being refused a raise Joe quit on the spot.

He didn’t just stop there. When Joe quit from the hardware store he started his own. When he did so he also took the lucrative John Deer account with him. Joe Moore’s store thrived after opening. He took a good bit of business from his new rival, no doubt angering Jones. The tensions between them didn’t stop there, though. In fact, they got much worse. It was rumored that Joe was having an affair with Frank’s daughter-in-law, Dona Jones.

Dona was well known about town for have multiple affairs under her husband’s nose. In a particularly bold move for the time she arranged these trysts over the phone where telephone operators could and did listen in on calls at any time. Her affairs became common gossip around the phone company and soon spread around town. Apparently Joe was a regular caller to Dona’s residence and people were aware, including F.F. Jones. Before the deaths at the Moore home relations between F.F. and Joe were so bad that they crossed the street to avoid passing each other on the sidewalk. Their hatred for one another was no secret in the town of Villisca.

The Burns Detective Agency was contacted by the state of Iowa after some time. They requested a detective to take on the Villisca axe murders. James Wilkerson was sent in and quickly zeroed in on Jones. Of course, at his age of fifty-seven Wilkerson didn’t believe he committed the murders himself. It was his belief that Jones hired an outside party to kill everyone in the house for him. As a prominent business owner and state senetor he would’ve easily had the means to pay a hitman.

James wasn’t just sure about his murder for hire theory, he thought he knew who Frank hired. It was a man by the name of William ”Blackie” Mansfield. Wilkerson was so sure of his theory that he announced it in 1916 to the press while Jones was running for re-election. Needless to say, he didn’t win his bid for state senate again that year. James Wilkerson even managed to get F.F. Jones dragged into court that same year so a grand jury could consider the evidence gathered against the pair. As it turned out, this wasn’t the first time Mansfield had been looked at for an axe murder. He was the main suspect in the axe murder of his wife, her parents, and his own child in 1914 in Blue Island, Illinois.

William Mansfield didn’t pan out as a suspect, though. As it turned out, he had a rock solid alibi. There were payroll records hundreds of miles away in Illinois proving that he was working out there at the time of the killings. There was no possible way William could’ve committed the crime. He was released due to a lack of evidence, but his release didn’t help Jones’ reputation after that. Many locals, including the family of the deceased, all believed in Jones’ guilt. For years after Wilkerson’s uproar of the town seemed to linger on.

There were others in town that weren’t convinced Jones had anything to do with it. For others gossiping about town there was a better suspect. Never mind that he was only 5’2” and 119lbs and the gouge marks in the ceilings of both upstairs bedrooms had been just over seven feet above the floor. The suspect in question was Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. He was an English immigrant and a known sexual deviant with well-recorded mental problems. He had not only been in town the night of the murders, but he had been at the Children’s Day service held at the Moore’s Presbyterian Church as a guest preacher. He had also been caught just two days before the killings peeking into windows in Villisca. He’s described as being obsessed with sex.

In 1914 he had placed an ad for a ”girl stenographer” to do ”confidential work” in Winner, South Dekota. The ad was placed in the Omaha World Herold and added that candidates “must be willing to pose as a model.” A young lady named Jessamine Hodgson responded to the ad and received a letter in reply. This letter would be described by a judge as ”so obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy as to be offensive to this honorable court and improper to be spread upon the record thereof.” One of his tamer requests was that the young woman type in the nude.

In 1917 enough evidence had been gathered against him to make an arrest. He was repeatedly interrogated until he finally signed a confession. His statement read, ”I killed the children upstairs first, and the children downstairs last. I knew God wanted me to do it this way. ‘Slay utterly’ came to my mind, and I picked up the axe, went into the house and killed them.” He later recanted this statement, but not before a grand jury was convened to hear evidence against him.

There was some compelling evidence to say the least. Reverend Kelly had sent bloody clothes to the laundry in Macedonia, not too far away. There was also the couple that had seen him disembarking the dawn train at 5:19am. They recalled him telling about grusome murders that had been committed in the town of Villisca. The suspicious part of this comment was the fact that he had left the town three hours before the discovery of the bodies. A week later he even returned to town with great interest in the case. At one point he even posed as a Scotland Yard detective to get a tour of the crime scene.

While all of this was strong evidence for the time, it wasn’t enough. After Kelly recanted the couple from the train station changed their story. The first grand jury convened was hung 11-1 in favor of refusal to indict. The second panal that convened set him free. There just wasn’t enough to convict the little Reverend as he was known.

The final strong suspect wasn’t a resident of the town or a visiting minister with lewd proclivities. It was a transient serial killer committing murders throughout the Midwest known as Henry Lee Moore (no relation to the victims.) These killings occured between 1911 and 1912 and were committed in communities all around Villisca. The pattern was first pointed out by M.W. McClaughry. It was his belief that the Villisca slayings were linked to Henry’s rampage.

The pattern of brutality started in 1911 in Colorado Springs with the murder of a family of six. Two further crimes were committed in Monmouth, Illinois and Ellsworth Kansas, but the weapon in these attacks was a pipe. Three and five people each died respectively in those slayings. Another two victims were taken in Paola, Kansas. This occureed just four days before the Villisca axe murders. Rollin Hudson and his unfaithful wife were killed in similar fashion.

McClaughry thought that this series of tragic, unfortunate events culminated in the murder of his mother and grandmother in 1912. It was his theory that Henry along with a convict that had a violent past committed all of the killings together. Today, Henry Lee Moore is not considered to be a good suspect. While the Villisca axe murders held many similarities to many axe murders in the Midwest, it didn’t fit perfectly with any. While some evidence would be strikingly similar, other evidence would not.

In this day and age a murder like this likey wouldn’t go unsolved. There are some out there that believe that not to be true. They believe that even today the axe murders would’ve been a mystery. I personally believe that with today’s protocals and forensic science that it would not only be solved, but solved quickly. Today’s police would’ve taped off the perimeter immidiately and there never would’ve been a hundred or more people trampling the scene for starters. Next, if a forensic expert showed up drunk he’d probably get fired, not taken to sober up before being taken to the crime scene. Furthermore, today’s technological advancements would help greatly in identifying the assailant or assailants quickly and accurately.

I would be remiss to not mention the hauntings within the house still occuring today. It’s said that disembodied conversations can be heard as well as children playing. There’s also a darker entity that tends to stay confined to one corner of the downstairs. Visitors claim that when they try to look out the window in the area they feel something physically push them away. It’s widely thought that there is something evil in the house and that it may have had something to do with what happened there the night of June 9th 1912.

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