The Ball: A Kitchen Table Historian Short Story

Villisca is a sleepy town in southwest Iowa.

While there’s not much there now, it’s still full of the reminders of a much more prosperous and prestigious past. There are many beautiful and well-kept Victorian and Queen Anne houses, and the town square, the heart of the town, is comprised of turn of the century brick buildings that used to showcase the towns prosperity and wealth.

The town is quiet, not congested by noisy traffic speeding from one place to another. People still wave to strangers as they walk down the sidewalk.

It’s the last place in the world where you would have expected one of the most brutal murders in the state’s history to have occurred.

On a dark summer night in 1912, someone entered the home of Josiah Moore and his family. Josiah, his wife Sarah, their four children; Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul, and two friends of Katherine’s, Lena and Ina Stillinger, were murdered with an axe while they slept.

The killer – or killers – then took their time moving back around the house, covering the faces of all of their victims and draping cloths over every mirror in the home. Before dawn, they left their kerosene lantern on the floor at the top of the stairs and left, vanishing into the darkness.

The family was found the next day, and the investigation began.

The first major suspect was Frank Jones, a local businessman and an Iowa state Senator.

He and Moore had been rivals in the agricultural implement business, which had supposedly led to a deep, mutual animosity between the two men. Not only that,  Moore had also allegedly had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, Dona.

Accusations were made and rumors swirled, the question of Jones’ guilt dividing the town, a rift that would last for years to come.

In spite of a massive effort to convict him, Frank Jones was found innocent, although at a high price. His political career was destroyed and his personal reputation was permanently tarnished.

The next major suspect was a man named Lyn George Jacklin Kelly, a travelling preacher. Originally from England, Reverend Kelly, as he was more commonly known, had been in Villisca the night of the murders, even attending the Children’s Day services at the Moore’s church.

Kelly had turned in bloody clothes to be cleaned in a nearby town, and had also been talking about how a murder had been committed in Villisca before the bodies in the Moore home had even been discovered.

Ater questioning Kelly multiple times, the preacher finally confessed. He said that he had been compelled by God to take an axe from outside the Moore home and use it to kill the family.

The evidence against Kelly wasn’t very strong, and he eventually recanted his confession. The first trial against Kelly resulted in a hung jury, and in a second one he was acquitted altogether.

Over the next several years, other potential suspects came and went. While some were more compelling than others, authorities couldn’t connect any of them strongly enough to the Villisca murders to bring them to trial for the deed.

The murders of Josiah Moore and his family, as well and Lena and Ina Stillinger, remain unsolved to this day.

The town moved on, and the rifts that had been caused in the aftermath of the murders slowly started to heal.

Many locals still remembered the murders, but very few were willing to openly talk about them, choosing only to talk about them in private away from prying ears. It was Villisca’s dark secret, better forgotten and lost to time.

But while the locals stayed quiet, the house itself still stood in mute reminder of that grisly night in 1912.

It had changed hands several times over the years, and was even used as a rental property for a while. In the 1990’s, the notorious house was finally in danger of being torn down. That was when Darwin Linn, the owner of the Olson-Linn Museum in Villisca, stepped in and bought the property.

Darwin decided to renovate the house, returning it to the same condition as it was when the Moore’s had lived there. He and his wife, Martha, opened it as a museum, choosing to embrace the darkest part of the town’s history instead of trying to hide it.

Today, the museum is a tourist mecca for southwestern Iowa, with perhaps hundreds coming there from all over the country every year to see the infamous murder house for themselves. Some are drawn by the home’s dark past, individuals who want to see where the most infamous unsolved murder in Iowa history took place. Many others, however, are drawn by something more…intangible.

For years, stories of paranormal phenomena have surrounded the house. People have claimed to have heard voices and seen apparitions, seen objects move by themselves, as well as various other things over the years.

Many claim that the spirits of the children still linger in the house where their lives were cut so tragically short and interact with visitors.

Allegedly, one of their favorite things to do is to roll a playground ball back and forth across the floor between themselves and a visitor. To accommodate anyone who wanted to try this for themselves, the owners used to have inflatable plastic balls around the house.

While I don’t completely discount this phenomenon, I do believe that there are other explanations for it.

Many old houses all over the world have very uneven floors. There can be several reasons for this, including settling of the home over time, warped subflooring, or bending floor joists. It could even mean that the floor or house wasn’t built well to begin with, and the floor has always had a slight slope to it.

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that some of the floors in the Villisca house have a gentle slope to them.

Theoretically, if someone were to push a ball on the upward slope of a floor, then gravity would cause the ball to roll back down the slope at the pusher. I’m not saying that this completely rules out supernatural origins being the cause behind all such phenomenon taking place there, but I would definitely contend that it explains some instances of it.

But however skeptical I may be, there was something that happened once that I cannot explain.

A few years ago, my dad calls me up and tells me that he has something to show me.

His family is originally from southwest Iowa, and he’s made several trips to the area over the years to do family history research. Because he’s been in the area so often, Dad has also made several visits to the Villisca murder house.

Curious, I ask him what it is. Dad explains that he had just made another stop at the murder house and he wants me to take a look at something. I say I will, then grabbed my keys and headed over.

When I get to his place, Dad’s already in his office with his laptop booted up. With little to no pretense, he motions me over and begins to explain.

At that time, he was big into taking panoramic pictures. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the process, please allow me to explain.

The procedure is pretty much the same whether you’re outside or inside. You start at a given point, say a tree, or maybe a door frame. Then, turning steadily, you slightly overlap your camera’s field of vision with the first picture you took. Once you’re framed up the way you want, you take another picture. Then you keep turning, taking pictures in the same way until you’ve completed a full circle and come back to the first shot you took. Once you get the hang of it, the entire process usually takes less than a minute.

When you’re done, you download the pictures onto your computer and put them into a specialized program that blends all of them together. When it’s complete, you can, through a minor digital miracle, stand at a fixed point and take a complete 360 degree look around a given place, just like you were standing there yourself.

As we’re waiting for the program to start, Dad explains to me that he had decided to take some panoramic photos of the Villisca murder house for his own private use. Back then, the house wasn’t quite the tourist hotspot that it’s become, and when he arrived there wasn’t anyone else there in the house with him.

Dad decided to start in the living room. Looking around, he chose to use a chair as his starting point. Resting on the floor next to the chair was a very large, green, inflatable ball. That was the first picture.

Dad points the ball out to me, and tells me to make a note of it. I do and he proceeds to begin moving forward through the photos.

Click, click, click.

Nothing extraordinary is going on. Same old-fashioned wallpaper, same furniture put into place where it roughly was when the Moore’s were murdered there in 1912.

Click, click, click.

Ten, fifteen seconds later we’re back to the first photograph.

“Do you see it?” he asks.

At first, I didn’t, and then when I did, it took me another moment to process what it was that I was seeing. But it was clear as day. The green ball had moved from the floor and into the chair.

I felt myself stretching for an explanation, some rational explanation as to how, or what, had moved the ball into the chair. My mind didn’t want to accept it.

Dumbfounded, I asked, “Do that again.” Dad obliged.

Click, click, click.

It was the same result. “Are you sure you were alone in the house?” I asked. He was sure. He had been completely alone, and the movement had been so subtle that he hadn’t even noticed that the ball had moved until he had been looking through the photos when he got home.

While my dad had turned in a tight circle that only took him about thirty seconds to complete, a ball had moved from the floor into the chair, seemingly by itself.

I was completely dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. No settling or sloped floors were going to explain that.

To this day, I have no explanation for how that ball moved. Was it the ghost of the small children who were so brutally murdered in that house? Or was it something different, something darker, like some people claim?

Whatever it may be, I, for one, am more than content to let the ball keep its secrets.


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