If you ever travel through southwest Iowa, stop over in Villisca–but don’t stay the night. At least not at the home where eight people were slaughtered in 1912… and where their ghosts are said to remain.
With a name like “Villisca Ax Murder House,” you at least know what you’re getting into.
Sarah and Josiah Moore lived in a modest Villisca home with their four children, aged 11 to 5. By all accounts, they were a decent, church-going family. On the night of the murders, the Moores allowed two other children from the community, Lena and Ina Stillinger, to stay over after the Children’s Day Sunday school program in which they all performed.
Wholesome, right? Like something out of Anne of Green Gables. Except that Anne Shirley and the Cuthberts weren’t bludgeoned to death while they slept.
The crime happened around midnight on Sunday. Someone came into the Moore’s home and killed both adults and all six of the children. The following morning, a neighbor noticed that the homestead was unusually quiet. She called Joe Moore’s brother, who worked the family hardware store.
After Ross Moore found the bodies, he told one of the store employees to fetch the local lawman. Within an hour of the neighbor raising the alarm, Marshal Hank Horton had discovered the victims and the murder weapon–an ax, partially wiped clean, propped up against the bedroom where the visiting sisters had been killed.
Marshal Horton had the murder weapon, but what about the motive or a suspect? Who could possibly do such a thing?
The crime itself was as brutal as it was bizarre. The killer had left a large slab of bacon next to the murder weapon. Was it a statement? And if so, what did it mean?
The killer had also covered every mirror and pane of glass with clothing scavenged from the dresser drawers of the victims. Perhaps he–they?–couldn’t bear to see themselves after what they’d done.
Every one of the victims was found tucked into bed with the covers pulled over their heads. And each one of them had been struck in the head at least 20 times.
The paranoia over the murders almost tore the town apart. Although the police questioned multiple suspects, one man stood out. Reverend George Kelly, a traveling minister who arrived on the night of the murders, seemed like the most likely suspect. In fact, he confessed to the crime in court, but due to his odd behavior and apparent mental illness, his testimony was not believed. Kelly later recanted.
Ultimately, he was tried twice for the crime. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the second granted him an acquittal. In the 2016 b-movie The Axe Murders of Villisca, the filmmakers portrayed Kelly as the murderer–with the twist that he was possessed.
The house is one of the most popular sites for ghost hunters and true crime enthusiasts. Ghost Hunters filmed an episode there, as did Scariest Places on Earth. Popular podcasts, including Lore and My Favorite Murder, devoted segments to the unsolved case.
Like the Lizzie Borden House, the Villisca Ax Murder House remains like a memory frozen in time. The current owners have preserved as much as possible about the home and offer tours–both daylight and after dark.
“They play with the children, they hear voices, they get pictures of anomalies,” Martha Linn, the current owner of the home, told Vice. In 2014, however, a ghost hunter staying overnight at the home stabbed himself in the chest. The incident happened at 12:45 a.m., right around the time that the original murders took place.
Everyone has an opinion on who killed the Moores and the Stillingers. But unless the dead start talking, the mystery of the Villisca Ax Murder House will remain unsolved for eternity.