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The Villisca Axe Murders

When one is asked to think of Iowa, thoughts may come to mind of peaceful farmland, friendly neighbors, and quiet towns. However, a seemingly normal white farm house in Villisca sheds a little light on a dark side of Iowa’s past. On June 10, 1912, eight people were murdered in their sleep in this house, and to this day the culprit remains a mystery.

On Sunday evening of June 9, 1912, Josiah and Sarah Moore took their four children and two neighbor children of the Stillinger family aged five to twelve to the Children’s Day Service at the Presbyterian Church in Villisca. However, when the Moores and their overnight guests left the church that night, their fellow parishioners had no idea that they would never be seen alive again.

Early in the morning on June 10, 1912, the Moore family and the Stillinger children were found dead in their beds having been bludgeoned 20 to 30 times with an axe as the partially cleaned murder weapon was found in the same bedroom as the murdered Stillinger girls. To add even more mystery and terror to the crime was the fact that all the mirrors and glass in the house had been covered with articles of clothing that the murderer had rummaged for, a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water were discovered in the kitchen, and a four pound slab of bacon was found leaning next to the abandoned murder weapon with no apparent purpose. The funeral for the murder victims was held on June 12, 1912 with thousands of devastated mourners in attendance, and the caskets, not on display for the funeral, were laid to rest in Villisca Cemetery.

The investigation for the murders, including a murder trial, spanned over the course of ten years, but never ended with a conviction. This trial was held for Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly in the summer of 1917. Kelly signed a confession to the murder of Lena Stillinger on August 31, but recanted it at trial. The jury voted for acquittal and while a second jury was immediately empaneled, Kelly was officially acquitted for the crime in November of 1917. To this day, almost 104 years after the crime, the identity of the killer or killers is still unknown.

This bloody mystery in the heart of the Midwest has been the source of interest for many movies and documentaries including the 2004 documentary, “Villisca: Living with a Mystery,” and the still to be released 2017 movie, “The Axe Murders of Villisca.” To also help educate and sate the bloody appetite of the curious, the house where the murders took place has been preserved as a historic building, has open tours and can even be booked for the night – if you dare. This house stands as a reminder that Iowa isn’t necessarily the peaceful state it is assumed to be. You never know what kind of past a town may be hiding. Everything is not always as it seems…