A timely study recently conducted by Real Estate Witch revealed that 58% of American home buyers currently in the market for a new residence would be amenable to purchasing a haunted house. In fact, 94% of respondents reported being far more terrified of costly repairs than malevolent spirits! As the article details, “In this monster of a market, buyers are willing to overlook just about anything to own a home, including a few ghosts.”
Those hoping to spend just a night in a haunted dwelling rather than purchase one outright always have the option of booking a stay at the Villisca Ax Murder House, a rather nondescript clapboard dwelling nestled in the cornfields of southwest Iowa that was the site of a horrific mass killing in the summer of 1912. Transformed into a macabre tourist attraction eight decades later, the property has regularly been deemed one of the most haunted places in America. With rates starting at a little over $400, groups of up to ten can check in for what is sure to be one frightening overnight!
While I consider myself thoroughly well-versed in all-things true crime and the Villisca murders are certainly some of Iowa’s most notorious, somehow, I had never heard of the case until a couple of months ago when fellow film location aficionado Robert Patterson toured the residence and posted about it on his Set-Jetter website. One look at his photos (which appear throughout this article) led me down a deep, dark rabbit hole investigating the grisly happenings of that fateful summer night.
Prior to 1912, the city of Villisca, a tiny burg situated about 100 miles southwest of Des Moines, was, by all accounts, serene, tranquil and neighborly, filled with warm, hardworking souls, each as eager to greet strangers as longtime friends. That all changed the morning of June 10, when eight bodies were discovered bludgeoned to death inside a diminutive house located on a dusty road near the heart of town at 508 E. 2nd St.
At the time, the 913-square-foot property served as the home of local farming equipment store owner Josiah Moore, his wife, Sarah, and their four young children, Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7) and Paul (5). Initially built in 1868, Moore purchased the two-story residence and its 0.17-acre lot for the family in 1903.
On June 9, Katherine invited two friends, sisters Ina (8) and Lena Stillinger (12), to spend the night. It turned out to be a fateful proposal. That evening, the group of eight attended a bible service at the local church, returning home at around 9:30 p.m. Sometime after heading to bed, the entire Moore family, as well as their two guests, were beaten to death with the blunt end of an ax while they slept.
The following morning, a neighbor noticed the house was unusually quiet and called Josiah’s brother, who used his key to enter the residence, saw the bodies of the Stillinger sisters downstairs and immediately contacted authorities. First responders were met with an eerie scene. All the victims’ faces had been covered with clothing or sheets. The weapon, which was later discovered to belong to Josiah, was left behind in the downstairs guest room, positioned, oddly enough, next to a cloth-wrapped four-pound slab of bacon that had been removed from the icebox. A plate of uneaten food and a basin filled with bloody water were also found on the premises. The home’s curtains had been drawn and the few windows that lacked drapery had been shrouded in dark clothing. A dresser mirror was also covered with a skirt and all of the doors were locked tight. How the killer entered or exited was a mystery.
It is believed the assailant somehow gained access to the dwelling while the family was at church and subsequently hid in the attic for the next several hours, lying in wait until everyone had drifted off to sleep. Though neighbors heard no odd sounds nor witnessed anything untoward, plenty of theories started to emerge as to who was responsible. The rumors, speculation and rampant finger-pointing quickly escalated, dividing the once tight-knit community. Those who couldn’t accept that a Villisca denizen was capable of committing such a horrific act accused random serial killers and transients, while many others vociferously implicated local state senator Frank F. Jones, a business competitor of Josiah’s. A traveling clergyman named Reverend George Kelly, described on the Murder House’s official website as “a window-peeping preacher” who had attended the same church service as the Moores the evening of June 9, even confessed to the crimes and was tried twice. He later recanted and was ultimately acquitted.
The killings remain unsolved today, though wild conjecture and theories, floated by armchair detectives and locals alike, continue to abound.
In the years following the murders, the Moore residence changed hands numerous times and by 1994, it was facing demolition. An area realtor contacted nearby Olson-Linn Museum owner Darwin Linn and implored him to save the aging structure. Apparently, Darwin fits in with the majority of current American home buyers because the prospect of purchasing a haunted residence did not phase him, and he made a bid. As detailed on the Murder House website, “Darwin originally low-balled an offer on the property, told the agent it would expire at midnight on the first of the year and promptly forgot about it. Needless to say, he was a little surprised when the call came just before the deadline and he became the proud owner of one of the most notorious crime scenes in the country. It took him a few months to confide in his wife and after Martha recovered from the shock, they set about obtaining the necessary funds to restore the home to its original condition at the time of the Villisca Ax Murders of 1912.”
When Darwin and Martha acquired the place, it consisted of two bedrooms and one bath. To bring it back to its 1912 self, a downstairs space was re-converted into a third bedroom and the single bath was removed, replaced with a far more era-appropriate outhouse. The home’s electricity and plumbing systems were also eliminated. The Linns even went so far as to comb court documents to learn the arrangement of the Moore family’s furnishings, positioning replica pieces “in approximately the same places occupied at the time of the murders.”
As such, the house sits like a time capsule, seemingly untouched from the night of the killings. For their diligent efforts, the Linns were honored with a “Preservation at its Best” award from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance in 1997, and the Villisca Ax Murder House was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year. It has proven a popular tourist attraction from the jump.
Spending a night on the premises is a truly singular and spooky experience. Brave souls who book a stay must bring their own sleeping bags and pillows and sleep on the floor, as well as make use of a restroom in the barn. There is no shower on the property. As Martha told The Dispatch in June 2012, “I’m not a bed and breakfast.” Regardless, people are lining up for the opportunity! The booking calendar shows the place has been sold out almost every night this year.
For those who can’t stomach an overnight, daytime tours are offered seasonally from spring through fall.
The Moore family and Stillinger sisters’ graves can also be visited at the Villisca Cemetery located just over half a mile away.
Considering the horrific happenings that occurred there more than a century ago, it is no surprise that the Murder House has been featured at the center of several paranormal activity shows. Zak Bagans, Nick Groff and Aaron Goodwin head there for a spectral investigation in the season four episode of “Ghost Adventures” titled “Villisca Axe Murder House.”
Psychic medium Deb Brockman becomes overwhelmed with emotion and has to leave the property mid-visit, declaring it “One of the most haunted places I have ever been, absolutely,” in the season one episode of “Most Terrifying Places in America” titled “Iconic Haunts.”
Dakota Laden, Chelsea Laden, Tanner Wiseman and Alex Schroeder spend a night in the house and encounter extremely strange happenings – not to mention a very friendly cat – in the season three episode of “Destination Fear” titled “Villisca and Malvern Manor.”
Amy Bruni and Adam Berry also inspect the residence at the behest of amateur paranormal investigator John Worley, who believes he mistakenly unleashed an evil entity during a previous visit, in the season three episode of “Kindred Spirits” titled “The Villisca Ax Murders.”
And while a horror movie about the property titled “The Axe Murders of Villisca” was released in 2016, filming did not take place at the actual Murder House but at a dwelling in Los Angeles.