The Renovation of the Villisca Axe Murder House on Lot 310
On June 10, 1912 in the small town of Villisca, this small frame house on Lot 310 became the site of one of the grisliest murders in Iowa history when the family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests were bludgeoned to death as they slept.
Originally built in 1868 by George Loomis, Lot 310 became the property of Josiah B. Moore in 1903. Josiah, his wife, Sarah, and four children made the house their home until their deaths 9 years later. After the murders, the house remained in estate until 1915 when it was purchased by J.H. Geesman.
Over the following ninety years, the “Villisca Axe Murder House” had 7 additional owners, including the Villisca State Savings and Loan, whose company name appears on the title from 1963 to 1971. In 1971 the house was titled to Kendrick & Vance and only a month later retitled to Darwin Kendrick. Mr. Kendrick remained the name on the title until the house was sold again to Rick and Vicki Sprague on January 1, 1994. It was only a few months later that a real estate agent approached Darwin Linn, in hopes of interesting him in the property.
At the time, the Linn’s owned and operated the Olson-Linn Museum located on the town square in downtown Villisca. The house on Lot 310 was in danger of being razed had Darwin not decided to purchase it. Darwin originally low-balled an offer on the property, told the agent it would expire at midnight on the first of the year and promptly forgot about it. Needless to say, he was a little surprised when the call came just before the deadline and he became the proud owner of one of the notorious crime scenes in the country. It took him a few months to confide in his wife and after Martha recovered from the shock, they set about obtaining the necessary funds to restore the home to it’s original condition at the time of the Villisca Axe Murders of 1912.
In addition to the 13 owners listed on the deed, the house was often used as rental property. Although the Linn’s have begun to compile a list of the rental tenants the process is slow and often difficult due to the number of renters who stayed in the home for a very short time.
Sometime between 1936 and 1994, the house underwent quite a transfiguration when the front and back porches were closed in, plumbing and electricity were added and the outbuildings were removed or replaced.
Using old photographs, the Linn’s began the renovation in late 1994. Work on the home included the removal of vinyl siding and the restoration and repainting of the original wood on the outside, the removal of the front and back enclosures, the addition of an outhouse and chicken coop in the back yard and the removal of all electrical and plumbing fixtures. The pantry in the original house had been converted into a bathroom and was also restored to its original condition. Using testimonies given during the coroner’s inquest and grand jury testimonies, the Linn’s have placed furniture in approximately the same places it occupied at the time of the murders.
The Moore home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and also received the “Preservation at its Best” award in the small public category from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance in 1997. Tours of the home include a very colorful narrative of the time period of the house, the Axe murders and the subsequent controversy the town found itself embroiled in during the grand jury investigation of Frank Jones, one of Villisca’s most prominent citizens and the trial of Rev. Kelly, a window peeping preacher.
The garage was removed to make way for a peg barn that was donated to Darwin by an area farmer in 2004 and the finishing touches and walls were added in the summer of 2005. See photos below. The rafters in the barn have been signed by visitors to the house over the last couple of years. The barn will eventually house a museum, theatre, restrooms and a concession stand. In May of 2004 – we hosted a barnraising at the house. For more photos, check out our Barnraising page.
Most recently, Darwin finished the renovation of the cellar of the home. In the past, this part of the house was largely avoided. It was dark, the stairs didn’t exist and most people venturing down met the bats who lived there. As you can see from the photograph, Darwin’s magic has made it a place you might almost feel inclined to step into.