An Iowa tourist attraction got extra weird earlier this month when a recreational paranormal investigation turned unexpectedly—and somewhat mysteriously—violent.
On November 7, a visitor to the world-renowned Villisca Axe Murder House in Villisca, Iowa, was rushed to a nearby hospital after being found with a self-inflicted stab wound to his chest. The house is a familiar site to paranormal investigators, who have proclaimed it to be one of the most haunted places in America following the 1912 murders of six children and two adults whose skulls were crushed while they slept in their beds. The crime was never solved, and visitors to the house regularly report emotional, physical, and supernatural disturbances during their overnight visits.
“They play with the children, they hear voices, they get pictures of anomalies,” says Martha Linn, 77, who bought the house in 1994 and restored it to its 1912 condition, stripping the place of all electricity and plumbing and turning it into a tourist attraction. “I have notebooks from just the last two years full of what overnight experiences people have had. Very few of them go away without experiencing something.”
Those experiences cost guests $428 a night—apparently, people will pay good money to sleep in the presence of potentially malevolent spirits. Due to the overwhelming number of paranormal experiences reported in the house, it has become one of the most regularly visited sites for ghost hunters, who will often bring Ouija boards, EVP recorders (the Geiger counters of the paranormal investigator world), or the original axe from the murders into the house in attempts to stir up whatever dark forces lie within its cursed walls.
Earlier this month, Robert Steven Laursen Jr., 37, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, was one such visitor. He arrived with a group of friends for a “recreational paranormal investigation,” according to Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson. “From my understanding he was alone in the northwest bedroom, and the rest of the party was outside, and he called for help on their mobile, two-way radios,” Sampson told me. His companions found him stabbed in the chest—an apparently self-inflicted wound—called 9-1-1, and Laursen was brought to a nearby hospital before being helicoptered to Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha.
According to a Montgomery County police report, the incident happened around 12:45 AM, which is said to be the approximate time that the 1912 murders of Josiah and Sarah Moore, along with their four children and two visiting girls, took place.
“We call the Moore murders ‘America’s greatest unsolved mystery,'” says Kelly Rundle, the documentarian behind Villisca: Living with a Mystery. “The story reads like fiction, and the more you know about it, the weirder it becomes. It’s a story that needs no embellishment.”
On the night of June 9, 1912, Josiah Moore and his wife, three sons and daughter attended an evening church service before returning home, accompanied by two friends of his daughter’s who were invited to spend the night at the house. Around 7 AM the following morning, a neighbor noticed the house was unusually quiet, and when she found the doors locked and all of the windows covered, she called Moore’s brother, who unlocked the house and found his relatives bloodied and lifeless in their beds.
Local officials quickly lost control of the crime scene, where an estimated 100 people arrived to gawk at the mutilated bodies. Fingerprinting had yet to become a widely established tool of criminal investigation in the US, and the massive disturbance to the house from onlookers prevented detectives from collecting sufficient evidence for a conclusive investigation. Gouge marks across bedroom ceilings from the upswing of the axe revealed something about the killer’s height (exonerating one particularly short suspect), but these marks were in the center of the room, not above the victim’s beds, and were thought to be the killer whirlwinding the axe in a one-handed frenzy of excitement.
The bodies of Lena and Ina Stillinger were discovered in the downstairs bedroom. At the base of 12-year-old Lena’s bed, a kerosene lamp was found, possibly used to project light onto her body, which was lying in a sexual pose with her underwear missing, blood smeared across her legs, and defensive wounds across her arms. Investigators believe she was the victim of sexual abuse, and also the only member of the house who attempted to fight off her attacker.
With today’s technology and investigative techniques, the original murders might’ve been solved quite easily. While a wide array of suspicions and finger-pointing at the time divided the town into feverish hysteria, historians today identify three different possibilities for the killers: A serial killer with ties to other, similar murders, a traveling preacher with a history of sexual misconduct, and a state senator who was thought to have hired a coke-addled hitman to kill Moore. But no one was ever convicted.
A number of books and documentaries have chronicled the murders and subsequent paranormal investigations of the Moore house. They cite various individuals who claim to have seen a man with an axe roaming the hallways, or heard the desperate cries of children in their bedrooms, or become trapped inside the bedroom closet where Lena Stillinger is thought to have hid from her attacker.
But when Rundle began filming his documentary in the 1990s, there had been little talk of the house being haunted. He says that in his years of filming inside the house, he never experienced or saw anything out of the ordinary, nor did any of the previous occupants he spoke with who had lived in the house for years before it became a tourist attraction.
“The first paranormal investigators visited the house in 1999; they declared the house was haunted, and that they would identify who the killer was,” he tells me. Before this, those who visited were interested in the place merely as a well-preserved document of the past (the house is on the National Registry of Historic Places). “It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t interested in the true story of the house, because like any historical story there’s something to be learned,” Rundle says. “If people are just going in there to get scared at something they thought they heard or saw, I don’t know what they learn from that.”
Sheriff Sampson has been on the county police force since 1992, and sheriff for the last six years. He says that he’s never been called out to the house for any emergencies in the past, and refers to Villisca as just “your basic, small-town, Iowa farming community.”
The town has drawn a lot of attention since the Laursen episode, however, and both Sampson and Linn, the caretaker, say they have been inundated with media inquiries, which they hope will end soon.
“This particular incident has been very upsetting,” Linn says. “It’s publicity, but it’s not exactly the kind of publicity you desire to have. I don’t want people thinking that when they come to the Villisca Axe Murder House something’s going to happen that’s going to make them do something like that. I want them to have a good experience from the house, learn about the history, and if something [paranormal] comes about, then that’s one-up for them, I guess.”
Linn and Sampson say that Laursen has recovered from his injuries, but will not comment any further out of respect for the family.
“There is a whole body of folklore surrounding the Moore murders,” Rundle, the documentarian, says. “And that in itself is fascinating, so long as you keep in mind that it’s folklore, not fact. So I just regard the paranormal sightings as a contemporary version of that—it’s an extension of the folklore that began on the day of the murders. Folklore can tell you more about how people see themselves and how they see the world than it does the facts surrounding the case.”