A spooky endeavor: DI editors spend night at Villisca Ax Murder House

On June 9, 1912, the Moore family and two friends were murdered in their beds. The killer, who slaughtered them with an ax, was never found. Today ghost hunters, curious people, and in this case, journalists, spend the night at the house to see whether or not it’s haunted.

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Katie Goodale

The Villisca Ax Murder House is seen in Villisca, Iowa on Sept. 30, 2020. Villisca is the site of one of the oldest cold cases in Iowa in which eight people were murdered in their beds. The killer was never found, sparking many theories and interest in the case. The house, which was renovated and reopened as a museum to the public, is now the site of paranormal activity and attracts thousands of tourists every year. The date on the sign, June 10, 1912 is the morning the Moore’s and Stillinger children were found murdered.


Listening to the whispers of disembodied voices was not something I planned on falling asleep to. The voices, reminiscent of parseltongue from the Harry Potter book series, caused me to open my eyes and examine the 19th century-esque living room where the rest of The Daily Iowan team slept.

No one was talking. No one was moving. I shivered, knowing full well that whoever, or whatever was talking, was not a being of this world — but that’s what student journalists like me, Madison Lotenschtein, get for spending the night at the Villisca Ax Murder House. A group made up of myself, Projects Editor Brooklyn Draisey, Visuals Director Katie Goodale, TV Director Bailey Cichon, and Documentary Director Jake Maish stayed the night in the house to learn about its history and see if we could spot some ghosts.

On June 9, 1912, Josiah Moore, his wife Sarah, and their children, Herman, Mary Katherine, Arthur, Paul and two of Mary Kathrine’s friends, Ina and Lena Stillinger, slept in the same house but never woke up. All eight people were murdered by a mysterious killer with an ax. Since then, the family’s tragic story has caught the intrigue and curiosity of people across the state of Iowa and the U.S. Tour guide Johnny Houser said paranormal investigators and the public have all been keen on spending the night in the house.

Their main reason for spending the night? To see if the house is truly haunted, of course. Leaning on an old-fashioned black iron stove earlier that afternoon, Houser told the DI that in his 15 years working at the house, he has stayed the night over 400 times. Visitors not only bring their own beliefs and camera/paranormal gear, they also sometimes bring toys for the “ghost children” to play with.

The upstairs attic is seen inside of the Villisca Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa on Sept. 30, 2020. Villisca is the site of one of the oldest cold cases in Iowa in which eight people were murdered in their beds. The killer was never found, sparking many theories and interest in the case. The house, which was renovated and reopened as a museum to the public, is now the site of paranormal activity and attracts thousands of tourists every year. (Katie Goodale)

These gifts can be seen scattered across the wooden floors of the children’s bedrooms, most of which consist of glassy-eyed dolls with broken plastic smiles, bouncy balls, and toy sports cars. Houser added that the three-bedroom house had been remodeled to look as it did when the Moores lived here, complete with old fashioned furniture, including the beds, which The DI team chose to not sleep in.

Walking into the house felt like a moment frozen in time, as though someone had locked up every memory, word, and action inside it and thrown away the key. According to Houser, the murderer placed sheets over each mirror in the house. To manufacture the same look from June 9, 1912, the mirrors were covered with white sheets. Haunting.

When he first came to the house, Houser said he was super into UFO conspiracies, but thought the idea of ghosts was “stupid.” That was until he heard footsteps while he was alone in the house. While cleaning one day, the guide heard someone walk upstairs and shut a dresser door. Thinking someone had broken in, he walked up the stairs to confront what he believed to be a trespasser.

“So, I go up to kick this guy out — nobody’s up there,” he said. “[I] talk to my buddies afterwards and they’re all saying ‘Oh, houses make noise.’ Like, I’m fully aware of what a footstep is at this point in my life, I’m not a complete idiot. So that’s what kinda got me started staying the night.”

The tour guide has also witnessed objects moving, chairs rocking, and has even heard full conversations upstairs — when no one else was inside the house — but has never seen a ghost. One time, a photography student took Houser’s photo with a civil war-era camera in the attic. The photographer believed that the lighting was too dark and that the photo wouldn’t turn out, he said. When the photo developed, he noticed a shadow behind him.

“Then I got to looking at the shadow and its shoulders kind of went straight down and mine kind of went out,” Houser said. “So that kind of instantly made me think of the shadow and I’m not about that business at all.”

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A bible sits open to the book of Job with photographs of the Moore family in the living room inside of the Villisca Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa on Sept. 30, 2020. Villisca is the site of one of the oldest cold cases in Iowa in which eight people were murdered in their beds. The killer was never found, sparking many theories and interest in the case. The house, which was renovated and reopened as a museum to the public, is now the site of paranormal activity and attracts thousands of tourists every year. (Katie Goodale)

It was still daylight, Houser had left, and the DI crew was capturing footage and taking notes of the two upstairs bedrooms and the attic, where the killer supposedly hid out until the family and friends were asleep. The team headed down the steep steps, with myself heading down the last. Right before I (Madison) reached the bottom, I heard footsteps behind me. Confused, I whirled around, thinking someone from the DI had come behind me, but no one was there. It wouldn’t be the only strange happening in the house that night.

House owner Martha Linn said her husband, Darwin, put a bid on the house in 1994 when it came up for sale despite her objections, and neglected to tell her that they had won the bid for two months. The couple owned and ran a museum on the history of Villisca at the time but Martha sold it after Darwin died in 2011 so she could focus solely on the house. The 83-year-old was born and raised in Villisca.

Between 1912 and 1994, the house had been remodeled and modernized, adding a bathroom and doing away with the porch to make the kitchen larger. Martha and Darwin used photos, court records, and details from people who had lived in the house before its modernization to restore the home over the course of two years. Linn said they received no grant money to restore the house and didn’t have a lot of money of their own. They were farmers, so Darwin figured out the restoration himself and found what they needed from other old houses that were being torn down.

“It was all on our pockets and Darwin’s ingenuity,” Linn said. “So, we came up with what we thought was a reasonable facsimile of what it looked like in 1912.”

Linn said they had inadvertently picked a good time to restore the house, with movies such as The Sixth Sense and Candyman creating a buzz for the supernatural. The buzz has yet to die down, with paranormal investigators — both amateur and professional — coming to the house day and night to find proof of ghosts.

Even though the house is fully booked for overnight stays in October, Houser said that they did have to briefly shut down once the COVID-19 pandemic made its presence known in Iowa. Overnight tours have still been popular, he said, but the house’s income has taken a hit from a lack of daytime tours.

A dresser sits inside of Katherine Moore’s bedroom inside of the Villisca Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa on Sept. 30, 2020. Villisca is the site of one of the oldest cold cases in Iowa in which eight people were murdered in their beds. On the night of the murders, Katherine had lent her room to friends Ina and Lena Stillenger, who lived about seven miles out of town and were staying the night. Ina and Lena were the first to be discovered dead by neighbor Mary Peckham. The killer had covered all of the mirrors in the house with sheets. (Katie Goodale)

“It’s just kind of destroyed Iowa tourism a bit,” Houser said of the pandemic.

Beyond being drawn in by ghost stories, plenty of people come to the house to learn about the crime itself and learn from it. Linn said schools and universities will bring classes to hear the story, with one college professor from Nebraska bringing her criminal justice students every other year. Judges and police officers will also come for continued education to learn about the crime and what happened after.

“So, I get all kinds of people, that’s for sure. Doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers,” Linn said.

The DI crew did a bit of our own paranormal investigation while staying at the house. Using a twist-turn-on flashlight, we attempted to ask if any spirits were in the house by having them turn the flashlight off, to no effect. However, when the light was being used for its intended purpose, sitting untouched on a table while the group spoke, the light changed in intensity with no one touching it.

While some of the group did hear thumps or other sounds that mimicked that of someone else in the house, recordings of the group trying to speak with spirits did not provoke a response. More than anything, I (Brooklyn) felt a great sense of unease while lying on a couch, struggling to fall asleep. Bathed in the brightness of one flood light, this house felt like the only place on Earth, and we would never escape it, just like those who may be lingering after their murder.

We formed one friendship during our stay — a stray cat that wandered into the house like it owned the place. Its yowling at the door as morning light came in through the windows created the feeling of a spell breaking in the house. It reminded me that the outside world was still out there, and I was free to go to it at any time. The air was chilly as we began to stir and go outside, and while the house still felt like a moment out of time, it was one I could step away from.

While the DI team packed up their cars that morning, the same question, the same mystique and wonder lived rent-free in everyone’s minds: “Is this house haunted?”

Simple questions do not always warrant simple answers. Each team member held a different opinion on whether the house was haunted. Some said they couldn’t definitively say whether it’s haunted but heard whispers and experienced other odd occurrences in the house.

For Houser, possible conclusions are endless. However, he said he doesn’t believe that ghosts attached to the house because the family’s lives were tragically cut short.

“You know, they’re tied to the house and they can’t move on because they don’t have justice or peace with the whole thing,” he said. “I don’t know how much of that I buy, because I’ve never, ever heard of ghosts being trapped in a location until Beetlejuice because of the sandworm.”

Perhaps, he added, haunted places can be created by people. Guests can possibly bring spirits with them into the house, that maybe something was there before the murders, or, could there be some spots in the world that are just “bad?”

“Are there weird spots in this world like that?” Houser said. “…I’m like, OK, it’s real now, so why is it haunted? You know, the same question, like, how come you never have a ghost come that died two weeks ago? How come it’s always 100 years? The lady that died 100 years ago. Is it ghosts? Or is it just little slips in time?”

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