Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

More Haunted Crime Scenes

Iowa Massacre

Villisca, Iowa, was a small but flourishing town along the railway during the early 1900s — in sharp contrast to its isolated existence today. Once popular and busy, it's now somewhat forlorn, which makes a good setting for a tale about ghosts.

In 1912, Villisca's residents numbered about 2500, according to several sources, so when an unexpected massacre occurred on June 10, it was big news for a long time. In fact, it's still remembered to this day, with a museum, tours, documentaries, books, and ghost lore attached.

Josiah B. Moore, victim
Josiah B. Moore, victim

Sarah Montgomery (Moore), victim
Sarah Montgomery (Moore), victim

As the story goes, as posted on the official Web site for the massacre, on that ominous summer morning, eight bodies were found inside the J.B. Moore residence. J.B. and his wife, Sarah, were well-liked in the community, active in church, and helpful to their neighbors. They had four children, ages 5 to 11, and two of the children's friends, Lena and Ina Stillwater, were at the Moore home that evening to spend the night. No one could imagine who would want to harm them in this manner, especially the children.

May Stillwater, victim
May Stillwater, victim

Lena Gertrude Stillwater, victim
Lena Gertrude Stillwater, victim

It was the neighbor, Mary Peckham, who initiated the search for the family when no one saw them around the next day. The house seemed unusually quiet to her and when she went to check, she found the door latched the inside. Then she called J.B.'s brother, Ross. He let himself into the house and when he spotted two blood-covered bodies in one bedroom, he sent Mary for the sheriff.

Katherine Moore, victim
Katherine Moore, victim

Herman Moore, victim
Herman Moore, victim

Hank Horton, the city marshal, entered the silent house and looked at the bodies that had sent Ross flying from the place. He recognized them as the Stillwater girls, ages 12 and 8. Looking further through the house, he discovered the entire Moore family slaughtered in an upstairs bedroom. All of the victims had been attacked with an ax and their skulls were crushed. Somehow, the perpetrator had managed to subdue them all. Perhaps there had been more than one, or perhaps J.B. had been neutralized first and his wife and children too horrified and helpless to fight for their lives.

There was little the sheriff could do to prevent curious townspeople from tramping through the house almost at once to see the bloody sight for themselves. Such things did not happen in their quite town, the name of which meant "pleasant view." They wanted to see it for themselves, to talk about it, and to find some reason to assure themselves that this seemingly random event could not spread and claim any of them. But in doing so, they made a mess of the crime scene.

Finally the National Guard took control and the police were able to look around the house to try to reconstruct what might have happened. Suspects were developed, but none panned out. J.B. had a few enemies, to be sure, including a well-to-do businessman for whom Moore had once worked. There was also a mentally unstable preacher who became obsessed with the killings and supposedly confessed. In addition, over the years, several men who appeared to be serial killers have been offered as suspects. Indeed, there was a documented trail of 23 ax murders at that time across the Midwest, described in Troy Taylor's book, So, There I Was. Yet officially, the case remains unsolved.

The Ax Murder House
The Ax Murder House

The murder house deteriorated over the years, but in 1994 it was purchased and renovated to resemble how it had looked on the fateful morning. Open for tours, it is known as the Villisca Axe Murder House. Today it draws people interested in the paranormal, and one can pay for an overnight tour — with the hope of "an experience." Supposedly one can hear children's voices or banging sounds, be in the presence of falling objects, and feel a sense of someone there who can't be seen. Oil lamps blow out, though there's no breeze, and many people claim to have photographic evidence of something paranormal that hovers in the air. The tours start at the Olson Linn museum on the Town Square.

From Iowa to New York, another haunted place acquired a new "tenant."

 

 

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