The Villisca Axe Murders of 1912: the Coldest Case in Iowa's History

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The Villisca Axe Murders of 1912:
The Coldest Case in Iowa’s History
By Collin Bohlke
University of Northern Iowa

Villisca, Iowa a now only mere 1,240 people residing there as of July 2011, boasted a population of 2,500 in the year 1912. Situated next to a railroad, Villisca was the final stop before train passengers would hit Chicago. Businesses lined the streets as well as a booming rail depot that dropped off and transported passengers from all around. “According to D.N. Smith, a Chicago, Burlington, Quincy Railroad employee, Villisca meant “Pretty Place” or “Pleasant View.” (The History of Villisca Iowa, 2013) During the night of June 9th, 1912 and into the early morning hours of June 10th, this so called “Pretty Place” was gruesomely turned upside down. So much in fact, that it wiped the sinking of the Titanic off the front page of major newspapers in the nation. The Villisca Axe Murders of 1912, have been regarded, and will forever be known as one of the most gruesome and bloodiest cases ever that stunned the state of Iowa and shocked the rest of the nation. Josiah (Joe) B. Moore was one of Villisca’s best businessmen. He was a resident of Villisca for 13 years and was employed at the Jones store by Frank Jones for nine years. Sarah Montgomery Moore was born in Knox County, Illinois in 1873. She moved to Iowa with her parents and sister in 1894. Sarah was a very active member of the Presbyterian Church. Joe Moore and Sarah Montgomery were married on December 6th of 1899. They bore 4 children; Herman, the eldest son who was often regarded as his father’s son and was often seen accompanying his father, Katherine Moore, Boyd Moore, and Paul Moore. At the time of their deaths, Josiah was 43 years of age, Sarah was 39 years of age, Herman was 11 years old, Katherine was ten years old, Boyd was seven years old and Paul was five years old. Lena Gertrude Stillinger and Ina May Stillinger were the two daughters of Joseph and Sarah Stillinger. Both girls were born on the family farm just outside of Villisca. The sisters were avid participants in the Presbyterian Church’s Children’s Day Exercises alongside Moore children. At the conclusion of this event, Katherine Moore requested that both Lena and Ina spend the night at the Moore home because it was too dark for them to walk home. At the time of their deaths, Lena was twelve years old and Ina was 8 years old. On June 9th, 1912 Lena and Ina Stillinger left their home for the Presbyterian Church service early Sunday morning. They planned on spending time with their grandmother that evening after the Children’s Day Exercises and eventually spending the night with her as well. The two girls, however, were invited by Katherine Moore to spend the night at the Moore home instead. Joe Moore placed a call to the Stillinger household to ask permission of the parents if it would be okay if Lena and Ina spent the night. The Children’s Day Program at the Presbyterian Church was an annual event headed by Sarah Moore. It began at approximately 8:00 p.m Sunday evening June 9th. All of the Moore children, as well as the Stillinger sisters, were participants of this program. The program ended at 9:30 p.m. and the Moore family, along with the two Stillinger sisters proceeded home from the church. It is believed that they entered their home sometime between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m. The Villisca Axe Murder website recounts what happened the following morning: “The following morning, at approximately 5:00 a.m., Mary Peckham, the Moore’s next door neighbor stepped into her yard to hang laundry. At approximately 7:00 a.m. she realized that not only had the Moore’s not been outside nor the chores began, but that the house itself seemed unusually still. Between 7:00 and 8:00 am, Mary Peckham approached the house and knocked on the door. When she received no response, she attempted to open the door only to find it locked from the inside. After letting out the Moore’s...
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