The Villisca Axe Murders

Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we’re headed to the site of a big tragedy in a small town.

On the night of June 10, 1912, eight people were murdered with an axe in a house in Villisca, Iowa. Josiah Moore (shown above), and his wife Sarah, along with their four children and two neighbor children, were killed in their beds by a person who has never been identified. And I mean never—the internet doesn’t even have a favorite suspect. I’m not going to cover the worst details of the crime in this post; for the most in-depth coverage see the former website for the house on the wayback machine, and the other sources linked below.

I used to live in Iowa, and I have actually been to the “Villisca Axe Murder House,” now a museum and historical site, and a frequent host to ghost tours. Visitors are free to leave their mark on the rafters in the barn, writing messages which range from the usual names and dates to oddly creepy warnings like “Don’t stand on your head in the kids’ room.” On my visit I was struck by how little has changed, though Iowa has traveled more than a century into the future: at the end of our tour, we were discussing suspects and expressing sympathy for the victims, exactly as people have been doing outside that house for over 100 years.

The murder suspects range from people who were said to be violently mentally ill, to people with a grudge against the family, to a mistaken murderer who got the address wrong, to a serial killer riding the nearby railway. The early investigation was not up to modern standards and let the whole town walk through the house to view evidence, and then follow the bloodhounds around in a giant crowd. (To be fair, we’re still touring that house 111 years later.)

As always on Weird Wednesday, we’re going to focus on the odd and possibly paranormal in a story, to generate some writing prompts. So let’s look into a few shadowed corners of this case.

The Closet

According to an early rumor about the case, there was evidence the killer hid in a closet and left cigarette butts, and the mark of his own butt on a bale of cotton batting, to show he’d been in the house before the family got home that night at 9:30. Then the killer waited until at least midnight to actually attack.

So first of all, this isn’t based on any actual evidence. But it would make for a good story, because in June in Iowa in a little house without air conditioning, those closets would be sweltering. How would a murderer withstand hours in a tiny, overheated space? Could he be incredibly disciplined? Could he be having a psychotic break? Sneaking onto the paranormal side of things, could he be a ghost or inhuman creature? What would happen if a murderer attempted to hide in a closet and fainted from heat exhaustion?


Nobody woke up

This part is almost true. There’s evidence that only one person in the house woke up before being murdered: one of the neighbor girls downstairs. Everyone else was killed in their sleep, probably starting with the parents. But that’s quite a feat considering eight sleeping people were in just 3 rooms. Neighbors reported hearing some inconclusive sounds, but nothing that would cause alarm. The crime wasn’t discovered until a neighbor noticed the house was silent at breakfast time. 

Now, murder with an axe is not nearly as loud as murder with a gun. (Ronald DeFeo of Amityville infamy claimed to have drugged his family before shooting them, which is why they didn’t wake. No evidence of sedatives was found, however.) As far as writing a story goes, it is extremely creepy to think of someone killing eight people essentially soundlessly. Your story could have multiple killers, a really experienced killer (most likely the real answer to the mystery), or victims who have been drugged, poisoned, or gassed. Perhaps neighbors could be threatened to keep quiet until morning (or nasty neighbors could even be paid off). Paranormal explanations for quiet killing include a spell or magical/cursed item that removes sound, a ghostly killer, a supernatural disease that kills quickly, or a killer so demonically horrifying that victims freeze in silent terror when they see him.

How did the killer get in?

Okay, so probably the back door was unlocked. This was a small Iowa town in 1912. But the killer did lock up before he left, and even covered all the windows with cloth. It would make a good story to have a killer trying to gain entrance to a locked house without making any noise. Would there be some reason he had a key? Could he have stolen a key from a neighbor? Could he pick a lock? Paranormal explanations include the killer being a ghost, maybe one who already belongs to the house, one who belongs to the visiting neighbor girls’ house, or a shapeshifter. Maybe he could become something small enough to crawl under a door, or turn into mist, or disguise himself as a family pet or even—most creepy—as one of the family themselves.

A few other murderous prompts:

  • Conspiracy theory. Let’s go for some small-town drama. Who among the citizens of a random turn-of-the-century rural town would be least suspected of axe murder? A child or group of children? The church organist? A minister? (Actually, one of the main Villisca suspects was, in fact, a minister.) A kindly old neighbor? A family member? A whole group of neighbors? What about one of the victims? Perhaps your story has two killers, and one then murdered the other, ironically or on purpose putting them beyond suspicion. But now the second part of the question: whoever the murderer was, he managed to escape the house without witnesses, even though he was probably covered in blood. Your story could have a witness: so who among the townspeople is least likely to be able to keep a deadly secret?


  • Who’s there? Let’s conjure up a ghostly killer. Your standard dead murderer could be a killer who won’t let passing on make him pass over a new victim, someone wronged by the victim getting revenge from beyond the grave, a ghost summoned by somebody else for revenge purposes, or a former owner of the house who doesn’t want new people living there. Ghosts specific to an axe murder case though—what would they be like? Someone who used to work with an axe? Or a ghost who doesn’t haunt a house, but a deadly weapon?
  • Midwestern serial. My personal favorite Villisca suspect is a serial killer riding the rails, as posited in the book The Man From the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James. This is because there were a lot of similar axe murders at the time, all over the country, and even internationally. You could write a story about several killers with the same M.O., or one really prolific murderer who likes to travel. On the paranormal side, you could have someone killing in a pattern to cast a spell or harness a demon. You could even have a ghost train that carries your phantom killer on a never-ending mission.

Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday here! Remember, if you go to Villisca, don’t stand on your head in the kids’ room.

Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

If you like spooky train stories, feel free to check out Queer Weird West Tales, which contains my story The Train Ticket: A man holds a ticket to Hell after accidentally robbing a ghost train.

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