Friday, October 23, 2009

The Villisca slaughter

Villisca, Iowa, 1912.

On Sunday, June 9, sisters Lena and Ina Stillinger left for church. Rather than following their original plan to spend the day and the night with their grandmother, they were invited by their friend Katherine Moore to come home with her and spend the night there. The Moores, along with Lena and Ina Stillinger, attended the Children's Day Exercise that Sunday; afterwards, they left for the Moores' house, arriving between 9:45 and 10:00.

The next morning, June 10, the Moores' next-door neighbor, Mary Peckham, realized that she hadn't seen any of the family outside doing the morning chores, and that the house was unusually quiet. Sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., she knocked on the door, then tried to open it when there was no answer.

The door was locked from the inside. Mary called Josiah Moore's brother Ross.

When Ross arrived, he looked in a bedroom window, then began knocking and shouting, in the hopes of waking one or more of the occupants. He then searched through his keys and found one that fit the lock. Ross entered the house and opened the door to the bedroom off the parlor. 12-year-old Lena and 8-year-old Ina were lying dead on the bed, skulls crushed, and the bedding was stained with blood.

Ross Moore returned to the porch, where Mary Peckham was waiting, and told her to call the sheriff. Hank Horton, the City Marshall, soon arrived, and found the bodies of the Moore family upstairs. Josiah Moore and his wife Sarah, and their four children - Herman, Katherina, Boyd, and Paul - had all been murdered in the same way as the Stillingers downstairs. Josiah and Sarah were 43 and 39, respectively. The children were 11, 9, 7, and 5 years old. The murder weapon is assumed to have been an axe that was found at the scene (it had belonged to Josiah Moore). The murders are believed to have taken place between midnight and 5 a.m., which was the hour when neighbor Mary Peckham first entered her own yard.

Villisca is a small town, and news spread fast. Curious residents came to - and into- the house, effectively contaminating the crime scene. As many as one hundred people may have entered the house to see the bodies before the National Guard sealed off the area. In 1912, fingerprinting was still in the early stages, and DNA testing, of course, was decades in the future. The murderer of the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters was never found.

In the early 1930s, the house was rented by a young couple, Homer and Bonnie Ritner. Bonnie was pregnant with her first child at the time. It wasn't long before Bonnie began hearing noises at night, then awakening to see a man - with an axe - standing at the foot of the bed. When their doctor informed Homer that Bonnie's increasing hysteria could cause a miscarriage, Homer took to sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed at night, while Bonnie slept. It wasn't long before Homer, too, began to hear noises; eventually, he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Finally, the couple moved out.

Decades later, the house was rented by a couple with two daughters. The father of the family was a trucker, which meant that he was often absent from the house. When he was away, his daughters often awoke at night to hear other children sobbing. Sometimes, their dresser drawers were ransacked, and the clothing in them was scattered around the room. The girls told their parents of these events, but the parents could not believe it - until the night when their father was sharpening a knife in the kitchen. The knife shot from his hand, then stabbed him in the palm.

The family left the house that same night.

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