The Villisca axe murder house is a house in the town of Villisca in Iowa, USA, and is the site of one of the most infamous ‘mass family murders’ in American history, and is claimed to be one of the country’s most haunted locations.
Villisca, Iowa, USA
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
On the night of June 10 in 1912 the Moore family, an ‘affluent’, ‘well-known’ and ‘well-liked’ family, and two visiting neighbour girls, Ina Stillinger (eight) and Lena Stillinger (twelve), were brutally murdered in their home, an ‘old white frame house’ on a ‘quiet street’, in Villisca, Iowa.
The family consisted of parents Josiah (forty-three), Sarah (thirty-nine), and their four children: Herman (eleven), Mary (ten), Arthur (seven), Paul (five). Mary Katherine Moore had invited Ina and Lena to spend the night at her family home.
On the evening of June 10 the family and the visiting girls attended the Presbyterian church and participated in the ‘Children’s Day Program’, which Sarah Moore had coordinated and after the program ended at 9:30 pm, they walked to the Moores’ house and reportedly arrived between 9:45 pm and 10 pm.
That night someone broke in and ‘viciously bludgeoned’ the eight sleeping inhabitants to death and the crime would baffle law enforcement for over a century.
Josiah and Sarah Moore were sleeping upstairs, their four children were resting in a room down the hall and, in a guest room on the first floor, were the two visiting girls sleeping over. Shortly after midnight the killer entered through the door, which was unlocked as they lived in what was considered to be a ‘small, safe, friendly town, and picked up an oil lamp from a nearby table, adjusting it to burn so low it supplied barely supplied any light and removed the glass cover.
Carrying the families own axe, the killer made his way up the stairs, and past the room, the children were sleeping in, and into Joe and Sarah Moore’s bedroom. The police reportedly determined later that the axe had been swung with ‘obvious force’ and that when the killer was killing Mr and Mrs Moore the axe had been swung ‘so high above the murderer’s head that it gouged the ceiling above the bed’.
Reportedly, the ‘gouge marks across bedroom ceilings from the upswing of the axe’ revealed ‘something about the killer’s height’, but the marks were also in the centre of the room and not above the victim’s beds. These marks were therefore thought to be the killer ‘whirlwinding the axe in a one-handed frenzy of excitement’.
Josiah Moore had reportedly been hit with the axe ‘at least thirty times’, more than any other of the victims, and the faces of both parents, as well as the children, had ‘been reduced to nothing but a bloody pulp’. The killer used the ‘blade’ of the axe on Josiah but killed the rest of the house’s inhabitants with the ‘blunt end’ and Josiah’s face had reportedly been ‘cut to such an extent that his eyes were missing’.
After killing Josiah and Sarah Moore the killer then made his way to the children’s room before returning to the master bedroom for some reason to inflict more blows on Josiah and Sarah, and knocked over a ‘shoe that had filled with blood’. He then finally going back downstairs to the guest bedroom where Ina and Lena were.
Investigators believed that all of the victims except for Lena Stillinger had been asleep when they were murdered as there was evidence that she had ‘tried to fight back’, as she was found lying ‘crosswise on the bed’, and had ‘defensive wounds’ on her arms.
Her nightgown was also ‘pushed up to her waist’, and she was wearing no ‘undergarments’, lying in a ‘sexual pose’, and had ‘blood smeared across her legs’, leading to law enforcement speculating that the killer had sexually molested her or had ‘attempted to do so’ and that she was the only victim who had attempted to fight off her attacker. The lamp, and the axe used in the murders, were also found in the guest room where the Stillinger sisters were found.
Doctors later reportedly concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 am, and also found in the attic, were two ‘spent cigarettes’, suggesting that the killer had patiently waited in the attic until the inhabitants were asleep.
After murdering the family and their guests, the killer had set up ‘some kind of ritual’ and had covered the heads of Joe and Sarah with sheets and the Moore children’s faces with clothing then went through each room in the house and covered all of the mirrors and windows with cloths and towels. He also, at some point, took a ‘two-pound piece of uncooked bacon’ from the fridge and placed it in the living room, along with a ‘keychain’.
A bowl of water was also found in the home, with spirals of blood swirling through it, and police summarised that the murderer had washed his hands in it before leaving. The murder also took the keys from the home and locked the door behind him before leaving and it’s also believed that the killer caught a train out of town early that morning.
The next morning their neighbour, Mary Peckham, became suspicious having noticed that the ‘usually rambunctious home’ was ‘dead quiet’ and they had not ‘come out to do their morning chores’. Peckham knocked on the Moore family’s door and, when nobody answered, tried to open the door but discovered that it was locked.
She let the Moore family’s chickens out and called Josiah Moore’s brother, Ross Moore, who arrived to check on the family but received no response when he ‘knocked on the door and shouted’. He then let himself in with his own key, while Peckham stood on the porch, for the house and made his way to the master bedroom where he found his brother Josiah and Sarah ‘bludgeoned beyond recognition’.
Ross Moore immediately told Peckham to call Hank Horton, Villisca’s ‘primary peace officer’, who arrived soon after and whose search of the house revealed that the entire Moore family, and both the visiting Stillinger girls, had been bludgeoned to death.
A crowd started to form outside the house and, by the time the police, the coroner, a minister, and several doctors had ‘thoroughly perused the crime scene’, word of the vicious crime had spread.
Despite officials ‘cautioning the townspeople against going inside’ but local officials ‘quickly lost control of the crime scene’ and local residents began to ‘traipse through the house for hours while the bloodstained bodies were still in the beds’ and at least 100 townspeople ‘gave in to their gross fascinations and traipsed through the blood-spattered home’. It’s also said that one local, a ‘pool room operator’, took a ‘fragment’ of Josiah’s skull as a ‘keepsake’.
Unfortunately, in 1912, Iowa had no ‘uniform police standards or statewide criminal investigation agency’ and the police had ‘shockingly few leads’ and there were only ‘a few half-hearted efforts to search the town and surrounding countryside.
Fingerprinting had also yet to become a ‘widely established tool of criminal investigation’ and the ‘massive disturbance’ to the crime scene from curious townsfolk prevented detectives from collecting ‘sufficient evidence for a conclusive investigation’.
However, most officials believed that with the ‘roughly five-hour head start that the killer had he would be long gone’, although bloodhounds were brought in, with no success, as ‘the crime scene had been fully demolished by the townspeople’.
A few suspects were still named over time though none of them were found guilty.
The first suspect was Frank Jones, a local businessman who had reportedly been in competition with Josiah Moore who had also worked for Jones for seven years in the ‘farm equipment sales business’ before leaving and starting his own rival business.
There was also a rumour that Josiah was having an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law but there doesn’t seem to have been any evidence of this, however, the townspeople reportedly insisted that the Moore family and the Jones family ‘harboured a deep hatred for each other’.
The second suspect was Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, an English immigrant and ‘travelling pastor’, who had a history of ‘sexual deviancy and mental problems’ and even admitted to being in town the night of the murders. He also reportedly admitted that he had ‘left early in the morning’ but his ‘small stature and meek personality led some to doubt his involvement’.
Police claimed to have determined from the blood splatters at the crime scene that the ‘killer must’ be left-handed, which Kelley also was. Kelley also supposedly ‘had a history with the Moore family’ and many townsfolk had ‘seen him watching them while at church and out and about in town’.
A dry cleaner in a nearby town had also been asked to clean some ‘bloody clothing’ of Kelly’s a ‘few days’ after the murders and Kelley also reportedly asked the police for ‘access to the home after the crime while posing as a Scotland Yard officer’. And, at one point, after a ‘long interrogation’ he signed a confession ‘detailing the crime’ but ‘almost immediately recanted’ claiming police brutality.
Kelley was tried for the murders twice with the first ending in a ‘hung jury’ and the second with the jury refusing to indict him and the trial ended with Kelley being acquitted. Other suspects included William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore (no relation) but were all also exonerated.
Soon there were reports of ‘similar enough crimes happening throughout the country’, though not quite as gruesome, there were two common threads – the use of an axe as the murder weapon, and the presence of an oil lamp, set to burn extremely low, at the scene.
However, no ‘actual connections could be made’ and the case ran cold and the house was boarded up and then usually only rented, until the 1990s, when Darwin and Martha Linn bought the house.
The Linns restored the building to its ‘1912 appearance’ by ‘tearing off siding’, removing an ‘enclosed porch’ and repainting the house, then opened it for tours and the house gained a ‘national reputation’ amongst those who believe in paranormal activities.
On display at the house was the ‘long-handled axe’ used in the killings, which was reported to have been previously owned by a ‘state investigator’ for several years and, after he died, was given by his widow to ‘amateur historian’ Ed Epperly. Epperly kept it in his bedroom closet for decades before giving it to the ‘Villisca Historical Society in 2007’, and the axe is now kept at the ‘State Historical Society’ of Iowa in Des Moines.
Now, the house has a sign out front reads ’Villisca Axe Murder House’ and there is a sales booth, gift shop, and bathroom in the old barn on the other side of the backyard.
It reportedly, as of 2014, costs guests $428 a night to ‘sleep in the presence of potentially malevolent spirits’ and, due to the ‘overwhelming number of paranormal experiences reported in the house’, the property has become ‘one of the most regularly visited sites for ghost hunters’.
The Villisca axe murders house was lived in for years after the murder although the families reportedly never stayed for long and many believe that the Moore and Stillinger children still remain in the house.
There have been numerous ‘ghostly phenomena’ reported at the house including disembodied footsteps, things moving, voices, apparitions, EVP’s (electronic voice phenomena), shadows, ‘bad vibes’ and reports of being touched and even scratched.
There are also reports of ‘children’s voices whispering’, objects ‘moving and falling on their own’, slamming doors as people make their way through the house as well, reports of people ‘feeling as though they’re being followed through the corridors’ and ‘shadows that seem to come into view and then quickly disappear’.
Investigators also report ‘playing with the children’, hearing voices and being able to ‘get pictures of anomalies’,
In some books and documentaries which chronicle the murders and ‘subsequent paranormal investigations’ of the house, there are reportedly various individuals cited who claimed to have seen ‘a man with an axe roaming the hallways’, heard the ‘desperate cries’ of children in their bedrooms, or become ‘trapped inside the bedroom closet where Lena Stillinger is thought to have hid from her attacker’.
During one paranormal investigation, participants also reported hearing a woman ‘whispering’ and hearing a woman ‘humming’, distinct knocks above the bed they were sleeping in, a buzz of electricity hovering around their head, seeing a dark feminine figure standing in a corner, feeling something move their hair, hearing a door ‘rattling’ upstairs, ‘loud breathing’ and a ‘weird light near the window in the master bedroom’. And, reportedly, during a previous investigation, members of the same group went upstairs with a thermal imaging camera and discovered that a doll was hot ‘as if someone had recently touched it’.
The house has also been on several ghost hunting shows including Ghost Adventures, Scariest Places on Earth and as well as ‘all of the essential spooky podcasts’, including Lore and My Favorite Murder.
However some have reportedly tried to disprove the haunting as a ‘hoax instigated by Darwin Linn’ to make good on his investment of buying the house, however, reports of ‘strange incidents’ supposedly go back ‘long before’ the purchase was finalised. However, according to owner Martha Linn, ‘very few’ paranormal investigators come and go without experiencing anything.
When Kelly Rundle began filming a documentary in the 1990s, there had been ‘little talk of the house being haunted’, and reportedly, in the ‘years of filming’ inside the house, he never ‘experienced or saw anything out of the ordinary, nor did any of the previous occupants he spoke with who had lived in the house for years before it became a tourist attraction’.
“The first paranormal investigators visited the house in 1999; they declared the house was haunted, and that they would identify who the killer was It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t interested in the true story of the house, because like any historical story there’s something to be learned. If people are just going in there to get scared at something they thought they heard or saw, I don’t know what they learn from that.There is a whole body of folklore surrounding the Moore murders, and that in itself is fascinating, so long as you keep in mind that it’s folklore, not fact. So I just regard the paranormal sightings as a contemporary version of that—it’s an extension of the folklore that began on the day of the murders. Folklore can tell you more about people how people see themselves and how they see the world than it does the facts surrounding the case.”https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ppm84g/why-did-a-ghost-hunter-stab-himself-inside-a-famous-axe-murder-house-1118 (Vice, 2014)
HOMER AND BONNIE RITNER
In the early 1930s, the house was rented out to Homer and Bonnie Ritner, a young couple, shortly after their marriage and when Bonnie was pregnant but, shortly after the couple moved in, Bonnie told Homer on ‘multiple occasions’ that she thought someone was in the house.
She reportedly heard ‘strange noises throughout the night’, and began seeing ‘images of a man with an axe looming over the foot of their bed’ and would ‘became hysterical’ and wake her husband, who could only try to calm her. These occurrences were reportedly so ‘frequent and intense’ that the couple went to a local physician, who advised Bonnie that if she ‘continued to raise her stress levels so high she may lose her unborn baby’.
Homer Ritner ‘did his best to cope’ and, as they had no money to move, decided to stay awake during the night to watch over Bonnie while she slept and he sat in a chair at the end of the bed. However, staying up ‘night after night’ was ‘taking a serious toll’ on him and he also began hearing ‘strange noises, similar to those that Bonnie described’.
One evening he reportedly heard the sound of ‘someone walking up and down the stairs’ which was ‘unsettling enough’ for Homer to decide it was time to take ‘drastic measures’ and get out of the house. The next day he went to a ‘local pool hall’ seeking out the house’s owner to discuss refunding his deposit and rent so that the couple could move.
While there he reportedly found the pool hall’s bartender and explained to him what was happening and the bartender showed him a cigar box that he claimed ‘contained a piece of Josiah Moore’s skull’. Homer then rushed home, collected up his belongings and left with his wife immediately but they were never able to get a refund on the deposit or rent.
JOHN AND ALLIE GEESEMAN
Another report of activity experienced by John and Allie Geeseman was told by their grandson Dale Miller, to Darwin Linn when interviewed by him. Miller claimed that his grandfather would not sleep in the house and had made a bed in the barn to avoid sleeping in the house, supposedly because of a story Miller was told when he was young.
Miller’s aunt and her husband were staying with the Geeseman family when they claimed that the door that led from the front porch to the parlour ‘kept opening throughout the evening’ and that ‘every few minutes they would get up and close’ it only to find it opened again a ‘short time later’. Reportedly, at about 3:00 am, Miller’s aunt and her husband were seen ‘running down the sidewalk with their nightclothes billowing behind them’, although he was never told ‘exactly what made his aunt her husband run terrified from the house’.
Mr and Mrs Geeseman never spoke about what happened there but Miller’s grandfather refused to sleep inside the house again.
STABBED IN THE HAND
Between 1963 and 1971 a mother and father, and their two young daughters, rented the house from the Villisca State Bank. The father was reportedly a truck driver and would often be gone for ‘long periods of time. The girls claimed to wake in the night to hear ‘children crying’ and would sometimes return to their rooms to find ‘drawers open and clothes thrown around the room’.
They reportedly told their parents but they dismissed the girl’s claims until ‘one final incident occurred involving their father’ in which, one evening, he was sharpening his pocket knife at the kitchen table when ‘without explanation, the knife flew from his hand and stabbed him in the palm’
This was the final straw for the family and they packed up and left that evening.
However, another former resident, Vickie Sprague, was ‘very outspoken’ against Darwin Linn’s claims that the house was haunted and had a ‘brief conversation’ with the person who runs the official website for the house.
Sprague reportedly claims that she lived in the home for twenty years and never once ‘saw, felt or heard anything out of the ordinary’, but when she met the someone who had just spent the night in the home in 2003, she asked if anything happened and they invited her to spend the night. Her only response was reportedly ‘no thank you’ before she drove away.
SELF INFLICTED STAB WOUND
On November 7 of 2014 a visitor to the house, thirty-seven-year-old Robert Steven Laursenas from Wisconsin, was rushed to a nearby hospital after being found with a ‘self-inflicted stab wound to his chest’.
According to Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson, Laursenas arrived with a group of friends for a ‘recreational paranormal investigation’ and was alone in the northwest bedroom while the rest of the group was outside when he ‘called for help on their mobile, two-way radios’.
His companions reportedly found him ‘stabbed in the chest’ with an apparently self-inflicted wound, around 12:45 am, and called 911. Laursen was brought to a nearby hospital before being helicoptered to Creighton University Medical Centre in Omaha.
12:45 am is also said to be the ‘approximate time’ that the 1912 murders of the Moore family and the two visiting girls took place.
Linn and Sheriff Sampson reportedly said that Laursen recovered from his injuries but would not comment any further ‘out of respect for the family’.
On May 30, 2014, a paranormal investigative arranged an overnight stay in the house, during which they captured ‘16 EVPs in six minutes’ as well as ‘impressive full spectrum video stills’ showing ‘several unique anomalies including an unknown shadowy face complete with visible pupils, ears and hair’.
The following video contains the 16 EVPs that were allegedly captured by the team on an ‘Olympus FE-360 digital camera’ during their ‘initial walkthrough’ of the house. They claim that there were no children were present during the recording.
The EVP’s can be heard at these timestamps:
- 0:23 – Mom
- 1:00 – Whistle
- 1:54 – (Inaudible)…my mom and dad.
- 2:13 – Mommy
- 2:29 – (Unknown)…did it
- 2:38 – Growl
- 2:55 – Whistling
- 3:17 – Uh huh
- 3:24 – Unknown
- 3:40 – Growl
- 4:00 – Unknown
- 4:14 – Deep exhale
- 5:13 – Tell the killer that…(inaudible) [Class A]
- 5:32 – Deep exhale
- 6:22 – Short scream
- 6:24 – Tell them [Class A]
The following video is a compilation created by PRISM Paranormal and features the ‘history of the house’ and ‘compares EVPs captured of the Moore and Stillinger children’ and includes recordings from ‘several different paranormal groups from the years 2004 to 2014’.
Jason Offutt, a paranormal investigator, wrote on Mysterious Universe in 2013 about a field trip he took a class of college paranormal journalists on to the Villisca Murder House, to teach them to ‘report on the paranormal as seriously as they would any other story’.
Offutt told his students before the trip not to try to anger the ghosts, or believe everything they see on TV, however, one of his students, named Stratton, ‘yelled challenges at the spirits’ and another ‘produced a Franks Box’ (a ‘receiver that randomly tunes to spots on a radio dial with the thought that spirits may be able to communicate through this white noise, much like they do with EVPs, but in real time’).
“I’ve long been a skeptic of the electronic devices weekend ghost hunters point into the dusty corners of old homes, getting excited when the meters go ‘bing’. The Ax Murder House has made me much less skeptical.”https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2013/10/a-visit-to-the-ax-murder-house/ (Offutt, 2013)
One student, Karra, who had, weeks before the trip, related a dream about the axe murder house,was ‘a little more than tentative’ and seemed ‘unnerved’. Reportedly, in the dream, she was in the second-floor children’s bedroom, a ‘Raggedy Ann-type doll’ lay on the bed, and as she approached the bed, the doll turned its head and smiled and she woke up screaming.
The group’s tour guide led them into the house and they broke into groups with one going upstairs and the other exploring downstairs. Offutt wrote that moments later ‘terror-filled screams rang throughout the house from the second floor’ and he rushed to the stairway and met Karra ‘pounding down the steps’ as she screamed ‘the doll!’ at him.
Reportedly, nothing ‘unexpectedly moved or smiled’ when she’d walked into the children’s upstairs room but she had seen that ‘the wallpaper, the bed, the comforter, and the Raggedy Anne-type doll sitting on the bed were the same as in her dream’.
Another student went into the pantry holding a ‘Franks Box’ in front of him and started asking the device ‘random questions as a group followed him into the unnaturally cold room’ and then, when ‘crowded in the cupboard with six people’ the student began to ask questions these questions:
“Is there someone here with us?”
Static, followed by a ‘distinctive male voice’ saying ‘yes’. The device ‘scanned radio frequencies’ and Offutt ‘discounted that yes as naturally random’.
“Do you want us to leave?”
Static again, followed by the same voice saying ‘yes’.
“Is someone making you angry?”
Static and ‘yes’ again.
“Are they here in this room?”
Static still and the word ‘no’.
“Who’s making you angry?”
Static, and then ‘Stratton’, the name of the student who had ‘yelled challenges at the spirits’.
“Stratton? A device randomly scanning radio signals came up with the name of the only person on the field trip who was, if I may say so, being a jerk. Bill, John, Aaron, or Dave I could have brushed off easily. But Stratton? The box answered the question, and the answer was correct. I’ll never be convinced something like a Franks Box is legitimate, but I can’t say it’s not.”https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2013/10/a-visit-to-the-ax-murder-house/ (Offutt, 2013)
AMERICAN PARANORMAL RESEARCH ASSOCIATION
When the American Paranormal Research Association (APRA) investigated the Villisca Axe Murder House with a ‘scientific paranormal research team’ led by Brandon Alvis. The APRA was put together in 2006 ‘solely to investigate historical locations throughout the United States’ with the goal of opening the eyes of the scientific community in trying to ‘understand the unexplainable and to obtain proof that life after death is a great possibility by collecting hard, irrefutable paranormal’.
In the spring of 2009 the paranormal team arrived at the murder house in Villisca to investigate the ‘notoriously haunted house’, and amongst the ‘large volume of evidence’ collected during the investigation it was the EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) audio recordings that ‘truly shook the team’.
They reportedly captured on audio that appears to be the Moore family ‘screaming and pleading for their lives’, which other investigations have also captured, but APRA stated that ‘none have been so clear or so chilling’.
“The Villisca Axe Murder case was the most emotional investigation that APRA has ever conducted. The data we collected that night changed the paranormal field forever. To this day we have not been able to recreate or disprove the terrible audio data we collected that night. It is a case that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”http://www.theoccultmuseum.com/listen-horrifying-evps-children-screaming-villisca-axe-murder-house/ (Occult Museum, 2019)
Reportedly, after they concluded their investigation all of their footage was ‘presented to engineers, medical doctors and various other professionals from technical industries’ and each were given the ‘circumstances’ and they ‘could not come up with explanations for what was presented to them’.
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