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Paranormal team to visit site of ax murders

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - It's a case that still shocks people almost 99 years later and makes the infamous Lizzy Borden ax murders look like child's play.

House where one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history occurred
One of the worst mass murders in U.S. history occurred at this house in a small town in Iowa. This is a photo illustration made of the house. Special to Forum Communications Co.

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - It's a case that still shocks people almost 99 years later and makes the infamous Lizzy Borden ax murders look like child's play.

What has come to be known as the Villisca Ax Murder House is the site of a heinous crime, and it's the next destination for the Midwest Paranormal Files research team.

A crew of six will leave Detroit Lakes today and travel eight hours south to Villisca, Iowa, to spend the night in what is one of the most infamous murder houses in America.

A live webcast is planned during the investigation on the dl-online.com website, starting at 7 tonight.

"Comforts of home" are three words that do not describe the little three-bedroom house on a quiet street in Villisca.


The case horrified people across the nation and still perplexes the most seasoned crime solvers.

It's too quiet

A typical early morning in the Moore household was filled with the sounds common for a busy family of six early in the last century. Chores were started, and the four children of Josiah and Sarah Moore were usually up and busy before the sun rose.

That's why a neighbor thought the house was strangely quiet on the morning of June 10, 1912.

In fact, it was much too quiet, as neighbor Mary Peckham realized.

Peckham started to hang her laundry at 5 a.m. and by 7 she still had seen no signs of any movement coming from the Moores'. After knocking on the door and receiving no response, she telephoned Josiah's brother, Ross Moore.

What he found was the end of innocence in Villisca.

Lying in their beds were two adults and six children, all murdered with the same ax.


The victims were Josiah Moore, 43, and his wife, Sarah Montgomery Moore, 39 - found in their upstairs bedroom.

Their four children were in the other upstairs bedroom. The ax ended the lives of Herman, 11, Katherine, 9, Boyd, 7, and Paul, 5.

Two other children, family friends who had been staying the night, were found in a downstairs bedroom - Lena Stillinger, 12, and her sister, Ina, 8.

News of the mass murder hit the nation with a massive media wave, even knocking the sinking of the Titanic off the front pages of newspapers across the United States.

But the savage murders and that night of chaos was just the beginning of one of the most intriguing and darkest days in U.S. history.

How could an entire family be slaughtered, with minimal signs of struggle, and no noises that woke nearby neighbors?

Not that there was any shortage of suspects - there were a surprising number of them, but only one man was ever brought to trial, and he was acquitted.

After the murders


What Ross Moore witnessed inside his brother's house was gruesome.

But the investigation after the murders were committed was just as gruesome.

It was theorized by investigators at the time that the intruder broke into the Moore home while the family was at an evening church program. They didn't get home until 9:30 or 10 p.m.

The murderer apparently waited in either a bedroom closet, where a heel mark and other evidence were found, or the attic, where cigarette butts had been tossed.

The village police officer found the blood-stained ax upon entering the dark house. All the shades were drawn and the doors were all locked from the inside.

Another odd note was that all the mirrors in the house were draped over with blankets.

It was determined that all the victims were bludgeoned with the one ax that was recovered inside the house - and had apparently been grabbed from the barn area outside.

The Stillinger girls were hit repeatedly with the ax in the head. Both had items of clothing put over their faces, with a Bible laid at the foot of their bed. The elder Stillinger girl looked to have put up a struggle - the only victim to do so.


Upstairs, Josiah suffered the most damage, in what resembled rage from the assailant. Sarah was next to her husband, with similar hacking wounds to the head.

In the other upstairs bedroom lay the rest of the Moore children.

One of the sons had wounds to the head, along with a gauze undershirt over the open wound. Not far from him, the little girl lay, with a sheet pulled over her head.

On the single bed next to the pair were the two murdered boys, with similar ax wounds to the head area.

The coroner estimated that well over 150 swings were taken, causing gouges in the ceilings in two of the rooms caused by the ax during the upswing, which still remain today.

It was also estimated the murders took place between midnight and 5 a.m.

There were plenty of oddities left by the killer, including candy left on a table near one of the kid's beds, a 4-pound slab of bacon wrapped in cloth, and an untouched plate of food in the house.

Left behind?


With the horrific violence that took place in the Moore house, could there still be remnants left over from 1912?

Over the years, residents of the house had mixed emotions about it.

In 1915, John Geesman and his wife and three daughters moved into the house, according to current owner Darwin Linn.

"After the first night, John moved out of the house and lived in the barn for the next 12½ years," Linn said.

The house stayed in the Geesman family, with John's granddaughter and her husband, John Figgins, moving in.

It took only two nights before Figgins left, never to sleep in the house again.

Nationally broadcast paranormal shows such as "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel, "My Ghost Story," "Ghost Lab" and CBS' "Scariest Places on Earth" have featured the Villisca Ax Murder House.

The first paranormal experience reported in the Moore house came in the early 1930s, by renters Homer and Bonnie Ritner.


Bonnie awoke every night to see a man holding an ax at the foot of their bed. Eventually, Homer heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and the pair promptly moved out.

Plenty of photos and electronic voice phenomena evidence has been captured by many paranormal groups over the years, and firsthand accounts are published at www.villiscaiowa.com .

Most leave with the distinct impression that they were not alone on their overnight stay inside the Moore house.

A family that rented the house between 1963 and 1971 moved out abruptly after several occurrences happened to the two daughters and the father.

The two sisters kept hearing kids sobbing and crying, while finding their dresser drawers open and clothes strewn about.

The final straw came one night when the father was sharpening his pocket knife and it flew out of his hands and ended up cutting him. The family moved out the next day.

No matter whether the house on lot 310 in the quiet town of Villisca, Iowa, has eternal guests or not - the horror and blood spilled there on June 10, 1912, left a stain that won't go away.

Brian Wierima is sports editor of the Detroit Lakes Tribune. He is also the founder and lead investigator for Midwest Paranormal Files, based in Detroit Lakes.

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