Searching for Villisca on Google Maps displays a small remote agricultural town located in Southwest Iowa, a region defined by endless stretches of rolling hills and fields of corn. The town is appropriately marked with a crimson blotch, a bloodied stain left by an act of horrendous violence that has tarnished the Iowa map for 100 years. It was here on the night of June 9-10, 1912 that six members of the Moore Family and two neighborhood children were brutally murdered in their sleep with an axe. The event shocked the American people to such an extent that it knocked the Titanic disaster from the front pages of newspapers. A lengthy criminal investigation yielded several suspects, yet no one was convicted. The identity of the “axeman” remains unsolved to this day.
Following the murders the house became a private residence for 8 individual owners throughout the 20th century. In 1994 Darwin Linn, owner of the Olson-Linn Museum located in downtown Villisca, purchased the “Axe Murder House” and pursued an extensive renovation which restored the home to its original circa 1912 condition. The home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and is currently open to self-guided tours and over-night visits. Many guests and former residents over the years have claimed to experience strange and unexplained happenings at the site. Reports range from disembodied voices, doors slamming, lights flickering, toy balls rolling across rooms, unexplained footsteps, hissing and growling sounds, orbs caught on camera, shadowy figures, and people being scratched. It would seem the graphic nature of the crime and the failure to apprehend the culprit makes the perfect recipe for a haunting. The Villisca Axe Murder House has attracted hundreds of paranormal investigators and thrill seekers each day and is often cited as one of the most haunted places in the world.
After hearing so many stories and seeing numerous tv shows including Travel Channel’s popular show Ghost Adventures about the Axe Murder House, I had to check it out for myself. So last June 2012 (days away from the 100 year anniversary of that terrible night) I drove to Villisca and dragged along my brother Connor, sister Kathleen, and her boyfriend Jordan. Just miles outside of the town we got our first adrenaline rush. A full grown deer pranced onto the highway between me and an oncoming car, leapt off of my front bumper and dashed away into a field full of sprouting corn stalks. Thankfully my car was completely fine. Could this have been some kind of bad omen, the ghosts of Villisca warning me off? Nature being nature or supernatural premonition, I wasn’t about to turn back.
Surprisingly for a town with a population of 1,200 I had a hard time finding the actual Axe Murder House. After about ten minutes of driving through small neighborhoods, making a couple u-turns while locals gawked from their porches and front lawns (probably rolling their eyes at the sight of another tourist), we pulled up to the infamous Moore Home. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, the sun was shining as we walked up the green lawn to the barn located in back which serves as the tourist hub and gift shop. John, the guide and expert on all things Villisca (also featured on the Ghost Adventures Villisca episode), was already in the house so we made our way to the backdoor and stepped inside into the kitchen. The change in the atmosphere could be felt immediately. The air was cold and the vibe was creepy like being watched. My nerves were already on edge from the deer encounter, and knowing about the history and stories of the house didn’t help.
We took a seat on the early 20th century period couch in the living room and John greeted us and presented the history of the house and the tragedy that took place in the very rooms around us. The murders occurred in the early morning hours of June 10, 1912 (sometime between midnight and 5:00 am). The Moore family, made up of parents Josiah and Sarah, and their four children ages ranging 5-11 had attended a Children’s Day Program at the Presbyterian Church that night. They returned home with Lena and Ina Stillinger, two local friends of the kids both aged 12 and 8 respectfully, and turned in for the night. It is believed the killer hid in the attic until the family fell asleep. Using an axe that belonged to Josiah, the unknown culprit crept throughout the house hacking everyone to death as they slept, beginning with the parents and ending with the two neighborhood friends who slept in a guest room on the main floor. It was reported that Josiah received the most whacks, so disfigured was his face that his eyeballs were missing. Blood pooled at the top of the stairwell. What is further disturbing is all the mirrors were found covered by sheets, and a bloody wash basin sat in the kitchen. Apparently the murderer washed his hands and then cooked a meal after the horrific act before fleeing the scene.
Of course after sharing all these grizzly details and additional ghostly stories John concludes with, “We had a woman leave earlier today after hearing a voice curse at her in an upstairs closet, well go ahead and explore, I’ll be around if you have questions.” Something I’ve grown accustomed to during visits of historical haunts. The house itself is not very big, after cautiously walking up the main stairwell I was surprised to find the parents’ bedroom open at the top with a short hallway (if even that) to the children’s room with the attic looming on the left. After exploring all the rooms and nothing out of the ordinary happening we all began to settle and “test” the house. The most astonishing thing was definitely the upstairs closet in the children’s room. The door would periodically open and shut, and while I believe it could easily be dismissed as air pressure/air currents, there was a significant number of times where the door would open on command. For example, we would say “If anyone is here prove it, show yourself”, and the closet door would suddenly open almost the entire way and then after a few seconds shut. Coincidence, maybe, but the frequency was strange.
Another interesting aspect of the Axe Murder House is the number of ghost investigators it draws. I had never witnessed one before visiting here, and although I’m still skeptical on how some are conducted they’re still fun and entertaining to watch. The group I witnessed at the Axe Murder House used dowsing rods and EMF readers. They would ask questions, if the dowsing rods crossed that signaled a yes response, if they spread apart it signaled a no response. Since dowsing rods have no scientific evidence towards their effectiveness its best to take them tongue-in-cheek.
The Villisca Axe Murder House is a surreal historical location, its haunted reputation packs a thrilling visit, and for skeptics just walking through an unsolved murder scene can be hair-raising enough. It’s also a nice place to pay respects and has become a bit of a memorial to the lives lost so tragically. Toy balls, stuffed animals, matchbox cars, and Bibles are donated by visitors and collected all over the home, touching tributes to bring solace to those who died.