Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

"Something Terrible has Happened Here"

J.B. Moore
J.B. Moore

Horton lit another match, says Marshall, to find his way up the dark, steep staircase. Each step groaned from his weight, sounding hollow in the ominous silence. The smell of death reached his nostrils again from the stuffy second floor, so he guessed at what he was in for. Even so, he was hardly prepared.

At the top of the steps was a bedroom. Horton entered and saw a sight similar to what he'd encountered downstairs — sheet-covered forms and bloody walls. Opening a curtain to let in some light, he looked around. He knew exactly who he was looking at on the bed: J. B. and Sarah Moore. On closer inspection, Horton saw that both had received smashing blows to their skulls as they slept. A lamp without a chimney sat on the floor, and Horton knew enough not to touch it. Instead he continued his gruesome survey.

Sarah Moore
Sarah Moore

In the next bedroom, which held three beds, the spectacle was enough to bring a grown man to his knees. Horton raised the shade and saw that there were four dead children in this room, two of them in one bed. Blood covered all of the bedclothes and stained the walls — even the ceiling. He realized now that everyone in this family was dead, their heads crushed in.

But this scene made little sense to Horton. The Moores had four children, and he now had eight bodies, so who were the two downstairs? He had to go back down to try to identify them and alert their parents. He planned to do this in the company of the town's surgeon, Dr. J. Clark Cooper. But before fetching the physician, he went outside and told the small group of worried people gathered near the porch not to let anyone into the house.

The Titanic
The Titanic

Horton realized he had a case that would make headlines around the country. Mass deaths, such as what had just happened on April 14 with the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of more than 1,500 lives, were always big news. Ax murders were not uncommon, since it was one of the few lethal implements that could be used silently, but the slaughter of an entire family was certainly rare — eight all at once! How had this perpetrator subdued them all? Had he had accomplices? And what could be his motive for such a bloody deed? Horton had his hands more than full and he knew it.

But keeping people out was easier said than done. At that point, it was nearing 9:00 A.M. and word was spreading.

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