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The Villisca Ax Murders: 111 years later

Before their names were memorialized in true crime history, the Moores were your typical Iowa family.

VILLISCA, Iowa — It's been 111 years since the tragic murders of eight people at a home in Villisca. To this day, the murders remain unsolved. 

Lora Castleman with Local 5's sister station in Arkansas learned more about the century-old mystery surrounding what happened on June 10, 1912. 

Before their names were memorialized in true crime history, the Moores were your typical Iowa family. 

"Everybody loved them," said Johnny Houser, a tour guide at the Villisca Ax Murder House. "Think of that family from your small hometown that everyone loves, everyone respects, nobody has a problem with." 

Josiah Moore, the patriarch of the family, was 43-years-old when he was murdered. His wife, Sarah, was 39. The couple had four children together: Herman (11), Mary (10), Arthur (7) and Paul (5).  

The night of the murder, Mary invited two of her friends, Lena Stillinger (12) and Ina Stillinger (8) to the home for a sleepover. 

What was meant to be a joyous night soon turned tragic. 

"Everyone's in bed, just like they went to sleep," Houser said. "Everybody loved them. And all of a sudden they wake up, and everyone's dead in bed." 

According to the Villisca Ax Murder House's website, it is believed that an unknown person entered the Moore's home sometime after midnight on June 10 and murdered all eight occupants. 

"All the blows were struck above the neck," said Edgar Epperly, author of Fiend Incarnate: Villisca Axe Murders of 1912. "That was true of all the victims. They had a face cloth over their face, which was a piece of clothing that the killer picked up. And they had the bed clothing pulled over that." 

Beyond the bodies, the scene left behind was full of chaos. 

"The ax was left downstairs, raw bacon laying on the floor, mirrors covered with sheets, food on the table, cigarette butts in the attic, bloody water," Houser said. "Just tons of crime scene, all destroyed by half the town wandering around looking at it."

Following the murder, many Villisca residents believed Iowa State Senator Frank F. Jones was the culprit. 

"[Josiah] had been a clerk for FF Jones in Jones's hardware and implement dealer," Houser said. "And about five years before the murder, [Josiah] left and became a competitor."

Meanwhile, authorities were looking into a different suspect: Reverend George Kelly, a traveling Presbyterian minister. 

"[He] was in Villisca the night of the murder," Epperly said. "He sent a bloody shirt to a laundry the week after the murder. It's a viable possibility that he was the killer. It can't be proven today, at least to my satisfaction." 

Kelly was arrested and charged with murder in 1917. Kelly made a confession which was later withdrawn before his trial. 

Kelly's first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was acquitted at his second trial. 

Other suspects, such as William Mansfield and Henry Moore, were also considered. However, due to the lack of evidence, most of what historians know today is based on legend. 

"[It] comes down to small town gossip," Houser said. "I mean, it makes no sense." 

The memory of the eight victims lives on in Villisca, where the Moore home has been returned to its original condition at the time of the murders. 

The home is owned by Darwin and Martha Linn of Corning, Iowa, and is listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places. 

The house lives in infamy as one of Iowa's most haunted locations. The Villisca Ax Murder House has even been featured on the popular web series, Buzzfeed Unsolved

Brave souls can tour the Villisca Ax Murder House and even stay overnight, if they dare. For more information, click here

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