The Moore and Stillinger gravesites in Villisca, Iowa.
Though 103 years have passed since the Villisca murder was discovered, the scene left by the Villisca killer can be reconstructed in rather minute detail. That reconstruction is built on eyewitness testimony from Villisca Marshall Henry (Hank) Horton, Drs. Cooper, Lomas, Hough, Williams and Montgomery County Coroner Lindquist. Four of these six inspected the scene before crowds had gathered and curious spectators had invaded the house. Williams and Lindquist conducted their survey as townspeople ran from room to room shouting in shocked excitement.
Villisca Marshal Hank Horton.
These six individuals were intelligent and well-educated men. All five of the doctors had been trained at accredited medical schools and Hank, though untrained, was a mature man backed by several years of police experience. All these early witnesses testified under oath regarding what they found when they inspected the Moore home. All this testimony has been preserved and as such provides the clearest, most accurate description of how the murder scene was left after the killer let himself out the front door, locked it and faded away.
The upper floor of the Moore house.
The victims were all found lying in beds with no sign that any of the eight had awakened before the killer struck. All faces had been covered with various items of clothing the killer had picked up at the scene. Bed clothing had then been drawn over the bodies so they were covered from head to toe when found. There was, of course, extensive bleeding, but all blood was concentrated at the heads of the various beds. The blood had soaked the pillows and seeped into the mattresses but had not dripped onto the floor except in Joe and Sara’s room. There some blood had flowed across a pillow and onto the floor beside Joe’s head.
The Villisca Ax Murder House today. The house has become a popular site for paranormal exploration.
All windows in the house were completely covered as their shades were drawn to the sills. All windows were also locked with the exception of one, which was blocked by a sewing machine. That window also had a spider web in the corner which showed it hadn’t been opened for some time. Both the south and west doors which opened onto the front porch were sash doors. The killer had found a black skirt, torn it in half and carefully pinned it over the glass in the two doors.
Ina and Lena Stillinger.
The two Stillinger girls were found in the downstairs bedroom, located in the northwest corner of the house. The bed in this room ran north to south, with its head being towards the north. Ina, the youngest of the girls, was laying on the west or left side of the bed as you entered the room. She lay on her back with her legs fully extended. She had been struck on top of the head with the blunt end of the axe. While the axe did fearful damage to her small head she had not been struck repeatedly.
Ina’s sister, Lena, the eldest of the two, was the only victim who had apparently been touched by the murderer. She was found approximately one-third of the way down the bed lying on her right hip. Her upper body had been rotated at the waist till her shoulders were flat on the bed. Her drawers had been removed and thrown under the bed. Her nightgown was bunched around her waist leaving her naked from the waist down. Her left leg was drawn up leaving a small portion of her buttocks protruding from under the bed clothes. An arm was extended over her head in what most forensic specialists have interpreted as a defensive gesture. That interpretation is debatable since her pillow was blood-soaked and the extended arm was found resting in that pool of blood. This suggests she was pulled down in the bed after the pool of blood had formed. She also had a blood spot on her inner left thigh. It appears the killer’s bloody hand stained her leg in the process of moving her down in the bed. Early observers also thought she had sustained a cut on her arm but in washing the body the undertakers found it to be a blood stain, not a cut.
The actual murder weapon used in the Villisca axe murders. The axe belongs to the Villisca Historical Society. The axe is temporarily being stored at the State Historical Society in Des Moines.
The murder weapon was found leaning against the south wall in the Stillingers’ bedroom. It had been cleaned, but blood and hair still clung to its handle. Leaning against the wall beside the ax was a four or five-pound piece of slab bacon. It was wrapped in a cloth which the doctors described as being either cheese cloth or a dish towel.
There was a kerosene lamp sitting on the floor at the right foot of the bed. Its chimney had been removed and was found under the lyre backed dresser which sat against the east wall. About three-fourths of the mirror on this dresser had been draped with a black skirt. While the front door glass had been covered completely, the killer had been satisfied to casually throw the skirt over the mirror, leaving a portion of the glass uncovered.
It is possible to speculate wildly as to why the mirror was covered, but perhaps a simple explanation is best. Our night visitor finds himself alone in a darkened house, guilty of the most illicit behavior imaginable, moving around a dimly lit room, the walls of which reflect the flickering light of a chimneyless lamp. To move in front of the dresser is to see one’s self reflected in the mirror. At the very least his ghostly image shimmering in the corner of his eye was a distraction if not frightening. Frightened or not it took the killer only a few seconds to extract the skirt from the drawer and blot out his spectral image in the mirror.
Joe’s pocket watch was found on this dresser and a short length of broken watch chain was later found on the floor. Adjacent to the dresser was a small closet which filled the space under the stairway leading upstairs. It had no door with only a cloth tacked over the opening. This closet was stuffed with clothing and household items.
Josiah and Sara Moore.
At the head of the stairs, with no hall to walk down, nor door to open, the murderer found himself in Joe and Sara’s bedroom. Here the bed ran east to west with the bedstead under the slanting gable at the west side of the room. Both parents lay on their backs, Joe with his arms across his chest while Sara lay with her head close to his shoulder. Neither victim appeared to have awakened before being struck. They were the most severely mutilated of all the victims. Joe had no face remaining and most of his skull had been crushed. Sara had the top of her head crushed. Then the killer reduced her face to approximately one-inch slices by striking her at an acute angle with the blade of the axe.
The axe had struck the ceiling above their bed leaving a gouge and sprinkling plaster dust on the bed. At the foot of the bed was a large kerosene lamp on a stand. Neither this lamp nor the one downstairs was lit when Hank Horton opened the house.
Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul Moore.
The four Moore children were found in the south room. Herman had been sleeping on a cot in the northeast corner of that room. Katherine had a bed in the southeast corner, while Boyd and Paul shared a bed in the northwest corner. All had been struck with the axe and all had their faces covered with an article of clothing and the bed covers drawn up over their heads.
The killer had also struck the ceiling in this room, leaving slashes in the plaster. Later analysis of these marks and angles of the axe wounds on the victims led to the conclusion that the killer had swung the axe left handed.
There was a closet on the north side of this room with an open door since droplets of blood were thrown from the axe onto the back wall of this closet, when the axe hit the ceiling. There also was a closet along the east wall between the two rooms. There was a door in the back of this closet that led to a cubbyhole over the kitchen.
Contrary to many rumors, both in 1912 and today, there was no evidence at the scene that the killer hid in any of these closets, waiting until everyone was asleep. No footprints, no cigar or cigarette butts, and no tobacco juice were found, even though such talk was heard all over Montgomery County in the years of investigation that followed the murder.
Turning to the murderer himself, what may we deduce about his nature and motivation from the scene he left in the Moore house? Though he may have been delusional and psychotic he was sufficiently in touch with reality to execute a rational plan designed to accomplish his purposes. His action was neither furtive nor hysterical. He did not hurry from bed to bed, nor run from the house as soon as the killing had been done. Instead he methodically killed everyone, staying in the house for a considerable amount of time after they were all dead.
A skirt had to be found and pinned over the front door sashes, all blinds had to be checked and drawn if need be. The kitchen was searched, as there he found the slab of bacon he needed. Sometime before he left he also washed his hands in the kitchen, leaving a basin of bloody water.
There is also strong evidence he took time to revisit the upstairs after Joe and Sara had been killed. Blood from Joe had run across his pillow and filled one of Sara’s shoes which she had left under the bed. When Hank arrived the next morning he found the shoe tipped over on its side with dried blood on its sole. Apparently the killer had tipped the shoe over after it had filled with blood, but before blood had stopped dripping from Joe’s pillow. He would have done this when he stood by their bed a second time. The doctors also observed that the axe blows to Sara’s face were clean with no blood in them. This suggests they were made after her blood had stopped circulating. It also suggests that the killer’s violent attack on Joe and Sara came after everyone in the house was dead.
When considering the murderer’s motivation, this brutal mutilation of the adults becomes a salient feature of the murder scene. It lends itself to at least two possible explanations--- explanations which result in very different conclusion regarding the killer’s motivation. The first is the simpler of the two in that it does not imply deep psychological motivations within the murderer. Instead it suggests a practical need to insure that the adults, being the only individuals in the house who could threaten the killer, were absolutely incapacitated. Perhaps while murdering the children, he heard a sound from the parent’s bedroom. A cry, a groan or the gurgle a dead body might make as fluids or air are moved by gravity. Fearing one of the parents might have survived his first attack he coldly decided to make sure the adults would never arise from their bed to interfere. Were this explanation true it seems we are dealing with a sociopath. One so lacking in empathy that he was willing to kill everyone in the house so he could look at a naked Lena undisturbed.
The other possible explanation implies a much deeper psychological motivation behind the brutal treatment of the parents. During the second visit, the murderer would not have feared Joe might arise but instead literally erased the mother and father from the scene. It was not sufficient to merely cover their faces as had sufficed for the children. Instead they had to be rendered unrecognizable, no longer human in fact. Whether this signifies a raging hatred directed toward them as parent figures or such guilt within the murderer that the parents must never see what he has done, we probably do not have enough information to say.
In addition to all this post murder activity, our killer had to arrange Lena’s body in a sexually revealing pose. This suggests that his primary motivation was sexual in nature. Lena’s obscene pose, the lamp at the foot of the bed to light the scene, his great care to ensure no light would escape to attract attention, the casting of a skirt over the mirror to eliminate a ghostly distraction in the flickering light and the bacon to serve as an artificial vagina all lead to the conclusion that the Villisca murderer was a psychopathic sexual deviant. The eight victims were not killed for such conventional motives as robbery or personal hatred, but to give the intruder the time and freedom to stare at a sexually posed young girl, while he almost certainly masturbated.
With the murderer spending so much time at the scene, we have a reason for Joe’s watch being found in the downstairs bedroom. It was not stolen then forgotten, but used by the murderer to keep track of time while in the house. Perhaps he knew the train schedule and didn’t want to miss his ride out of town. Perhaps he knew since daylight was coming he would need to leave by a certain time if he was to beat the sunrise.
Finally, though our murderer was a creature of the night, he was able to live in the daylight. Whether he climbed aboard a passenger coach, went into a box car on his belly or just walked home, he was not so deranged as to attract attention to himself. He had entered his night of murder from a daylight world, and though morally stained beyond redemption, was able to walk back into the bright light of day.
Copyright Fourth Wall Films, 2015.
Dr. Edgar Epperly began researching the 1912 Villisca, Iowa axe murders as a college student. In 1955, he traveled to Villisca for the first time with two friends where they interviewed Dr. Cooper, the first physician to examine the victims and the crime scene. Dr. Epperly is a retired Professor of Education at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research into the crime is ongoing. He is considered the foremost authority on the Villisca axe murder case. Ed is co-authoring a book with Tammy and Kelly Rundle on the famous unsolved murder (anticipated release in late 2016) and was the primary consultant on Fourth Wall Films' award-winning documentary "Villisca: Living With a Mystery." He is also the subject of the Rundles' award-winning short documentary AXMAN.
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