Villisca is a tiny little community in southwestern Iowa with a population of just over 1,200. It’s quaint, picturesque, and everything one would think small-town America would be. It also has a gruesome claim to fame as the home of Iowa’s largest, and still unsolved, mass murder.
In 1912, Villisca’s population was double what it is today, and the community was bustling and active. June 9 was Children’s Day at the Presbyterian Church, and it was to conclude with the annual Children’s Day Program at 8 p.m. Sarah Moore, age 39, was in charge of the program, so she was in attendance with her husband, Josiah, age 43, and children, Herman, 11-years-old, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and Paul, aged 5. Also in attendance were Lena and Ina Stillinger, ages 12 and 8, friends of Katherine Moore, and who were to spend the night with the family.
The program concluded promptly at 9:30 p.m. and the Moore family and Stillinger sisters said their goodbyes to friends and quickly walked the two or three blocks east to the Moore home, arriving there before 10 p.m.
At approximately 5:00 a.m. on June 10, Mary Peckham, the Moore’s next door neighbor, stepped outside to hang laundry. She didn’t notice any activity at the Moore home, but she didn’t think much of it at the time. Around 7:00 a.m., however, Peckham became concerned. She hadn’t seen the Moores outside, the morning’s chores hadn’t been started, and the home seemed unusually still and quiet.
Peckham continued to watch the home for signs of activity and became quite concerned by 8:00 a.m. She went to the Moore home and knocked loudly on the door. When she received no response, Peckham tried to let herself in the back door but found it locked. She let the Moore’s chickens out of their coop for the day, and then returned home, where she phoned Josiah Moore’s brother, Ross.
Ross Moore quickly made his way to his brother’s home and attempted to rouse the family. He knocked on doors, shouted and tried to look in the downstairs bedroom window. When he received no response, he produced his spare key and entered through the front door and into the parlor. Mary Peckham remained on the front porch. Moore had only to step from the parlor and into the downstairs bedroom/sewing room to know that something was very wrong. There he found two bodies on the bed, the bedclothes stained dark with blood. Ross Moore returned to the porch and asked Peckham to phone the sheriff.
City Marshall Hank Horton arrived shortly, and he found that everyone in the home had been brutally murdered. The Stillinger sisters were downstairs. Josiah and Sarah Moore were found in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, while their children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul were found in the front bedroom upstairs. They had all been bludgeoned to death, and their faces had been covered after death with a piece of bedding or family clothing. The curtains had all been closed, except for the two windows in the house that didn’t have any. They, and every mirror in the house, had also been covered with pieces of the family’s clothing.
A bloody axe was discovered in the room with the Stillinger girls, although someone had attempted to clean it, and a pan of bloody water and a plate of uneaten food were both found on the kitchen table. Even more curious than the uneaten food, a two-pound slab of bacon wrapped in a dishcloth was found beside the axe. Another two-pound slab was in the icebox.
When Marshall Horton sent for the doctor to examine the bodies, word of the murders got out. Businesses closed, chores ceased, and the citizens of Villisca descended upon the Moore house on Second Street. It wasn’t long before Horton lost control of the situation, and it’s said that a hundred gawkers walked through the house to view the crime scene and ogle the victims’ bodies. Order wasn’t restored until the Villisca National Guard arrived, and it’s possible that evidence was inadvertently tampered, lost or even stolen.
During the investigation, suspects were identified and interrogated, one man confessed, three times with three different versions, and two trials were held, but despite great effort, the murder remains unsolved today. (Visit The Official Website for the Villisca Ax Murder House for information on the suspects, investigation and more.)
The Moore house, site of the worst mass murder in Iowa history, remained empty for three years before it was purchased by J.H. Geesman. During the next 90 years that followed, the house had twelve or thirteen more owners and untold number of tenants, as it was frequently used as a rental property. It underwent changes through the years, electricity was added, the kitchen pantry was converted into a bathroom and both porches were enclosed, and by 1994 it was in danger of being razed.
A real estate agent approached Darwin Linn, owner and operator of the Olson-Linn Museum in town, to see if he would be interested in purchasing the property due to its historical value. Linn really wasn’t interested, but he placed a low bid with an expiration date. If he didn’t hear back by the end of the year, the bid was off the table. Linn often reported that he proceeded to forget about the bid and was quite surprised to receive a phone call telling him the property was his.
Once the house became the property of Darwin and Martha Linn they began the task of meticulously restoring the home to the condition it was in on the night of the murders in 1912. The electricity and siding have been removed, and the original wood painted. The porches were restored. The bathroom was removed and converted back into the kitchen pantry. The outhouse, chicken coop and barn have all been rebuilt in the backyard. Furniture similar to that in photos was purchased and placed in the exact spots the Moore family had it.
The Moore home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, and the meticulous restoration netted the Linns the prestigious “Preservation at its Best” award in the small public category from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance. Daylight tours of the infamous house are available Tuesday thru Thursday from March 1st thru November 1st. Overnight stays are available 7 days a week, year round.
The overnight stays are of the most interest to the paranormal enthusiasts. Much haunting activity has been attributed to the house through the years, and evidence from paranormal investigations abounds on the Internet.
I visited the Villisca Ax Murder House in early June 2005 with my group, the American Paranormal Society. We were given an incredible tour of the house, the church, the town library and the cemetery, by the wonderful Mr. Darwin Linn, who has since passed, and we spent the night in the house. It was the night before the anniversary of the murders, and it was quiet, almost too quiet. While we were serenaded at one point during the night by a group of Iowa teenagers singing a terrible round of “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” the house itself appeared to yield nothing, not even the noises a house of that age would normally make due to settling.
We attended a festival at the Villisca City Community Building the next day, and the citizens of Villisca were warm and welcoming. They even fed us chili. Unfortunately, we had to cut our trip short due to bad weather. We drove to Kansas City that afternoon, surrounded the entire time by tornadoes that danced all around us. It was beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.
It wasn’t until I returned home to Tennessee that I discovered I had brought home one little gem – an electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. As I listened to my recorder, I heard a plane fly over the house late in the afternoon. Then, right into the recorder’s microphone, a small boy’s voice said, “Big Bird.” I’ve always thought, from the sound of the voice, this was Paul, who died violently in that house at the tender and innocent age of 5. I suppose to a child that age in 1912 an airplane would seem very much like a big bird.
Even though I've moved a couple of times since 2005 and, unfortunately, lost the EVP at some point in the hustle and bustle of it all, I remain haunted by the sound of that little boy's voice.