How to Be Afraid of Sleepovers - The Villisca Axe Murders

So, I know I said something less gory for this next post, but in a recent episode of My Favorite Murder, Karen mentioned watching a documentary that connected Villisca, Hinterkaifeck, and the Mad Axeman of New Orleans. I don't necessarily buy into the idea, but the conspiracy reminded me that Villisca was one of the first unsolved murders I learned about!

My favorite time of year is Halloween, and I have all of Travel Channel's Halloween specials practically memorized. A rather terrifying story from a list of most haunted places (all of which you could, for a hefty price, book a night in) was the Villisca Murder House. A family was brutalized after coming home from church (with two other children spending the night there as well), so triggers for violence, gore, and death (including child death). 

The crime

 By June of 1912, Villisca, Iowa was a small but growing town. That year, the town would build the only publicly funded armory in Iowa, but the same year would hold the tragedy that would end up drawing paranormal investigators there for over 100 years.

Lena and Ina Stillinger were supposed to go to church and spend the rest of the day with their grandmother, eventually sleeping over there. But when your friend offers the chance for a sleepover, it's hard to pass that up. Katherine Moore invited them over, so, following mass on June 9th, 1912, they went home with the Moore family. 

At 5 a.m. the next day, the Moore's neighbor, Mary Peckham, found it odd she didn't see any of the family about doing morning chores. Also, all the curtains were curiously drawn. The Moores were well-liked and it was a friendly town.

Eventually, she called a relative of the Moores, and the grisly murder scene with 8 victims bludgeoned to death were discovered. 

The Victims and Crime Scene

  • Josiah B. “Joe” Moore, 43
  • Sarah (Montgomery) Moore, 39
  • Herman Moore, 11
  • Katherine Moore, 10
  • Boyd Moore, 7
  • Paul Moore, 5
  • Lena Stillinger, 12
  • Ina Stillinger, 8

Lena's nightgown was pushed up, but she showed no signs that she had been sexually abused. She also had an alleged defensive wound. 

They were all hit 20-30 times with the blunt end of the ax.

They were attacked so brutally, the killer left gouges in the ceiling from wildly swinging his ax. 

But outside of  killing eight people , the killer had some additional odd behavior. The ax was left in the house, still bloody despite an attempt to wipe it off, and next to where it was leaning, there was a four pound slab of bacon. I know the food goes with everything, but probably not murder. There was also a plate of uneaten food sitting on the kitchen table. Since there wasn't a body in the kitchen or evidence of a struggle there, I doubt it was anyone in the house having a late night snack and probably was the murderer.

The drawn curtains that had aroused suspicion before was taken a few steps further. All the victims and all mirrors in the house were covered with various pieces of clothing and fabric. It shows some sort of guilt or shame, and care for the victims. 

Most tellings of this story note a basin of bloody water, but I don't think it's such a big deal compared to other clues. Plus, if there was an attempt to wipe off the ax, then it's not strange that they tried to wash off some blood.

What is a big deal with all these clues is how the case was handled. It's estimated that over 100 people came through to gawk at the scene before the National Guard showed up to secure the scene. Still, it wasn't like DNA testing was even close to a possible option, and fingerprinting was still a barely organized form of investigation. There was no major database to reference what they could lift.

That's why the case remains unsolved, but there are still some possible suspects. 

The Suspects

The suspect list is pretty long, since the mystery has gone unsolved for so long. Some people would confess, but there would be no connection, or they had just heard someone else confess and couldn't remember who.

But the top three are: 

He was a state senator and supposedly Josiah Moore's rival. So some historians suspect he hired a hitman to take care of the competition.  However, the care took with covering everyone and every reflective surface up doesn't suit a cold contract kill.

The reverend was leaving town on a train just 20 minutes after the neighbor was getting suspicious about what happened to the Moores. He supposedly told fellow passengers that there were "8 dead souls back in Villisca." He had arrived in town the Sunday of the murders and then left the next more. He had repeated odd and disturbing behavior, like rambling letters. He at one point confessed saying God was whispering to him "to suffer the children to come unto me."  He later recanted. He has a long history of mental illness, but that by no means necessarily makes him a killer. 

Henry Lee Moore (no relation, but a relation to murder) 

He was actually convicted of murdering his mother and grandmother with an ax months following the Villisca murders. A federal officer working the case, M. W. McClaughry, thought he was responsible for more than 22 murders in the Midwest after he was released from jail in 1911 and got a job working on the rails.  At other murders he was suspected of, fabrics were hung across windows.

My conclusions

Like I said at the top, I don't know if all those cases are connected. It'd probably have to be  some sort of unknown drifter. From the suspects I've presented, I think Henry Lee Moore is the most likely suspect. The senator feels too much like a weakly connected conspiracy and the reverend feels more like censure of a mentally ill person. Plus the confession to the people on the train feels just a little too convenient. Moore had access on the rails and has a history of brutal violence. Plus, he could be connected to other murders with similar details.


(Targeting: So, for this week, we were supposed to target influencers to share our content! I'm targeting Karen and Georgia of My Favorite Murder (and their sound enigineer, Steven). I will update this section with responses as I get them!) 

I'm starting with Twitter (a little late because I had a saving issue), and posting to the private Facebook group for the podcast! (I don't have an image for that yet, since I'm waiting on moderator approval)

Update: My post got approved, and no word from Karen or Georgia (maybe they'll mention it if they cover the murder on the podcast!), but the community in the Facebook group is having a great time with it! I've blocked out names and pictures since it is a private group, technically.