Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

It Was Too Quiet

Shayne Bentler
Shayne Bentler

Villisca, Iowa, was a small but flourishing town along the railway during the early 1900s — in contrast to its isolated existence today. Once popular and busy, it's now described as somewhat forlorn. In 1912, Villisca's residents numbered about 2,500, according to several official sources, so when an unexpected massacre occurred on June 10, it became a major news story that lasted quite a while. In fact, despite citizens' concerns that speaking about it lacks taste, it's still remembered today with a museum, tours, documentaries, and books.

The most prominent sources of information are a recent DVD, Villisca: Living with a Mystery that features interviews with people who remember it, Roy Marshall's comprehensive book, Villisca, as well as Steven Bowman's novel, Morning Ran Red, for which he extensively researched the events. It seems that everyone who studies the tale comes out with a different theory as to who perpetrated this horrible as-yet-unsolved crime.

Sheena Bentler
Sheena Bentler

It started with a neighbor. Mary Peckham lived with her husband next door to the J. B. Moore family. On Monday, June 10, she'd already been out and about since 4:00 A.M., doing her laundry and hanging it on the line to dry before the day became fiercely hot. But her neighbor's home, usually noisy from their four young children, was deathly silent. The window curtains were drawn and it seemed that no chores were being done. That was out of character, especially since J.B. (also Joe or Josiah in some accounts) generally left the place early to go to work and the livestock needed attention. She wondered if members of the family were ill.

Yet she'd just seen them all the night before, around eight in the evening. They'd all gone to the Presbyterian Church for a special children's event. Puzzled, Mary went to the door and knocked. No one answered. When she tried the door, she found that it had been locked from inside — an odd behavior for their safe neighborhood. People didn't lock doors around there. Uncertain what to do, Mary went home to do a few more chores and think about this strange state of affairs. She finally contacted J. B.'s brother, Ross Moore.

Shelby Bentler
Shelby Bentler

He made a few calls. J.B's associates at the drugstore he managed had not seen him. An employee was still awaiting instructions for the day. Now Ross was worried, so he went to the house. When he checked the livestock and saw that they'd been fed, so he relaxed until he learned from Mary that J.B. had not fed them himself, nor had any of the children. She'd persuaded an acquaintance to do it.

Ross knew it was time to enter, but to him, the silent house looked ominous. It seemed impossible that no one had yet come out the entire morning.

He went around to a bedroom window to see if he could find someone inside to let him in, but the curtains were closed. He rapped and listened, but got no response. Next, he tried the doors. Front and back were both locked, and it wasn't like this family to do that. He knocked but didn't really expect an answer. Since he had his own key, he let himself in. Mary Peckham, eaten up with curiosity now, followed him as far as the entryway.

There were three rooms on the ground floor: a parlor, a kitchen and a bedroom. Ross called out to J.B. and then Sarah, and finally steeled himself to then walk through the kitchen. There was no sign that a meal had been prepared that day, although a plate sat out in the open. Crossing the dark and silent parlor, he opened the door to the bedroom. He was there but a moment before he rushed back and shouted for Mary to get the sheriff.

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