The Villisca Axe Murders

Growing up in a small Iowa town not too far away from Villisca, the unsolved axe murders that took place in 1912, were common knowledge. So was the fact that the murderer was never caught.

On June 9, 1912, in a quiet, small town in rural Iowa, Josiah B. Moore, his wife Sarah, and their 4 children, Herman, 11 yrs, Katherine, 10 yrs, Boyd,  7 yrs and Paul, 5 yrs, along with two neighbor girls, Lena and Ina Stillinger, ages 12 yrs and 8 yrs, were brutally bludgeoned to death with an axe in their home as they slept.[1][2]

The Moore family along with the two neighbor girls, had attended the annual Children's Day Program at the local Presbyterian Church, that Sunday evening of June 9th. They walked home together, with the Stillinger girls having plans to spend the night. That was approximately 9:45-10:00 p.m.

The complete details of what took place between that time and 5:00 a.m. the morning of June 10, 1912, will forever remain a mystery.

Discovery of the Villisca Axe Murders

Mary Peckham and Ross Moore

Around 5 a.m. June 10, a neighbor, Mary Peckham, went outside to hang her laundry on the line. Around 7 a.m., she realized that no one in the Moore household had been outside to tend to their morning chores. A short time later, she knocked on their door and getting no answer, tried the door and it was locked from the inside. At this point, feeling the house was too quiet and something wasn't right, she notified Josiah Moore's brother, Ross, who came to the home and opened the door with his key. Upon entering the home, calling out and getting no answer, he opened the door to the first bedroom downstairs, and saw the blood covered bodies of the two neighbor girls. He immediately went back outside and asked Mary Peckham to call the Sheriff saying that someone had been murdered.Old AxeCredit: Photodune/Slipr84

Unfortunately, back in those days, not only was the town of Villisca set up on party line phones, crime scenes were not protected as they are today and it is estimated that there were up to 100 people tramping through the crime scene as word spread around town and people came to see what was going on. As local police lost control of the scene, it wouldn't be until almost noon when the National Guard arrived to secure the scene for state investigators.

Suspects in the Villisca Axe Murders

Villisca was a small town of about 2500 people at that time, with booming businesses and trains that moved in and out of town about 12 times per day. It was a busy small town, but things like this just didn't happen there. Everyone in town knew each other on sight and if you are familiar with small towns, everybody pretty much knows your family business as well. That's just how it is.

There are many theories on the Villisca axe murders and it is to me, still astonishing that the murderer got away. During that time, of course there were no DNA tests, fingerprinting was just being established, and we didn't have any of the technology we have today, but it is hard to imagine that no one saw anything conclusive to solve these brutal murders.

There were however, suspects. Over the course of the next few years, there were many people brought in, held and questioned, about these murders. There are a few that stand out more than the others.

#1 Suspect in the Villisca Axe Murders

Frank F. Jones, Elected Senator in 1912

Frank F. Jones, was born in New York and moved to Iowa in 1875, where first he taught school, and then farmed for several years. He then became a bookkeeper and clerk at a store in Villisca where he remained employed for about 7 years. He then left and opened his own hardware and implement store. This store was called the Jones Store, and was one of the largest hardware and implement stores in that part of Iowa.Senator Frank F. JonesCredit:

Josiah Moore worked for Frank at the Jones Store for a few years until he opened his own company in 1908. When Josiah Moore left Frank Jones' employ, he managed to take Frank's John Deere franchise with him and this caused much tension and hard feelings between the two men. There were also rumors that Josiah Moore had an affair with Dona, who was Frank Jones' daughter in law, wife to his son Albert Jones. One of the detectives on the case actually accused Frank Jones and his son, Albert, of hiring William Mansfield to kill Josiah Moore but neither of the Jones men were ever arrested and both denied having anything to do with the murders. Frank Jones was still a very successful business man in Villisca as well as elected a State Senator in the same year.

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#2 Suspect in the Villisca Axe Murders

William Mansfield, Killer For HIre?

William Mansfield, who was from Blue Island, Illinois, was one of the top suspects in the Villisca axe murders of 1912. One of the detectives on the case, James M. Wilkerson, lead investigator of the Burns Detective Agency, believed that William Mansfield was a cocaine addict as well as a serial killer and that he had indeed committed the gruesome axe murders in Villisca. This same detective also believed that William Mansfield was hired by Frank Jones, to kill Josiah Moore.

 Detective J.M. Wilkerson believed Mansfield to be responsible for the double axe murders of Rollin and Anna Hudson, committed in Paola, Kansas[14], 4 days before Villisca murders. Several years later, the detective would also come to believe that William Mansfield was responsible for the axe murders of his own wife, Martha, their 7 month old daughter, his father-in law, 66-year-old Jacob Mislich, his mother in law, 55-year-old Mary Mislich in Blue Island, Illinois on July 5, 1914.[9][10]

Mansfield was never convicted of either of the crimes. On July 21, 1916, a special Montgomery county grand jury refused to indict Mansfield for the Villisca axe murders of 1912.

In March, 1918, the Supreme court in a decsion that was written by Chief Justice W.A. Johnston, affirmed a judgement of $2250 awarded to William Mansfield against the William J Burns detective Agency by the district court of Wyandotte county. While trying to force William Mansfield to confess to the Villisca Axe Murders, Detective James M. Wilkerson loaded Mansfield into a car and took him to the police station without having a warrant for his arrest.

As they were going across the river, Wilkerson threatened to throw Mansfield into the river if he did not confess. At the police station, he was interrogated without food, water or rest, all night, threatened repeatedly, and punched in the face where some of his teeth were loosened. All of this was denied by Detective Wilkerson but a jury awarded Mansfield the judgement for $2250. 

Morning Ran Red: The Villisca Axe Murders

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Other Suspects In The Villisca Axe Murders

There were several other suspects in these grisly murders that were detained, questioned and then released.

Joe Ricks, was detained as he stepped off a train in Monmouth, Il on June 15, 1912. Mr. Ricks was wearing a pair of bloody shoes that he claimed he had obtained in a trade from a tramp. Witnesses in the case positively identified him as not being the man that they saw in the area of the Villisca murder crime scene.

Andy Sawyer, a man who had appeared in Creston at 6 a.m. on the morning of June 10, claiming he had just come from Villisca and he was looking for work. He was dressed in a brown suit and his pant legs were wet up to the knees. When he approached the foreman of the job site asking for work, he was hired on the spot. Several days later, he admitted to the foreman that he had heard of the murders and was afraid he would be a suspect and that was why he had left Villisca. The foreman becoming suspicious, turned him over to the Sheriff on June 18. The foreman's son would later testify that as the crew drove through Villisca one day, Sawyer had pointed out to him places where the killer had jumped over a manure box, crossed the railroad tracks, and finally, stepped into the creek. He would later have the charges against him dropped when he was able to prove that he had been arrested in Osceola the night of the murders for vagrancy.

One of the most notable was Reverend George Kelly. Reverend Kelly was arrested in 1917 and charged with the murders. Reverend Kelly had been at the Children's Day Program the day of the murders and had left Villisca early the morning of June 10th to return to his home in Macedonia. Kelly became of interest to the authorities because of some rambling letters he had mailed out. He was also claimed to have told others about the murders that Monday morning on the train before the murders had been discovered. He had been convicted of sending obscene material through the mail and had spent time in a mental institution and in his confession, he claimed he killed upon God's command to do so. He would later tell his wife that the confessions were completely fabricated and that he had indeed signed one of them but he didn't know why. He later recanted the confession. The confession was thrown out even before the first trial. At the first trial, there was a hung jury and he was aquitted at the second trial.


Were the Villisca Axe Murders the Work of a Serial Killer?

With the investigation of the Villisca axe murders, several other unsolved axe murders came to light. These cases spanned several states, Colorado, Illinois, two in Kansas and later on, Missouri and Illinois. While it may seem that would be a large distance to cover back in 1911-1912, it is possible that a killer could easily travel by rail to, or near each of the crime scenes, all within the allotted time frames of the gruesome axe murders.

Another suspect that came into the limelight was Henry Lee Moore. Henry Lee Moore was born in 1874 in Boone County, Missouri. In 1900, Henry Lee Moore was employed as a farm hand in Franklin County, Iowa. At some point, he was sentenced to the Kansas State Reformatory in Hutchison, Kansas for forgery and was then released on April 11, 1911.Unsolved Axe Murders 1911-1912Credit: KJ

In September of 1911, nine months before the Villisca axe murders, H.C. Wayne, his wife and baby girl, Mrs. A.J. Burnham and her two children, Alice, 6 yrs, and John, 3 yrs, were bludgeoned to death with an axe as they slept, in Colorado Springs, CO.[3][4]

A month later in October of 1911, a family was slaughtered in Monmouth Illinois, William Dawson, his wife and 13-year old daughter, Georgia All were found with their skulls crushed in by an axe in their beds as they slept.[5][6]

One week later, a family of 5, William Showman, his wife, two daughters and a son, were murdered with an axe in the same manner, in Ellsworth Kansas as they slept.[7]

On or around June 6, 1912, a week before the Villisca Axe Murders, Rollin and Anna Hudson were murdered in Paola, Kansas. They too were bludgeoned beyond recognition, with an axe as they slept.[14]

Another Axe Murder, Another Suspect

Henry Lee Moore

On December 19, 1912, in Columbia, Missouri, two more bodies were found that had fallen victim to the axe murderer.[8] Mrs. George Moore, mother to Henry Lee Moore (no relation to the Josiah Moore family), and his Grandmother, Mrs. Mary J. Wilson were found by Henry. Henry Lee Moore had arrived the day before and checked into a hotel room under an assumed name. When he was arrested later that day, he told police that he had arrived early that morning and had found the kitchen door open. He claimed that when he went inside, he had found his mother, dead on the floor with her throat "hacked". He claimed he also found his grandmother dead in her bed with similar injuries. Both women had their heads crushed in with an axe. The axe was still lying on the kitchen floor.

When a search of the hotel room was conducted, bloody clothing belonging to Henry Lee Moore was found along with blood on the towels and bed sheets. Henry Lee Moore, who had been a railroad car mechanic by trade, was charged and convicted of 1st degree murder. This was the only axe murder that was not committed on a Sunday.

While many people believe that Henry Lee Moore was the killer in the surrounding axe murders including the Villisca Axe Murders, he was never charged with those crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his mother and grandmother.

Henry Lee Moore served 36 years of the life sentence before being paroled by the governor of Missouri on December 2, 1949. The governor commuted his sentence on July 30, 1956. Henry Lee Moore was 82 years old.

While some believe that it was William Mansfield who committed the gruesome axe murders, others believe it was Henry Lee Moore. One thing is for certain, Henry Lee Moore could not have committed the axe murders of William Mansfield's family in Illinois in 1914 as he was at that time, incarcerated.


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Unsolved Axe Murders 1911-1912

Similarities to the Villisca Axe Murder

All of the horrifying axe murder crime scenes held very similar traits. At each crime scene, the entire family was wiped out. Each crime was committed on a Sunday night. All of the victims had their heads brutally crushed with an axe, most of them to the point of being unrecognizable. All of the victims were murdered in their beds while they slept. The bed covers were pulled up over their heads, law enforcement believed this to be to reduce the blood spatter on the killer's clothing. Windows and mirrors were covered with blankets or sheets.

At each residence, the front doors were left locked from the inside, but a window or back door was left unlocked. At each crime scene, there was an oil lamp with its chimney removed, sitting on the floor. Police believed this was to keep the light dim and not so bright as to alert or wake anyone.

Several witnesses to the various crime scenes reported seeing a man, tall, slender, blue coat and wearing a hat, inquiring prior to the crimes, where the victims lived. With the limited communication of that time, information was not always passed on in a timely manner.

Killers Among Us: America's Serial Killers


Two Serial Axe Murderers On The Loose?

So is it a possibility, that there were two serial axe murderers on the loose during these years? Or could the two of them, Henry Lee Moore and William Mansfield, somehow have a connection and is it possible they were working together? 

Edward Landers, the 6th witness called in the Coroners inquest for the Villisca axe murders recalled hearing a sound the night of the murders at approximately 11 p.m. It sounded to him like one boy "hooting" to another, outside. Could that have been the two men communicating with one another outside the home, right before the murders were committed?

Maybe William Mansfield committed the murder of Henry Lee Moore's family and Henry did the time. Or did Henry kill his family in hopes that everyone would think it had been done by the serial axe murderer?

Or could it have been yet someone else? Someone such as The Axeman of New Orleans who would commit a string of murders with an axe from May of 1918 to October of 1919. He was never apprehended and in 1919, his killings stopped.

You decide.