Up until the mid-20th century, murders using an ax or other bladed tool were common enough to become a trope that persists today, thanks to the widespread availability of axes. The violence of such an act bewilders the mind, and those crimes that remain unsolved invite both intense examination and rampant speculation. Here are five ax murders that continue to confound reason and haunt the imagination.
1. The Villisca Murders
On the night of June 9, 1912, in the quiet Iowa town of Villisca, the Children’s Day Program at the Presbyterian church was underway. Sarah Moore, wife of local businessman Josiah Moore, ran the evening’s events. The four Moore children—Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul—as well as their friends Lena and Ina Stillinger were all in attendance. Katherine Moore had invited the Stillinger sisters to sleep over that night. The events ended shortly after 9 p.m., and the Moores and Stillinger sisters returned to the Moore house.
The next morning, a neighbor became suspicious of the unusually quiet home and called Josiah’s brother Ross to investigate. What he discovered there would become known as the grisliest crime in Iowa history.
All six Moores and both Stillinger sisters had been bludgeoned with an ax found at the scene. According to the coroner’s reconstruction, the killer then took another tour of the house to attack the victims’ heads with the sharp edge of the ax, drape bedclothes over their faces, and cover all the glass and mirrors with clothes. Everyone except Lena appeared to have been murdered in their sleep; the eldest Stillinger sister had defensive wounds suggesting she had attempted to fight off the attacker.
News traveled quickly in Villisca, and onlookers descended on the house. Local law enforcement could not contain the crowd. The crime scene became contaminated as strangers moved around the property disturbing evidence. It wasn’t until the National Guard arrived that the area calmed down.
Villisca erupted with rumors about who was responsible. Frank Jones, a local businessman who had had a rift with Josiah Moore, was accused of either committing the murders himself or hiring William “Blackie” Mansfield, a career criminal and suspected murderer, to do the deed. Though investigated, neither were convicted. Others, including a traveling preacher and a transient, were similarly blamed. The idea that a roving serial killer had murdered the Moores and Stillingers was also seriously considered. In the end, no one knows with any degree of certainty who committed the heinous crime, and the Villisca Murders remain a shadowy chapter of Iowa’s history.
2. The Austin Ax Murders
In the nighttime hours of December 30, 1884, Mollie Smith, a young cook living in Austin, Texas, was sleeping soundly in her bed when she was awoken by an intruder, dragged out into the snowy backyard, and hacked to death with an ax. Her boyfriend, Walter Spencer, was also injured in the attack but survived. The murder shocked Austin both for its randomness and brutality. But little did the city know that this was just the beginning.
Months later, on May 6, Eliza Shelley was asleep beside her 8-year-old son when she too was awoken and attacked so savagely, the weapon (likely a hatchet) “cleft through the skull to her brain,” leaving a wound nearly two inches wide above her eye. Just a few weeks later on May 23, Irene Cross suffered a similar fate.
It soon became clear to police that a serial killer was on the loose. The attacks ceased until later in the summer, when Rebecca Ramey and her young daughter Mary were assaulted. Though Rebecca survived, Mary was killed; she was discovered in an alleyway with both ears punctured by a sharp object.
Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washington were murdered on September 28, 1885, and were the last victims before the killer took a second hiatus. This gave the residents of Austin a welcome reprieve. But to the city’s horror, the killings resumed on December 24 when two victims—Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips—were murdered in separate attacks at different locations.
The killer targeted primarily Black domestic servants, earning a reputation as the “Servant Girl Annihilator.” Investigators would accuse, try, and convict numerous suspects, but all convictions were eventually overturned. One intriguing theory is that the killer was the infamous Jack the Ripper, who had used Austin as a practice ground before traveling to London.
3. The Axman of New Orleans
In the early summer of 1918, in Austin, Texas, Joseph and Catherine Maggio were asleep when they were attacked in their beds, their throats both cut with a straight razor. The intruder then bashed both of their heads in with an ax before changing into clean clothes and disappearing into the night. Joseph’s brothers Jake and Andrew discovered the couple; Catherine’s head was nearly severed from her shoulders, but Joseph miraculously survived the initial attack before soon succumbing to his injuries.
Over the next 10 months, the murderer attacked another seven people—mostly Italians and Italian Americans—killing three (a fourth victim died from her injuries two months later). The people of New Orleans were frightened, particularly those in the Italian community. Their fear spiked on March 13, 1919, when the killer sent an open letter to the Times-Picayune newspaper.
In the letter, the murderer acknowledged his crimes and intention to commit further acts of violence. In one unusual passage, he revealed his love of the city’s jazz music and made a proposition to the residents of New Orleans:
“Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:
"I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.”
That night, the jazz clubs of New Orleans were packed, and jazz music pumped into the streets. No murders occurred.
Later that year, the axman claimed another three victims before disappearing into the murky history of New Orleans.
4. The Hinterkaifeck Murders
When Andreas Gruber, a farmer living in the Bavarian countryside, discovered footsteps in the snow outside his home leading to the house—but none leading away from it—he became suspicious. Other odd happenings had occurred around this time, including a missing house key and a newspaper no one remembered purchasing, all of which Andreas reported to his neighbors but not to the police. Little did he know that these weird occurrences would become clues in Germany’s most chilling unsolved murder.
On April 4, 1922, Lorenz Schlittenbauer, another farmer in the area, led a search party to the Gruber homestead; it had been days since anyone had seen the family, and their mail had begun to accumulate at the post office. The group discovered Andreas, his wife Cäzilia, his daughter Viktoria, and Viktoria’s daughter Cäzilia (named after her grandmother) dead in the barn. Each had been brutally killed with a mattock and covered with hay. Viktoria's infant son Josef and their maid Maria were murdered separately inside the farmhouse.
Someone had lured the family to the barn during the night of March 31, killing them one by one. Later, neighbors reported seeing chimney smoke coming from the house between when the Grubers were thought to have been killed and when their bodies were discovered—suggesting the killer had lived at the house for days following the crime. The Grubers’ animals had even been fed and taken care of.
Police initially suspected vagrants before dropping that theory to investigate those closer to the family. They honed in on Lorenz Schlittenbauer, who once had a relationship with Viktoria and behaved bizarrely during the discovery of the bodies, even going so far as to unstack the corpses in the barn without any trepidation. After extensive questioning by police, Schlittenbauer was eventually ruled out. Investigators couldn’t place him at the scene, and his strange behavior was chalked up to shock. Police were left grasping for answers.
Investigators later discovered that the Grubers’ previous maid had quit months earlier, convinced the house was haunted after hearing footsteps in the attic. Because the perpetrator had maintained the property in the days after the murders, investigators believed he knew his way around, giving credence to the chilling theory that the killer had been living secretly in the house for some time.
5. The Borden Murders
In the late 19th century, Fall River, Massachusetts, was the epitome of an industrial mill town. Of its many businessmen and women, Andrew Borden was one of the wealthiest—despite his reputation as an unlikeable and frugal man. He lived at 92 Second Street with his two daughters, Lizzie and Emma, and his wife (the daughters’ stepmother) Abby. The family’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, also lived in the home.
There was conflict in the Borden Household. Andrew and his daughters disagreed on many of his business and financial decisions (including purchasing real estate for Abby’s family at the expense of Lizzie and Emma’s inheritance). A daytime burglary only ratcheted up the tension, as Andrew suspected Lizzie may have been the culprit.
On August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden, after speaking with her father earlier that morning, discovered him dead on the family’s couch, his face caved in and eyeball severed in half. (Contrary to the nursery rhyme that arose from this crime, he had been struck fewer than a dozen times.) Lizzie roused Sullivan, who had been sleeping upstairs.
Soon after, Abby Borden was discovered in the upstairs bedroom similarly murdered, her head having suffered such extreme trauma as to render her unrecognizable. The police almost immediately suspected Lizzie; her answers to their questions were unclear or contradictory. It was uncertain where she was exactly when, but despite little hard evidence, Lizzie was indicted for the murders.
During the sensational trial, the severed skulls of both Andrew and Abby were brought in as evidence. Lizzie fainted—a response that almost certainly ingratiated her to the jury. After 90 minutes, a verdict was reached: not guilty.
But Lizzie’s image as the killer persisted through the rest of her life. Even today, it’s impossible to separate her from the crime, and though she is still suspected to be the murderer, the case remains—technically—unsolved.