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The Villisca Axe Murders (and that time a paranormal investigator inexplicably began stabbing himself while investigating the infamous murder house).

The Villisca, Iowa home where two adults and six children were slain June 10, 1912.

On June 10, 1912, the Villisca Axe Murder House claimed the lives of eight innocent people who were bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant. In 2014, the Villisca House nearly claimed yet another victim when an out-of-town paranormal investigator began inexplicably attacking himself with a knife while investigating inside the reputedly haunted home. Police are unsure what prompted the horrific attack but told reporters that they believed “it was no accident”.

The Villisca axe murders, Iowa’s worst homicide in the state’s history, spawned nearly ten years of investigations, multiple grand jury hearings, a spectacular slander suit, a murder trial, and numerous litigations and trials. The horrendous crime made and broke political careers throughout the state and was responsible for the introduction of new statewide criminal laws in Iowa. Regardless, over one hundred years later, the case remains unsolved.

The Villisca Axe Murder

It was a warm summer night, June 10, 1912, in the small town of Villisca, Iowa when evil slipped into the home of J.B. Moore on 508 East 2nd Street and slaughtered all the occupants of the house with an axe. Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children aged 5 through 12, and two of the children’s friends (the Stillinger sisters) had arrived home from a Sunday night children’s church program at around 10:00 PM on June 9. It is believed that the attacker slipped into the home a couple of hours later, shortly after midnight on the 10th of June, while the family was fast asleep.

Their bodies were discovered the following morning after a curious neighbor noticed the home was unusually quiet and the children had not been outside to begin their chores. Worried for the family, the neighbor called Mr. Moore’s brother, Ross Moore, a local druggist. The Villisca Review reported:

“Upon arriving at the home of his brother at about 8:00 AM, Ross Moore attempted to look in a bedroom window and then knocked on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. When that failed, he produced his keys and found one that opened the door. Although Mrs. Peckham followed him onto the porch, but she did not enter the parlor. Ross went no farther than the room off the parlor.

When he opened the bedroom door, he saw two bodies on the bed and dark stains on the bedclothes. He returned immediately to the porch and told Mrs. Peckham to call the sheriff. The two bodies in the room downstairs were Lena Stillinger, age 12 and her sister Ina, age 8, houseguests of the Moore children. The remaining members of the Moore Family were found in the upstairs bedrooms by City Marshall Hank Horton who arrived shortly. Every person in the house had been brutally murdered, their skulls crushed as they slept. The victims included Josiah Moore, age 43, Sarah Montgomery Moore, age 39, Herman Moore, age 11, Katherine Moore, age 9, Boyd Moore, 7 and Paul Moore, 5 -as well as the Stillinger sisters.”

James E. Risden Iowa's Bureau of Criminal Investigation holds the Villisca axe
James E. Risden Iowa’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation holds the Villisca axe

The eight victims had been brutally bludgeoned to death, suffering 20-30 severe head wounds each, with a bloody axe that was found at the scene and later identified to be the axe of Mr. Moore himself (police determined the axe had been taken from a coal shed behind the victim’s home). Deep gashes were found on the ceilings of the home’s bedroom, made by the upswing of the axe during the crime. The doors of the home were all locked tight. The curtains of the home had all been drawn and windows and mirrors were covered with various articles of clothing belonging to the Moore family. The victims’ faces had also been carefully wrapped with their own bedclothes after they were murdered.

Strangely, a slab of bacon, weighing nearly two pounds, was found on a downstairs bedroom floor wrapped in a dishtowel sitting next to the bloody axe. On the kitchen table was a pan of bloody water as well as a plate of uneaten food. The only physical evidence found inside the home was a small piece of keychain found on the floor in a downstairs bedroom.

A lengthy investigation yielded several suspects, including a mentally ill travelling minister Reverend George Kelly, who was tried twice and acquitted. Over one hundred years later, the Villisca Axe Murders remain unsolved.  After multiple research expeditions inside the home, paranormal researchers say they believe the house is still haunted by some or all of its victims.

Paranormal investigator inexplicably attacks himself with knife while inside the home

It was on November 7, 2014, just after midnight, when paranormal investigators staying inside the home during a nighttime investigation found themselves embroiled in a similar mysterious bloody attack. Robert Laursen, Jr., of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, was alone in an upstairs area when the other investigators heard screams erupt from an upstairs bedroom. They rushed to the room where they found Laursen lying on the floor, bloody, suffering from multiple “self-inflicted stab wounds”.

Montgomery County police and paramedics arrived on the scene and Laursen was taken by air ambulance to Creighton Medical Center in Omaha. He was in critical condition. While there was no evidence of foul play, Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson told reporters:

“I don’t believe it’s an accident. Why he did it, we have no idea.”

Additional information

Villisca Axe Murder Victims

Josiah Moore family about 1904, before the two younger boys were born.
Josiah Moore family about 1904, before the two younger boys were born.

The Villisca Axe Murder victims included Josiah Moore, age 43, Sarah Montgomery Moore, age 39, Herman Moore, age 11, Katherine Moore, age 9, Boyd Moore, age 7 and Paul Moore, age 5 -as well as the Stillinger sisters, 8-year-old Ina and 12-year-old Lena Stillinger (who by the position of her body, appeared to be the only victim who attempted to fight off her attacker).

Villisca Axe Murder House suspects

Over time, many suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell, and Henry Lee Moore. George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. The first ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in an acquittal.  Below are the primary Villisca Axe Murder suspect.

Andrew Sawyer

Every transient and otherwise unaccounted for stranger was a suspect in the Villisca Axe Murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. No physical evidence linked Sawyer to the crime, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.

According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington, Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 AM on the morning the murders were discovered. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and, as Dyer was in need of an extra hand, he was given a job on the spot.

Dyer testified that later that evening when the crew reached Fontenelle, Iowa, Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The newspaper carried a front-page account of the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer “was very interested in it.” Dyer’s crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy that Sawyer slept with his ax next to him; he often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.

He reportedly told Dyer that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders. Afraid of being taken as a suspect, he had left and gone to Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.

Sawyer was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there, and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train (to send him away) at approximately 11 p.m. that evening.

Frank F. Jones

State Senator Frank Jones at work in his office
State Senator Frank Jones

Frank Jones was a Villisca resident and an Iowa State Senator. Josiah Moore had worked for Frank Jones at his implement store for many years before leaving to open his own store. Moore reportedly took business away from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. Moore was rumored to have had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence supports this.  Jones was quickly dismissed as a viable suspect.

William Mansfield

William Blackie Mansfield arrested in 1916
William Blackie Mansfield

Another theory was that Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an ax two years after the Villisca crimes. He is also believed to have committed the axe murders in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca crimes and was suspected in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each crime site was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out in exactly the same manner.

Mansfield was released after a special Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out.

Henry Lee Moore

Newspaper excerpt containing a photo of Henry Moore, a serial killer suspected in Villisca axe murders.
Henry Moore

Henry Lee Moore (no relationship to the murdered Moore family) was a suspected serial killer.  He was convicted of the axe-murder of his mother and grandmother several months after the Villisca murders.  The cases did show striking similarities and Moore was considered by some to be a suspect in the Villisca killings.

Reverend George Kelly

Reverend George Kelly
Reverend George Kelly

Rev. Kelly was a traveling minister in town on the night of the murders. Kelly was described as peculiar, reportedly having suffered a mental breakdown as an adolescent. As an adult, he was accused of peeping and several times asking young women and girls to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. He left town between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered.

In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, and wrote many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed the murders. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details because of having committed the murders or was imagining his account.

Dona Jones, daughter-in-law of Iowa state senator Frank Jones
Dona Jones, daughter-in-law of Iowa state senator Frank Jones

In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail (he was sexually harassing a woman who applied for a job as his secretary). He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the national mental hospital in Washington, D.C. Investigators speculated again that Kelly could be the murderer of the Moore family.

In 1917, Kelly was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.

Collection of historic newspaper articles related to the Villisca Axe Murders

The Evening Gazette Axe Murderer Slays Eight at Villisca, Iowa

Below is a collection of historic newspaper articles regarding the Villisca Axe Murder event and the subsequent investigation.

Family and Visitors Killed – All Meet Their Deaths in Bed, Murderer Makes His Escape – Robbery Was Not Committed; Motive for Crime is Unknown

Villisca, Iowa, June 10, 1912

An article on Villisca axe murders in The Day Book, 14 June 1912.

Joseph Moore, a leading Villisca businessman, his wife and four children and two visitors were found murdered in their beds today at the Moore home. Their heads had been crushed and a blood-stained axe was found in the house. The dead:

Joseph Moore and wife

Herman Moore, 11 years old

Catherine Moore, 9 years old

Boyd Moore, 7 years old

Paul Moore, 6 years old

Miss Edith Spillinger, 20 years old

Miss Blanche Spillinger, 18 years old.

Owing to the terrible mutilation the identity of the two women could not at first be established. They were believed to be Mrs. Van Gilder and her daughter, relatives of the Moores. Later they were positively identified as the Spillinger sisters, daughters of a wealthy farmer living a few miles from Villisca, who had been in attendance at a church entertainment here last night.

No robbery was committed and the motive for the crime is unknown. Horses neighing in the barn at the Moore home caused a woman neighbor to notice that no member of the family appeared to be up and about the house. She investigated, and after failing to affect an entrance to the front door, called her husband who also failed. The city marshal then was summoned, and the doors forced.

Moore was the manager of an implement concern and a leader in business and social circles.

Arrested At Nehawka for Iowa Murder

Nehawka, Neb., June 13, 1912

Sam Moyer was arrested here yesterday afternoon on suspicion of his having knowledge of the murder of his brother-in-law, J.B. Moore, and seven other members of the Moore family last Sunday night in Villisca, Ia. The arrest was made by Sheriff Jackson and a detective, both from Villisca, who are said to have traced Moyer from the scene of the murder. Moyer came here to visit the home of his son, Charles Bates, who was adopted by Walker Bates when he was one year old. Moyer’s wife died about twenty-five years ago shortly after the birth of her son.

Mrs. Moore, one of the eight victims of the murderer, was a sister of Moyer. The latter had had a number of quarrels with his sister and brother-in-law, and it was testified to at the coroner’s inquest at Villisca that Moyer had made threats to get even with Moore.

Niece of the Moore’s Assists in the Hunt

Villisca, Ia., June 15, 1912

On receipt of a telegram from Sheriff, W.F. Fitzpatrick, of Warren County, Illinois, County Attorney Ratcliffe left hurriedly late last night for Monmouth, Ill., accompanied by Miss Fay Van Gilder, the 16-year-old niece of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph B. Moore, the victims of last Sunday night’s octuple assassination. They went to see if Miss Van Gilder could identify the man under arrest there as a man with whom she talked on the Saturday morning preceding the murders.

The young woman related that she was accosted by a stranger who inquired where the home of the Moore’s was located. Later, when she told Mrs. Moore of the occurrence, the latter said a man answering the description of the stranger had been hanging about their place. The Monmouth suspect who gives the name of Joe Ricks, told the Illinois officers that he came from Clarinda, Ia., a town 15 miles from here.

Traces of Fiend Fade in the Hunt

Manmouth, Ill., June 15, 1912

Joe Ricks, held here in connection with the Moore murder at Villisca, Ia., is not the man Fay Van Gilder saw “acting in a suspicious manner,” near Villisca a few days before the murder. Miss Van Gilder, who came here today with her mother, Mrs. Emma Van Gilder and District Attorney Ratcliffe, of Villisca, declared as soon as she was brought face to face with Ricks that he was not the man. Ricks has given a fairly good account of himself to the authorities. He said that the bloodstained shoes he was wearing when arrested he had obtained in a trade from a tramp.

Similarity of Case to Colorado Horror

Colorado Springs, Col., June 15, 1912

Police officials who are in constant touch with the Villisca authorities find added parallels in the Moore and the Burnham-Wayne murders, which are difficult to explain by the theory that the same person or persons committed both crimes. In Villisca the murderer strung skirts and aprons across the windows to prevent anyone from looking into the house. At the Wayne and Burnham homes bedspreads were stretched across the windows. In Villisca, he covered the heads of the victims with bed clothing, wiped the blood from his axe and removed the stains from his hands and clothing; and this, too, was the case here. Here, as in the Iowa town, the doors were locked, an unfastened rear window in each instance affording a means of entrance for the ax man.

Murderer Was Concealed in Downstairs Closet

Lena and Ina Stillinger
Victims Lena and Ina Stillinger

Omaha, Neb., June 15, 1912

Mrs. Retta Johnson of this city, who accompanied Miss Minnie Moore, a sister of the murdered Joseph Moore, to Villisca Monday, has returned from that place. “Had Mr. Moore or Mrs. Moore looked into a closet, off from the room where the Stillinger girls slept, they would have seen the murderer, and probably have prevented the crime,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Several bags of cotton batting found in the closet showed the marks of a man having sat and stood upon them.” Mrs. Johnson says that the identity of the murderer may be determined by a piece of a watch chain which was found in the bed where the Stillinger girls were killed. It had been broken loose and is believed to have been torn by the larger of the girls, who is thought to have struggled with her slayer. “No one can explain why an unoccupied bed in the front room had been made by Mrs. Moore, and yet never occupied,” continued Mrs. Johnson. “One theory is that they had expected another party to stay all night with them, but friends say that is not true.” Miss Moore, the sister, will return to Omaha Saturday. She attended the funeral Wednesday.

Police Hold Suspect for Villisca Murders

St. Joseph, Mo. June 20, 1912

John Bohland of Hamburg, Ia., was arrested as he alighted from a train at union depot, on complaint of [illegible] Reed, Harlan, Burge and [illegible] Ledgerwood, who had followed him from Hamburg and who suspect of the murder of eight persons at Villisca, Ia.

Burge received a letter said to have been signed by Bohland, in which the latter said he had a vision in which someone was told to kill all persons who did not “have the mark of the Lord” upon them. His strange act caused the three men to follow him to St. Joseph and ask for his arrest.

At the police station, Bohland said he had never been in Villisca, though the others say they have seen him there. Bohland is a farm hand, and at one time worked for Burge in Gravity, Iowa. He denies knowledge of the crime.

Negro accused of Killing Eight.

Sioux City, Ia., July 5, 1912

Charged with the murder of the Joseph Moore family of six and two guests at Villisca, Ia., on June 10, Frank Roberts, a negro, is held here by the police. Roberts says he was at Clarinda, Ia., the night of the murder, having gone there to spend his vacation. He has lived in Sioux City since 1906, and for three years has worked as a porter in the photograph studio.

Slayer’s Image in Eye – Photograph of Iowa Murderer is obtained from Retina of a Girl Victim.

Council Bluffs, Ia., Aug. 21, 1912

C.M. Brown of Villisca, Ia., who is in this city, declares that the detectives at Villisca, working to solve the mystery in the recent murder of eight persons in Villisca have obtained a photograph of the murderer from the retina of the eye of one of the Stillinger sisters. The girl, circumstances at the time indicated, was the only one of the eight, all of whom were killed with a hatchet, who had awakened during the attack.

Held on Charge of Killing Six People – Iowa Farmer Believed to Be Much-Wanted Ax Man

Villisca, Iowa, Dec. 28, 1912

Lew Van Alstine, is being held today on a warrant, charging him with the murder of the six members of the family of Joseph B. Moore and two guests in the Moore house last June. The family was killed with an ax.

Van Alstine is a farmer. He is said to have had a quarrel with Moore about a year ago. It is known that detectives have been trailing him for several months.

There was little excitement over the arrest as sentiment favors the prisoner. Mrs. Van Alstine says she is ready to swear that her husband was at home on the night of the murder and could not have been guilty of the crime.

Methodist Minister Arrested – Charged by the Government with Mailing Obscene Literature

Tripp Co South Dakota, Feb 6, 1914

Rev. Lynn Geo. J. Kelly, a Methodist minister, was arrested Friday by a deputy C.S. Marshall, upon a charge of sending obscene literature through the mail. Miss Jessamine Hadgeon of Council Bluffs, the complaining witness was present at the preliminary hearing before U.S. Commissioner Ziebach. The defendant was held to the U.S. district court in the sum of $1000. In the absence of bail, he was remanded to the Federal prison at Sioux Falls to await trial.

It is said that the M.E. congregation at Winner had taken steps some time ago to have Rev. Kelly removed because of adverse reports concerning his previous mode of living. The minister had been assigned to Winner only three months. It is charged that he wrote many obscene letters to young ladies in Sioux City and Omaha, who had answered his advertisements for a stenographer.

Insane Preacher, formerly of Winner, May Have Been Villisca Ax Man

Sioux Falls Press, July 17, 1914

Efforts are being made by Iowa authorities to connect Rev. Lynn George J. Kelley, who is under indictment in the federal court for South Dakota for sending obscene matter through the mails and is now in the federal hospital for insane at Washington, D.C., with the murder of a family at Villisca, Iowa last year. Kelley at the time was preaching at a place near Villisca and was staying at the home of the minister in that town on the night of the murder.

Kelly now maintains that he is perfectly sane and wants to be released from detention in the federal hospital for the Insane, but his attorneys declare that he is undoubtedly insane, and if he was involved in the crime at Villisca, Ia., he remembers nothing of it now, and must have been insane at the time.

Jury Probing Evidence – Case against William Mansfield, Accused of Villisca Axe Murders, is Now Up.

Red Oak, Ia., July 15, 1916

The Montgomery grand jury got down to business here today, examining the evidence against William Mansfield, brought here from Kansas City, Kansas, charged with the Villisca axe murders of four years ago. It is expected that there is enough evidence to keep the jury busy till Friday when Mansfield will have his preliminary hearing and be defended by his Kansas City attorney.

R.H. Thorpe, a restaurant man from Shenandoah, was here today and identified Mansfield as the man he saw the morning after the murder boarding a train at Clarinda. This man said he had walked from Villisca. If this is substantiated it will break down Mansfield’s alibi.

Mrs. Vina Thompkins, of Marshalltown, is on her way here to testify that she heard three men in the woods plotting the murder of the Moore family a short time before the killings.

Released For Murder Committed In 1912

Red Oak, Iowa, July 21, 1916

William Mansfield was released by order of District Judge Woodruff at 3 o’clock this afternoon after a special Montgomery County grand jury refused to indict him for the Villisca axe murders four years ago. The sheriff placed him in an automobile and drove into the country, and it is supposed Mansfield will return to Kansas City, Kansas, at once.

Confession In Ax Murders Alleged.

Red Oak, March 19, 1917

Bloodhounds took scent of axe handle from Villisca porch
Bloodhounds took scent of axe handle from Villisca porch

The Rev. J.J. Burris, of Terrillton, Okla., has arrived in Red Oak with a subpoena from the Montgomery County grand jury, which, for the past ten days, has been investigating the Villisca murder mystery. The minister, who is pastor of the Church of Christ in the Oklahoma City, declared that a man, whose name he was unable to recall, on his death bed confessed to him of having committed the murders which shocked the entire state, and which for four and a half years have baffled detectives and county and state officers.

Mr. Burris is expected to tell his story to the grand jury. He said the confession was made to him in a hotel at Radersburg, Mont., July 1913, about a year after the crime.

“When I arrived at the bedside, I saw at a glance he was at death’s door. He was in torment and lived only a short time after I arrived. Death was said to have been due to delirium tremens.”

Mr. Burris said the man began to talk immediately upon his entering the room. “He said he had been guilty of many wrongs,” continued the minister, “and wanted to make a clean breast before he died. He seemed to know that he had but a short while to live. His life was passing rapidly, and it was with great difficulty that he spoke. He was physically unable to dwell much on details. The man sank back among the pillows. A great load seemed to have been lifted from his mind. In a few minutes he breathed his last.”

Mr. Burris said the body was buried in Radersburg. The clergyman said that the man told him that he was living in Villisca at the time of the murder and that formerly he had been engaged in the blacksmith business there. He is said to have been part owner of a blacksmith shop in Radersburg at the time of his death. “I should judge he was a man about 25 years old at the time of his death,” said Mr. Burris. “He has relatives in Villisca, I was told that his sister in Radersburg years ago married a physician and left her home in Villisca to live in the west.”

Mr. Burris said he did not remember ever having seen the man before he was called to the bedside. He said the man claimed to have known him when he lived in Iowa years ago. Asked if he had ever heard the story told by Mr. Burris, Albert Jones, who with his father, F.F. Jones, of Villisca, are being investigated in connection with the ax murder Saturday, declared that he had and that he did not attach much importance to it.

Detective J.N. Wilkerson, who is seeking indictments against a half dozen residents of Montgomery County, declared that he had investigated the story and found that it would not stand up. Mr. Burris said he had been in communication with Attorney General Havner in regard to the story he said was told him by the dying man, and that the attorney general had the money with which to pay the expense of his trip to Red Oak. Mr. Havner is expected to arrive in Red Oak from Des Moines. F.F. Faville, who is conducting the grand jury investigation, refused to comment on Burris’ story.

Ex-Detective is arrested in Villisca Case

Corning, June 30, 1917

Villisca murder axe photographed at the scene
Villisca murder axe photographed at the scene

J.N. Wilkerson, former Burns detective who has been active in the interests of the defense in the case of Rev. Lynn George J. Kelley charged with the Villisca ax murders, is in jail here charged with conspiracy to commit a felony. Wilkerson was arrested at Red Oak and brought here by Sheriff G. Simpson of Adams County this morning.

His arrest followed the confession Thursday and Friday of William Walker, 28; E. Boiler, 25 and Harry Nave, 17 all of Atlantic who said Wilkerson furnished them with revolvers and automobiles to plunder the store of F.F. Jones at Red Oak last evening. Wilkerson has accused Jones, former senator, with complicity in the ax murders and the raid on the store is alleged to have been for the purpose of securing personal letters and papers belonging to Jones. The confessions of the three men are said to have been given to County Attorney Ray Maxwell of Adams County, Sheriff Simpson and Attorney General Havner. They were released on $1000 bond.

It was also learned today that Judge Woodruff of Glenwood today issued a temporary injunction restricting him from making an advertised address at Red Oak and from intimidating witnesses, jurors and state attorneys in the trial of Kelley which trial is set for September 4. The petition makes sensational charges against Wilkerson. It is charged that after Kelley was indicted and before being apprehended, the detective visited Kelley at Alta Pass, Illinois, paid bills owed by Kelley and his wife, took them to Chicago and paid all the expenses of the trip. While at Alta Pass Wilkerson introduced himself to the railway agent of that town as F.F. Jones and shipped Kelley’s goods to Kansas City, Mo., consigned to one Jackson. He is also charged with having visited Kelley at St. Louis prior to Kelley’s indictment for the purpose of obstructing justice.

The petition also claims that while the grand jury was in session Wilkerson tried to intimidate witnesses and jurors and that he broke into the office of County Attorney Oscar Wenstrand and abstracted certain papers and files.

“Slay Utterly” Is Text; Preacher Becomes Slayer

Council Bluffs, Sept 1, 1917

Funeral procession for the Moore family and Stillinger sisters
Funeral procession for the Moore family and Stillinger sisters

“Slay Utterly” was the text which the Rev. Lynn G.J. Kelly, traveling preacher, followed when he murdered with an ax Joe Moore, his wife and four children and the two little Stillinger girls as they lay in their beds in Villisca, Iowa, on the night of June 9, 1912, according to a confession alleged to have been made before a state agent and several attorneys Friday morning. Information regarding the confession was given out today by State Agent Risdon and J.H. Hess, an attorney representing the prosecution.

Kelly had heard a sermon on the text “Slay Utterly,” and, according to this alleged confession, the two words had been running through his mind for days. The night of the murder a voice told him to go to the Moore house, where he picked up an ax in the back yard. He then went into the house and committed the murders, according to the confession.

Says He Killed Them at God’s Command

Iowa Preachers Studying Sermon on “Slay Utterly” When Impulse to Slay Seized Him

New York Times, Omaha, September 2, 1917

Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912.
Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912.

The Reverend Lynn George Kelly, in jail at Logan, Iowa, on the charge of murdering the six members of the Moore family of Villisca, Iowa, and the two Stillinger girls, is said to have confessed and said te obeyed the voice of God in committing the crime. Although the minister is alleged to have made two confessions, his wife says that he told her the alleged confessions were pure fabrications. She said he admitted signing one of them but said he did not know why he did so.

J.J. Hess, attorney for the State in the Villisca ax murder case, recited the conversion as he heard it. According to Hess, Kelly said:

“I arrived in Villisca the Saturday night preceding the murders. Sunday I preached twice in the country. Sunday evening I ate supper with the Reverend Ewing, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Mr. Ewing asked me if I would sleep in the house alone, as he and his family were going to sleep in a tent. Mr. Ewing showed me to my room. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep.

“I was working on a sermon, the text of which was “Slay utterly”. I had heard Gypsy Smith preach on that topic. I got dressed and went out on the balcony. I heard a sound like a windmill. I went back to bed again but couldn’t sleep. Then I got up and dressed for a walk, still studying my sermon.

“At 2:34 o’clock I went to the Presbyterian Church. While alone in the church I heard a voice. It said: ‘Go further’: I went out and walked to the end of the street, where I saw a shadow which beckoned me to follow. The shadow led me to the road of the Moore house. I saw an ax on a rubbish heap. I picked the ax up by the handle. The voice again spoke saying ‘Go on, follow the shadow, slay utterly.’

“The shadow led me to the door of the Moore home. Inside the voice said: ‘Go up.’ I obeyed the voice. I thought I was climbing Jacob’s ladder. I went into a room where four little children were sleeping. The voice of God said, ‘Slay utterly, suffer little children to come unto me.’ I answered the voice of God and said, ‘Yes, Lord, they’re coming now.’

“I took hold of the end of the ax handle and killed the children. I am sure I killed the children first. Children had bothered me all my life. I think I put the sheet over them afterward.

“The voice of God then said: ‘More work yet. There must be sacrifices of blood.’ I followed the shadow into a room, where Mr. and Mrs. Moore were sleeping. I worked as fast as I could. I think I killed the mother first. I felt tired. I went downstairs and thought I would find a place to lie down. I saw two girls sleeping in a room. God’s voice said, ‘More work, still.’ The words ‘Slay utterly’ were still ringing in my ears. I killed them. I think I put the sheet over them, but I don’t just remember.

“The text, ‘Slay utterly,’ had been in my mind before the murders, and has been ringing in my ears ever since. I have had a hard time resisting the impulse to slay. My soul is relieved now for the first time in five years.”

Alleged Murderer of Eight Goes on Trial

Red Oak, Ia., Sept 5, 1917

Selections of a jury to try Lyn George J. Kelly, charged with the “axe murder” of eight persons in Villisca, in 1912, was expected to be well under way before adjournment today. A special venire of 100 has been ordered to report.

Attorney General Havener refused to comment today on his indictment by the county grand jury late yesterday for “oppression in office,” as a result of his conduct of the state’s case. He will play as his trump card the confession he says Kelly signed, admitting the murder of Joe Moore, his wife, their four children and Lena and Ina Stillinger, at the command of a “shadow – the voice of God.” The defense will repudiate the alleged confession.

Jones’ To Be Drawn in Trial

Red Oak, Sept 6, 1917

Trial evidence markings on handle of the Villisca murder axe
Trial evidence markings on handle of the Villisca murder axe

That the defense in the trial of Rev. Lyn George J. Kelley charged with murdering eight persons at Villisca with an ax in 1912, would try to bring the name of F.F. Jones, former state senator, into the trial was indicated this afternoon by the questions put to prospective jurors.

Pearl Kluck, a farmer, drawn for jury service was asked if he had an opinion as to the “guilt or innocence of Senator Jones” in connection with the murders. He replied that he had but was not asked to express it.

J.N. Wilkerson, the detective working for the defense has frequently charged Jones with “having criminal knowledge” of the murders.

The state is not likely to ask for the death penalty if Kelley is convicted. This was indicated through the failure to ask prospective jurors their opinion as to capital punishment. Of the seven men examined this morning only one was accepted, bringing the total of tentative jurors to ten.

Murder Ax Introduced in Villisca Murder Case

Red Oak, Iowa, Sept. 13, 1917

Dr. Edgar V. Epperly holding the Moore/Stillinger murder axe.
The Moore/Stillinger murder axe.

Five witnesses, testifying today in the trial of the Rev. Lyn George J. Kelly, charged with the Villisca ax murders, told of the manner and condition in which the bodies of the victims were found. Dr. J. Clark Cooper, Dr. W.A. Lomas, Dr. A.L. Linquist, former coroner, Dr. F.S. Williams and Marshal J.H. Horton of Villisca, the first persons summoned to the residence of J.B. Moore after the murders were committed, were the witnesses.

During the examination of former Coroner Linquist, now commander of an Omaha ambulance company, the murder ax was introduced. The blade, blunt side and part of the handle show faded splotches of blood. Dr. Linquist said there were no finger marks on the ax handle, which, he said, was streaked with blood. He said the body of the elder Stillinger girl apparently was the only victim moved after being slain.

Opening statements of counsel in the trial of the Rev. Lyn George J. Kelly, charged with the murder in connection with the ax slayings at Villisca, Iowa, in 1912, occupied only an hour today and the way was cleared for the introduction of testimony. Assertions by the state that it would be positively proven that Kelly killed the ax victims and has confessed his guilt, were met by counter charges from the defense that the confession was by “inquisitional” methods for the purpose of shielding another.

“We will prove by reputable witnesses,” H.M. Havner, attorney general of Iowa, opening for the state, said, “that on the morning following the murder, Kelly, while on a train between Macedonia and Hastings, Iowa, told of the fact that eight persons had been slain at Villisca. This was before seven o’clock in the morning and all evidence will show beyond question that the murder was not discovered in Villisca at that time and was not known until between 8:30 and 9 o’clock.

Mr. Havner also said the state would prove the confession Kelly is said to have made a few days before the trial opened, that it was made on the defendant’s own volition, entirely without coercion. In opening for the defense Attorney W.E. Mitchell asserted that the alleged confession was worthless except as showing that the state was trying to shield someone. “Kelly was more dead than alive; more insane than sane,” after making the purported confession, Mr. Mitchell said.

The courtroom was crowded during these recitals, a sprinkling of women being included. Kelly, who weighs 115 pounds and stands but one inch over five feet, watched proceedings closely and without display of emotion.

Boasted of Eight Murders

(By United Press) Red Oak, Ia., Sept 17, 1917

The confession of Lyn George J. Kelly is alleged to have been made to the state agents, that he killed eight persons with an ax at Villisca in 1912, was not the first made by the itinerant unordained minister. This was brought out today when the Kelly trial was resumed here. W.C McQueen, former deputy at Sioux Falls, S.D., who arrested Kelly in 1914 on some trivial charge, testified that Kelly told him he committed the murders at Villisca.

According to witnesses Kelly told other persons who came to the cell to see him that he killed the Moore family and the two Stillinger girls and asked them “how did the Iowans find out I killed them?” A man who shared a cell with Kelly at the Sioux Falls prison testified in the same line. According to this prisoner, he said he killed the eight persons and added that none would suspect him because he was a minister.

Claim Kelley Was Insane

Red Oak, Sept. 19, 1917

That Lynn George J. Kelley was of unsound mind was the point the defense was trying to impress on the jury in the Kelley murder trial here today. Witnesses called to the stand told of wild ramblings by the itinerant, unordained minister who is accused of crushing out eight lives with an axe at Villisca in 1912.

The defense also charges that the alleged confession presented by the state, if it had been made at all, came after the minister’s mind had been weakened through grilling by the state’s agents.

The state charges that Kelley in his confession admitted he slayed Joe Moore, his wife, four Moore children and Ina and Lena Stillinger because a voice from God commanded him to “slay utterly.”

Witnesses said Kelley imagined he was a detective when taken through the Moore home about two weeks after the crime was committed. Persons close to the trial said today that the fate of Kelley would be in the jury’s hands before the end of next week. This prediction came through the abrupt ending of the state’s testimony yesterday afternoon and it was thought that the defense’s witnesses probably would all be examined before next Wednesday.

Defense Has Closed Case

Red Oak, Sept 22, 1917

The defense in the Lynn George J. Kelley murder trial closed its case shortly before noon and adjournment was taken until Monday when the state will begin its testimony in rebuttal. This arrangement indicates that the jurors will have the fate of the itinerant, unordained minister charged with the Villisca ax murders in their hands by Thursday or Friday.

Mrs. Kelley testified that her husband’s mind had been weakened through overwork. She told of Kelley’s arrest in Nebraska on arson charges and testified that on the night he confessed he had set the fires he was at home with her. This, she said, was her first knowledge that his mind was weakened. Other defense witnesses told of the various indications that the minister was weak-minded.

Noel Killed in Villisca Feud?

Omaha, Neb., Nov. 3, 1917

Detective L.W. Longnecker is inclined to believe that J.W. Noel, Villisca photographer, was found dead at Albia, Ia. Thursday with a bullet hole in his forehead, was murdered. He had no definite theory to offer but bases his opinion on the tense feeling in Montgomery County. “My only surprise is that there has not been a killing before this. I would not be surprised to hear of other shootings before this affair is cleared up” he said.

“Noel,” he continued, “testified at the Jones-Wilkerson slander suit a year ago that he overheard a conversation in Jones’ machine shop in Villisca. There was supposed to have been a crack in the boards through which he claimed to have heard a conversation between Senator F.F. Jones and his son, Albert. Noel claimed the information he overheard indicated that Jones and his son were afraid of Ed Landers.

At the recent Kelly trial, you will recall, Landers testified that on the evening of the murder he observed Albert Jones enter the Moore home at about [illegible] o’clock. His testimony was impeached by the prosecution. Noel and Landers were boon companions.”

Noel was star witness in the Jones slander suit against Detective J.N. Wilkerson, and one of the strongest supporters of Wilkerson in his fight in Montgomery County, Iowa, to bring about the acquittal of Rev. Lyn G.J. Kelly for the Villisca ax murders.

Kelley May be Retried for the Other Seven Deaths

Des Moines, Nov. 26, 1917

Lynn George J. Kelley acquitted Saturday night of the murder of Lena Stillinger, one of the eight Villisca ax murder victims, can be indicted and retried for the other seven deaths, Attorney General Havner announced today when he returned from Red Oak. He said that each of the deaths in the Villisca murders constitute a separate crime for which Kelley can be indicted. He did not say, however, whether he would push the case further.

Detective Falls in Bad

Omaha, June 18, 1918

J.N. Wilkerson, private detective, who gained considerable prominence through his connection with the Red Oak trial of Rev. Lyn G.J. Kelly during the Villisca ax murder case, has been arrested at Ottumwa, Ia., with Mrs. J.W. Noel, widow of a Villisca photographer. It is charged that the detective registered as L.R. Johnson of Centerville and that he registered his companion as Mrs. N. Norton and baby of Albia, Ia. Wilkerson, admitting the false registrations, obtained bail for himself and Mrs. Noel. He asserted that he and the woman were on business in connection with insurance claims in connection with the death of J.W. Noel at Albia.

Wilderson and Mrs. Noel will be tried in justice court at Ottumwa next Wednesday. Noel, Villisca photographer, who was found dead last fall in the railroad yards at Albia, was one of the principal Wilkerson-Kelly supporters at Red Oak. His death was surrounded by mystery, but the indications were that he shot himself. The detective who is in trouble at Ottumwa was nominated a few weeks ago for county attorney of Montgomery County, of which Red Oak is the county seat. His name was written on the ballots.

Detroit Prisoner Says He Slew Minister, Wife, and Four Children in 1912

Detroit, March 28, 1931

George Meyers, 48, prisoner in county jail here awaiting sentence for burglary, has confessed to the axe murder of six persons – a man, his wife and their four children – in Villisca, Iowa, 18 years ago, it was learned here tonight. Meyers’ alleged confession came after five hours of grilling by detectives Max Richman and Earl Anderson who had received an anonymous tip by letter to check up on the prisoner. Fingerprints of Meyers, sent to the sheriff of Montgomery co., Iowa, are said to have checked with fingerprints found at the scene of the crime.

The victims were Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Moore and their four children. Meyers said he did not know the minister nor the businessman who promised to pay him $5,000 to kill the family. The offer, he said, came through an underworld acquaintance whom he met in Kansas City. The acquaintance took him to Villisca, Iowa, about 65 miles southeast of Omaha, Neb., where they met the man who wanted the job done. “I never knew what the man’s name was” the alleged confession reads.

“He pointed out the house of this family he wanted wiped out. I demanded part of my money from him before I did the job. He gave me $2,000 and said he would give me the rest afterwards. I got an axe and entered the house about midnight. I killed them all, the man his wife and their four children. They were all asleep. A little while after, I again met this man who had hired me and told him the job was done. I wanted the rest of my money. He said I’d have to wait.”

When the businessman refused to pay him the rest of the money until he was sure the family had been killed, Meyers said he fled the town before daybreak and never returned.

Authorities check confession of George Meyers

Red Oak, Iowa, March 26, 1931

Authorities tonight were checking the confession of George Meyers in Detroit, Michigan, to the axe murder eighteen years ago of Joseph Moore, his wife, four children and two girls at Villisca twenty miles southeast of here. The brutal slaying of the eight victims on the night of June 9, 1912, aroused the country and resulted in the arrest of many suspects.

At the time it was believed the same murderer killed an entire family in Colorado Springs only a few months before, another family in Kansas and a third in [line missing], the most prominent citizen of eastern Iowa. The Villisca victims were Moore, 42, the town, his wife: Herman 11, Catherine, 9, Floyd, 7, and Paul, 6, their children, and Edith Stillings, 12, and her sister, Blanche, 9, who were visiting at the Moore home.

Meyers admits to killing family but not friends

Detroit, March 28, 1931

This afternoon the detectives said Meyers admitted killing the Moore family but denied killing the two Stillinger girls.

Robinson’s account of crime called into question

Detroit, March 30, 1931

Leroy Robinson, alias George Meyers, who Saturday confessed the slaying of six persons in Iowa in 1912, and who yesterday was said to have headed a plot of 10 prisoners to break out of the county jail, was sentenced to from 14 1/2 to 15 years in the Michigan state prison at Jackson today. Robinson’s confession that he killed six persons at Villisca, Ia., does not tally with the record of the crime, officers said. Eight persons were killed, Robinson’s confession accounted for only six.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

James E. Risden Iowa's Bureau of Criminal Investigation holds the Villisca axe via The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog with usage type - Public Domain
Dr. Edgar V. Epperly holding the Moore/Stillinger murder axe. via The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog by Des Moines Register with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Josiah Moore home on June 10, 1912. via Legends of America with usage type - Public Domain
Josiah Moore family about 1904, before the two younger boys were born. via Legends of America with usage type - Public Domain
Funeral procession for the Moore family and Stillinger sisters via Iowa Cold Cases with usage type - Public Domain
Bloodhounds took scent of axe handle from Villisca porch via The 1912 Villisca Axe Murders Blog with usage type - Public Domain
The Villisca, Iowa home where two adults and six children were slain June 10, 1912. via Iowa Cold Cases with usage type - Public Domain
Lena and Ina Stillinger via Smithsonian Magazine with usage type - Public Domain
Dona Jones, daughter-in-law of Iowa state senator Frank Jones via Smithsonian Magazine with usage type - Public Domain
Reverend George Kelly via Legends of America with usage type - Public Domain
William Blackie Mansfield arrested in 1916 via with usage type - Public Domain
State Senator Frank Jones at work in his office via with usage type - Public Domain
Newspaper excerpt containing a photo of Henry Moore, a serial killer suspected in Villisca axe murders. via Wikipedia Commons by with usage type - Public Domain
An article on Villisca axe murders in The Day Book, 14 June 1912. via Wikipedia Commons by Chronicling America with usage type - Public Domain
The Villisca Review Thursday June 13, 1912 via Exemplove with usage type - Public Domain
Horse drawn hearse brings Villisca murder victims to their final resting place via Exemplove with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

The Villisca, Iowa home where two adults and six children were slain June 10, 1912. via Iowa Cold Cases with usage type - Public Domain


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