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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

Who Was The Man From The Train?

In June of the year 1912, an entire household was brutally killed in the town of the Villisca, Iowa. It is important to note that no one was ever brought to justice for the crime. Evidence now suggests that it was in fact just one of the many families murdered by the same killer who was named the 'Man from the train'.

Moore family's visit to the church

The church service had ended at about 9:30 p.m. and as the small group slowly made its way back through the center of town towards their home, they had attracted no small amount of attention from the people they encountered. It was a warm and pleasant evening and whilst the adults maintained a slow and leisurely pace, the older children giggled and laughed aloud as they chased after their younger siblings. In addition to his own children, Josiah Moore's wife, Sarah, had arranged for two of the younger daughters from the neighboring Stillinger household to spend the night at their address.

It was a three block walk from the Presbyterian Church back to their house and neither Josiah nor Sarah were in any rush. After all, allowing the children to tire themselves out might make their bedtime a less labored affair. As the party had passed by the town Marshal, Hank Horton, they stopped momentarily to exchange pleasantries. Some of Villisca's other residents had demonstrated a tendency to mock the man for taking his duties a little too seriously, but Josiah had always been reassured by the diligent and confident manner with which Horton went about his business.

When they eventually reached the Moore residence, Sarah gently ushered the children into the kitchen for a serving of milk and cookies, before settling them down for the evening, whilst her husband made his way over to the woodpile to fetch fuel for the fire. After loading up with an armful of logs, Josiah paused briefly using his foot to nudge the axe that was lying on the floor there a little further under the pile, in order to conceal it from anybody who might subsequently be walking by. It was the smallest and most insignificant of acts, one that he had repeated almost every evening since he and his family had lived at the address. However, Josiah could not have known that, he was being keenly observed from only a short distance away.

His task complete, he walked back over to the house and shut the door behind him. The woodpile sat a few feet away from the barn, which stood silent and foreboding, in stark contrast to the candle light and sounds of merriment emanating from the main residence. Hidden away inside the outbuilding's darkened interior, a man lay propped up on his side, staring intently across the yard through a small knothole in the wooden wall. He had watched with interest as the happy group had returned to the location, his gaze resting for a time on 12 year old Lena, the older of the two Stillinger girls.

One by one, the lamps in the Moore household were slowly extinguished as the family settled into their beds. He felt a warm and pleasant feeling finally rising within him. It would not be long before he could finally satisfy the painful urges that had grown to consume him, not long at all.

The Next Morning Shocking Scene

The following day, the family's elderly neighbor, Mary Peckham noticed that nobody had emerged from the Moore household that morning to tend to their animals. She took the liberty of letting the family's chickens out for them and then proceeded to knock on the front door. After several attempts, she was still unable to raise anyone's attention from inside and found that all the building's windows had been covered over with either curtains or bed sheets.

With growing concern, she returned home and called Josiah's brother Ross Moore, who worked at the nearby drugstore. Russ arrived at his brother's home a short time after, but also failed to elicit any response from inside. Eventually, he used the spare key that Josiah had given him to gain entry, but still had to use a degree of force to open the front door as it has been wedged shut from the inside with clothing. Ross cautiously stepped into the house through the empty parlor, immediately apprehensive. There was a deafening silence, accompanied by a slightly odd smell which hung in the air.

The first room he arrived at was the guest bedroom, which was where he found the dead bodies of the two young Stillinger girls. The bed sheets covering them was saturated with crimson blood. Stumbling back out of the darkened house and onto the sun-drenched porch, he yelled at the neighbor, Mrs. Peckham, who had been waiting outside that something terrible had happened and told her to call for Hank Horton. He was still sitting there, head buried in his hands, when the town's Peace Officer arrived half an hour later.

With Ross too frightened and upset to venture back inside, it fell to the martial alone to search the rest of the building. Horton emerged a few minutes later, ashen-faced, with the full realization that he was completely out of his depth. A hardworking and well-meaning local official, his primary duties involved dealing with petty thefts, and the aftermath of bar room brawls. He was not prepared for something of this magnitude.

Recovering his composure, he immediately started to issue orders. Phone calls were made, summoning the sheriff from nearby Red Oak along with men from the National Guard to secure the crime scene. Bloodhounds were also requested to assist in the search of the offender. Horton then headed into town, enlisting the help of a doctor and the photographer from the local drugstore, to help him document what he had found.

The debilitating horror and disgust which had consumed Hank Horton as he slowly passed from room to room also deeply affected the deputies and soldiers that subsequently arrived to guard the scene. Every occupant inside the house was dead, savagely dispatched with the use of Josiah's axe, which had been left propped carefully against the wall in the guest bedroom, next to the lifeless bodies of the Stillinger children. Investigators would later find two fresh cigarette-ends up in the attic, indicating that the murderer might have concealed himself there after entering the property and had waited until he was fully certain that everyone was fast asleep.

The first to die were Josiah and Sarah, both battered to death in the master bedroom. Sarah's skull had been caved in with the blunt end of the axe, but the murderer had then rotated the weapon using the bladed end for her sleeping husband's head. From there, he'd moved on through the other family bedrooms, bludgeoning Herman, Marry, Arthur, and five year old Paul to death, again with the axe's blunt end.

It appeared that after this, he had for some unknown reason, returned to the parent's bedroom and again attacked Josiah's face with the weapon, hitting it so hard that Moore's eyes had liquefied under the relentless pressure of the heavy blows. The last to perish were the Stillinger girls. The positioning of Lina's corpse suggested that she had been the only victim to have woken up during the massacre. She laid slightly further down the bed than her younger sister, as if she tried to wriggle free from her attacker's grasp, with a wound to her upper arm that indicated she had held it outstretched in a feeble effort to shield herself on the murderer's blows.

Lena's night clothes were pulled up and her underwear had been removed, before being used by the killer to wipe the blood from the handle of the discarded axe. This was not the only grisly and unnerving detail to be found. One of Sarah's shoes, which had been placed underneath her bed had filled up with her blood, before being knocked over by the attacker when he had re-entered to inflict further damage to her husband's remains.

The killer had been deliberate and methodical, taking his time as he went about his deadly business. Cupboards and drawers had been emptied of bedding and clothes, which had been used to hide the faces of all the victims, to cover up the windows and mirrors in the house and to which the external doors closed. He had also inexplicably moved a four-pound slab of bacon from the ice box to the guest bedroom, poured a bowl of water to wash his hands and then left it on the table along with the remnants of a small meal, which he had apparently prepared. Dr. Cooper would note in his report that each victim had been killed by repeated blows from the axe, between 20 and 30 strikes each in some cases. There were indentations on the ceilings of each bedroom, demonstrating the killer had swung the axe down from some height, grazing the roof beams as it passed.

The Investigation

Word of the murders quickly spread beyond the town's borders, meaning that when the bodies were recovered, a substantial crowd of people from all over the county had come to watch what was taking place. As darkness fell and the tracker dogs finally arrived, the residents hastily retreated to their homes and locked their front doors. The streets of Villisca were no longer a safe place to be at night.

Keen to remain involved in the investigation, Horton had trailed behind as the sheriff and his deputies used the bloodhounds to track the killer's route away from the Moore residence. There was some commotion as the dogs paused briefly at the front door of Frank Jones, a prominent local businessman, before suddenly moving off again. Eventually, they lost the trail at the nearby Nodaway River, unable to identify which direction the murderer had taken after crossing the water. Inquiries at local hotels and guesthouses failed to identify any potential suspects and the stationmaster was unable to recall seeing any suspicious passengers arriving or departing the town via the train station.

By the end of the first 48 hours, the authorities had no further leads to pursue. With no state police or FBI in existence during that period, a fund was organized in order to pay for a private investigation into the murders. There were four major investigative agencies operating in the United States at the time of the incident and it was to the Kansas Office of the Burns Detective agency that the state of Iowa turned. Agents were dispatched to the town and through a combination of undercover work and public appeals, a number of suspects were identified and arrested.

The Various Suspects

Josiah Moore had been a popular and upstanding member of the community with no known enemies, but he never had a good relationship with his brother-in-law, Sam Moyer. When witnesses confirmed that during a family argument, Moyer had once threatened to kill Moore, he was arrested and interviewed. However, the evidence against Moyer was non-existent and as soon as he produced an alibi, he was released.

The next to be detained was a local itinerant named Andrew Sawyer. The day after the murders he had approached a nearby railway crew, his clothes sodden and dirty, asking if any work was available. His foreman had contacted the sheriff to report that Sawyer kept on making repeated references to having just come from Villisca and knowing more about the case that he was prepared to let on. The deputies who arrested Sawyer testified that he had immediately become enraged, threatening to cut their heads off, but it was later proven that he had actually been in police custody in Osceola on the night of the murders.

A convicted killer by the name of Henry Moore (no relation to the victims) was later interviewed by the detectives, as he had murdered his mother and grandmother with an axe, but there was again insufficient evidence to place him before a jury. Two years after the murders, the Burns Agency dispatched another agent to Villisca, in an effort to resurrect the now stalled investigation into the slayings. The newly assigned detective's motivations for accepting the case, though, were less about seeking justice and more about seeking wealth.

His name was James Newton Wilkerson and he was a deceitful and greedy soul, who had built a moderately successful career by manufacturing and twisting the circumstances of each case he had been assigned to fit his desired outcome. But with the Villisca investigation, this technique would be taken to a whole new level. Immediately upon his arrival in the town, Wilkinson seized on the fact that the bloodhounds had paused momentarily at the front door of Frank Jones and set about pulling together a case against him. Since the murders, Jones had successfully campaigned to be elected as a senator. He was the owner of a number of local businesses, including a tool company that Josiah Moore had once managed for him.

When the popular and easygoing Moore had left this position to start up his own business, a significant amount of Jones's existing customers had followed him. Using the story as the motive for the murders, Wilkinson threw himself into a very public campaign to get Jones indicted for the crime. He sought out the politician's rivals and business competitors for funding, and held public meetings, taking the word of any lunatic or drunk as solid fact, until he had finally constructed a sufficient narrative to put before a grand jury.

Unsurprisingly, not one of the witnesses that Wilkerson brought into the courtroom had any credibility. Few were from Villisca or had ever been to the town and many were just seeking notoriety by attaching themselves to the court case. But Wilkinson was not to be deterred and when his first attempt to convict Jones failed, he decided to change tactics. In July of 1914, two years after the deaths of the Moore family, an Illinois resident, and army veteran named William Mansfield was arrested on suspicion of using an axe to kill for members of his own family. The new indictment that Wilkinson brought before the court maintained that Jones had ordered the murders of the Moore family and it paid Mansfield to carry out the act.

Frank Jones fought the allegation tooth and nail and after six long years, both he and Mansfield were cleared of the charges but the damage caused to the wider investigation of the Villisca axe murders was irreparable. Eventually, Wilkerson's career would end in disgrace. When it was discovered that he had been using money for the case to fund a political career of his own, he was removed. Several years later, he was then sacked altogether, after being caught having an affair with the wife of a client.

The last suspect to be charged with the killings was George Kelly, a Church Minister who had spoken at the service Moore's had attended on the night of their deaths. Something of an eccentric, he had attempted to shoehorn his way into the early days of Hank Horton's investigation, but had been warned off due to his obvious mental health issues. In 1914, Kelly was committed to a mental facility, after trying to persuade a 16 year old girl to sleep with him and whilst being held there it was alleged he had confessed to the Villisca murders. He was tried at court twice for the crimes and released on both occasions when it was proven his account bore no resemblance to the actual crimes themselves.

The Man From The Train

It was not just the Savage and brutal nature of the Villisca axe murders that caused such alarm for the local residents, but also the fact that the crime was committed at the very heart of their community. With the benefits of modern transport, communication and educational systems, it is easier now to evaluate and understand such an incident, but to the people of that era, the frenzied and audacious nature of the act could only mean one thing: the killer must have had an existing link not only to the victims, but also to the town itself. This closed line of thinking unfortunately meant that the investigation into the incident would never be sufficient to catch the murderer. A serial killer who used the nation's train network to stay one step ahead of his pursuers and had already spent a decade affecting his grisly technique. The individual who slaughtered both the Moore family in the Stillinger girls as they slept in their beds would eventually become known as 'The Man From The Train'.



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