Strange occurrences abound at the Villisca Ax Murder House more than a century after the infamous, unsolved crime

I didn't visit looking for proof of the paranormal—but I did discover a good ghost story

The Villisca Ax Murder House in Iowa is the kind of attraction that speaks for itself. It doesn’t need added kitsch or loads of billboards to bring in visitors. The name of the place says it all, and the gruesome legends surrounding the house are the only advertisements needed. The publicity comes naturally, mostly from true crime and ghost enthusiasts.

Eight people murdered in their beds

In the very early morning hours of June 11, 1912—sometime between midnight and 5 a.m.—eight people were bludgeoned to death with an ax inside the home of the Moore family, including all six family members and two friends of one of the daughters. Six of the victims were children.

An article on the murders in The Day Book, from June 14, 1912.
An article on the murders in The Day Book, from June 14, 1912. The crime was covered heavily in the press. | Photo: The Library of Congress

The night of June 10, mere hours before the killings, the family had gone to church, which ended at 9:30 p.m., and arrived back at the house around 9:45 or 10. Cigarette butts in the attic led investigators to believe that the killer snuck into the attic while the family was out and hid there until they fell asleep. Like most people in Villisca at the time, the Moore family didn’t lock the doors to their house when they went to church.

The parents, Josiah and Sarah Moore, were the first victims. The killer only used the blade of the weapon on Josiah, who received the most brutal beating; the rest of the victims were murdered with the blunt side of the ax, which had belonged to Josiah. The family friends who were staying in the guest room—Ina Mae Stillinger, age 8, and Lena Gertrude Stillinger, age 12—were the last to be killed. All of the victims except Lena appeared to have been asleep when they died. Lena was the only one who appeared to have defensive wounds, and was lying across the bed.

The guest room where the Stillinger girls were killed.
The guest room where the Stillinger girls were killed. | Photo: Anna Hider

The ax was left in the guest room, next to a four-pound piece of slab bacon. At some point, the killer had covered all of the mirrors in the house with blankets and clothes, and cooked himself a plate of food, which was left untouched in the kitchen. He also left behind a bowl of bloody water. There’s something so hauntingly intriguing about little details like this in unsolved murders.

The gruesome killings were discovered the next morning, when Mary Peckham, the Moores’ neighbor, noticed that the family hadn’t started their morning chores around 7 a.m. She called Russ Moore, Josiah’s brother, who let himself in with his copy of the house key. After discovering the bodies of the Stillingers, he called the local peace officer, who called in investigators.

There were plenty of suspects, but the murder was never solved. One suspect, Reverend George Kelly, was actually tried for the murders. Kelly was a traveling minister who was in town the night of the crime. He was at the service the Moore family attended before their deaths, but inexplicably left town between 5 and 5:30 a.m. the next morning. He showed a suspicious interest in the murders, though, and after being in and out of trouble with the law for sending obscene material through the mail and a stint in a mental hospital, he was arrested for the murders in 1917. He confessed, then recanted, and was eventually tried and acquitted. It seems that most people didn’t believe that he was mentally or physically capable of the murders.

The room where the four Moore children were killed.
The room where the four Moore children were killed. | Photo: Anna Hider

Ghostly encounters

Naturally, a house with such a dark and mysterious past quickly attracted rumors of a haunting. The house was lived in for years after the murder, although families never stayed for long. From what I can tell, there’s not a ghostly phenomena that hasn’t been reported at the house—disembodied footsteps, things moving, voices, apparitions, shadows, bad vibes. You name it, the Villisca Ax Murder House has it.

It’s been on basically every ghost hunting show, from Ghost Adventures to Scariest Places on Earth and all of the essential spooky podcasts, including Lore and My Favorite Murder. I became aware of the home in 2014 after a man staying there on an overnight ghost hunt inexplicably stabbed himself, an event that made national news.  

I love both a good unsolved crime and a bone-chilling ghost story, so on a recent road trip through Iowa, I decided to make a stop at the house for a bit of investigating of my own. The town of Villisca is small, but it’s a welcome oasis of civilization in an unending ocean of farmland. The Villisca Ax Murder House is right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and its quaint and cozy exterior is a stark contrast to the legend that surrounds it. The house itself is kept in pristine condition, so the sales booth, gift shop, and bathroom are in the old barn on the other side of the tiny but tidy backyard.

The Villisca Ax Murder House was repainted and even had the indoor plumbing removed to look as it did in 1912.
The house was repainted and even had the indoor plumbing removed to look as it did in 1912. | Photo: Anna Hider

On my way out of the barn to the house itself, I noticed a cork board with some photos pinned on it. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the pictures were evidence of paranormal spookiness going on. There were lots of nighttime pictures with ghostly orbs and even a snapshot of someone whose back had been scratched, supposedly by an unseen entity.

I didn't see any floating orbs in any of my pictures, sadly.
I didn’t see any floating orbs in any of my pictures, sadly. | Photo: Anna Hider

I wasn’t the only one visiting the ax murder house that afternoon. There was a group of three women in their 20s winding down their tour when I opened the door to the house, which appeared to give them and the tour guide, also a younger woman, a bit of a scare.

I walked around the house while the women finished their conversation with the guide. It’s not a big place, and it’s hard to imagine that there were eight people sleeping here that night, let alone that a murderer would be able to hide out in here undetected. The place was furnished with a creepy mix of period antiques and modern kids toys, which—while anachronistic—definitely lent an unsettling air to the place, especially in the kids’ room upstairs. Particularly haunting was the attic space, where the murderer allegedly hid out while he waited for the family to fall asleep. It was oppressively hot, and the feeling I had while up there can only be described as “dark.”

The door into the attic was tiny, and hidden in a closet.
The door into the attic was tiny, and hidden in a closet. | Photo: Anna Hider
Kids' toys make an already spooky room even spookier.
Kids’ toys make an already spooky room even spookier. | Photo: Anna Hider

The other group left as the guide, a Villisca local, started to tell me the story of the murder and of how the house came to be a tourist’s destination. The house was slated to be torn down, but a local woman named Martha Linn decided that it was an important piece of town history that was worth saving. After she bought the house in 1994, she quickly realized that there was a ton of organic interest in opening it for tours and overnight ghost hunts. She did some work to take out the plumbing and restore the appearance of the house to look as it did back in 1912, and then added period-appropriate decor—and it’s been well worth the effort.

Other than the regular, daylight hour tours, you can also book an overnight stay in the house. Those will set you back just over $400, and have proved very popular with ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts. The guide said that, as a local, she knew that most people in town didn’t buy into the ghost stories, and that kids like to tap on the windows when overnights are going on.

The period-appropriate antiques help set the scene.
The period-appropriate antiques help set the scene. | Photo: Anna Hider

I didn’t come here looking for proof of the paranormal, just a good ghost story, but I was still curious. My last question to the guide was if she’d ever personally experienced anything weird now that she works here. Her answer was a resounding yes.

From things moving to the sound of footsteps downstairs while she was on the second level, she’d had a few experiences of her own. As proof, she pointed to a toy car sitting on the old stove behind me. A bit earlier, she said, it had been lying on the other side of the stove, upside-down. I can’t be too sure if it was her mind or a ghost playing tricks on her, but either way, I definitely got what I came here for.

If you go

Daytime tours are held at the Villisca Ax Murder House Tuesdays through Sundays between 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. No pre-booking required. Tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children and seniors. To book an overnight stay, call (712) 621-1530.