Gram’s Favorite Story

My Grandma was a great story-teller and I was her best audience. She told me many things, but her favorite story was a murder mystery. Oh…for a kid it just doesn’t get any better than that. And, to make it even better, she told me she was on the jury for this murder–just like Perry Mason! How cool was that?

This trial went on forever, she said. I was not very old so she did not tell me a lot but what she told me was bad enough. So much so, I remember wondering if it was all true or if she was trying to keep me still and occupied. This murder happened when she was very young–before she married my Grandpa. A whole family and two kids that were staying the night with them were killed with an axe. The Mom, Dad, four kids, and the two neighbor kids died.

I had forgotten all about her story until this morning when I saw a little blurb on Facebook. Because I follow other Iowa Facebook pages, the page, Unsolved Iowa Murders: Historic Cases, was suggested to me as a page I might be of interest. The highlighted case of discussion, Vallisca Axe Murders.

Oh my gosh.

If unsolved murders are of interest to you, this is one you should check out. As I read I soon discovered there was a LOT of the story that my Gram did not tell me.

Here is what I found today. Most of what I’m sharing comes from an article written by Nancy Bowers featured on Unsolved Iowa Murders” Historic Cases.

Early in the morning, June 10, 1912, Josiah (Joe) B. Moore, his wife Sara, their 4 children and 2 neighbor children, Lena and Ina Stillinges, were bludgeoned to death. This horrible crime changed the little town of Villisca forever. One author states: “…a fascinating study of ordinary people dealing with an extraordinary event.”

That Monday morning the town Marshal, Hank Horton, was told by someone to get the Joe and Sara’s house because something was wrong. He went to the home and discovered, as he supposedly told the coroners, there’s someone dead in every bed.

The crime scene was not secured and was soon contaminated with curious onlookers. Nancy Bowers sited the following observations in her article:

The victims faces were covered by bed-clothes and other clothing.

Kerosene lamps were found a the foot of the beds with the chimneys removed and the wicks turned back.

Mirrors and other reflective surfaces were covered with clothing. 

A plate of partially eaten food was found at the kitchen table next to a bowl of bloody water. 

The axe used for the murders was propped up against the sewing room wall. 

Two pounds of bacon was placed next to the axe. 


The eight caskets were held in the town firehouse as the funeral was held in the town square. The funeral procession was huge, with 50 rigs and horse-drawn hearses. The National Guard was called in to keep the 5-7 thousand people in attendance in order.

For weeks, bloodhounds roamed the streets tracking for any trace of a scent. Rumors and suspicions ran high with the entire town on edge. Families stayed with each other so someone could be on watch at  night.

There were many suspects. The list is impressive:

Many suspected  state senator, F.F. Jones, of hiring someone to murder Joe Moore because Joe was supposedly having an affair with his daughter-in-law.

Some claimed a moccasin print was found by the front porch, indicating the murderer was Native American.

One very interesting rumor was detectives obtained a photograph of the murderer from the retina of Lena Stillinges’ eye because she had woken up and saw him.

They searched for and found the mentally ill minister, Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. He was obsessed with the phrase “slay utterly” from Ezekiel 9:6. Five years after the murder, Preacher Kelly confessed. After two trials, he was found not guilty–just as my Gram had told me.

Now, I know the rest of the story.

I am…

B…simply being…

Stay safe and know I love you.



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