The Unsolved Case of the Viscilla House


Brooke Edgington, True Crime Writer

On a quiet residential street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa, a horrible tragedy occurred that continues to leave its effects on this small town. The walls of this pristine home still protect the identity of a murderer who bludgeoned to death the entire family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests on June 10, 1912. Not only did her walls hold the secret of the killer for many years, but they also continue to house several paranormal entities. 

Nestled in the hills of southwest Iowa, Villisca is a small rural community of about 1,300 people today; but, in the early 1900s, it was a bustling railroad town with 2,500 people. During that time, more than two dozen passengers and freight trains stopped at the depot each day. The town sported several hotels, restaurants, stores, and manufacturers.

Within this thriving environment, lived Josiah B. Moore, one of Villisca’s most prominent businessmen. Moore was an owner and operator of the Moore implement Company, and he was a solid competitor with other area businesses. On December 6, 1899, Josiah married Sarah Montgomery, and the couple had four children: Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul. Josiah and his wife Sarah were well-liked in the community, active in Presbyterian Church, and described as being helpful to their neighbors.

On Sunday, June 9, 1912, the Moore family as well as the Stillinger family attended church. An annual event was also held Sunday evening called the “Children’s Day Program,” which had been coordinated by Sarah Moore. That evening, 9-year-old Katherine Moore invited her friends, 12-year-old Lena Stillinger, and her sister for a sleepover. After the program ended at 9:30 pm, the Moore family, along with the Stillinger sisters, walked home from the church, arriving at about 9:45 and 10:00 pm.

The next morning, Moore’s neighbor, Mary Peckham, noticed that the Moors were not outside taking care of their regular chores and that the house was unusually still. Between 7:00 and 8:00 am, she knocked on the door but received no answer. When she tried to open the door, she found it locked. Concerned, she called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore. When Ross Moore arrived, he knocked loudly on the door and shouted, attempting to raise someone inside the house. He then tried to look through the windows but found all of the curtains drawn or the windows covered. He entered the house, quickly returning to the front porch and instructing Mary Peckham to call the sheriff. What he saw next was shocking. 

The entire Joshua Moore family has been murdered, as well as the two young overnight guests. They were all bludgeoned with an ax while they slept. In the upstairs master bedroom lay 43-year-old Josiah Moore and 39-year-old Sara Moore, both bludgeoned in the head, their bed linens stained heavily with blood. In the adjacent upstairs bedrooms were the Moore children, 11-year-old Herman, 10-year-old Mary Katherine, 7-year-old Boyd, and 5-year-old Paul, who had also been bludgeoned in the head while they slept.

In the main level guest bedroom, the bodies of Lena Stillinger, age 12, and her sister Ina, age 7, were also found dead, killed in the same manner as the family. Villisca City Marshall Hank Horton arrived quickly, soon followed by other officers. In the meantime, the gruesome news spread like wildfire, and within no time, neighbors and curious onlookers converged on the house. Law enforcement quickly lost control of the crime scene. The Villisca National Guard arrived around noon and cordoned off the home.

The investigation tells that the eight victims were killed shortly after midnight, and all but Lena Stillinger were thought to have been asleep at the time of their murders. It was concluded that Lena was the only victim that had attempted to fight off her attacker, as she appeared to have had defensive wounds on her arm. The attack was so vicious that the ceilings in the parent’s and children’s bedrooms showed gouge marks made by the upswing of the ax. The ax was found in the guest bedroom, indicating that the Stillinger girls were the last to be killed. It was bloody but an attempt had been made to wipe it off.

The ax belonged to Josiah Moore. All the curtains in the house had been drawn. Two windows that didn’t have curtains were covered with clothing. All the victims’ faces were covered with bed linens or clothing after they were killed. Other evidence showed that a pan of bloody water was discovered on the kitchen table as well as a plate of uneaten food. The crew’s foreman, Thomas Dyer was suspicious and turned over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912. Though Sawyer’s name often came up in Grand Hurt testimonies, he was eventually dismissed, as it was found that he was actually in Osceola, Iowa on the night of the murder. 

The alibi was extremely tight as he had been arrested for vagrancy at 11:00 pm that evening. Another suspect was Reverend George Kelly, a traveling minister who happened to be teaching at the Children’s Day services at the Presbyterian church, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. The preacher left Villisca very early on the day of the murder. It was not these facts, however, that led to him being investigated. Though many say that the house is truly haunted, many say it is not, including some who lived in the house without ever experiencing any mysterious activities.