I left the murder scene haunted. The days following my visit, images of the bedrooms, the covered mirrors, the attic and the gravesites kept surfacing in my mind. My perception of the mass murder vaulted from an Iowa legend to the grotesque reality of eight innocent victims that were bashed and slaughtered by an axe during the night, and according to some, left behind paranormal activity.
The scene is the quiet little town of Villisca in the southwest corner of Iowa. The story has been featured on at least two television shows Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel) and Ghost Lab (Discovery Channel). It was because of these shows that my daughter, home on college spring break, wanted to experience The Villisca Ax Murder House first hand. I was game for a daytime visit – only daytime. That is how our adventure began.
But a bit of history first. Nearly one hundred years ago, June 10, 1912, the Josiah & Sarah Moore family, along with two neighbor girls were killed by an ax murderer during the night. The evening prior, while the family and neighbor children attended church activities, young Katherine Moore invited her friends Ina and Lena to spend the night. The next morning Mary Peckham a neighbor, noticed that the curtains were drawn and there was no activity at the house. She found the house locked so she contacted Josiah Moore’s brother. He was able to enter the home and discovered the massacre. Word spread quickly through the town and, before officials could secure the crime scene, dozens of town folks had walked through the house contaminating any clues to solve the crime. The mystery is still unsolved, though many speculations remain.
During the guided tour we drove past the victim’s church, where they had spent the evening prior to the murders, then to the cemetery and visited the grave sites. Our docent, Kristi Peamer, led us to the Stillinger’s first, where Ina (8) and Lena (11) were put to rest. Their mother Edith, pregnant at the time of their murders, was so overcome by grief she lost her pregnancy, a baby boy, a few weeks later; he is buried beside his sisters. Just a few steps away, the Moore family was buried. Laying there were Josiah (43) and Sarah Moore (39), and their four children, Katherine (10), Herman (11), Boyd (7) and Paul (5).
Back at the house, our tour guide, John Houser, was waiting and ready to share stories about the murder and subsequent paranormal activity. Emotionally, I was doing okay, still fairly skeptical when he starting sharing stories in the third person, stories about other people’s experiences in the house. But when he started sharing his own experiences in the house, the voices he has heard and seeing doors that had been slammed shut , John’s first hand stories gave me the goose bumps and triggered the chills down my spine.
Pausing on his stories, John encouraged us to explore the house on our own. Walking through the rooms was a time warp back to 1912. The mirrors were covered and the kerosene lamp chimneys were missing, just how they were found after the murders. While the bodies were long gone, the blood stains scoured clean and gouges from the axe handle hitting the ceiling were covered, I felt like I was back in time, like a family member could walk in at anytime, almost. Thankfully, the other tourists dressed in modern attire kept me tethered to 2012. I don’t think you’ll see me wandering through the house all by myself even in broad daylight.
The curators placed framed documentation about the victims in each room, which causes one to stop and reflect. This is real, very real. Eight people died here, may they rest in peace.
If you believe in the paranormal or not, a visit to The Villisca Axe Murder House is one you will remember and will probably haunt you for days to come. It did me.
LuAnn Reinders, Iowa Tourism Office