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True crime. Casually done.

The Villisca Axe Massacre

Halloween: the only time of year when it’s acceptable to dress infants up like blood-spattered serial killers, or to stumble in on Harley Quinn getting off with Count Dracula in a nightclub toilet. Truly, this is one of our greatest cultural achievements. 

After witnessing the carnage and terror of the season, I was inspired to dig for a story which draws upon all the best elements of All Hallow’s Eve: bloody violence, creepy legends, and of course, a good old-fashioned haunted house. And not the kind of ‘haunted house’ where  underpaid teenage actors in zombie make-up try to give you jump-scares. I’m talking about a proper horror house, with proper horror credentials. 

Martha and Darwin Linn had no idea that was the kind of house they were buying, when they sealed the deal on 508 East 2nd Street back in 1994. The quaint little farmhouse in Villisca, Iowa was much like any of the other little 19th century wooden farm houses across the Midwest, bar the fact that this particular lot had been abandoned for some time, and was on the brink of being condemned. 

The couple planned on renovating their new piece of real estate into a small-town museum; a life-sized diorama of what the American dream might’ve been like for the average family at the start of the 20th century. What they weren’t aware of, was that the family who actually lived there back in those days, met a nightmarish end.

It wasn’t long before that horrific legacy revealed itself to the new owners. Soon after starting work on the property, Martha and Darwin started receiving… visitations… 

From nutjobs: every other day there would be a knock at the door from some amateur ghostbuster or self-anointed psychic (and they didn’t even have the good manners to say ‘trick or treat’). Their credentials may have been laughable, but the story they came to share was no joke. 

As they listened to the warnings of these uninvited guests, the couple were forced to reckon with the fact that their idyllic little house actually held a lot of dark history in its walls: eight brutalised bodies, strange rituals, a mad priest, and a mystery that will haunt this little Iowa town for the rest of its existence. 

This is the story of the Villisca Axe Murders…

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The Midnight Visitor 

To discover why exactly a shadow hangs over that quaint little country home, we have to jump back almost 110 years, to 1912. Back then, 508 East 2nd Street was a loving family home, occupied by the Moore family. Father Josiah (or Joe) was a respected local businessman. He and wife Sarah had four children: Herman (11), Katherine (10), Boyd (7), and the youngest, Paul (5). 

The family were beloved regulars at the Presbyterian church just a few minutes down the street, which is where they spent the day on June 9th, 1912. That Sunday, the church was holding a special festival for Children’s Day; each of the Moore kids and their friends joined in by performing recitations for the congregation. 

The festival wrapped up around 9:30pm, which is when the Moores said goodbye to their friends and neighbours, and walked back home. They were accompanied by two young girls who had a sleepover planned with daughter Katherine. These were the Stillinger sisters, 12-year-old Lena and 8-year-old Ina. 

They stayed up together for a few more hours, sharing a plate of cookies, before turning in for the night. When the family settled in, they didn’t even bother locking their doors. Nobody really bothered doing it back then, since the little railroad town of 2,500 rarely saw much trouble. 

Everyone knew each other, and thought they had nothing to fear. Well, that was pre-June 10th: soon the residents of Villisca would have a very good reason to lock and bar every entryway, and hide behind the sofa with a shotgun. 

Villisca Ax Murder House
Villisca Ax Murder House. By Jason McLaren, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

That night, the Stillinger sisters took the guest room on the ground floor, while the rest of the family retired to the two bedrooms upstairs. As the clock struck midnight, this pleasant little domestic scene was about to turn into a blood-soaked nightmare. 

It was then that — under the cover of total darkness — a stranger crept up to the door of the house, eased it open, and slipped inside. He spotted the outline of an oil lamp on the kitchen table. 

Carefully, he lifted it, and twisted off the glass chimney from the top, then bent the wick so that it would only produce a faint glow to navigate by. It would have been just enough light to illuminate the head of the axe, clutched in his left hand; this was Josiah’s, lifted from the wood pile in the backyard.

This axe-wielding spectre then crept down the ground floor corridor, passing by the room where the two sisters slept soundly. Carefully, he crept up the stairs, and again walked right past the room where the Moore children slept. Somehow, he knew exactly where he was going.

It was the door of parents Josiah and Sarah which creaked open first. Hovering by their bedside, the axeman set down the lantern, and with both hands raised the axe high above his head. With all his force, he brought the blunt end crashing down into Josiah’s forehead, most likely killing him instantly.

Sarah only had the briefest moment to react; a wound on her arms suggested she raised it to protect herself, before the axe dropped on her skull too. And I’m sorry to say, on the way back downstairs, the killer never passed by the other doorways. 

This midnight visitor lingered for a while afterwards, organising the crime scene in a… bizarre fashion, before slipping out into the night, and locking the door behind him. 

Just like that, he was gone as quick as he came…

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Carnage and Curiosities

Several hours after sunrise on Monday morning, an elderly widow named Mrs Peckham started to wonder why the Moore homestead was strangely quiet. She lived in the next house down the road, and was used to hearing the sound of the kids shouting and playing from morning until night. She tried knocking, to no avail, and discovered that the door was locked. 

She decided to get in contact with Joe’s brother Ross, who worked at a drugstore in the town centre. He arrived with a spare set of keys at 8am. Right away, he agreed something was off: there was a sheet hanging down over the glass in the doorway, and more covering the windows. 

As he walked through the dining area, Ross noticed a plate of uneaten food left on the table, along with a bowl of murky water. Strangest of all, there were more sheets and pieces of clothing hanging over the mirrors in the hallway. 

He went to the bottom floor guest room first, creaking the door open to reveal the outline of two bodies, covered up with blood stained bed sheets. That was plenty for Ross.

Marshall Henry “Hank” Horton continued the search shortly after, and in the guest bedroom noticed the axe leaning against the wall, still partially stained with blood. Next to a strange red package wrapped in a towel. He disappeared upstairs to check the rest of the house, and came out to report “somebody murdered in every bed.”

“Murdered” feels like a severe understatement. But I can understand that the level of brutality he just witnessed would have been hard to convey. See, the axeman didn’t just deal one fatal blow to each victim. After murdering Josiah in his sleep, he dealt a further 30 blows to his head — the post-mortem attack was so vicious, that the sharp end of the axe gouged into the ceiling!

It’s thought that the killer probably returned to do this after completing his first circuit of the bedrooms, so as to not risk waking anyone. He performed that bloody ritual a total of eight times over (which is one montage I’ll pass on, thank you very much).

What came next was some kind of bizarre funeral ceremony, which could only have made sense to the killer himself. He raised the sheets over the faces of some of the victims, and covered the rest with clothes. He then rummaged through the drawers and closets, collecting sheets and clothing to cover every reflective surface in the house.

Whatever he hoped to accomplish by that, it seems he left satisfied. The marshal, on the other hand, couldn’t make sense of it. The crime was weirdly both maniacal and methodical. 

For example, the killer appears to have known exactly which bedroom to target first. They also knew that using the blunt end of the axe would prevent it from getting lodged in a wound and botching the whole thing (I sincerely hope none of you ever need to use that little tooltip). 

This was a killer who came prepared, and who was willing to stay long enough to wrap up the demands of whatever outlandish logic was in their head. Some believe he was even so prepared, he was already in the house when the family got home, hiding in the attic. Or alternatively, an indent in some bales of hay in the barn suggested he might have lain in wait there, watching them for hours through a knot hole in the wall. 

There’s just one last mystery that remains about the crime scene: what was that package on the floor of the guest bedroom? It was about four pounds, and soaked the towel wrapping with a faint red liquid. Marshall Horton peeled back a corner of the stained linen, and recoiled in horror at the sight of… some bacon?

Yeah, turns out the killer decided to lift a hunk of uncooked bacon out of the ice box and dump it there for no apparent reason. Alongside it was a small piece of metal — part of a keychain which never belonged to the family. If this was some kind of satanic ritual, it was a bloody strange one.

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With all that evidence left behind at the scene, including the half-cleaned murder weapon, you’d have to hope the cops would be able to glean something useful from the scene. Judging by the reddish tint, it appeared as if the killer had washed his hands in that bowl of water on the table, but we’re a few decades too early for the DNA science needed to gain anything from that.

In those days it was all about good old-fashioned fingerprints. That’s why the police detectives, minister, and coroner all trod very carefully when they were called to the scene the morning of the discovery — being careful not to disturb crucial clues. As they each took turns processing the hellish scene left behind by the axeman, a crowd of locals gathered outside; rumours spread fast in a small town, and around 100 people were keen to take a look inside. 

As the investigators cleared the scene, they told the crowd it was absolutely crucial that they not disturb the crime scene — the very scales of justice and righteousness depended upon their restraint. So the crowd pinkie promised they’d only peer in from afar… and then as soon as the coroner’s wagons turned the corner, the lot of them spilled inside and started gawking at the gore like a bunch of degenerate 4chan users.

Before any fingerprint collection experts could get to the scene, these dark tourists had already smeared their filthy hands and shoe soles all over the place. One of them even decided to lift a little souvenir to remember the visit by. You’re probably thinking  a little piece of jewellery, or maybe a family photo. Nope: this maniac pilfered a fragment of Josiah’s shattered skull

In case any of you proper true crime diehards are wondering: no, you cannot find that piece of skull on EBay.

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The Suspects 

For the first time in its history, every door in Villisca was bolted shut, and every household in town was locked and loaded, should the axeman try to strike again.

That day, the police had run a search of the town and surrounding countryside, scouring it for any outsiders who might seem suspicious. The leading theory was that the attack was the work of a vagrant or drifter, passing through town. Several potential perpetrators were picked up, both locals and outsiders with histories of violent tendencies, but all had alibis.

Bloodhounds were brought in to try to narrow down the search, but by then the crime scene had the scent of 100 gawking idiots in it, alongside that of the killer. Add to this the fact that the murderer would have had the opportunity to hop on a train out of town long before the bodies were even discovered, and the chances of a fast and dramatic conclusion were nil. 

Around 30 trains stopped in Villisca every day, several in the early hours of the morning. The killer could have had as much as a five and a half hour head start on his pursuers. Once the hope of a quick capture evaporated, investigators and his men settled in for the long game: interviewing the townsfolk one by one to discover if anyone had the motive to harm the Moore family. 

Which led them to…

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The Jealous Competitor

First to the stand today is a man named Frank Jones: local businessman and state senator. The connection between him and Josiah Moore began long ago, when the latter was the top salesman in Senator Jones’ farm equipment company. After seven years at the firm, Josiah decided to strike out on his own in 1907, becoming the top competitor of his old boss.

It was well known that the two men harboured a lot of bad blood afterwards — rumours even flew around that Josiah was secretly sleeping with Senator Jones’ daughter-in-law! By 1912, if they were ever on the same street, the first one to spot the other would cross the road to avoid them.

Would that be enough reason for him to massacre the entire Moore family though? It sounds extreme, but some in town thought he could go that far. The town quickly split into two factions, which were essentially drawn along sectarian lines: the Presbyterians attacked the senator, while his own Methodist congregation defended him. 

Among the former, the theory went that Jones, being a well-to-do gentleman of 57, must have hired someone else to carry out the killing for him. Because of course, when you want to get a hit done clean, the first person you’d go to is the deranged maniac who pulverises skulls and stays to cover every mirror. 

A private investigator named James Wilkerson reckoned so. In fact, he was confident he had found the exact maniac hired by Jones: a man named William Mansfield, who in the years after the Villisca Murders became the prime suspect in the axe murder of his own family in Illinois. 

This was enough to drag the good senator into lengthy court proceedings before a grand jury, but sadly for the PI, his suspected hitman had a bulletproof alibi, proven by his payroll records from a job over in Illinois, hundreds of miles away.

So the Senator basically had to put his life on hold for basically no other reasons than he had a bit of a disliking for a guy who happened to be on the wrong end of a massacre. No charges were brought against him, but by the time the whole affair was put to bed, Senator Jones was just Mr Jones once again — his political career was demolished.

Even though the evidence is thin on the ground here, some people believe that’s precisely because of how powerful a man Jones was. Could it be that he pulled some strings to smother the case against him in the crib? The father of the Stillinger sisters believed so, and took that belief to the grave. 

Or is it just that a bunch of townsfolk needed an excuse for a bit of light sectarian bigotry, and couldn’t admit they were wrong? 

Once you hear the case for our next suspect, I think you might make up your mind…

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The Irreverent Reverend

On the morning of the Children’s Day service in Villisca, a steam train rolled into town, and off it stepped a strange-looking little man, with a sharp face, and pale, leathery skin that stretched taut over his cheekbones when he smiled. As if this peculiar looking little fellow didn’t stand out enough, he also had an absolutely ridiculous accent, being an Englishman. 

This was the Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. Not exactly a model Christian, by any measure. 

After coming to the States in 1904, Kelly travelled with his wife, working as a travelling preacher across the Midwest. Along the way, he got himself in some trouble for his various sexual deviancies, including peeping through people’s windows, and sending ‘obscene material’ in the mail.

The people of the little farming communities north of Villisca knew the mad reverend as much for his unsettling antics as his visiting sermons. It was widely known that he had once suffered a massive mental breakdown, and even spent time in an institution. It was his involuntary flock who brought the preacher to the attention of the cops in the first place, when they reported the rambling, incoherent letters he had been sending out in the weeks and months prior. 

When the cops started digging into his alibi, the stars aligned: not only did he take the steam train to Villisca that day, he even went to the same church service as the Moores. Dressed in his Sunday best, Kelly peered on with that creepy, leathery smile of his as each of the children got up one by one to give their recitations. 

Where he went after the festivities, no one knows. The next time anyone could confirm Kelly’s whereabouts was 5:19am, when he alighted from a train travelling away from Villisca, and allegedly struck up a conversation with an elderly couple about the great tragedy of that weekend: an entire family, slaughtered in their sleep, such a terrible loss.

The bodies wouldn’t be discovered for another three hours…

If true, that sounds like an open and shut book, and we’re not even half done. For one, Kelly was left-handed, and the blood spatters in the bedrooms at the Moore house suggested to the coroner that the killer was too. Then as the cops interviewed the townsfolk, some of them reported having seen the reverend stalking the Moore family about town.

Then there’s the fact that, although it was deemed that no sexual assault took place, mother Sarah Moore’s nightgown had been raised up, and her underwear removed. That’s definitely in keeping with what was already signed and sealed on Kelly’s psychological records.

And then, a dry cleaner in a town nearby reported receiving a bag of bloodstained clothes from Reverend Kelly just days after the killings! He’s not even trying to hide it! The man was so confident he’d get away with it, he reckoned he could save the few dollars it’s take to get a new shirt and trousers.

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Much of this information was discovered by the investigators several weeks after the murders. Meanwhile Reverend Kelly had been playing detective himself. Exactly two weeks after the murders, local law enforcement was offering a tour of the Moore property to bring concerned parties up to speed on the evidence so far.

Among those who showed up was DCI Kelly, Scotland Yard’s finest. Who was, of course, Reverend Kelly with absolutely no disguise. Because of course, whenever shit goes down in Iowa, the London Metropolitan Police always get their top detectives on the first steamer across the Atlantic, post-haste.

Was this Kelly returning to the scene of the crime, perhaps for a proper look at the carnage he unleashed in the darkness? It all does seem to fit pretty neatly. The coverings on the mirrors could be explained by the deep shame of a religious killer (himself was raised by vicars) who’s tormented by his own deviancies. He covers the faces to hide from his victims, then covers the mirrors to hide from himself. 

In case it’s not clear, I’ve basically already made up my mind here: I sentence Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly to hang by the neck until dead. However, the question remains, why didn’t the courts agree? Kelly was finally indicted for the murders in the summer of 1917, and while awaiting trial the cops even managed to wrangle a confession out of him:

“I killed the children upstairs first and the children downstairs last. I knew God wanted me to do it this way. `Slay utterly’ came to my mind, and I picked up the axe, went into the house and killed them. [God whispered to me] ‘suffer the children to come unto me.’”

But somehow, by the divine grace of the almighty, he never ended up on the gallows for it. The confession was later shot down in court after claims of police brutality, and the prosecution’s case fell apart not once but twice. Kelly was acquitted by two juries, once in September and again in November. 

Perhaps he was the victim of some widespread scapegoating by the desperate and devastated Villisca community (on account of being a notorious regional oddball). Or maybe he bumbled through a series of unfortunate coincidences that made an innocent (albeit pervy) preacher appear like a monster…

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The Serial Killer

If you’re content to let the reverend off the hook, there’s one last possibility. The original theory that some anonymous wandering vagrant may have slaughtered the Moores then went on his way is still a perfectly valid one. Not only that, what if he killed again? If this were true, then the Villisca Axe Murders may have been the work of one of America’s very first recorded serial killers.

In 1913, a pattern was discovered by Special Agent Matthew McClaughry of the Justice Department. He noticed a string of similar crimes across the Midwest in 1911 and 1912: a family axed in Colorado Springs; a brutal steel pipe massacre in Monmouth; two more slaughters, this time in Kansas. The last of these happened just days before the Villisca Axe Massacre.

But even that wasn’t the coup de grace for this killer; that would be his homecoming. If Agent McClaughry’s theory is correct, then the killer’s trail led right to his childhood home in December 1912, when he brutally murdered his own mother and grandmother in Missouri. It was for that last crime alone that the cops arrested him: Henry Lee Moore, an ex-con who was released from confinement just months before the sequence began.

The idea of a deranged axe murderer cutting a bloody path back to his mum’s house is perfect slasher movie fare, but as far as real-life theories go, it may be a little too easy. Moore was essentially a drifter, there couldn’t have been many records of where he was at any one time. You could basically place him anywhere if you wanted — wherever is most convenient for the theory.

And the fact an axe appeared in all but one of those crimes is almost completely redundant. I mean, those things would have been left sitting out in the back gardens of every house with a wood-fired furnace, stove, or fireplace. Which, 110 years ago in the American Midwest, would have covered pretty much every house in every town. Killers didn’t even have to bother bringing their own weapon in those days; their victims just politely left one out back and left the door unlocked, how quaint. 

So if that common link is basically meaningless, what about the other key identifiers of the Villisca Axe Murderer? None of them appear to have been repeated. All those little idiosyncrasies like the uneaten meal on the table, the bowl of bloody water, the covered mirrors, the bacon. Our man was pretty damn explicit with his calling cards. Are we to assume all that mental-ness was just a temporary little fad that the serial killer got over in a night?

This doesn’t only stand for Henry Lee Moore either; over the years there have been plenty of attempts to connect Villisca to a longer serial killer pattern, and they all seem patchy at best. To me, it seems like the killer’s processing of the Villisca murder site was so oddly specific, you’d expect to see the rituals retreated with that same neurotic precision. Which is why we won’t spend any more time dealing into the various iterations of this over the years — they all rely on a lot of inference to draw their patterns. 

And with that, our exploration of the facts of the Villisca Axe murder case is basically at a close. We’re no closer to putting a fine point on the culprit, and I’m sorry to say that this is where the case stalled out over 100 years ago, and has remained so since. 

However, that’s not where the story of 508 East 2nd Street ends…

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The Haunting of Moore House 

We’re back again at the beginning of that dark, solemn week in 1912. Almost the entirety of Villisca’s 2500 townsfolk have come out to pay their respects to the horse drawn carriage procession carrying the Moore family to their final resting place. However, many believed that they weren’t quite put to rest that day.

Tales spread around town that the abandoned house was still occupied by the tormented spirits of those who died there. And the stories never let up once a new set of brave owners took up residence at 508. In fact, over the past one-hundred years, they’ve only kept accumulating.

Multiple owners have reported phenomena such as ghostly cries from the bedrooms, clothing ripped out of drawers and strewn over the floors, doors slamming shut without reason. Much of the activity allegedly emanates from the attic, where some still believe the killer hid out, waiting for the family to fall asleep. 

And it appears as if whatever’s lingering there isn’t exactly friendly. One previous occupant claimed that he felt a hand clamp around his wrist as he sharpened a knife, which  spun in his hand and cut him.

If you stay in the house past midnight, you might well see a strange fog drift through the rooms at the precise time the murders occurred, or spot a shadowy axeman at the end of your bed! Spooky stuff. All of this was enough to force one family out just one day after moving in. 

When the ghost hunters rocked up at the door to bring Martha and Darwin Linn up to speed on all the blood, guts, and haunting we’ve just covered, they were stunned. Nobody had warned them that their quaint little domestic history museum was actually the true final resting place of eight miserable spectres.

So did they call a priest to purify the house, and finally lay the tormented spirits of the Moore family to rest? 

Did they fuck.

Instead, they slapped a sign outside reading “Villisca Axe Murder House” and started charging $10 a pop for entry. Because of course, the tortured souls of those poor, innocent victims are trapped there anyway, so why not turn their eternal prison into a spooky ghost zoo? It’s what they would’ve wanted… 

Pretty soon all the paranormal enthusiasts in the area were jumping at that wonderfully affordable chance to contact the other side, solve the cold case through the power of spirit magic, or just get a good scare. And they continue to visit to this day.

For a (frankly extortionate) $428, some even stay the night to conduct their “research” in the hours most crucial to the case. Owner Martha said of the house: 

“I feel like there’s something there […].  If indeed there are spirits, you have to realize that six of them are children […]. I don’t know if the murderer still exists there, but there have been a few things that’ve happened that aren’t exactly calming […] but I don’t like to dwell on it.”

Well, you would say that love. Would kind of kill the business otherwise. Sounds to me like a few creaky pipes, draughty windows, and a dumbass who cut his finger and blamed it on a ghost. I’m no expert of course, unlike the Travel Channel’s esteemed Ghost Adventures Crew, who filmed an episode of their paranormal investigation show there back in 2010. 

They claim to have recorded the voice of the murderer himself, saying “I killed six kids”… which is strange, because literally nobody suggested the killer died there… But if we go any further down this rabbit hole of half-baked “spirit science” we’ll be here until next Halloween. 

I think we’ve shown plenty of evidence that there is a hell of a lot to be terrified of out there without having to dive into the supernatural: killer drifters, perverted preachers, and the horrific violence which flesh and blood humans are capable of enacting on each other when at their most vicious and depraved. Although I’m not sure any of those would make for a good Halloween costume…

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Wrap-up

And that brings us to the end of the tale of the Villisca Axe Murders: a century of gory crime scene reports, traumatic memories, and dubious hauntings. It was a crime that might have been solved, were it not for the catastrophic irresponsibility of a bunch of gawking locals who contaminated the scene early on, perhaps stealing away any chance of justice for the Moore family.

As a result, we’re left today balancing a few possibilities. Whether you believe that the senator managed to wangle his way out with his connections; or some serial slasher was annihilating families across America; or like me you’re convinced the evidence against the reverend seems a bit too clear to be ignored, the reality is that 110 years later, all we’ll ever have is speculation. 

In closing for today: I’m not a big believer in the supernatural, but maybe it’s better to be safe than sorry: if I ever become the victim of a brutal murder, please call an exorcist or something, before anyone tries to monetise my tormented soul. I’d rather not spend my afterlife chasing around idiots with tape recorders.

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Dismembered Appendices

1. On the exact same night of the Moore murders, there was an incident at another house in Villisca which suggested the killer might have tried to kill again that quickly. Local telephone operator Xena Delaney might have been the axeman’s second victim that night, when she heard footsteps approaching her door, and watched the handle start rattling. Thankfully, being a single woman, she was one of the few in town who actually locked her door.

2. 1912 wasn’t the only time the cops have been called out to 508 East 2nd Street. In 2014, they were called to interrupt one of the supernatural sleepovers; a team of ‘paranormal researchers’ were playing Ghostbusters, when one cried out for help. When the others found him, he had stabbed himself in the chest. That’s dedication to the grift, I’ll give him that. 

Images

https://allthatsinteresting.com/villisca-axe-murders

https://www.desmoinesregister.com/picture-gallery/life/2013/12/06/photos-inside-the-villisca-ax-murder-house/3898221/

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