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The Villisca Axe Murders:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Review
508 East 2nd Street, Villisca, Iowa

Sometime during the night of Sunday, June 9, 1912, a person or persons unknown entered a modest house in Villisca, Iowa and bludgeoned to death the eight people sleeping there.   These killings, known thereafter as the “Villisca Axe Murders," is easily the most notorious murder in Iowa history.  The murder spawned nearly ten years of investigations, repeated grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit, and murder trial, and numerous minor litigations and trials.  It made and broke political careers.   Legislation was written in response to the murder, including the establishment of the current State Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s predecessor.  In addition, the murder proved an unmitigated tragedy for Villisca.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Robert Moore.
Josiah (left), Katherine, Herman, and Sara Moore.

On Sunday evening, June 9, 1912, Josiah (Joe) Moore and his wife Sara took their four children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul to the Children’s Day service at the Presbyterian Church.  Accompanying them were Ina and Lena Stillinger, who had asked their parents’ permission to stay overnight with the Moore children.  The Children’s Day service was an end-of-the-year Sunday school program.  Sara Moore was a co-director and her children performed their little speeches and recitations along with the other Sunday school members.  The service ended with a social mingling that lasted until at least 9:30 p.m.  When the parishioners left into a cloudy, damp, cool night, no one suspected that neither the Moores nor their overnight guests would be seen alive again.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly. Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly.
Herman (left) and Katherine Moore (1909).

They walked home, for Joe, like most Villiscans in 1912, didn’t own a car, and why hitch up a buggy for a three-block trip?  Cookies and milk ended the festive evening, and all went to bed.  Sometime during the night, probably about midnight, a killer or killers unknown picked up Joe’s axe from the back yard, entered the house, and bludgeoned to death all eight of its occupants.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly.
Exhibit photo: the Moore's own axe where it was thought to have been found by the killer on the night of June 9, 1912.

By 7:30 a.m. on June 10th, Mary Peckham, an elderly neighbor to the west, became concerned that the Moore house seemed quiet and deserted.  She called Joe’s brother Ross, a local druggist, who arrived at about 8:00 a.m. to look around.  His cautious inspection of the downstairs revealed two figures covered with a sheet in the back bedroom, and he also saw blood on the bedstead.  Ross beat a hasty retreat and called Joe’s hardware store telling his employee, Ed Selley, to fetch Marshall Henry “Hank” Horton, for something terrible had happened.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly.
Boyd (left) and Paul Moore (1909).

Hank arrived about 8:30, went through the house, and found, as he told Ross when he came out, “somebody murdered in every bed.”  The partially cleaned murder weapon was left leaning against the south wall of the downstairs bedroom where the visiting Stillinger girls were found.  The killer had added two bizarre touches to the murder scene.  The first was a four-pound piece of slab bacon leaning against the wall next to the axe.  The murderer had also searched dresser drawers for pieces of clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and the glass in the entry doors.

Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Review.
Villisca town marshal Hank Horton (1911).

During this murder day people were convinced that the killer must be a deranged tramp.   They expected to find him “drenched in blood” and hiding in a barn somewhere.  Toward that end repeated posses were formed to ride out of town in all directions on horseback and in autos.  They returned empty-handed.  Similar gangs surged up the streets and down the alleys searching every barn, shed, and privy in town.  They too failed to find anyone.

Copyrighted photo courtesy the Villisca Review.
On the right, the "Noffsinger" bloodhounds from Beatrice, Nebraska and their handler can be seen leaping off the east side of the Moore house porch.

By evening a lethargy had settled on the crowd as it became evident the killer had escaped.  Everyone waited now for the arrival of bloodhounds being shipped from Beatrice, Nebraska.  The crowd waited anxiously because the atmosphere was heavy with the threat of rain that everyone feared would wash away any scent.  The two bloodhounds and their handler arrived on the 9:00 pm train and were brought the eight blocks from the depot to the murder house in Bert McCaull’s car.  Given the scent from the axe (even though perhaps a hundred people had handled it since the killer) and the cloth he used to wipe it clean, the dogs set off, followed by a huge crowd.   Estimated at two-thousand, this mob pursued the dogs on foot, horseback, and in cars.  It seems foolish to think the dogs could follow a trail so contaminated and cold, but they ran through town and ended at the west fork of the Nodaway River.   They made a second run down the same trail, not finishing until after midnight.   They retraced their route for a third time in the morning and then were returned, failures, to Nebraska.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly. Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly.
Lena (left) and Ina Stillinger.

During all these hours of excitement, search, and depression, the bodies lay just as they had been found.  This grotesque neglect was because the county coroner, Dr. Linquist from Stanton, refused to release the bodies until authorized to do so by County Attorney Ratcliff.  Mr. Ratcliff was visiting in Cedar Rapids when he was notified of the murder.  He was on the westbound train that arrived Monday evening within minutes of the bloodhounds.  By the time he had authorized the victims’ release the coroner had set off with the dogs without releasing the bodies to the undertaker, so they lay in their deathbeds until after 11:00 p.m. Monday night.

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