The Moore family consisted of parents Josiah B. (aged 49), Sarah (née Montgomery) (39), and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (5). An affluent family, the Moores were well-known and well-liked in their community. On June 9, 1912, [Mary]?Katherine Moore invited Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12) to spend the night at the Moore residence. That evening, the visiting girls and the Moore family attended the Presbyterian church where they participated in the Children's Day Program, which Sarah Moore had coordinated. After the program ended at 9:30 p.m., the Moores and the Stillinger sisters walked to the Moores' house, arriving between 9:45 and 10 p.m.
At 7 a.m. the next day, Mary Peckham, the Moores' neighbor, became concerned after she noticed that the Moore family had not come out to do their morning chores. Peckham knocked on the Moores' door. When nobody answered, she tried to open the door and discovered that it was locked. Peckham let the Moores' chickens out and called Ross Moore, Josiah Moore's brother. Like Peckham, Moore received no response when he knocked on the door and shouted. He unlocked the front door with his copy of the house key. While Peckham stood on the porch, Moore went into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door, where he found Ina and Lena Stillinger's bodies on the bed. Moore immediately told Peckham to call Hank Horton, Villisca's primary peace officer, who arrived shortly thereafter. Horton's search of the house revealed that the entire Moore family and the two Stillinger girls had been bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room where the Stillinger sisters were found.
Doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Two spent cigarettes in the attic suggested that the killer or killers patiently waited in the attic until the Moore family and the Stillinger guests were asleep. The killer(s) began in the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah Moore were sleeping. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his face had been cut so much that his eyes were missing. The killer(s) used the blade of the axe on Josiah while using the blunt end on the rest of the victims. Then the killer(s) went into the children's rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the head in the same manner as their parents. The killer(s) returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the elder Moores, knocking over a shoe that had filled with blood. Afterward, the killer(s) moved downstairs to the guest bedroom and killed Ina and Lena.
Investigators believed that all of the victims except for Lena Stillinger had been asleep when murdered. They thought that she was awake and tried to fight back, as she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm. Lena's nightgown was pushed up to her waist and she was wearing no undergarments, leading to law enforcement speculation that the killer(s) sexually molested her or attempted to do so.
Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore. George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. The first ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in an acquittal. Other suspects in the investigation were also exonerated.
Every transient and otherwise unaccounted-for stranger was a suspect in the murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. No real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.
According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington, Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 a.m on the morning the murders were discovered. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and, as Dyer needed an extra man, he was given a job on the spot.
Dyer testified that later that evening when the crew reached Fontanelle, Iowa, Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The newspaper carried a front page account of the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer "was much interested in it." Dyer's crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy that Sawyer slept with his axe next to him; he often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.
He reportedly told Dyer that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders. Afraid of being taken as a suspect, he had left and gone to Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.
Dyer later testified that prior to the sheriff's arrival, he walked up behind Sawyer. The other man was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, "I will cut your god damn heads off." At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.
Dyer's son (J.R.) testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer told him he would show J.R. where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1½ blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away.
Sawyer was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there, and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train (to send him away) at approximately 11 p.m. that evening.
Kelly was an English-born traveling minister inown on the night of the murders. Kelly was described as peculiar, reportedly having suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. As an adult, he was accused of peeping and several times asking young women and girls to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children's Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. He left town between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered.
In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, and wrote many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed the murders. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details because of having committed the murders, or was imagining his account.
In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary). He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. Investigators speculated again that Kelly could be the murderer of the Moore family.
In 1917, Kelly was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.
Frank Fernando Jones was a Villisca resident and an Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones at his implement store for many years before leaving to open his own store. Moore reportedly took business away from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. Moore was rumored to have had an sexual affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence supports this.
Another theory was that Senator Jones hired William "Blackie" Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He is believed to have committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes. He was also suspected in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each crime site was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in virtually the same manner.
Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, a similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two axe murder cases followed in Ellsworth, Kansas, and Paola, Kansas. The cases were similar enough to raise the possibility of having been committed by the same person. Other murders reported as possibly being linked to these crimes include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1911-1912, the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other such murders during this time period.
The murders in Colorado Springs were closely related in execution to those in the Moore house. Nine months before the Villisca murders, H.C. Wayne, his wife and child and Mrs. A.J. Burnham were found dead in Colorado Springs, murdered by axes. The Colorado Springs Police found it difficult to believe that the same person could perpetrate a similar crime in a city. As in the Villisca murders, bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passersby from looking in. At the Moore house, the murderer hung aprons and skirts to cover the windows. As in the murders in Villisca, the murderer in Colorado Springs wiped the blood off his axe and covered the heads of the victims with bed clothes.
Mansfield was also the prime suspect of the Burns Detective Agency of Kansas City and Detective James Newton Wilkerson, who suggested that he was a cocaine-addicted serial killer. According to contemporary news reports, Wilkerson believed Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father-in law, and mother in law in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914 (two years after the Villisca murders), the axe murders committed in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca murders, and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Illinois.
According to Wilkerson's investigation, all of the murders were committed in precisely the same manner, indicating that the same man probably committed them. Wilkerson stated that he could prove that Mansfield was present in each of the differing crime scenes on the night of the murders. In each murder, the victims were hacked to death with an axe and the mirrors in the homes were covered. A burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. In each case, the murderer avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves, which Wilkerson believed was strong evidence that the man was Mansfield, who knew his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth.
Wilkerson managed to convince a Grand Jury to open an investigation in 1916 and Mansfield was arrested and brought to Montgomery County from Kansas City. Payroll records, however, provided an alibi that placed Mansfield in Illinois at the time of the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence and later won a lawsuit he brought against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225. Wilkerson believed that pressure from Jones resulted not only in Mansfield's release but also in the subsequent arrest and trial of Reverend Kelly.
However, a mister R.H. Thorpe, a restaurant owner from Shenandoah, identified Mansfield as the man he saw the morning after the Villisca murders boarding a train at Clarinda. This man said he had walked from Villisca. If proven to be true, this testimony would disprove Mansfield's alibi. Furthermore, it was reported that a Mrs. Vina Tompkins, of Marshalltown, was on her way to testify that she heard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings.
Henry Lee Moore was a suspected serial killer (who was not related to the slain Moore family) who was convicted of the murder of his mother and grandmother several months after the murders in Villisca, his weapon of choice being an axe. Before and after the murders in Villisca, the very similar axe murders on his mother and grandmother were committed, and all of the cases showed striking similarities, leading to strong suspicion that some, or all of the crimes were committed by an axe-murdering serial killer and, just like "Blackie" Mansfield, the axe-murdering Henry Moore can also be considered a suspect in some of these slayings.
At the inquest, it was reported that Sam Moyer (Josiah's brother-in-law) often threatened to kill Josiah Moore; however, upon further investigation, Moyer's alibi cleared him of the crime.
The paranormal reality television series Ghost Adventures covered the story of the Villisca axe murders, in the episode "Villisca Axe Murder House".
The slayings were the subject of a book, Morning Ran Red, by Stephen Bowman.
Tony E. Valenzuela directed a 2016 horror movie, The Axe Murders of Villisca.