Tourists descend on Iowa ‘Ax Murder House’ on centennial of massacre
By Scott McFetridge
DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s been a century since Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children and two visiting children were hacked to death with an ax while they slept, and the tiny town where they lived in Iowa has never been the same.
What remains the state’s worst mass murder divided the community in 1912 between those who suspected a prominent businessman and others who blamed a traveling preacher or thought it was someone else going through the area. The case was never solved, and in some ways, the mystery still haunts the town of Villisca.
The 100th anniversary of the killings, the multi-year investigation and the uproar they caused will not be officially remembered there, but in Red Oak, a larger city with better meeting space about 25 miles away. That’s partly for convenience, but residents say there’s also reluctance in Villisca to delve into the killings.
Many are bothered by the tourists and ghost hunters who come to the two-story white frame building dubbed The Villisca Ax Murder House for tours or even to stay overnight.
“I would like it to be over,” said Susie Enarson, a former mayor of the town of 1,200 about 80 miles southwest of Des Moines. “I would like the people to rest in peace and not have all this ghost discussion.”
Owner Martha Linn said she doesn’t understand why some question whether her tourist attraction is respectful.
“I don’t have any qualms about that. It was 100 years ago,” Linn said. “I get a little tired of people actually asking that.”
The killings happened in the early morning hours of June 10, 1912.
The Moores and their four young children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul, as well as two of the children’s friends, the sisters Lena and Ina Stillinger, had returned from an evening church service at which children in the community read Bible verses. It’s believed all were asleep when someone entered the house, killed the parents first with repeated ax blows to their heads and then killed the children, each with one massive blow.
The children were from 5 to 12 years old.
“It’s undoubtedly the worst crime that took place in the state,” said David McFarland, director of the Montgomery County History Center.
But the crime may have been largely forgotten if not for an incompetent investigation that divided residents over who was guilty and created a statewide uproar.
In 1912, Iowa had no uniform police standards or statewide criminal investigation agency.
Local police allowed local residents to traipse through the house for hours while the blood-stained bodies were still in the beds. Amateur historian Ed Epperly, who has studied the case since the 1950s and for years owned the ax used in the killings, said one local pool room operator is believed to have walked away with part of Josiah Moore’s skull.
More than a year after the crime, state authorities hired a private detective to investigate the killings, and for a month he posed as a real estate developer to secretly follow leads. The detective, James Wilkerson, accused a prominent local businessman who served as a state senator of hiring a hit man because he believed Josiah Moore was having an affair with his daughter-in-law, but the investigator’s theories were later largely discredited.
A traveling pastor, George Kelly, confessed to the crime but then withdrew his admission and was acquitted at a murder trial.
The case was followed closely in Iowa and throughout the country, and the haphazard police work helped prompt officials to create the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Epperly, a retired education professor at Luther College in Decorah, said after some years passed, Villisca began to take a “perverse pride” in the killings, which gave the isolated community an identity. But hard feelings among residents who had different theories about who committed the crimes remained for decades.
For some, the controversy was reopened in the 1990s, when Darwin and Martha Linn bought the house, which for decades had been used as a rental. Darwin Linn died last year.
The Linns restored the building to its 1912 appearance, tearing off siding, removing an enclosed porch and repainting the house. They then opened it for tours, and the house gained a national reputation among people who believe in paranormal activities.
Tours during the day cost $10 for adults, and for $400 groups can rent the home for the night. Linn said the house is booked nearly every night through the summer.
Visitors bring their own sleeping bags and pillows.
“I’m not a bed and breakfast,” Linn said.
Epperly said some residents appreciate the tourists that the home brings to Villisca, but others are uncomfortable with visitors who snap pictures and carry electronics they believe can detect paranormal activity.
“They felt the victims to be absolutely innocent and for them to be used as a pawn to make money was really unfair to them,” Epperly said. “To expose these victims to this publicity was to violate their privacy.”
Epperly will lead discussions this weekend at the Montgomery County History Center. He will be joined by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle, whose 2004 documentary about the case has been widely praised.
Also on display will be the long-handled ax used in the killings. A state investigator owned the ax for years, and after he died, his widow gave it to Epperly, who for decades kept it in his bedroom closet. He gave it to the Villisca Historical Society in 2007, and it’s now kept at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines.
Epperly said he looks forward to a weekend spent discussing the case, but he understands that for a century, many in Villisca have hoped for nothing more than to forget the crime.
“Everybody wished it had happened somewhere else,” Epperly said. “It distorted the town.”