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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 2

Updated: May 11, 2023

After the Lizzie Borden axe murders in 1892, an epidemic of axe murders ravaged the country for about twenty years. Two particular cases stand out as the worse, not only in the number of victims, but in the brutality of the crimes. Those were Villisca, Iowa, with eight victims (June 9, 1912) and Allentown, Florida, with nine victims (May 14, 1906). Both cases had many of the signature characteristics of Paul Mueller’s alleged MO.

Villisca was a quiet and thriving farming community in southwest Iowa located on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad line. It had just built a new Carnegie funded library, had two newspapers, a new public square park, a new factory development initiative and had just printed a promotional tourist atlas. The city planners had great hopes for the booming town. But on the night of June 9, 1912 a horrifying event would put Villisca on the map for a reason they could never have imagined. Eight poor souls, most of them children of the prominent Moore family were killed by an axe murderer. A similar murder just four days before in Paola, Kansas, on the same railroad line had the Midwest reeling. Now the devil had come to Villisca!

The killer had hidden in the attic of the home, the investigators surmised, since they found two spent cigarette butts there. Between midnight and 5pm, he first started in the master bedroom, killing Josiah and Sarah Moore. Josiah was the most brutally attacked and investigators found that both the blade and blunt end of the axe had been used on him. Then he went to the children’s room and killed Herman (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur (7) and Paul (5). He then returned to the master bedroom and rendered more blows upon the parents. In his exertion, he knocked over a shoe that had filled with blood.

The murderer then went downstairs to the guest bedroom. There Ina (8) and Lena (12) Stillinger were unfortunate guests sleeping. Lena had been awakened and she suffered a defensive wound on her arm. The assailant had pulled up Lena nightdress and sexually molested her, the investigators believed, after death. The axe was left in the guest room.

The murderer had covered the faces of his victims, the mirrors and the windows with clothing. He took a two-pound slab of bacon from the refrigerator that investigators believe he used to masturbate over Lena. He also got a bowl of water and washed his hands before leaving.

As with other crime cases, embarrassing facts came to light with the murder investigations that complicated theories. The Villisca case was muddied by the fact that Josiah Moore, the father, was widely rumored to having an affair with Dona Jones, daughter-in-law of Iowa state senator Frank Jones. This was widely known because Dona had a bad habit of arranging her secret trysts on the phone, which were on party lines and were notoriously eves-dropped upon by nosy neighbors. The gossip was that Dona’s husband, as well as her senator father-in-law, were not happy about her infidelity.

Another strange occurrence further puzzled investigators when a peculiar—perhaps even unhinged— Presbyterian preacher, Reverend Lyn Kelly, confessed to murdering the family, only to later recant and claim police brutality.

Another suspect was a Missouri man named Henry Lee Moore, who just months later in December 1912 would hack to death his mother and grandmother in Missouri. He was convicted of that crime and sent to prison in March 1913 for life. The Villisca case was never solved.

The deadliest axe murder case in the U.S. was not Villisca but a family of nine that were killed on May 24, 1906 in Allentown, Florida. Reverend Ackerman, his wife, who had just given birth to a baby the day before, was killed with all seven of their children. The house had been almost completely burned after all had their heads crushed by the blunt end of an axe. The oldest child was a 14-year-old girl who was found near the front door, apart from the other children. The father, mother and newborn child were found outside the home. The other five children were still in their beds. Mr. Ackerman had a gun by his side and appeared to be trying to defend his family.

Much of the evidence was burned with the Ackerman home, whereas the Villisca home was not burned. Some detectives theorized that cases in which the home was burned involved a confrontation, usually with the man of the house. The murderer might have been especially enraged or agitated when he encountered resistance from his victims. In Mr. Ackerman’s case, he had gone outside with a gun, supposedly pursuing the assailant.

Covering the faces of his victims, as well as mirrors and windows was a particular signature of Paul Mueller, the James maintain. Another signature: using a kerosene lamp with the globe removed. Both the Ellsworth and the Paola murders right before Villisca, as well as Villisca, had these signatures. And in all three cases the heads of the bodies were covered with clothes or towels.

But in the Ellsworth case, there was an especially strange occurrence that puzzled investigators. William Showman, his wife Pauline and three children were all killed. The Showman family owned a new Western Electric Model 317 telephone, that had a wooden case with two metal cup bell ringers at the top and a black mouthpiece that stuck out from the cabinet below. The telephone had startling human facial features. Investigators found the phone had been covered up with a heap of clothing by the murderer. At first the investigators thought he must have wanted to muffle the possible ringing of the phone. But detectives who analyzed the psychosis of the killer thought differently; the phone’s features looked like human eyes and the murderer didn’t want to be seen—by anyone or anything.

The Ackerman murder had taken place near a pine forest logging and turpentine camp that employed many black workers. Some police theorized that the killers might be black lumber camp workers. That theory gained horrific momentum with the next murder case following the Ackermans. That took place two months later in Barber Junction, North Carolina, also near a lumber camp. A group of black men would be wrongly accused and three of them lynched by an angry white mob. Racism and scapegoating men of color would be a tragic underlying theme of the axe murders in the South.

Part of the modus operandi of Paul Mueller—or whoever the murderer was—seemed to be choosing small towns that had little or no police staff. Therefore, the investigations were often shockingly inept, the crime scene contaminated, often by scores of gaping onlookers who traipsed through the home and crime scene, obscuring fingerprints and footprints, handling items that may have held valuable clues, even taking gory mementos. Onlookers also fed the gossip mill with their own highly prejudiced, unprofessional and uninformed theories.

The two main identification systems used at the turn of the century by law enforcement were the Bertillon system and fingerprinting. The Bertillon system had been used since the late 19th century and measured skeletal structure (such as finger length) to produce a result that uniquely identified a person. In the early 1900’s, the new technique of fingerprinting was introduced to America’s police forces and supplanted the Bertillon system because it was more accurate. A central repository for fingerprint records was not established until 1905, and the Bertillon method was still being widely used in the early 1910’s. However, because investigations were so poorly conducted in most of the small towns where the crimes took place, fingerprints, footprints and other clues were often overlooked or contaminated.

Detectives and journalists of the time also were more provincial in their perspectives and focused on very local or regional, rather than national, cases. Most did not realize other similar cases in other states could provide patterns but there were exceptions. In fact, the Villisca Review had drawn comparisons to the previous axe murders in Paola, Kansas, just four days before Villisca:

“A theory carrying considerable weight is that the [Villisca] crime was committed by the same man who murdered Rolland Hudson and wife Anna, at Paola, Kansas on the night of Wednesday, June 5, four days previous to the Villisca murders, the circumstances being almost identically similar.

At Paola, as at Villisca, a lamp, without a globe, was found sitting on the floor. At Paola a pickax is thought to be the instrument of death. There, as at Villisca, the motive was not robbery, for the murdered woman's diamond rings were unmolested on her fingers; and the murderer covered his retreat so carefully that not a vestige of a clew [sic] was found.

The man and wife were murdered as they lay sleeping and showed no signs of a struggle. W. J. Hobin, a newspaper man representing the Kansas City Post, who was assigned to cover the Paola tragedy, came directly from that city to Villisca, and he told The Review that to all appearances the crime at Villisca was done by the same man, as that at Paola, and, upon receiving a special permit to enter the Moore home here, found the missing globe from the lamp which sat on the floor in the downstairs bedroom. Fingerprints on the globe will be used as a means of identification, as will those on the ax found leaning against the wall close to the lamp. (The Villisca Review, June 13, 1912)

A couple of detectives at the time had also noticed patterns. M.W. McClaughry, who Beth Klingensmith had studied as part of her 2006 thesis, was the son of Major Robert McClaughry, who was the director at Fort Leavenworth Prison and had pioneered the new Bertillon system of identification and record keeping. His son, M.W., had become a pioneer in forensics as well and had formulated a theory that the same serial killer had started his spree in Colorado Springs, killing six victims in two incidents, across the street from each other, then in September, 1911, continued with two incidents in October, 1911 at Monmouth, Illinois and Ellsworth, Kansas, another two incidents in June, 1912 at Paola, Kansas and Villisca, Iowa, and culminated in the murder of two elderly widows in Columbia, Missouri on December 17, 1912. The Columbia victims were Mary J. Wilson and her daughter, Georgia Moore.

And the perpetrator, McClaughry maintained, was Henry Lee Moore, the son and grandson of the women, who was convicted of the Missouri crime and sent to prison in March 1913. In May 1913, McClaughry, who had assisted authorities in Villisca, theorized that Moore was responsible for all six crimes due to the similar circumstances of each crime. McClaughry pointed out that the crimes started after Moore’s release from the Kansas Reformatory at Hutchinson in 1911 and stopped after his imprisonment in Missouri. However, Klingensmith and the Jameses concluded that although he certainly murdered his mother and grandmother, he did not commit the other murders.

Another detective, C. W. Tobie, worked for the Burns Detective Agency and had worked on the Villisca case for some weeks in July and August before taking a new job as manager of the agency’s Chicago office. When four members of the Pfanschmidt family were murdered in Payson, Illinois, only about three months after the Villisca case, he assigned himself to the Illinois case as well. Although the Payson police had already arrested and charged the adult son, Ray Pfanschmidt and a jury soon convicted him, on appeal Tobie testified for Ray and he won.

According to both Klingensmith and the Jameses, the Pfanschmidt case marked the end of the trail for the mystery serial killer. The trail went stone cold. The Jameses theorized that their “man on the train,” Paul Mueller, had gone back to Germany. Perhaps, having detectives and the press beginning to make connections between Mueller’s patterns of butchery and psychological signatures made him nervous.

SEE PART 3 ON SATURDAY. We’ll discuss the similarities of the last murders and a similar one in Germany that may have been committed by Mueller, as well as racist undercurrents that added to the death toll of Mueller’s carnage.

PHOTOS: (1,2,3) The Moore home in Villisca has been restored to its original style furnishings at the time of the murders. Two adults died in the upstairs master bedroom, four children in the back room. The home is open for overnight stays and is a favorite of those fascinated by crimes, serial killings and the paranormal. (4) Dona Jones was the daughter-in-law of Iowa state Senator Frank Jones and was known to have been having an affair with Joe Moore, the father who was killed. (5) Villisca Presbyterian minister Lyn Kelly was regarded as very strange. He admitted to killing the entire family, then recanted and claimed police brutality. (6) A map of the route and sequence of the axe murders German immigrant Paul Mueller was believed to have committed between 1898 and 1912. (7) The victims of the last three axe murder cases believed to be committed by Paul Mueller in the U.S. took place during three months in 1912: Paulo, KS, Villisca, IA and Payson, IL. (8) On September 17, 1911, Mueller is believed to have committed two multiple axe murders the same evening, just across the street from each other: Mrs. Alice Burnham and her two little children, Alice (6) and John (3); and Mr. and Mrs. Wayne and their baby. Both Mr. Burnham (who was not home at the time) and Mr. Wayne were members of the Modern Woodmen of America, and could have possibly met Paul Mueller, who worked as an itinerant lumberjack. (11) The Western Electric Model 317 telephone with human-like facial features that the Showman family had when they were killed in Ellsworth. (12) Five black men were wrongly accused of four axe murders of the Lyerly family in Barber Junction, North Carolina. Three of the men were lynched by an angry white mob. Racism resulted in at least seven men of color being wrongly accused and murdered by mobs.

You may also enjoy these related posts:

• The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 1

• The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 3

Originally posted August 15, 2019 on Facebook and 252,587 views / 13,283 likes


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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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