Josiah B. Moore & family
Lena and Ina Stillinger
508 E. 2nd St., Villisca, IA (Montgomery County)
June 10, 1912
Case summary by Jody Ewing
Sometime during the night of Sunday, June 9, 1912, a person or persons entered a modest house in Villisca, Iowa, and bludgeoned to death eight people sleeping there, including two adults and six children aged 5 through 12. The killings became known as the “Villisca Axe Murders," and are easily the most notorious murders in Iowa history.
The murders 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.
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 parishioners left on that cloudy, damp and cool night, no one suspected that neither the Moores nor their overnight guests would be seen alive again.
They walked the three blocks to their home. Cookies and milk ended the festive evening, and all went to bed.
Sometime after midnight, the killer or killers picked up Joe’s axe from the back yard, entered the house, and bludgeoned to death all eight of its occupants.
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.
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 also had searched dresser drawers for pieces of clothing to cover the mirrors in the house and the glass in the entry doors. On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water.
All the victims were found in their beds, their heads covered with bedclothes, and all had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an axe. The ceilings in the parent's bedroom and the children's room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the axe.
Though Lena Stillinger’s nightgown had been pushed up and left her exposed, doctors said there was no evidence of abuse. Lena had a bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm.
At 5:19 a.m. the morning following the murders, the Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly left Villisca on board the westbound number 5 train and allegedly told fellow travelers there were eight dead souls back in Villisca, Iowa, butchered in their beds while they slept, even though the bodies had not yet been discovered. Kelly had arrived in Villisca for the first time the Sunday morning of the murders and attended a Sunday school performance by the Stillinger girls before departing early Monday. He returned two weeks later, and, posing as a detective, joined a tour of the murder house with a group of investigators.
Authorities first became interested in Rev. Kelly a few weeks after the murders after being alerted by recipients of his rambling letters. Kelly -- the son and grandson of English ministers -- had suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. Since immigrating to America with his wife in 1904, Kelly had preached at Methodist churches across North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa. He'd been assigned as a visiting minister to several small communities north of Villisca, where he developed a reputation for odd behavior. He was convicted of sending obscene material through the mail and also spent time in a mental hospital.
A Grand Jury indicted Kelly for Lena Stillinger's murder, and he was interrogated throughout the summer of 1917 while in jail awaiting trial. On August 31 at 7 a.m., Kelly signed a confession to the murder, saying God had whispered to him to "suffer the children to come unto me."
The funeral procession for the Josiah Moore family and the Stillinger sisters.
Kelly recanted his confession at trial, and his case went to the jury on September 26. The jury deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal. A second jury was immediately empanelled, but acquitted Rev. Kelly in November.
No one else has ever been tried for the murders, and the crime remains one of the most horrific, unsolved mass murders in American history.