The Villisca Massacre


On June 9, 1912, a young girl named Katherine Moore invited two of her friends, sisters Lena and Ina Stillinger, to spend the night at the Moore house. After taking part in a Children’s Day program at their church in Villisca, Iowa, the three girls walked back to Sarah’s home. It was the last time anyone would see them alive.

The Murder

The next morning Mary Peckham, who lived next door to the Moores, realized that she hadn’t seen any of the family outside, and that the house was oddly silent. Mrs. Peckham knocked, then tried the door, but found it locked. Josiah and Sarah Moore, Katherine’s parents, did not answer. Mrs. Peckham then called Josiah’s brother Ross, who came to the house.

Ross shouted through the door, attempting to rouse the family, to no avail. He opened the door with his key, and entered the home. He entered the parlor, then the room adjacent to the parlor, and found the Stillinger sisters, dead in the blood-soaked bed. He left the house and told Mrs. Peckham to call the police.

Hank Horton, the City Marshall, was next on the scene. He searched the house, and in addition to the bodies of 12-year-old Lena and 8-year-old Ina, he found the bodies of the Moore family. Josiah and Sarah were dead, along with their children – Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul. The children were aged, respectively, 11, 9, 7, and 5. Josiah was 43; Sarah was 39.

Sometime after midnight, as far as the investigators could tell, someone had entered the house and bludgeoned to death everyone inside. An axe left at the scene was presumed to be the murder weapon. After the murderer had finished with the victims, he had covered their faces with the bedding. From the way Lena Stillinger’s body was positioned, the theory is that of all the victims, she alone was awake when attacked, and that she attempted to defend herself.

The investigation was hampered by curious locals; the news had spread like wildfire, and the murder house quickly became the day’s attraction. Hundreds of people traipsed through the house before it was secured by the National Guard, around noon that day.

On June 11, an inquest was held. Fourteen witnesses were questioned, including Ross Moore, Mary Peckham, and Joseph Stillinger (father of Lena and Ina). No one had any idea who could have committed the murders; despite several theories as to the murderer’s identity, the crime remains unsolved.

The Ghosts and Hauntings

Most houses in which a violent crime has occurred are said to be haunted. In the case of the Moore house, there is more than a little evidence to suggest that this particular rumor is true. In the early 1930s, newlyweds Homer and Bonnie Ritner moved into the house. Not long after moving into the house, Bonnie began hearing strange noises at night.

The disturbances escalated; soon, Bonnie saw the ghost of a man, holding an axe, standing at the foot of their bed. Bonnie was pregnant with their first child, and the doctor warned Homer that she was in danger of miscarrying if she continued to experience so much stress. Homer began sitting up with his wife all night; she was now able to sleep, but Homer, who worked all day, began to feel the strain. Soon, he began hearing footsteps on the stairs at night. Despite their limited income, Homer and Bonnie left the house.

Decades later, the house was owned by the Villisca State Bank, which rented it. The tenants were a couple with two young daughters. The father was rarely home, since his job as a truck driver kept him on the road much of the time. At nights, while their father was away, the girls often heard sounds of ghostly weeping.

Sometimes, they would find their drawers ransacked and their clothing spread around the bedroom. Their parents refused to believe the girls’ stories, until the night when their father was sharpening his knife. The knife suddenly jumped out of his hand and stabbed him in the palm. This was enough for him; the family moved that same night.