Axe in wood
Axe in wood

Unnerving Details about the Villisca Ax Murders

Featured Image by Pavlo from Pixabay

The Villisca Ax Murders is quite likely the most vicious crime ever committed in the state of Iowa. Technically a cold case, the victims of this mass murder will never find the justice they deserve. It’s unfortunate, but given the limitations of technology and forensic science in 1912, when the Villisca Ax Murders took place, it would be nearly impossible to solve this case over a century later. Unless a signed confession turns up, it’ll probably go unsolved forever. And as you’ll read in this article, even a signed confession is unlikely to lead to conviction. Crazy. We know.

In total, the perpetrator of the murders took 8 lives inside the little house in the small midwest town of Villisca. As the name suggests, the killer’s weapon of choice was an ax, which left the scene about as brutal as you can imagine. There were no witnesses to the crime – at least none that ever came forward – and no survivors. The only things to make it through the night were the killer and a profound sense of tragedy powerful enough to convince paranormal investigators that the Villisca house is haunted by the restless souls of the victims. The details of the crime are confusing, bloody, and downright unnerving.

So, without further ado, here are the unnerving details about the Villisca Ax Murders.

A warning to the faint of heart: Though we at Obscurix try not to dive into the graphic details of any case purposefully, some may find the details we discuss about the Villisca Ax Murders to be on the more disturbing side.

Kids playing in a field
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The family’s last night before the Villisca Ax Murders was delightful

From the information that’s survived the last hundred and ten years, it would seem that the Moore family had a delightful evening the night before their lives were so heinously taken. To celebrate the last day of the Sunday school season at the local Presbyterian church, a special Children’s Day service was held. The family attended with their four children and two neighborhood girls – siblings. Being friends, the neighbor kids were granted permission to stay with the Moores after the service. This, as it would turn out, was the worst possible night for a sleepover.


The family only lived a few blocks from the church. It was an easy walk home after the excitement of speeches and performances put on by the children. The social gathering that ended the church service probably put the family in high spirits. The imagery of children laughing and poking fun at each other come to mind. The night’s festivities weren’t quite over upon returning home either. There was one last thing on the agenda. A night like this should end as all good nights should: with the sweet taste of milk and cookies.


As happens every day, Sunday, June 9, 2012, had reached its end. The children were nestled in their beds, the lights were put out, and the kids drifted off into the serenity of dreamland. The parents followed suit and went to bed themselves. None of them knew the horrors that waited for them on the other side of their dreams.

Blood dripping down a wall
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The terrible end to an otherwise good night

The family wouldn’t make it far into their slumber before their killer appeared on the scene. A conservative estimate would put the family and friends in their beds by 10:00 PM, while the killer showed up as early as midnight. No one saw the killer approach the house. No one saw him grab the ax from the backyard. And no one saw him enter the home with murderous intent.


The killer didn’t even bother bringing his own murder weapon when coming for the Moores. Their ax would do just fine. According to the neighbors interviewed after the killings, they heard no notable screams or sounds of resistance that night. The killer must’ve gone from room to room, ending lives as silently as a blood-lusted mouse. Then, out he went, stealing away into the night with the same stealth by which he arrived.


By morning, the neighbors had grown worried. The Moores were usually up and at ‘em early, and to this point, there’d been no movement in or around the house. This began a rather extravagant game of telephone. A clerk called the Moore’s, but there was no answer. A neighbor got ahold of a relative, who walked into the house before turning right back out again upon seeing corpses and blood. The relative then placed a call to the hardware store, asking the clerk to flag down the sheriff and send him over. Finally, the sheriff arrived.

The site of the Villisca Ax Murders
Jason McLaren, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and Scaled

A body slain in every bed during the Villisca Ax Murders

“Somebody murdered in every bed,” the sheriff announced after looking through the crime scene, according to Iowa Cold Cases. The killings were grizzly, and those who saw the aftermath were likely scarred for life. The coroner did his best to deduce how these killings had played out, as the Smithsonian explains, but most of the deduction was likely guesswork since there were no witnesses nor any type of forensic evidence that could’ve been properly analyzed in those days.


This is how it went (supposedly):


The killer snuck through the unlocked back door. All he had needed was for the Moores to be asleep. He’d then be free to move meticulously throughout the house. After a long day of church affairs, sleeping wasn’t a problem. He bypassed the girls who were asleep in the guest room downstairs, ignored the children’s room upstairs, and went straight for the parents’ bed chamber down the hall. His only means of visibility was an oil lamp he’d stolen from the front room.


The murderer started with the father, Josiah Moore. The ax left a gouge in the ceiling when he raised it to chamber his strike. The killings were committed with the back of the ax head. The blunt force of the strikes dispatched the sleeping victims quickly, likely with a single swing each. Sarah, the mother, was killed immediately after Josiah. Then, the Moore children. The downstairs guests were last. All but one of the victims died in their sleep, which was the only luxury the killer allowed that night.

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The actual ax from the Villisca Ax Murders against the wall, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The odd way the killer left the Villisca Ax Murders crime scene

The way the Villisca Ax Murderer left the crime scene sheds an extra spotlight on his deranged mind. The killer could’ve easily fled after his deeds were done, but he didn’t. Instead, he laid a few final touches on the house’s decor.


The first thing the killer decided to do was go back through the house and pummel the heads of his victims with repeated blows. Then, at some point, he wiped the ax down and laid it on display next to the neighbor girls’ bodies in the guestroom. For a reason we don’t understand, the killer propped a slab of bacon next to the ax – a play on being a “butcher,” maybe. Who knows. His behavior was definitely outside of the norm, as is to be expected from a person who casually takes so many innocent lives.


It’s not uncommon to find murder victims covered with sheets by their killers as if facing their crimes was too much to bear. That happened at the Villisca house as well. But a couple particular oddities stand out in this case: The killer, firstly, found clothing items to cover up the reflective glass and mirrors in the house. The second disturbing detail of the crime scene was at the kitchen table, where the killer left what appeared to be an offering – a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of blood-tinged water. It’s hard to say why the murderer added these scenic changes without knowing who the killer was or what his motives may have been. Which brings us to our next point…

Empty shackle hanging
Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

They likely caught the Villisca Ax Murders killer, but he was acquitted of all charges… twice

The most likely culprit in the Villisca Ax Murders was Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. So much of the evidence, though circumstantial as it may have been, pointed towards this man. The signed confession printed in the New York Times, however, should’ve put the nail in the good Reverend’s coffin. It didn’t. The Godly man admitted to committing heinous crimes. He even explained many minute aspects of the mass murder. His guilt he blamed on a voice he heard and a shadow that led him through this night of unforgivable horrors. The shadow’s guidance was step-by-step, and the details were inexplicably explicit for an innocent man. At trial, Kelly rescinded his confession and was acquitted in two different courts.


The evidence against Kelly started hours before the murder on the morning of June 9th when he first arrived in Villisca. He attended the Sunday school service later that day. This connects him to the victims before the crime. Oh, but good ol’ Reverend Kelly was just passin’ through. Early the next morning, he was on a train heading west, away from the murder scene.


As if Kelly’s comings and goings weren’t suspicious enough, the reverend allegedly told passengers on the train about the butchered bodies of the victims. This took place before the deceased Moore family had been discovered. Unless the reverend doubled as a psychic medium, Kelly should’ve been convicted on the spot.

News clipping from the Villisca Ax Murder describing the suspect
The day book, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The crime was thought to have been the work of the Mad Murderer of the West

There were so many suspects in the Villisca Ax Murder case that listing them all here would make your head spin. Someone would get arrested, their alibi would prove true, and they’d be released. Had they caught the killer, lives would’ve been spared. See, the scene at Villisca wasn’t unique. There’d been other murders across the country with the same M.O. as this one. Namely, they happened close to a train station and the killer used an ax, often owned by the victims that it would be used to butcher.


In the book Man On the Train, researchers show that these crimes may be linked through and perpetrated by a single serial killer. If this is true, that would mean the Moore family were the victims of a killer with a body count over 100 corpses high. This alleged serial killer had operated since at least 1898. He targeted young girls, but unlike the Villisca scene, he often burned down the homes of his victims. And he committed his crimes in all corners of the United States – anywhere a train would take him.


The connecting evidence seems to solidify when you realize this Man on the Train killer, also known as the Mad Murderer of the West, covered his victims’ mirrors with clothing. The Man on the Train likewise killed with the back of his ax rather than the front. There’s always the possibility of copycat killers mimicking an original, but this was 1912. If this killer has only recently been discovered through probability and mathematical analysis, the likelihood of the limited broadcasts and newspaper articles from the early 20th century prompting this many copycats is slim at best. Granted, ax murderers were coming out of the woodwork at the time, but no others were thought to have the Villisca killer’s M.O.

Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation

The Villisca Ax Murders led to the creation of Iowa's Bureau of Criminal Investigation

This is more of a fun fact than anything, but it goes along with the Villisca Ax Murders. More correctly, it goes along with the perceived incompetence of Iowa law enforcement during the Villisca Ax Murders investigation and other crimes of the time.


The Iowa State Bureau of Criminal Investigation was founded in 1921, according to the Legislative Services Agency, nearly a decade after the ax murders. Its sole purpose was to lend a helping hand to police investigations around the state. Given the number of suspects in the Villisca Ax Murders, the horrid scope of the crime, and the lack of hard evidence available, this bureau could’ve made a big difference. Especially, since a man who confessed to the crime had walked away with an easy acquittal. As you may suspect (no pun intended), the Iowan people weren’t happy about having an ax murderer on the loose. The police needed help across the state, and the bureau was the answer.


Nowadays, the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation is massive, with five different branches of operations, but it may not have existed at all without the Villisca Ax Murders. Which, honestly, is a little sad.

The current site of the Villisca Ax Murders as a tourist attraction

The Villisca Ax Murder house is now on display

The Villisca Ax Murder house has become a dark tourist attraction. Visitors can pay for tours of the home where the Moore family and their children’s neighborhood friends were slaughtered. If that doesn’t satisfy the macabre needs of their visitors, they can pay to spend the night. This offer is usually taken up by paranormal investigators who believe the Villisca house to be haunted, but there’s nothing stopping tourists from testing their mettle or basking in the derangement of Iowa’s most famous and brutal crime.

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