Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

The Crime Scene

Herman Moore
Herman Moore

In a small town where nothing much happens, and where a murder of almost supernatural proportions occurs, people start talking. When the victims are well-known and much-liked, as Sarah, J.B. and their children were, a lot of people will gawk and learn all the gossip they can. Add one more element: the Moores were an affluent family with a wide circle of acquaintances and associates. The phone operators who overheard the early phone calls passed along a few details themselves to their own acquaintances.

But there was another family involved as well. The Stillingers, successful farmers with renown in horticulture, had allowed their daughters, Lena, who was twelve, and Ina, who was eight, to spend the night at the Moore's home after the children's program. J.B. himself had called to ask. Yet when the girls did not return in the morning, the family grew concerned. They called the Moore home but received no answer. Calling again, they learned from a telephone operator, according to Marshall, that "everyone in that house is dead." It must have been an utter shock. How could one even believe such news?

Katherine Moore
Katherine Moore

Dr. Cooper accompanied Horton to the house as fast as he could. He knew from Horton that bloodhounds, some county officials, and a private detective were on the way, but for the moment, the onus of identification was on them.

However, it was not just these two men who entered the home, but with them were Dr. W. A. Lomas, Dr. F. S. Williams, and the Reverend Ewing — far too many to take care to preserve the evidence. While it's true that Edmond Locard was only just now attuning law enforcement to the value of trace evidence, that was in France, and no one in America, let alone Iowa, knew much about that. Private and federal crime labs were almost two decades in the future.

The county coroner, Dr. A. L. Linquist (sometimes spelled Lindquist), also arrived to oversee how the victims were identified. The place seemed to him to be in total chaos, but he went in to do what he could. In the downstairs bedroom, the sheets were carefully lifted from the murdered victims. Oddly, an item of clothing had been placed over the face of one — a gray coat like a boy would wear.

Edmond Locard
Edmond Locard

Their skulls and faces were so smashed into bone, hair and brain matter that no one in the party recognized who they were. The younger girl, approximately seven or eight, lay nearest the wall, and seemed relatively undisturbed. The physicians agreed that she'd likely died from the first blow, and the others had been delivered after, possibly to ensure her death.

The other child appeared to have been molested, or at least sexually posed. Her nightgown was up and she wore no underwear. One arm was over her head, under the pillow, and one leg was splayed outward. She appeared to have been turned over slightly to the right after she'd been bludgeoned, as the line of blood had dripped onto the bed before her hand had gone into that position. Her right knee bore a bloodstain as well, though there were no wounds to her legs or lower torso. Perhaps she'd felt the blow, struggled, and was dispatched only after she'd been hit again.

White dresses and Bibles lay nearby (the dresses placed at the foot of the bed), and inside the books, the party found their names: Lena and Ina Stillinger. Some of the people were aware that they'd been at church the previous evening with the Moores and had seen them accompany the Moore children home. It seemed likely that they'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But who had been the primary target?

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