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The Murders

Located in Villisca, Iowa, this quaint piece of real estate is home to a grisly family annihilation.

According to Iowa Cold Cases, the unknown perpetrator entered the home of Josiah B. Moore and Sarah Moore between June 9 and 10 of 1912.

The murderer killed the couple and six children: Herman Moore, 11, Katherine Moore, 10, Boyd Moore, 7, Paul Moore, 5, Lena Stillinger, 12, and Ina Stillinger, 8.

newspaper clipping from 1912 murders
Newspaper clipping from “The Day Book” via Wikimedia Commons

Lena and Ina Stillinger were neighbors who were staying over at the Moore’s. The day before the murders was the Children’s Day service at the local Presbyterian Church, an end-of-the-year program for the kids.

Sarah Moore helped direct the children during their performances. Ending just before 10 p.m., folks talked and socialized after the service.

The Moore family left the event, walking the short three blocks to their treacherous fates. It’s also reported the children had milk and cookies before bed. The night was as normal as could be.

Reports state the subject broke into the home sometime after midnight and bludgeoned the family to death with an axe.

The axe was left in the bedroom where the Stillinger sisters were found, strangely along with a slab of bacon. Everyone was killed by 20-30 blows to the skull.

Neighbor Mary Peckham alerted Josiah’s brother, Ross, after she “became concerned that the Moore house seemed quiet and deserted.”

Ross arrived at the house to a horrific scene. Two people were dead in a downstairs bedroom covered with a sheet, prompting him to alert the authorities.


Marshal Henry Horton reported that he found “somebody murdered in every bed.” Marks were left in the bedroom ceilings from the swing of the axe.

The aftermath of the murders spurred a years long investigation along with a hefty amount of litigations and trials.

One man suspected of the murders was Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. He allegedly bragged about murdering the family before the murders were even reported.

Kelly had history of mental health issues with a breakdown in his childhood and time spent at an asylum. He was known to pen confusing letters about the crimes.

Kelly reportedly arrived in town Sunday to watch the Sunday school performance, leaving the next morning.

Apparently, Kelly returned back into town posing as an investigator and joining a tour of the “murder house” with the rest of the detectives.

He was arrested and indicted for Lena Stillinger’s murder in 1917. He signed a confession at the end of August claiming God told him to “suffer the children to come unto me” but later took it back during the trial.

Kelly was subsequently acquitted in November. No further arrests or suspects were confirmed after Rev. Kelly. The Villisca Axe murders remain some of the most gruesome in Iowa state history.

The Aftermath

One result of the murders was the creation of the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

In 2004, a documentary was released called “Villisca: Living with a Mystery.”

The film delves deep into the mystery surrounding the Villisca axe murders using photos and animation to reconstruct what might have happened that day.

The documentary also reveals a new suspect unknown to the public for years.

Another film tackling the murders are “The Ax Man Enigma: The real life inspiration behind ‘Slay Utterly.'” This film by Stuart Wahlin looks at the possibility of a serial killer perpetrating these crimes.

The 2014 film “Slay Utterly” and the 2017 film “The Axe Murders of Villisca” was inspired by the crime.

Currently, according to Villisca Iowa’s website, tours and even overnights are offered. For just $428, a group of six can stay the night in the famous Villisca axe murder house.

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