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Iowa History Daily: June 10 - Unsolved Ax Murder in Villisca

Iowa History Daily: Sometime as the wee hours of June 9, 1912 moved toward June 10, someone murdered six members of the Moore family, as well as two other small girls, in Villisca, Iowa. A still unsolved crime, the grisly act stands as one of the most brutal crimes in the history of Iowa.

Josiah and Sarah Moore, as well as their four children (Herman Montgomery, Mary Katherine, Arthur Boyd, and Paul Vernon) represented active members of the Villisca community. On June 9, Sarah coordinated a Children’s Day Program at the local Presbyterian church. Following the performance, Ina Man and Lena Gerturde Stillinger went home with the family to spend the night.

The Moore’s arrived home a little before 10:00 p.m., and the time elapsed between their arrival home and neighbor Mary Peckham’s attempt to check on the family the next morning. Concerned the family didn’t attend to their normal morning chores, Peckham knocked on the Moore’s door before trying the handle only to find it locked.

Peckham went to find Josiah’s brother Ross, who unlocked the door and wandered into a house of horrors. Calling Hank Horton, Villisca Peace Officer, who searched the residence to discover all eight victims bludgeoned to death. Josiah, the only victim slashed by the notorious ax, suffered truly haunting wounds.

At least six local subjects emerged, including a transient named Andrew Sayer, local implement dealer turned State Senator Frank Jones, a potential hitman hired by Jones named William Mansfield, suspected serial killers Henry Lee Moore (no relation) and Paul Mueller, and a traveling minister named George Kelly.

Reverend Kelly, an English-born circuit minister in town for the Children’s Day Program spent the night of the murders in Villisca before departing sometime early the following morning. Kelly’s fascination with the murders drew suspicion, and Kelly described the crimes in great detail when contacted by a private investigator. Known to struggle with mental illness, Kelly’s account left officials dubious of trusting his account.

After an unrelated arrest for sending of obscene material through the mail, Kelly went to the nation’s mental hospital in Washington D.C. The staff at St. Elizabeth’s grew suspicious of Kelly’s possible involvement in the grisly crime. In 1917, officials arrested Kelly for the murders.

A confession and two trials followed. Despite Kelly’s confession to the crime, the first resulted in a hung jury. The second led to acquittal. Although Kelly represents a strong suspect, William Mansfield also represents a strong suspect for those interested in further exploring one of Iowa’s most notorious unsolved crimes. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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