Lord knows I’m weird, but I take great comfort in ghosts. I think that this scientifically unexplained phenomenon is one of the most poignantly hopeful things that exist in our world. If a ghost can exist, don’t we then have proof of life after death? The scientific community will surely never come to a consensus on this, maybe they will, but probably not in my lifetime, and I applaud them for doing their best to explain away paranormal phenomenon. We just can’t accept every bump in the night as a ghost, but we cannot accept every bump as a settling house either. There are things in this world that have no rhyme nor reason, events that occur that can’t be explained away.
I’ve always been openminded about this subject, but until I was in my teens, I never really experienced anything unusual. I’d be scared of the dark, of going alone to the basement, more afraid of going upstairs, but there was nothing unusual about this, I suppose. When I was about 14, I started looking into the phenomenon more deeply. I grew immediately enchanted by the idea and devoured endless books on the subject, I watched hours and hours of paranormal reality television, which was just then coming into vogue, and each Wednesday, I’d look forward to watching my beloved Sylvia Browne on Montel.
It was around then, that I began to notice the oddities around my home. My sister and I both heard footsteps from our upstairs, we both heard a child’s giggling, we both experienced a sense of unease as we would walk down the stairs. When we shared this, I think we were both surprised that the same things had happened to us. The real deal sealer for me was when we both said we had heard opera music playing as if from an old phonograph. How likely is it that we would both make up something so unnatural? All this, but I didn’t know what to think. I believed in it, but there was nothing for me to convince my scholarly side. I’m really quite analytical and I want an overabundance of proof to make my mind up.
Finally, that arrived. I was home alone, practicing piano one evening. I have a digital piano and I was wearing headphones, so I wouldn’t have heard anything but the music. I saw my father walk by me, and at the time it didn’t strike me as odd that he was there when he should be in another city. When that fact hit me, I became suspicious, and looked out of the corner of my eye. A tall man wearing an overcoat was walking towards the front door that we have never used. He was big, burly, and wearing a cap. As I turned to face him straight on, he vanished. Nobody was home but me. From then on, I believed in ghosts.
For some reason, as time has gone on, the activity in my house has come to a stop. One day, I went upstairs and talked to them, I don’t remember all that I said, but I recall telling them that they could cross over if they chose to. Ever since then, I haven’t noticed a thing, and it’s kind of sad, I miss the thrill of perhaps seeing them again.
A few months ago, my sister asked if I wanted to go with our friends, the Peels, to the Ax Murder House in Villisca. Did I want to go? A silly question. Of course I wanted to go. I’ve always wanted to go.
The Moore home in Villisca, Iowa, is very famous here, we even teach about it in school. I don’t know if it is known elsewhere, but I doubt it. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, I’ll give you the basics.
Josiah Moore was an affluent businessman in Villisca, Iowa. He was married to Sarah, and together they had four children: Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul. On the night of June 9, 1912, Katherine invited two friends of hers to spend the night after their church program. Lena and Ina Stillinger went home with the Moore’s and arrived around 10:00 PM. It is supposed that while they were at the church, an unknown assailant entered their home and hid in the attic. 1912 was an innocent time and it was a rural community–there was no reason to lock up. Shortly after midnight, according to a report, the person or persons in the attic emerged and bludgeoned Josiah and Sarah with an ax, killing them. He/They then proceeded to the children’s room, which adjoined their parents, and killed all four. The Stillinger girls were killed last, but in the same fashion. There is some speculation that Lena may have been molested, but it is unconfirmed. She had defensive wounds in her arm, though, that shows she was awake for the attack. All the bodies were mutilated by the ax. It’s said that Josiah had no eyes left and that his skull was cracked into two pieces. In fact, one of the townspeople who traipsed around the home when the murder was discovered took a piece of his skull. The killer(s) were so enthusiastic, that the walls and ceilings were pockmarked with ax marks and blood covered the rooms. In fact, there was so much blood in the children’s room upstairs that it dripped down through the floor grate to the parlor below. All the bodies were covered with a sheet, all the mirrors were covered with cloth, all the window shades were drawn. The killer wiped the ax off and propped it up against the wall in the room the Stillinger girls occupied. He locked all the doors and disappeared into the night. The next morning, a neighbor noticed that the Moore’s weren’t up and doing their chores. This was unusual, so she called Josiah brother, who discovered the disturbing scene inside. There were several suspects, but none were ever convicted of the crime. To this day, the brutal murders are unsolved.
As the years went on, stories spread about the house and soon it became renowned as one of the most haunted houses in America. In fact, the Travel Channel once called the Moore house “the most terrifying place in America.” This, of course, thrilled me, I was terribly excited to see this unique piece of Iowa history and find out what I might experience. When I told my students what I was doing this summer, they looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “Mr. Phillips, you’re crazy. You’re gonna die.” I replied, “Going to. Gonna isn’t a word.”
On the 18th, it was finally time to investigate! I packed an overnight bag and went off with the Peels to the small town. Along the way, we shared ghost stories, discussed my favorite Ax Murderer:
[Joan Crawford in the wonderfully campy Strait-Jacket, rent it, buy it, adore it!]
and speculated on who the killer could be. We did a bit of research with our cell phones and decided that William Mansfield was the most likely culprit. Henry Moore is another strong suspect, but we were leaning towards “Blackie,” a nickname for Mansfield.
The main issue that we couldn’t understand was how eight people could sleep through a very laborious and messy murder and how neighbors couldn’t hear. It was 1912. There was no television or radio to keep people up late into the night. Either the family was petrified or they were somehow silenced. We tried to find out if chloroform was easy to access back then, but I couldn’t find anything sure. It would make much more sense if the bodies were knocked out before they were literally slaughtered.
Feeling very confident in our detecting skills, we made our way into Villisca.
Our arrival at the house wasn’t scheduled for a few hours, so we made a tour of the town. There are many gorgeous homes that line the streets, many in desperate need of repair, or overgrown and altogether abandoned. My architectural obsession kicked in. I wanted to save each of those beautiful houses, I would love that. There was also a prevalence of an architectural style I’m unfamiliar with. Houses with mansard roofs and large windows. Around the windows were big circles. Inside the circles, the house was sided with shingles. Around the circles, the house was finished with the usual wooden plank siding. Second level porches were not at all unusual. I would love to see the town at its peak. It must have just been lovely.
The town was dead (pun intended), and the museum was closed, so we made our way to the cemetery to see the graves of the Moore family and the Stillinger family. It’s a beautiful cemetery with big wrought iron gates and rustic stone arches. The entire thing is surrounded by the same wrought iron fencing–I was madly in love.
[Looking inappropriately happy at the Moore family grave.]
[Long tombstone with all the family’s names.]
[Grave of the Stillinger girls.]
[Entrance to the Villisca Cemetery. It’s so gorgeous. The rock pillars do something to me.]
[This, to me, is the epitome of chic. I love wrought iron, and bricks, and decadent delapidation more than people.]
We still had a bit of time, so we did a walk about of the town. For as rundown as the city appears to be, it does have quite a few shops, though all were closed on Mondays. I was in love, of course, with the brick buildings downtown. What I wouldn’t give for a big penthouse apartment in a Victorian brick building. About had one once, I’ll have it someday. I will.
[I would happily ax somebody to have that light pole moved. It ruins the shot. The twin turrets are stunning. I WANT.]
[This kills me. Why anybody would cover a gorgeous cobblestone road with asphalt is beyond me. I hope this is someday restored.]
[Marquee of the old theater. The lovely bricks are covered in tin panels, which is hideous, but is probably for the best until somebody can afford to tuck and restore them.]
[Window of an antique shop.]
[This is the church were the Moore family and Stillinger’s celebrated before headed home to their untimely deaths.]
[We dropped by city hall, as well, but there is no information about the murders. In fact, nowhere in town, but at the house itself, is there any reference to their bloody past. The people we met were willing to talk about it, but there was no information anywhere about their claim to fame.]
[The famed Ax Murder House in the quiet town of Villisca. If it weren’t for the sign, the house wouldn’t be disturbing at all, in fact would be quite a charming starter home…if it weren’t for its bloody history.]
And now, it was time for our tour of the Murder House.