The Villisca Ax Murders.

One of Iowa’s coldest waterfalls is also its most unforgettable. In Biliska, an ax-wielding madman killed an astonishing eight people in one night. All victims, including six children, were found in their beds at the time of the attack, presumably asleep. Is there such a thing? How could a human sneak into a house unnoticed and commit such brutal violence?


Victims included the Moore family (successful and popular businessman Josiah, his wife Sarah, and four children aged 5 to 11) and two girls aged 8 and 12. included people. The 1-year-old Stillinger sisters decided to stay for a very unlucky night. The Moores were known as churchgoers and community supporters, but Josiah faced many conflicts during his years in business, and some of Sarah’s relatives were violent. .

The Villisca Ax Murders

On the night of June 9, 1912, a mysterious figure crept through the Moore house, first striking upstairs in Josiah and Sarah’s room before continuing on to the children’s. Interestingly, Josiah was the only one killed with the sharp end of the ax; every other victim was bludgeoned with the blunt side, suggesting that perhaps the attack was personal against him. The Stillinger sisters, who slept downstairs, may have been the only ones to wake during the attack, as they were the only ones not found tucked in their beds. Twelve-year-old Lena Stillinger, who was found in a state of undress and bearing defensive wounds, is believed to have fought off an attempted sexual assault before she died. The victims were discovered the next morning by Josiah’s brother, who had been called by neighbors concerned that they hadn’t seen the Moores perform their typical morning chores outside.

The police couldn’t determine how the murderer entered the house, although it was not uncommon at the time for families in rural areas to leave their doors unlocked. However, the fact that the murderer struck Josiah’s upstairs bedroom first led them to believe that the killer had some knowledge of the home’s layout. More disturbing were the two fresh cigarette butts found by a chair in the attic, possibly meaning that the killer had patiently waited for hours until the family went to sleep before sneaking down to the second floor. Additionally, all the mirrors in the house had been covered, and a four-lb. slab of bacon was left on the floor in the room where the Stillinger girls slept. The unremorseful killer even took the time to have a nice meal at the kitchen table before taking the keys and locking the house as he left. 

Who Committed The Villisca Ax Murders?

Though the police had little to go on, they did compile a list of suspects ranging from a nearby transient to the local reverend, George Kelly. The latter had met the family earlier that day at the church’s Children’s Day event and was known on several occasions to have sexually harassed women and children. He actually confessed to the crimes and was put on trial twice, but due to his severe emotional instability and time spent in psychiatric facilities, juries found him unconvincing and acquitted him both times.

Another compelling suspect was William Mansfield, wanted for a string of ax murders spanning from Kansas to Louisiana but never convicted and ruled out by Villisca police after they confirmed his alibi. Likewise, ax murderer Henry Lee Moore was thought to be a likely culprit after it was discovered that he killed his grandmother and mother just a few months earlier in an eerily similar manner. The police also looked into several men who may have held grudges over failed business opportunities with Josiah, but in the end, there was never enough evidence to pin the murders on anyone. Today, the Villisca ax murder house is open to the public as a macabre tourist attraction, complete with haunted house tours and overnight bookings.