Thinking about grabbing a night vision camcorder and spending the night in a haunted house for a chance to catch a glimpse of some ghosts? Well, you might want to rethink that and perhaps go bowling instead. Like a scene right out of the John Cusack film 1408, on November 7, 2014, paranormal investigator Robert Laursen inexplicably stabbed himself while investigating the site of the Villisca ax murders with a team of other investigators. Laursen incurred wounds to his chest which were so severe he was airlifted to a hospital for immediate treatment.
It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the house where Laursen stabbed himself is rather unique and not your garden variety haunt. What makes this particular house so special is how eight people, six of them children, met a gruesome death. On June 9, 1912, a house located in Villisca, Iowa, belonging to Josiah and Sarah Moore became the scene of a horrific mass murder, still unsolved to this day. An entire family and two guests had their skulls crushed with an ax and many investigators from the paranormal community believe their ghosts still linger. The house, built in 1868 and now part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, is affectionately known today as the Villisca Ax Murder House.
According to media reports, Laursen was inside the southwestern Iowa house conducting a paranormal investigation when he ended up driving an undisclosed item into his chest at approximately 12:45 a.m. local time. The 37-year-old Wisconsin native was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Omaha for treatment. While Laursen was part of a team of investigators exploring the house on the night he stabbed himself, he was reportedly in a room by himself when the stabbing occurred. Unable to determine a motive or find a reasonable explanation, the Police have not moved forward with an investigation because the wound was self inflected. However, the question still remains – what compelled Laursen’s hand to act? Did he do this on purpose or was it perhaps due to the influence of some type of malevolent force? The answer may, in fact, be yes because an employee of the tourist attraction indicated Laursen said a ghost forced him to drive the object into his chest.
The historic Villisca Ax Murder House, currently utilized to entertain tourists seeking an extra worldly thrill, is owned by Martha Linn who purchased it with her late husband in the 1990s. The couple renovated the house with the intention of converting it to a museum and restored it to the same condition it was in on the night of the murders. The couple earned the Preservation at its Best award from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance in 1997 for their work.
The Linns knew there was a lot of local interest in the murder case but they had no idea their acquisition would become an extremely popular spot for paranormal investigators. In 1999, a self-described ghost hunter asked for permission to explore the property, and this was the first time Martha and her late husband, Darwin, had ever heard the term paranormal. Despite this potential roadblock, the couple decided to allow paranormal investigations and they became a regular aspect of the home’s existence. Since 2000, investigators from around the world have rented the home looking for any evidence of supernatural activity. Interest in the house has continuously increased and there are many investigators who believe they’ve found proof the home is haunted. Some of these investigators, including Laursen, have made repeated visits to the historic site.
Laursen’s group would have reserved the home for an overnight investigation which costs a little over $400 for up to six people. According to Linn, there have been no cancellations since Laursen’s stabbing incident and it wouldn’t be surprising if demand actually went up. However, if you’re more comfortable with the idea of getting a look at the house during the day, you can schedule a slot with one of the daytime tours for only $10. Keep in mind there are multiple reports the daytime tours are often interrupted by unexpected spirit activity such as ghost children speaking, objects flying from one side of the room to another and lamps falling off of tables. Most of these reports of paranormal activity predate the use of the home as an investigation hot spot which is why the home originally became so popular.
Although the Linns were the first to recognize the historic importance of the home, there have been other families that actually lived in the house before the Linns purchased it and restored it to its 1912 condition. Many of these previous tenants also reported strange experiences within the house and one incident, similar to the recent stabbing, involved a man compelled to repeatedly sharpen knives for no particular reason. According to a witness, the man often looked as if he was struggling with the knives and ended up stabbing himself in the thumb on the last day he lived there. Similar to what Laursen reportedly said, the man claimed he felt as if someone had grabbed onto his wrist and forced him to stab himself. This was the final straw in a long string of unusual incidents so the man packed up his family and left.
Other spooky occurrences include the sudden appearance of blood filled shoes, seeing the shadowy figure of a man holding an ax, clothing being removed from closets and dressers and thrown throughout each room and the unsettling sound of children crying during the night. People who live in the neighborhood also stated they saw the residents who lived in the house before the Linns purchased it running outside and screaming on at least one occasion during the middle of the night.
Perhaps the most notable investigation to date was conducted by the crew of the television show “Ghost Adventures.” The team utilized EVPs in an attempt to capture the disembodied voices of the spirits haunting the location. These recordings picked up a chilling quote in a man’s voice: “I killed six kids.” The crew decided to prompt the voices they were hearing by asking who was responsible for the murders. One name was mentioned, Andy, and the police who worked on the case in 1912, did have a man named Andy as one of their prime suspects. Unfortunately, there was never enough conclusive evidence found to convict anyone, and an EVP recorded almost 100 years later will not be considered concrete enough for this case to become categorized as solved.
According to police reports, Josiah, Sarah, their four children and two visiting children went to a Children’s Day program at the local Presbyterian Church on June 9, 1912. After the program ended, the entire group walked back to the Moore house. The family was last seen entering their residence between 9:45 and 10 p.m., and their neighbor, Mary Peckham, became concerned when she realized the family was not out and about as usual the next morning. Peckham began knocking on the family’s door at approximately 7 a.m., but she received no response. Concerned, Peckham called Josiah’s brother, Ross, who came to the home and unlocked it. Ross found the first two bodies in the guest bedroom, and he had Peckham call the police.
The time of death was placed between midnight and 5 a.m., and the murder weapon was found at the scene. An investigation determined that seven of the eight victims were most likely asleep when they were killed. However, 12-year-old houseguest Lena Stillinger is believed to have been awake, and there is evidence that she tried to fight back. Evidence was also found that strongly suggested the killer sexually assaulted her.
As previously mentioned, a man named Andy was among the prime list of suspects. His full name was Andrew Sawyer and even though there was never any actual evidence found directly connecting him to the murders, his name came up several times during the investigation. Sawyer was eventually dismissed as a suspect because he had been arrested for vagrancy in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of June 9. However, the arresting sheriff placed Sawyer on a train 11 p.m., so it is still possible the ghostly accusation is accurate.
Police focused most of their attention on a traveling minister named George Kelly. This particular suspect had a history of sexual misconduct and suffered a mental breakdown as a youth. Police were interested in Kelly because they were able to prove he taught at the Children’s Day services the family attended and that he also left town at approximately 5 a.m. on June 10, the morning after the murders. Kelly was arrested in 1914 for sexually harassing a woman through the mail and was finally arrested again in 1917 for allegedly committing the murders in Villisca. Although Kelly originally confessed to the murders, he later recanted and was eventually acquitted after going through two separate trials.
There were at least three other suspects who received a lot of attention from the police but all of them were eventually dismissed. For example, Josiah’s brother-in-law, Sam Moyer, was well-known to have threatened to kill Josiah on multiple occasions. However, Moyer had an alibi for the night in question.
Interestingly, another prime suspect, Henry Lee Moore, who was not related to the family, is believed to have been a serial killer. Henry was later convicted of using an ax to kill his grandmother and mother, and many other ax related murders in the general area during the same time period.
Another possible serial killer, William Mansfield, who was often referred to by his nickname of Blackie, was convicted two years after the Villisca murders for killing his mother-in-law, father-in-law, infant child and wife with an ax. There were also several other similar murders occurring within a two-year time frame, leading many to believe Mansfield killed the Moore family and was also the Axman of New Orleans.
The truth about Laursen’s terrifying experience within the house, whether paranormal or not, is unlikely to satisfy both the skeptics and the believers. Some earnestly believe Laursen was the victim of a malevolent spirit while others are adamant this was a publicity stunt to capture the media’s attention and possibly turn into a lucrative book deal. There’s no way to know for certain if a ghost actually drove Laursen to stab himself but it definitely seems insane for someone to endure a significant amount of pain and personal hazard for something as uncertain as a possible future book deal.
It’s quite possible the victims of the Villisca ax murders continuously haunt the house; their spirits tethered to the location because their murder was never solved. Although George Kelly and William Mansfield seem likely suspects, it’s very fascinating an EVP recording picked up a ghostly accusation against Andrew Sawyer. At this point, the case may never be solved but it is a virtual certainty paranormal investigator and tourists will keep visiting the house in the hopes of being able to conclusively prove who did it.