Recap: E48 The Villisca Axe Murders


Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children and two young guests are found dead in their Villisca, Iowa home on June 10th, 1912. Their faces were nearly beaten to a pulp by a long-handled axe left at the crime scene. Puzzling clues are all over the house – chimney-less kerosene lamps left in odd places, a four-pound slab of unsliced bacon cast onto the floor, and mirrors covered with cloth. Before the crime scene can be secured and the coroner can finish his work, a nosy and outraged mob of townspeople swarms the house and destroys crucial evidence. One townsperson even has the morbid audacity to steal a piece of Josiah’s skull.


A telephone operator connects Mary Peckham to the Ross Moore household upon request. Troubled by the disturbing quiet from her next-door neighbors’ normally bustling house, Mary reaches out to Josiah and Sarah Moore’s relatives. Josiah’s sister-in-law Jessie answers the phone and agrees that something strange must be going on when Mary tells her that all the shades to the house are drawn, the doors are locked, the farm animals are left unfed and no one came to the door when she called. Jessie promises to send her husband Ross over to the house right away.

Ross meets Mary at his brother’s house and they bang on the doors. There’s not a peep from anyone inside. Worry mounting, Ross pulls out a spare key and opens the door. The house is pitch black when they enter, but Ross notices that the downstairs bedroom door is ajar so he pushes it open. He is met with a gruesome sight. There is blood everywhere and two bodies lay on the bed with their faces covered by children’s coats, hiding what little remains underneath.

Ross and Mary quickly leave the house to call Hank Horton, the town marshal, to the scene. Hank inspects the house alone and discovers that everyone inside had been brutally murdered. Identified by their belongings, the two bodies in the downstairs bedroom are determined to be ten-year-old Mary Katherine Moore’s playmates, sisters Ina Mae and Lena Gertrude Stillinger.

Hank notes that there is a chimney-less kerosene lamp at the foot of their bed; he finds the missing chimney under a dresser. There is also a dark shirt covering the mirror. If the killer was superstitious, as Carter and Wenndy suspect, it’s quite possible he adhered to the popular belief of the time that ghosts could appear in mirrors. After murdering an entire family in cold blood, it’s not surprising such a person would be worried about eight angry ghosts coming back to haunt them.

Carter mentions a disturbing theory surrounding the four-pound slab of unsliced bacon Hank found on the floor near Ina Mae and Lena Gertrude. When Lena and her sister were found, the latter’s nightgown appeared to have been hiked up around her waist, revealing her genitalia. As the theory goes, the killer used Lena’s corpse and the greasy bacon to masturbate. None of the victims were raped, however, and Lena’s nightgown could have just as easily ridden up to her waist during a life-or-death struggle with her killer.

Hank makes his way upstairs and finds another chimney-less lamp outside the master bedroom. After pulling off the sheet that covers Josiah’s and Sarah’s bodies, Hank sees that they, too, had their heads bashed in with an axe. In the remaining bedroom lay the bodies of the four Moore children – all fatally struck in the head by the same axe.

The Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts introduce the first possible suspect – Frank F. Jones, a wealthy business owner, banker, prominent member of the Villisca Methodist Church and a three term Rep. in the Iowa House of Representatives. Josiah Moore worked for Frank for a number of years selling agricultural equipment. Yet despite being his best salesman, and working extremely long hours, Frank refuses to give Josiah a raise when asked. His greed drives Josiah away, who then opens up a rival shop across the square and takes the lucrative John Deere account with him.

The bad blood between Josiah and Frank is so prominent that the whole town gossips about it. Carter teases that Frank may have had an even more personal reason to hold a grudge against Josiah before steering the episode towards discussion of the Moore family’s activities the day before the murders.

In a flashback, sibling bantering between Ina Mae and Lena reveals that they are afraid to walk to their grandmother’s house in the dark after the end of Children’s Day at the Villisca Presbyterian Church. They, along with the Moore children, spent much of the day preparing and rehearsing their parts for the Children’s Day play. Mary Katherine Moore asks her father if Ina Mae and Lena can sleepover, so they don’t have to go anywhere alone in the dark. Josiah has no problem with it and calls the Stillinger household to get permission from their parents. Their older sister Blanche answers the phone. Blanche tells Josiah that it’s alright for the girls to stay over and promises to let her parents know where they’ll be.

After the play, while the Moore family and Stillinger girls make their way home, Hank Horton and Mike Overman, the night watchman, notice a stranger walking down the street in the town square. However, with all the streetlights out, due to a quarrel between the city council and local power company, they can’t properly see him. While the stranger they saw may have been the killer, investigators believe the killer laid in wait in the Moore’s barn for the family to return home. A body-sized impression left in a pile of hay, and a knothole with a view of the house, drive that theory.

Jessie Moore and Mary Peckham break the news about the Moore family murders to members of the community. However, the Stillinger family learns the terrible truth about their girls’ when their mother Sarah tries calling the Moore’s house. The operator apologetically tells her that she cannot complete the call as the Moore’s have been murdered and her little girls are dead, as well.

Dr. Linquist, the town coroner, notices and records most of the details of the crime scene, and is accompanied by Dr. Cooper and several others. When the doctors and Hank Horton leave the house to take a break, they find that a mob of townsfolk has formed outside. Ignoring instructions to stay out of the house, the townsfolk storm the house, and in their morbid curiosity, destroy and alter evidence. One man takes pictures of the bodies until Ross Moore spots him and breaks his camera. Another person steals a piece of Josiah’s skull.

Dr. Linquist yells to Hank to get the townspeople out of the house, but the marshal doesn’t have the manpower to accomplish it.

Acting on behalf of his position as an elected official and aspiring state senator, Frank F. Jones pays to have bloodhounds brought in to track down the killer. Unfortunately, they lose the killer’s scent at the Nodaway river.

A day later, special agent and criminologist M. W. McClaughry, who specializes in fingerprinting, arrives in Villisca. He is quite drunk when he meets Hank Horton and Dr. Linquist, but once he sobers up, they take him to the Moore house. He cannot find any fingerprints, but after seeing the gouge marks left by the axe, he determines that the killer is left-handed.

The episode ends with a scene that takes place two years after the Villisca Axe Murders. An undercover detective posing as a Texas land agent comes to Ross Moore’s door and tells him that he knows who murdered Ross’ brother and his family. More on that on next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories.