Almost 110 years later, mystery of Villisca murders continues to haunt

Trigger Warning: This article includes murder, violence and sexual assault.

Who knew that small town Iowa, a population of roughly 1,250, there would be a ruthless murder of a eight. The evening of June 10, 1912, the Moore family attended their local church before making it to their home in Villisca between 9:45 and 10 p.m. that night. The Stillinger sisters were invited to stay overnight, where they slept in the guest bedroom together. 

The next morning, around 7 a.m., one of the Moores’ neighbors became concerned when the family had not come outside to do their morning chores around the house. When nobody answered the doors, which were usually left unlocked, the neighbor called Ross Moore, the uncle. When Ross Moore showed up, there was still no response from anyone inside. With a copy of the house key, Ross unlocked the door and entered the guest bedroom to see the Stillinger sisters’ bodies on the bed. He immediately told the neighbor to call the police. After a short walk around the house, they found the whole Moore family and Stillinger sisters bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon was an axe, which belonged to Josiah Moore, the father, which was found in the guest room. 

Doctors concluded that the murders took place between midnight and 5 a.m.. They found two used cigarettes in the attic, which suggested the killer waited in the attic. The killer began in the master bedroom where Josiah and Sarah Moore (the parents) were sleeping. Josiah received so many blows to the face that his face had been damaged to such an extent where his eyes were missing. The killer used the blunt end of the ax as it did more damage quicker. Herman, Mary Katherine, Arthur and Paul (the Moore children) were next bludgeoned like their parents were. The killer appeared back in the master bedroom to do more blows on the parents and knocked over a shoe, which had filled up with blood then moved downstairs to the guest bedroom where he or she murdered the Stillinger sisters. 

Investigators believed that all of the victims except Lena Stillinger had been asleep. Lina was thought to wake up and try to fight back as she was found with a defensive wound on her arm. The killer was believed to attempt to sexually molest Lena. 

Who would commit such a disturbing and horrible murder? There were three main suspects. Frank Fernando Jones was an Iowa State Senator. Josiah had worked for Frank for many years before leaving to start his own store. Moore reputedly took business away from Jones, including a very successful John Deere dealership. Moore was also believe to have had a sexual affair with Jone’s daughter-in-law. It was thought that Frank hired someone to do the job, and this is where William “Blackie” Mansfield comes into play. 

Mansfield was a cocaine fiend and a serial killer. He was believed to be responsible for the axe murders of his wife, infant child, father and mother-in-law, which took place two years after the Villisca murders, and the murders of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Colorado two days before the Villisca murders. According to an investigation, all of these murders were committed in precisely the same manner, which points to the same person committing all of them. In each of these murders, Mansfield was in the area, the victims were all hacked to death with an ax and all the mirrors were covered in the home. In each case, the murderer wore gloves to avoid any fingerprints being lifted. Mansfield was arrested in 1916 related to the murders. Payroll records provided an alibi that Mansfeild was actually in Illinois of the time of the Villisca murders. He was released for a lack of evidence and later won a lawsuit against the investigator for $2,225. 

Reverend George Kelly was a minister and described as peculiar. He reportedly was mentally unstable, accused of peeping and several times asked young women or girls to pose nude for him. The evening of the murder, Kelly attended the same church as the Moore family as a teacher to the children services. The next morning, he left town between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. before the bodies were discovered. He confessed to the murders, but the court didn’t believe him. He started displaying a fascination with the case, writing many letters to police, investigators and family of the deceased. A private investigator wrote back to Kelly and asked for details, which Kelly replied with lots of details to the murders. Two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for mailing sexually harassing letters to a woman who applied for a job as his secretary. He was sent to a mental hospital and investigators reopened the investigation. In 1917, Kelly was arrest and charged for the Villisca murders. When he confessed, he said that a shadowy figure called him, gave him the ax, called him into the house and, against his will, told him to “slay and eat.”

But is he the actual killer? Many believe that Henry Moore, who is not related to the Moore family in any way, committed the crimes. Henry was convicted for the murders of his mother and grandmother in Missouri just months after the murders in Villisca, and the murder weapon was an ax. Just nine months before the murders in Villisca, H.C. Wayne, his wife, child, Mrs A.J. Burnham and her two children were bludgeoned with an ax in Colorado. A month later, a family in Illinois was killed, a week after that, five members of a family in Kansas were murdered in the night. Just a week before the horror in Villisca, a man and his wife were killed in Kansas. The similarities in the crimes were striking.

What do you think really happened? Who do you believe is actually guilty? Here’s what some students at Peet Junior High and Cedar Falls High School think:

“It’s probably the Henry Moore guy. The fact that it’s part of a Midwestern spree of axe murders is pretty interesting,” senior Eli Flikkema said.

“This was really interesting. Personally I’m not quite sure who would be guilty, but I am kind of thinking Kelly did it, but not alone, you know? Like maybe it was Kelly and Henry Moore working together,” Peet freshman Natalie Unland said.

“I think it could have been Mansfield because there were multiple murders in Colorado that were supposedly done by the same person with the similarities of the crime scenes, and Mansfield was in Colorado in the time those murders were committed and could have committed the other crimes in Kansas and Illinois as well,” sophomore Molly Bailey said. 

Who do you think did it? Email: to let us know what you think! The summary of the murder comes from 

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