The Villisca axe murders occurred between the evening of June 9, 1912, and early morning of June 10, 1912, in the town of Villisca in southwestern Iowa. The six members of the Moore family and two house guests were found bludgeoned in the Moore residence. All eight victims, including six children, had severe head wounds from an axe. A lengthy investigation yielded several suspects, one of whom was tried twice and acquitted. The crime remains unsolved.
The Moore family consisted of parents Josiah B. (aged 43), Sarah (née Montgomery) (39), and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (5). An affluent family, the Moores were well-known and well-liked in their community. On June 9, 1912, Katherine Moore invited Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12) to spend the night at the Moore residence. That evening, the visiting girls and the Moore family attended the Presbyterian church where they participated in the Children's Day Program, which Sarah Moore had coordinated. After the program ended at 9:30 p.m., the Moores and the Stillinger sisters walked to the Moores' house, arriving between 9:45 and 10 p.m.
At 7 a.m. the next day, Mary Peckham, the Moores' neighbor, became concerned after she noticed that the Moore family had not come out to do their morning chores. Peckham knocked on the Moores' door. When nobody answered, she tried to open the door and discovered that it was locked. Peckham let the Moores' chickens out and called Ross Moore, Josiah Moore's brother. Like Peckham, Moore received no response when he knocked on the door and shouted. He unlocked the front door with his copy of the house key. While Peckham stood on the porch, Moore went into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door, where he found Ina and Lena Stillinger's bodies on the bed. Moore immediately told Peckham to call Hank Horton, Villisca's primary peace officer, who arrived shortly thereafter. Horton's search of the house revealed that the entire Moore family and the two Stillinger girls had been bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room where the Stillinger sisters were found.
Doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Two spent cigarettes in the attic suggested that the killer or killers patiently waited in the attic until the Moore family and the Stillinger guests were asleep. The killer(s) began in the master bedroom, where Josiah and Sarah Moore were sleeping. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his face had been cut so much that his eyes were missing. The killer(s) used the sharp end of the axe on Josiah while using the blunt end on the rest of the victims. Then the killer(s) went into the children's rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the head in the same manner as their parents. The killer(s) returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the elder Moores, knocking over a shoe that had filled with blood. Afterward, the killer(s) moved downstairs to the guest bedroom and killed Ina and Lena.
Investigators believed that all of the victims except for Lena Stillinger had been asleep when murdered. They thought that she was awake and tried to fight back, as she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm. Lena's nightgown was pushed up to her waist and she was wearing no undergarments, leading to law enforcement speculation that the killer(s) sexually molested her or attempted to do so.
Over time, many possible suspects emerged, including Reverend George Kelly, Frank F. Jones, William Mansfield, Loving Mitchell and Henry Lee Moore. George Kelly was tried twice for the murder. The first ended in a hung jury, while the second trial ended in an acquittal. Other suspects in the investigation were also exonerated.
Every transient and otherwise unaccounted-for stranger was a suspect in the murders. One such suspect was a man named Andy Sawyer. No real evidence linked Sawyer to the crime, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies.
According to Thomas Dyer of Burlington, Iowa, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, S.A. (Andy) Sawyer approached his crew in Creston at 6:00 a.m on the morning the murders were discovered. Sawyer was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit when he arrived. His shoes were covered in mud and his pants were wet nearly to the knees. He asked for employment and, as Dyer needed an extra man, he was given a job on the spot.
Dyer testified that later that evening when the crew reached Fontanelle, Iowa, Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The newspaper carried a front page account of the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer "was much interested in it." Dyer's crew complained that Sawyer slept with his clothes on and was anxious to be by himself. They were also uneasy that Sawyer slept with his axe next to him; he often talked of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended.
He reportedly told Dyer that he had been in Villisca that Sunday night and had heard of the murders. Afraid of being taken as a suspect, he had left and gone to Creston. Dyer was suspicious and turned him over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.
Dyer later testified that prior to the sheriff's arrival, he walked up behind Sawyer. The other man was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, "I will cut your god damn heads off." At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.
Dyer's son (J.R.) testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer told him he would show J.R. where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 11⁄2 blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away.
Sawyer was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there, and the Osceola sheriff recalled putting him on a train (to send him away) at approximately 11 p.m. that evening.