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Ghostly Encounters at the Villisca Axe Murder House and Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

A ghost hunter shares unsettling anecdotes and audio from his investigations at two of the creepiest sites in America.

When Jeff Scott Cole pursued degrees in anthropology, he didn't foresee where his studies would take him: the creepy world of paranormal investigation. 

Now a professional ghost hunter, Cole and his partner, Johnathon Robson, trek across America in pursuit of haunted locations—armed with gadgets like a "spirit box" and an "Ovilus." Their adventures have taken them to abandoned manors, dilapidated sanitariums, and two of the most notorious buildings in the country: Iowa's Villisca Axe Murder House and West Virginia's Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA). 

In the following passages from Cole's book, Ghostly Encounters, he describes his experiences at both sites, recaps their histories, and shares audio evidence he collected during his visits. Consider it an inside look at what goes on behind those closed, peeling doors—but without the risk of losing your head...or your sanity.


Read on for an excerpt of Ghostly Encounters, and then download the book.

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Ghostly Encounters

By Jeff Scott Cole

Ghostly Encounters

By Jeff Scott Cole

The Villisca Axe Murder House

After a four-hour car ride out of Cedar Rapids, through a sea of cornfields and wind farms, we were at last at our destination: the worn and weathered town of Villisca, Iowa. The day was gray, cold and damp—fitting weather it seemed, for an investigation at this infamous paranormal house of horror. There is indeed a veil of gloom and sadness that overtakes you when you step onto the property and look for the first time at this nondescript, unimpressive little house, particularly on a dreary autumn day. Since the horrendous and tragic events more than a century ago, the stain of death still hangs heavy on the place.

In my opinion, no honest, life-loving person who knows what happened here can look upon this place and not be moved. To me, the irony of the Villisca house is that it is so small and plain—what you and I would think of as a starter home for a newlywed couple or young family. And in that context, that small reflective connection, the real horrors unfold.

These are the facts: On the evening of June 9, 1912, Mr. Josiah Moore (a prominent local businessman) and his family, along with sleepover guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger (friends of daughter Katherine), returned home from a children’s pageant at the nearby Presbyterian church. The church social concluded at 9:30 p.m., with the family and their guests returning to the house somewhere between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m. It was the last time they were seen alive.

Related: The Villisca Axe Murders 

By 7:00 a.m., next-door-neighbor Mary Peckham felt something was wrong. The daily chores at the Moore house had not been started, and the normally active child-filled house was uncharacteristically silent. Upon investigation, she found the house was locked (unusual at the time), and after several unanswered knocks, she immediately called Josiah’s brother, Ross Moore. Ross quickly called the drugstore Josiah managed; he was not there and had not been seen. He then hurried to the house.

When he arrived, both Ross and Mary circled the house, attempting to peer into and even rap on the curtain-drawn windows. There was no reply, not a sound.

Nervously, Ross used his spare key and unlocked the home, tentatively entering the front parlor. Mary remained on the porch. Nothing appeared out of place and all was still, not a sound disturbing the silence. Ross called his brother’s name, then Sarah’s; there was no reply. Stepping to the doorway of the first-floor bedroom, his eyes fell upon blood-spattered walls and blood-soaked bedding. Panic-stricken, he bolted from the scene, frantically shouting at Mary to call the sheriff.All eight people in the house were dead . . . their heads bludgeoned and hacked far beyond recognition, Josiah worst of them all. A bloodstained axe was found nearby.The victims of the Villisca massacre included:

  • Mr. Josiah B. Moore; father, age 43
  • Mrs. Sarah Moore; mother, age 39
  • Herman Moore; son, age 11
  • Katherine Moore; daughter, age 9
  • Boyd Moore; son, age 7
  • Paul Moore; son, age 5
  • Lena Stillinger; friend, age 12
  • Ina Stillinger; friend, age 7

To describe the massacre as savage and vicious would be an understatement. Eyewitness accounts suggest that each of the victims received no less than thirty strikes each; however, modern investigators discount the claims as exaggerations, explaining that so many blows would have reduced the skulls to piles of fragments. Of course, that does not lessen the brutality: all of their heads had been horrifically battered and smashed—six children, two adults.

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  • Photo Credit: Jennifer Kirkland / Flickr (CC)

In the hours that followed, while calls for additional law enforcement were made and the coroner and local doctors summoned, the stunned and curious began to assemble. Some even entered the premises, wanting to see the horror for themselves, with items and mementos taken as souvenirs. By late afternoon, the National Guard arrived and effectively secured the house, but it was too late. The damage had been done, the crime scene completely compromised.

With virtually no physical evidence other than the murder weapon, detectives and law enforcement officials made every possible attempt at finding and capturing the fugitive murderer(s). Bloodhounds were brought to the scene, searches conducted, trails and other possible escape routes plotted and followed, transients and vagrants apprehended. All leads were followed, but to no avail.

In the weeks and months that followed, the real detective work began. With literally no useful physical evidence, Sheriff Oren Jackson and Federal Agent M. W. McClaughry began exploring motive in the hopes of uncovering suspects. Of the eight victims, Josiah was by far the most brutally ravaged, suggesting the murders might have been a revenge or vendetta killing.

Exploring Josiah’s past revealed some interesting clues. This led detectives to suspect the possible involvement of Frank Jones, a well-known local politician who had served in the House of Representatives and state senate. Jones was also a wealthy businessman who had previously employed Josiah Moore in his general merchandise business. After several years of employment, the two apparently had a bitter falling-out that led to Josiah Moore quitting his job and beginning a competing general merchandise business of his own. The rivalry would become toxic when Frank Jones eventually lost the exclusive and highly lucrative John Deere plow contract to Josiah Moore’s new business venture. If that wasn’t enough, rumors swirled through town that Josiah had had an affair with Frank Jones’s daughter-in-law.

Of course, axe murdering is a messy business, not the kind of work for respectable businessmen and politicians. However, respectable businessmen and politicians have the ways and means to employ others to do their dirty work—someone like a deranged vagrant, one William Mansfield. Though the theory was both plausible and convenient to some, lack of evidence and a corroborated alibi would ultimately eliminate Mansfield as a viable suspect.

Related: The Killer Encyclopedia: A List of Real-Life Murderers, from A-Z 

The most likely of suspects came in the form of a diminutive preacher from nearby Macedonia, Iowa—the Reverend George Kelly, who was in Villisca at the time of the murders. Described as scrawny, excitable, and not very fond of children, Kelly had been present at the children’s program at the Presbyterian Church and had departed town at approximately the same time the bodies were discovered.

Rumors abounded regarding Kelly and his strange behavior. It was believed that he had sent a bloody shirt to be laundered that night, but no such evidence was ever found. It was rumored he had been heard muttering “Slay, and slay utterly,” the night of the murders, but this too had never been substantiated. Perhaps the most damning circumstantial evidence came during his scheduled train ride out of Villisca, where he was heard discussing the murders hours before the discovery. Then, in 1917, while still under investigation for the murders, Kelly confessed . . . only to recant the confession at trial. Ultimately, he was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The Villisca Axe Murders remains one of the saddest unsolved murder mysteries in American history, and though all we can do is nod our heads in morose bewilderment, we can’t lose sight of the fact that these grisly crimes occurred during a truly bygone era, when the absence of knowledge, science, and technology worked to a killer’s advantage. In the decade that followed, quantum leaps in the advancement of investigation and analysis would likewise bring a revolution in criminology that would directly impact everyone and everything, from the federal level all the way down to the local level.

Though horrendous crimes still occur every day, there is solace in knowing that society has in fact learned lessons from the past, and even though there are still unsolved crimes that plague law enforcement, a repeat of the Villisca slaughter is unlikely to happen again. I can’t help but wonder if somewhere, buried deep in some forgotten trunk or footlocker, some key piece of evidence is waiting to be revealed.

Though horrendous crimes still occur every day, there is solace in knowing that society has in fact learned lessons from the past, and even though there are still unsolved crimes that plague law enforcement, a repeat of the Villisca slaughter is unlikely to happen again. I can’t help but wonder if somewhere, buried deep in some forgotten trunk or footlocker, some key piece of evidence is waiting to be revealed.

Rumors abounded regarding Kelly and his strange behavior. It was believed that he had sent a bloody shirt to be laundered that night, but no such evidence was ever found. It was rumored he had been heard muttering “Slay, and slay utterly,” the night of the murders, but this too had never been substantiated. Perhaps the most damning circumstantial evidence came during his scheduled train ride out of Villisca, where he was heard discussing the murders hours before the discovery. Then, in 1917, while still under investigation for the murders, Kelly confessed . . . only to recant the confession at trial. Ultimately, he was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The Villisca Axe Murders remains one of the saddest unsolved murder mysteries in American history, and though all we can do is nod our heads in morose bewilderment, we can’t lose sight of the fact that these grisly crimes occurred during a truly bygone era, when the absence of knowledge, science, and technology worked to a killer’s advantage. In the decade that followed, quantum leaps in the advancement of investigation and analysis would likewise bring a revolution in criminology that would directly impact everyone and everything, from the federal level all the way down to the local level.

Related: 6 Paranormal Cases Investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren That We Can't Stop Talking About 

Though horrendous crimes still occur every day, there is solace in knowing that society has in fact learned lessons from the past, and even though there are still unsolved crimes that plague law enforcement, a repeat of the Villisca slaughter is unlikely to happen again. I can’t help but wonder if somewhere, buried deep in some forgotten trunk or footlocker, some key piece of evidence is waiting to be revealed.

After paying our respects to the Moore and Stillinger families at the Villisca Cemetery, we went to the house, set up all of our equipment, and got the investigation under way. Oddly enough, unlike many other locations we have investigated, the Villisca house lacked that uncomfortable vibe and feeling that you’re not alone or that you’re being watched.

Since the house is in fact quite small, we were set and recording in about thirty minutes, effectively covering each of the three bedrooms, the attic, the parlor, and the kitchen area. For the next eight hours we respectfully attempted to interact and communicate with any of the house’s lingering spirits. This included simply asking questions, reading stories, and engaging in child’s play.

As is so often the case, we found the house to be very quiet throughout the investigation. There were no apparitions or shadow people, no disembodied voices such as the female we had heard two nights earlier at Edinburgh. Though we had certainly hoped to observe and document dramatic paranormal activity, like slamming doors or voices intelligently answering our questions, we both knew you can’t judge the level of activity until you have patiently and deliberately reviewed all of the raw audio and video. Thus, after a lengthy and thorough investigation of the Villisca Axe Murder House, we pulled our sleeping bags from the car, let the audio and video equipment run . . . and caught a few hours of sleep on the living room floor . . . strange, to have slept so soundly under the same roof and mere feet away from such a horrendous death scene.

Though the Villisca house did not deliver the dramatic experience that makes for good reality television, Villisca did not disappoint. Here is the evidence we obtained:

Based on this evidence and the evidence of other investigative teams who have posted their evidence in the public domain, it is obvious that several spirits inhabit the house. The voices of children are the most common, but there is also the voice or voices of one, possibly more, adult males who decidedly don’t like children. This has led some to speculate that the spirit of the Villisca axe killer also resides in the house.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

ghostly_encounters_excerpt
  • Photo Credit: Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr (CC)

Rather than provide a floor-by-floor description of the asylum, I will instead share what I consider the highlighted areas, where a heightened creep factor and higher levels of reported paranormal activity correspond with the sad and horrific realities that make TALA one of the most haunted, if not the most haunted asylum in the United States.

Before taking a closer look at some of the madness and sadness that defines TALA, it’s worth noting some of the causes or reasons why a person could be and higher levels of reported paranormal activity correspond with the sad and horrific realities that make TALA one of the most haunted, if not the most haunted asylum in the United States.

Before taking a closer look at some of the madness and sadness that defines TALA, it’s worth noting some of the causes or reasons why a person could be admitted or committed to an asylum like TALA.

ghostly_encounters_excerpt
  • Photo Credit: Skyhorse Publishing

This is some pretty bizarre stuff here! Causes and symptoms of insanity were wide, diverse, and often times completely subjective. Though legitimate mental and physical handicaps could lead to a committal, family members—usually the male head of the house—could just as easily commit a spouse or a child to an asylum, often with little or no supporting evidence. The truth is, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, society operated from a completely different set of norms. Back in the day, American society was male dominated, and women, frequently referred and characterized as the lesser or softer sex, were treated as such. In the realm of the asylum, it often took little more than the accusation of an angry husband or father to commit a wife or family member. A husband wanting to pursue an affair with another woman needed to do little more than simply drop off his spouse at the asylum, claim some completely fabricated symptom or malady, and effectively dispose of her—anywhere from a few months to a few years—to a lifetime.

Related: Corridor of Horrors: The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 

Naturally, many of the committals were justifiable. With little understanding of conditions like Down syndrome and autism (conditions once referred to as mental retardation), we can understand how or why even loving family members felt helpless in providing for the afflicted. Of course, not all committals were reasonable or justified, and based on the menu of causes listed above, some motives were (by today’s standards) completely criminal. Want to access your wife’s inheritance? Drop her off at the hospital. Tired of dealing with a troublesome child? Drop him or her off at the hospital. Tragically, this all-too-common practice of integrating healthy and sane individuals with the legitimately insane destroyed lives and turned well-intentioned institutions into hellholes.

Even in institutions as large as TALA, it is heartbreaking to consider the existence of a Children’s Ward, which was located on the second floor. Could a child find a measure of happiness and joy in this place? Perhaps in the early days, but as the patient population began to expand in the 1920s and 1930s and explode in the 1940s and 1950s, God only knows how good . . . or how bad, life could be for a child within these massive walls. Yet now, in the twenty-first century, the occasional voice or laugh of a child can be heard and sometimes recorded within these halls and quiet rooms.

With three cemeteries and literally thousands of burials, mostly in unmarked graves, death was not uncommon in the asylum. Though disease and epidemic were the most common causes of death in TALA, murder was also known in these now-quiet halls. TALA legend tells of a nurse who went missing and was discovered months later, her body stuffed under a back staircase. Another legend tells of a patient-against-patient murder, where the victim was stabbed seventeen times and bled out while crawling to the nurses’ station.

Perhaps the most horrific murder in TALA’s dark past surrounds two patients ganging up and killing a third patient in the not too distant past; HIPPA laws prevent us from identifying the victim and the assailants. Though the murder is a matter of historical record, specific details are a bit sketchy. In one account, the assailants brutally beat their victim to death. In the second and far more gruesome account, it is said that after beating their victim senseless, the assailants attempted to hang their victim with bedsheets. When the hanging failed to achieve the desired result, the killers dragged their victim to a nearby bed and crushed his skull under a steel bedpost. When questioned about their motives, the ringleader is said to have explained, “He was taking up my oxygen.”

Do these ghosts still reside in TALA?

There are many people who believe they do. What about a child named Lily or an invalid woman named Ruthie? Who’s to say, and can we ever really know for certain?

I tend to think along the lines of Robert, who noted when we discussed the number, the nature, even the identity of TALA’s many ghosts.

Though our devices and technology are beginning to give us indications of who these people were, I don’t know if we’ll ever be certain. I think what’s more important is that despite the tragic circumstances and even horrors that took place here, this was still the only home many of the residents and patients ever knew. That had to be of some comfort to “those who lived here and many who died here. There’s no question, there are many ghosts here at TALA, and that shouldn’t shock or surprise anyone. After all, where else did they know, where else would they go?

Want to keep reading? Download Ghostly Encounters by Jeff Scott Cole today.

Ghostly Encounters

By Jeff Scott Cole

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Lineup to continue publishing the creepy stories you love.

Featured photo: PatrickRohe / Flickr (CC); Additional photos: Jennifer Kirkland / Flickr (CC); Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr (CC)  

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Created on 12 Apr 2018

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