Marc Hoover: The Villisca, Iowa ax murders

Marc Hoover

On June 9, 1912, sometime before 10 p.m., a local Presbyterian church service in Villisca, Iowa, had just finished its evening services. It was a special Children’s Day service that included speeches and recitals by Sunday school children. Sarah Moore was co-director of events and engaged in the service with her four children.

Marc Hoover

After saying their goodbyes, Sarah Moore, her husband Josiah (Joe), and children Herman, 11, Katherine, 10, Boyd, 7, and Paul 5, headed back to the Moore’s home. Neighbors Lena Stillinger, 12, and her sister Ina, 8, also tagged along as they were spending the night with the Moore family. The Moore’s lived three blocks away from the church.

Most likely the happy-go-lucky Moore family and Stillinger children probably sang, danced and laughed all the way back to the Moore home. No one realized the Moore family and Stillinger sisters would never be seen alive again. This night would lead to Iowa’s most heinous homicide.

Today, the crime remains unsolved and has been the subject of many books, movies, documentaries, and amateur sleuths.

By the early morning of June 10, 1912, a concerned neighbor thought the Moore house seemed too quiet. The neighbor called Josiah’s brother Ross and asked him to make a wellness check on his relatives.

Ross entered the home around 8 a.m. to find the bodies of the Stillinger girls covered in bedding. He stepped outside and had someone get help. Sheriff Henry Horton arrived to search the home. The site was horrific. Horton found the entire Moore family and the Stillinger sisters’ brutally murdered in their beds. The weapon was an ax handle which belonged to Josiah Moore. It was found in the bedroom downstairs where the Stillinger girls slept. Oddly, there was a two-pound slab of bacon found next to the ax. Another slab of bacon was in the icebox. No one determined the bacon’s significance, if any.

The Moore family and Stillinger girls were buried on June 12. Thousands attended the funeral.

The coroner didn’t see any sexual assaults. Authorities never determined a motive or found the killer or killers. The Moore’s didn’t have any enemies. Why would anyone kill a household of six children and two adults? Authorities had a few suspects but no one was punished for the crime. George Kelly, a traveling preacher, became a suspect. He had attended the evening service with the Moore family.

Kelly became under suspicion after leaving town abruptly the next morning. Witnesses claim he mentioned the murders before the homicides became public knowledge. He was arrested in 1917, but was acquitted after two trials. Supposedly, he had confessed. However, many believed authorities had forced his confession. Although other men had confessed to the killings, authorities couldn’t confirm the confessions. Another theory was a serial killer had committed the murders.

The crime still remains an unsolved mystery.

The Moore house still remains in Villisca. In 1998, the house was renovated and added to the National Register of Historic Places and is now a famous tourist site. Although the crime occurred over 100 years ago, the house still draws attention from curiosity seekers and ghost hunters. If you are bold enough, you can stay overnight. Just bring your sleeping bag and pillow.

Allegedly, the house is haunted. But then it wouldn’t be surprising with eight murders occurring in the home. If you scour the internet, you will find ghostly experiences from people who have stayed overnight. Supposedly the house has unexplained cold spots and sounds of whispering children can be heard throughout the house. Any of my brave ghost hunting friends want to book an overnight stay with me? Let’s do it.

Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page at He also wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on