The tragic Villisca axe murders & a 100 year old house haunted by its unsolved horrors

villisca axe murder house fi

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The ghosts of the the Villisca axe murders

In the small town of Villisca, Iowa, an unassuming white house harbors dark secrets of a night that still haunts the pages of history. Welcome to the Josiah B. and Sara Moore House, commonly known as the Villisca Axe Murder House, where whispers of the past mingle with today’s ghost hunters and mystery enthusiasts. This is the tale of a chilling, unsolved crime from 1912, a night that claimed eight lives under mysterious circumstances. Step into this disturbing world — where the line between the historical facts and the spectral world blurs — and join us on a spine-tingling exploration of one of history’s most baffling and ghostly mysteries.

This unassuming white frame house became the site of a gruesome unsolved mystery on June 10, 1912, when eight individuals, including six children, were found brutally murdered. The victims were members of the Moore family and two guests, the Stillinger sisters, who were spending the night.

The Villisca Axe Murder House has since evolved into a focal point for those fascinated by historical crimes and paranormal enthusiasts alike. Despite numerous investigations and several suspects, the Villisca axe murder suspects were never conclusively identified, leaving the case shrouded in mystery.

Over the years, this unresolved crime has fostered an atmosphere ripe for ghost stories and paranormal claims. Visitors and paranormal investigators flock to the Villisca Axe Murder House, seeking to experience or debunk the reported supernatural occurrences.

The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 14 June 1912 Villisca axe murders
An article about the Villisca axe murders, from The Day Book, 14 June 1912.

The tragic history

On the evening of June 9, 1912, in Villisca, Iowa, the Moore family and the Stillinger girls attended a Children’s Day program at the Presbyterian Church, an end-of-the-year Sunday school event.

Sarah Moore, the wife of Josiah (Joe) Moore, co-directed this event. Their children, Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7), and Paul (5), along with their guests, Lena (12) and Ina Stillinger (8), participated in the program, which lasted until about 9:30 p.m.

After the service, they all walked home, where cookies and milk rounded off the night. Sometime after midnight, an unknown assailant picked up Josiah’s axe from the backyard and entered the Moore residence​​.

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By 7:30 a.m. on June 10, Mary Peckham, a neighbor, noticed the unusual quietness at the Moore’s house. Concerned, she contacted Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore, a local druggist.

Ross arrived around 8:00 a.m. and, upon entering the house, discovered two bodies covered with a sheet in the back bedroom, later identified as Ina and Lena Stillinger.

He immediately retreated and contacted Marshal Henry “Hank” Horton. Horton arrived around 8:30 a.m. and found that each bed in the house contained murdered individuals. The murder weapon, Josiah’s axe, was found leaning against the south wall of the downstairs bedroom​​.

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All eight victims were found in their beds with their heads covered with bedclothes. Their skulls had been battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of the axe. Gouge marks on the ceilings of the parents’ and children’s bedrooms indicated the force of the axe swings.

A bizarre aspect of the crime scene included a four-pound slab of bacon leaning against the wall next to the murder weapon. Mirrors and glass in the house were covered with cloth, and uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water were found on the kitchen table.

Notably, Lena Stillinger’s nightgown had been pushed up, and she had a bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm, suggesting she might have been awake and tried to defend herself. There were also those who suspected that she had been molested during or after the attack. However, it was later concluded that she had not been sexually abused​​.

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The Moore family was affluent and well-regarded in their community. Josiah B. Moore and his wife Sarah were the parents of Herman Montgomery, Mary Katherine, Arthur Boyd, and Paul Vernon.

The Stillinger sisters, Ina Mae and Lena Gertrude, were neighbors and friends of the Moore children who had come for a sleepover following the church event​​.

The investigation into the Villisca axe murders was marred by early crime scene contamination and the limitations of forensic science at the time. Multiple suspects were considered, but none were conclusively linked to the murders.

The complexity of the crime, combined with the lack of advanced investigative techniques, resulted in the case remaining unsolved. The Villisca axe murder suspects have become subjects of speculation and mystery, contributing to the lasting intrigue surrounding the case.

Post-murder transformations

After the infamous Villisca axe murders, the house underwent a series of changes in ownership and function. Built in 1868 by George Loomis, the house was purchased by the Moore family in 1903 and was their home until the night of the murders.

In the years following the tragedy, the house was sold to J.H. Geesman in 1915 and then changed hands several times over the next decades. Throughout these years, the house was inhabited by various tenants, but none stayed for long, possibly due to the dark history associated with it.

During this period, between 1936 and 1994, the house underwent significant refurbishments — including the addition of plumbing and electricity, and changes to the front and back porches.

By 1994, the property was acquired by Darwin and Martha Linn. The Linns began a meticulous restoration process to bring the house back to its 1912 state.

This involved removing modern additions like plumbing and electrics, restoring the original porches, and using old photographs and testimonies from the coroner’s inquest to accurately place furniture. The house was thus transformed into a time capsule reflecting its state at the time of the murders.

Today, the Villisca Axe Murder House stands as a historical site and a point of interest for ghost hunters and those fascinated by unsolved crimes.

The Linns maintained the property as a museum to preserve the memory of the events that took place there. Visitors were able to tour the house during daylight hours or even book an overnight stay — a popular option for those interested in paranormal investigations.

Recently, the house was sold to US Ghost Adventures, a company known for ghost tours.

The reports of ghostly phenomena at the house have been numerous, including disembodied footsteps, voices, apparitions, and unexplained movements. Despite skepticism from some, these accounts continue to attract a wide array of visitors.

Josiah B. and Sara Moore House - NRHP97001471 - Villisca - Montgomery County - Iowa -10-23-2016 villisca axe murders
The renovated house, c. 2016. Photo by Jason McLaren, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paranormal encounters and investigations

The Villisca Axe Murder House has become a focal point for paranormal investigations, attracting seasoned and novice enthusiasts alike.

Paranormal investigators at the Villisca Axe Murder House frequently use E.V.P. recorders to capture these mysterious sounds, which are thought by some to be communications from beyond.

The process typically involves using audio recording equipment to record ambient sound in an environment where paranormal activity is suspected. This can be in historic locations, like the Villisca Axe Murder House, or any place where unexplained phenomena have been reported.

Investigators record for a period, often in complete silence or while asking questions into the air, hoping to elicit responses from unseen presences.

After the recording session, the audio is played back and analyzed, sometimes using software to enhance or isolate sounds. The interesting part of E.V.P. is that these recordings often contain voices or sounds that were not audible to anyone present during the recording. The voices might be whispery, distorted or clear — they could be simple words, phrases or even sentences.

There are various interpretations and theories about the nature of E.V.P. Some paranormal enthusiasts believe these voices are communications from spirits or entities. Skeptics, however, often attribute these phenomena to natural explanations like auditory pareidolia (the brain’s tendency to interpret random sounds as familiar patterns, like voices), electronic interference or ambient noise misinterpretation.

The research of various paranormal experts has led to endless accounts of encounters, including but not limited to: mysterious footsteps, unexplained voices, and particularly compelling E.V.P. recordings. These recordings often feature the voices of children.

The Estes method, a newer technique, has also been a focal point of these investigations. Participants, blindfolded and listening to rapidly scanning radio frequencies, have reported receiving responses — some of which chillingly relate to the murder suspects themselves.

This method, thought to facilitate clearer communication with potential spirits, has added a new layer to the understanding of the house’s paranormal phenomena.

One recurring aspect of the activity in the house is its apparent intensification around 2:00 AM, coinciding with the passing of a train through Villisca. This specific time is often marked by the emergence of a mysterious fog within the bedrooms, following the train’s whistle. The fog’s presence, coupled with the subsequent sound of dripping, mirrors the events of that fateful night in 1912.

While these investigations have not provided concrete answers, they offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of paranormal research. The consistency of experiences reported by various investigators — from visual apparitions to auditory anomalies — continues to fuel interest and debate.

Skeptic’s viewpoint on the Villisca axe murders

When we consider the Villisca Axe Murder House, it’s crucial to explore the skeptic’s perspective. Skeptics approach the reported paranormal activities with a perspective grounded in science and psychology, offering alternative explanations to the phenomena reported at this historic site.

From a scientific standpoint, many of the experiences at the Villisca Axe Murder House can be attributed to natural causes. For instance, sounds perceived as footsteps or voices might actually be the result of old building structures settling or the effects of wind.

In terms of Electronic Voice Phenomena (E.V.P.), skeptics often point to the phenomenon of audio pareidolia. This is a psychological phenomenon where the mind perceives a familiar pattern where none actually exists.

Common examples include seeing shapes in clouds or faces in inanimate objects. In the context of paranormal investigations, audio pareidolia is particularly relevant. It refers to hearing recognizable sounds, like voices or music, in random noises. This phenomenon can explain why some people may interpret static or ambient sounds in E.V.P. recordings as voices or messages from spirits.

Psychology offers another lens through which to view these experiences. The power of suggestion and the heightened emotional state of individuals in a place known for its tragic past can greatly influence their perceptions.

In a setting like the Villisca house, visitors might be more prone to interpret ambiguous stimuli as paranormal. This is known as priming. Priming occurs when exposure to one stimulus influences the response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

For instance, if individuals are told a location is haunted, this information can prime them to be more likely to interpret sights or sounds as paranormal. In the context of the Villisca Axe Murder House, if visitors are aware of the house’s tragic history and alleged hauntings, they might be more inclined to interpret any unusual occurrence as a sign of paranormal activity.

When it comes to phenomena like the mysterious fog or the timing of events around the passing train, skeptics would propose considering environmental factors or coincidences. They might argue that such occurrences are not necessarily supernatural but could be naturally occurring phenomena that are misinterpreted or exaggerated.

Skeptics also encourage us to look at alternative theories regarding the house’s history and the unsolved murders. Some suggest that focusing solely on paranormal explanations can overshadow other historical or sociological aspects of the case.

Understanding the social dynamics of early 20th-century rural America, the state of forensic science at the time and the impact of media sensationalism could provide more context to the murders and subsequent interpretations.

Forensic science during the early 20th century was not as advanced as it is today. DNA profiling, for instance, was nonexistent, and many forensic methods we now take for granted were either rudimentary or not yet developed. This limitation could have significantly impacted the investigation, leading to inconclusive results and leaving room for speculation and myth.

Media coverage can greatly influence public perception of events. In the early 1900s, the way the murders were reported could have shaped public opinion, possibly leading to sensationalized accounts that overshadowed factual reporting.

This sensationalism can create a narrative that persists over time, influencing how later generations perceive the event, including contributing to the creation of ghost stories or legends around the murders.

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Impact on the community and popular culture

The Villisca Axe Murder House has significantly impacted the identity and economy of Villisca, Iowa. This notorious site, intertwined with the tragic events of 1912, has evolved to play a multifaceted role in both the local community and popular culture.

The presence of the house has transformed the town into a destination for those fascinated by historical mysteries and the paranormal. The influx of tourists and paranormal investigators provides a steady stream of visitors, which, in turn, supports local businesses.

While the town is home to less than 2,000 residents, the notoriety of the murder draws curiosity seekers from across the country, thereby boosting the local economy.

The story of the Villisca axe murders has captivated audiences far beyond the borders of Iowa. It has been the subject of numerous documentaries and films, which explore both the historical aspects of the murders and the alleged paranormal occurrences within the house.

These productions range from factual documentaries, aiming to shed light on the unsolved case to horror films that dramatize and sometimes sensationalize the events.

One of the most delicate aspects surrounding the Villisca Axe Murder House is maintaining a balance between respecting the tragedy that occurred and exploring the paranormal intrigue that it engenders.

While the house serves as a crucial link to a pivotal moment in Villisca’s history, it also represents a site of loss and sorrow for the community. Ensuring that the stories and investigations around the house do not overshadow the memory of the victims is a constant challenge.

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Ethical considerations in the Villisca axe murders

The acquisition of the Villisca Axe Murder House by US Ghost Adventures has introduced new dimensions to the ethical debate over commercializing sites of tragedy.

The recent purchase by US Ghost Adventures, a company known for its ghost tours and overnight stays in historic and haunted locations, marks a new chapter for the Villisca Axe Murder House. This development reignites the debate on the appropriateness of using sites where tragic events occurred for commercial purposes.

Critics often view such commercialization as potentially exploitative, fearing it could overshadow the gravity of the actual events. However, others argue that this can serve as a means of preserving history and educating the public about past events​​​​.

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For locals and descendants of the victims, the house embodies a complex legacy. While it has become an integral part of Villisca’s identity, bringing in tourists and bolstering the local economy, it also remains a site of immense personal tragedy.

Some community members and descendants might appreciate the preservation and public interest in the house, seeing it as a way to honor the victims and keep their memories alive. Others, however, may feel discomfort or distress over the commercial aspect, particularly if they perceive it as trivializing the seriousness of the crime​​​​​​.

US Ghost Adventures has expressed a commitment to maintaining the legacy established by the Linns, the previous owners who restored the house and opened it to the public over 25 years ago.

The company plans to continue offering tours and overnight stays, with the addition of self-guided tours using a mobile app. This approach aims to educate visitors about the tragic events and support the ghost hunting community, balancing the need for historical respect with public interest​​​​​​​​.

The lasting impact of the Villisca axe murders

The unsolved murders at the Villisca Axe Murder House have left a shroud of mystery over a small Iowa town, captivating us with questions that remain unanswered to this day.

The mix of gruesome history and the unexplained phenomena reported there ignites our curiosity and challenges our understanding of the past. As we reflect on the history of this location, and the stories it holds, we invite our readers to share their views.

Do you think the ghost stories offer a valuable glimpse into our past and the unknown? Or do they tread a fine line between preserving history and exploiting tragedy? We’d love to hear what you think! 👻

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