Duck with Sawse Madame

My duck with sawse madame, stuffed with quince and pears and decorated with oranges, fresh grapes, and chervil from my garden.

Sawse Madame

Galangal and poudre douce….

On the fourth day of Chrismas, in my attempt to create a memorable Christmas in the midst of a corona lockdown, I tackled yet another medieval dish: Goose with Sawse Madame.

A page from the Forme of Cury. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To make sawse madame, one of the most popular sauces of the Middle Ages, the cooks in our eatmedieval course married recipes from English and French cookbooks. The Forme of Cury, a 14th-century cookbook for the royal kitchen of King Richard II, contains a recipe for goose (I used a duck) with “sawse Madame.” After roasting a stuffed bird, the cook should heat the stuffing and some wine in a pot, and add

thereto powdour of galyngale, powdour douce, and salt and boyle the sawse.

Richard II. Westminster Abbey, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thereafter the goose is dressed in the sauce.

Here’s my sawse madame. I didn’t dress the goose with it. Instead we served it at the table as a gravy.

Poudre douce

Poudre douce (sweet powder)was a medieval spice mix, and our cook turned to the French La Ménagier de Paris (1393) for the list of ingredients:

ginger, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, and grains of paradise.

Sometimes I get an allergic reaction to cloves, so I substituted allspice.

Quince and pear filling

Quince — the queen of fruit, fit for a king’s dish.

The Forme of Cury suggests a fruit stuffing for the goose:

Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and fill the goose therewith….

Quince – the golden fruit with the silver skin and a heavenly fragrance – can be hard to come by in winter. I was lucky enough to source fresh, organic quince through delicado48. The resulting stuffing was delicious.

I made honey-glazed carrots, wine, elderberry, and carob-glazed shallots, buttered cabbage, and roast potatoes to round off the meal.

Honey-glazed carrots.
And shallots.

Have you ever cooked with quince before? What did you make?

Joyeux Noël!

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Medieval Flavorings

Some medieval flavorings, clockwise from the top: verjuice, grains of paradise, galangal, long pepper, hyssop, and sandalwood.

Spices, spices spices!

Sour and hot, the two flavor directions of the medieval cuisine, brand the food as distinct. Gaining a working acquaintance with unfamiliar medieval flavorings was far and away the best part of my online cooking class with eatmedieval.

A number of the dishes we learned create the hot flavors with grains of paradise, long pepper, galangal, ginger, juniper berries, and regular black and white pepper. The first three were new to me. Wine, vinegar, and verjuice lent the sour flavor. The latter was new to me and the most intriguing. Vintners make verjuice by pressing unripe grapes. That makes for a highly acidic juice that was popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still used in French and Middle Eastern dishes and is enjoying a comeback in Australia. Verjuice is not so popular in Germany, but I’m lucky enough to have a verjuice vintner in the region, Magdalena and Roland Grimm in Bietigheim-Bissingen. (It’s called verjus in German.)

Other medieval flavorings we worked with were sandalwood (also used as a coloring) and hyssop.

Venison Steaks with Medieval Flavorings

Venison steaks with a medieval sauce.

We married the verjuice with juniper berries and grains of paradise to spice up these venison steaks. The recipe is taken from a mid-15th century English collection (British Library, MS Harleian 279). I made these venison steaks with Muskat-Trollinger Rosé and paired it the medieval flavorings we learned in the course. I served the steaks with with broccoli rabe and potatoes.

Haghof in Kirchheim am Neckar

Jillian Gamnitzer in the Haghof store.

I like to purchase my produce at the Haghof. This organic farm also runs a family grocery store with regional organic produce. It’s my go to place for vegetables, fruit, flour, honey, and all sorts of other goodies.

Jillian (Jill) and Roland Gamnitzer have been running the Haghof for almost 39 years. Although they’re retiring at the end of the month, they’ll still live on the farm. Thank goodness the new farmer taking over will keep the store open. Jill’s from England and speaks both German and English and it’s fun to chat with her in both.

The Haghof welcoming committee, Gerritt (right) and Gerlinde.

I can’t talk about the Haghof without mentioning Gerritt and Gerlinde, the Haghof’s pet geese, who always give me a warm welcome. Over the years, they’ve come to know me, and if they’re not locked in their stall, they’ll wait at the grocery store door for me to come out, knowing I’ll offer them some treats. If they’re locked in, I’ll feed them bread in the stall. Gerritt will eat out of my hand.

Gerlinde will, too, but only if Gerritt isn’t looking. It’s a goose thing. He sees it as his job to protect her, and no one gets to the goose without going through the gander. I respect that to remain friends with him, but Gerlinde sometimes sneaks a few nibbles from my hand.

Have you ever tried verjuice, grains of paradise, or any of the other medieval flavorings mentioned?

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Fanny Workman: American Adventurer in Germany

Fanny Workman in Bayreuth.

Fanny Workman in Bayreuth. Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

Fanny Workman refused to conform. That refusal developed into what Germans call a “red thread” – the common theme that explained much of her life (1859-1925), and in particular, her record-breaking adventures.

As the daughter of a Massachusetts governor, she eschewed the finishing schools expectations for the young women of the time and took up mountain climbing as a hobby. As U.S. citizen, she refused to conform to the role of an American wife and moved with her husband to Germany. When the couple vacationed, they selected the bicycle as their means of travel and broke several cycling records. But that wasn’t enough. Fanny Workman went on to smash several mountain climbing records – even records held by men. But the scientific community’s refusal to recognize a woman’s accomplishments propelled her into another arena. Fanny Workman became active in the woman’s liberation movement and advocated for women’s suffrage.

Interview with Cathryn J. Prince

Cathryn J. Prince’s new biography of Fanny Workman, Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Workman, not only rivets the reader with adventure in parts of the world most of us will never visit. It also highlights the strength of one woman’s character – and how she changed the world. Cathryn J. Prince joins us today to talk about the exploits of a German-American worth remembering.

Welcome, Cathryn J. Prince!

Cathryn Prince, author of a new biography of Fanny Workman.

Cathryn J. Prince, author. Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

 What records did Fanny Workman break?

In 1906 when Workman summited Pinnacle Peak at 23,500 feet she set the altitude record for women. Her record remained unbroken until 1934.

She actually broke the record (her own) twice before. She also held the record for bivouacking two consecutive nights above 19,000 feet – during a storm no less. She cycled the length of India from south to north. Additionally, she was the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris.

 How did she influence the popularity of bicycle road trips in Europe?

After the birth of her second child, Siegfried, Workman decided it was time to try bicycling, which was still new. At first she cycled around the streets near her home in Dresden. Once she felt confident she ventured further out across Germany. She wrote an article, “Bicycle Riding in Germany” for Outing magazine. It highlighted both the virtues of cycling for ones’ health and how cycling was a popular pastime for Germany’s men and was fast becoming popular among women. She described the rules of the road. She also stressed that cycling allowed one no small measure of independence.

In time she and her husband took months long bicycle trips through Germany, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, India and present-day Vietnam. She wrote about each of these adventures. Those books delighted arm chair travelers and encouraged people to embark on their own adventures.

Why did she and her husband choose to live in Germany?

After the deaths of their fathers the couple decided to decamp for Europe. They had become enamored with the continent after spending several holidays hiking in Switzerland and Germany. They relished the idea of indulging their shared tastes in literature, art, and music. Beyond that, Workman, who was fluent in French and German, believed settling abroad would allow her room to shape a new identity and afford her more independence to live her life as she saw fit, rather than under what she thought would be constant scrutiny back home in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Queen of the Mountaineers cover

Queen of the Mountaineers cover, courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

Did you research any German sources for your book?

 This was the first book I’ve written in a while where I didn’t use German language sources for research. I used French, Swedish and English.

How did her knowledge of German and French spread her reputation as an adventurer?

Her language skills helped her gain access to some of the most prestigious geographical and explorer societies, such as the Royal Geographic Society of London, whose past members included Charles Darwin, Richard Francis Burton, and David Livingstone. Workman addressed audiences throughout France, including Lyon and as previously mentioned she spoke at the Sorbonne. Her fluency allowed her to be interviewed by the local press as well.

What difficulties did Fanny Workman encounter in her adventures?

 There were so many! When she cycled there were the punctured tires, sometimes as many as three in one day. In the Himalayas there was the weather, burning sun to subzero temperatures, the constant threat of injury and death, and the need to have to bring every single item with them. One has to do that now of course, but in her day there was no lightweight, weather resistant gear or dehydrated food.

And then there was the sexism. On the mountain there were recalcitrant guides who did not like working for a female leader, there were customs officers and boat captains who thought exploring was the domain of men. Off the mountain there were professional societies who didn’t believe women should be given the same due as men.

Did Fanny Workman ever become a victim of a crime?

 On two separate occassions, while cycling through Algeria, robbers ambushed Workman and her husband. But she kept a pistol in a pocket sewn on the inside of her skirt and so when the men tried to rob and beat the couple she brandished the pistol and the men retreated.

Fanny Workman holding a paper with the headline, "Votes for Women."

Fanny Workman holding a paper with the headline, “Votes for Women.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographsy Division.

What role did she play in women’s liberation?

When the Royal Geographic Society hesitated at the idea of her addressing its members because she was a woman she was not deterred. She took it as a challenge and became the second woman to address the Royal Geographic Society of London. When guides and porters on the mountain balked at her leadership she ignored the sexism and turned her attention to the tasks at hand, proving them wrong.

Workman held that women should live a life that was right for them not the life society deemed correct. While for Workman that meant marriage, motherhood and pursuing her passion, which she turned into her career, she understood other women might feel differently. Workman’s achievements are undoubtedly impressive, yet, I think the real message underpinning her story is how she navigated and bucked tradition, living a life with purpose and determination.

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Zoigl: The Beer, the Star, and Germany’s Best Kept Secret

Zoigl beer

Zoigl beer

It has got to be one of Germany’s best kept secrets. Not just the six-pointed star hanging in front of the house, but the homebrewed beer the star represents. The Zoigl tradition has almost gone extinct in Germany, and if you want to experience it, you need to travel to the Oberpfalz (Upper Palantinate) in Bavaria. But what an experience will await you! Some of the best beer you’ve ever tasted, super homemade meals at reasonable prices, and a slice of German culture that dates back to the Middle Ages.

An example of a Zoiglstern or Zoigl star. Brewers use them as a pub sign.

An example of a Zoiglstern or Zoigl star.  Brewers use them as a pub sign.

Zoigl beer

In a custom related to the German Strausswirtschaft and the English alestake, Germans in the Oberpfalz display a six-pointed star – the Zoiglstern – when homebrew is available for sale. Then the brewer will throw open the doors to a Kommunbrauhaus (community brewing house) and invite guests in for food and foaming glasses of amber that taste better than anything you can buy in a store. This beer is bottom-fermented (brewed with different yeast strains at cooler temperatures and over a longer period of time) and unfiltered. Because they compete with restaurants, Zoigl brewers can only open for a few weeks at a time, usually 14 days to 4 weeks. They’re usually open on a rotating schedule.

Another star.

Another star.

Dining on the premises of a community brewing house offers a cozy feeling you don’t often get in a restaurant. Germans love Zoigl brewing houses for their intimate atmosphere. A survey of guests revealed the following reasons for their visit: cheap beer, affordable meals, and the chance to chat with total strangers, often on a “du” (instead of the formal “Sie”) basis.

Yet another example of a brewer's star incorporated into a pub sign.

Yes another example of a brewer’s star incorporated into a pub sign.

Where to find a brewer

Finding an open community brewing house can be tough unless you know where to look. Only 20 brewers still have the right to brew Zoigl beer, and they live in only a few German towns:


Falkenberg (Oberpflaz)





You can check an online calendar to see which ones are open when.

The Zoigl star

The oldest depiction of a brewer's star dates back to the 15th century.

The oldest depiction of a brewer’s star dates back to the 15th century. Unknown artist, Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549, public domain.

The Zoigl star looks just like the Star of David. But the its history reveals a totally different symbolism. The star has long been associated with alchemy and brewing. A popular theory is that one triangle represents the three medieval elements necessary for brewing, fire, water, and air, and the other the three ingredients in beer, water, malt, and hops.  Traditionally, a white star means pale ale and a red one dark ale. The stars told an illiterate medieval public when homebrew was available. The word Zoigl, in fact, derives from the German verb “zeigen” (to show).

Have you ever visited a Zoigl brewing house in Germany? What did you think?

My last example of a Zoigl star. I have to stop writing my blog now because just thinking about Zoigl beer is making me drool.

My last example of a star. I have to stop writing my blog now because just thinking about Zoigl beer is making me drool.

Literature on point:

Adolf F. Hahn, Der Zoigl: ein echer kerniger Oberpfälzer (self-published book by a Zoigl brewer, 2007)

Andreas Kassalitzky, Zoigl – Vom Ausschuss zum Kultgetränk

Martin Stangl, Das Buch vom Zoigl (Weiden: 2008)

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Agatha Christie: Murder Mystery Comet with a True Crime Tail

Agatha Christie, author of Murder on the Orient Express. Mario Breda, Agatha Christie,

Agatha Christie and the Orient Express. (c) Mario Breda,

Agatha Christie — she wrote murder mysteries; we all know that. But this is probably what you didn’t know: Agatha Christie was also a pharmacist and the medical descriptions in her books were so accurate they actually saved lives. They even helped a solve real murders. I usually only blog about true crime, but for Agatha Christie I’m making an exception. Her books were so good they spilled over into real life. She’s a murder mystery comet with a true crime tail.

Hercule Poirot was Christie's first detective.

Hercule Poirot was Christie’s first detective. Pixabay.

Agatha Christie, author and pharmacist

Not long before she became an author, during World War I, Agatha Christie trained as a nurse and then a pharmacy assistant. Two years later, she published her first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It introduced Hercule Poirot and featured a death by strychnine poisoning. A number of her following books centered on poisonings.

Thirty-eight books later, when World War II interrupted her life, and Christie stopped writing and worked in the pharmacy of the University College Hospital in London. She started publishing again the year before the war ended. In the end, she published more that 65 detective novels.

Agatha Christie monument

Agatha Christie monument, Pixabay.

The pharmacist’s poisons

So many of those novels featured poison they attracted the attention of Uwe Künzler, a pharmacist in Berlin. He published an academic article about the poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels in 1999. Two years later, a German forensic pathologist, Benno Rießelmann, followed suit with a manuscript about Christie’s poisonings from a forensic, pathological, and toxicological perspective. And across the ocean, a pharmacist in Texas published an entire book on the topic, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie, in 2011. His book features a 76-page list of all the compounds involved in Christie’s plotlines and analyses the 30 poisonings in her books.

Poison, one of Christie's most popular murder weapons.

Poison, one of Christie’s most popular murder weapons. Pixabay.

Poisons and medicines, that became poisons in Christie’s hands

Here are some of Christie’s most popular poisons, just to give you a (literary) taste:


A toxin from the monkshood plant. It appears in two of Christie’s novels.


A highly poisonous chemical element. Arsenic appears in no less than nine of Christie’s books.


Atropine isn’t a poison, but rather a medication used to treat several different kinds of poisonings, such as from pesticides. Agatha Christie uses it as a plot point in two of her novels.


Barbiturates are sedative drugs that can produce death in an overdose. They’re featured in thirteen of Christie’s murder mysteries.

Chloral hydrate

Chloral hydrate is a sedative and hypnotic drug, but don’t overuse it! In the hands of the wrong person, it can become a murder weapon, as three of Christie’s novels show.


A stimulant and popularly abused drug, cocaine appears in two of Christie’s books.


Derived from the foxglove plant family, digitalis became popular as a medicine for heart patients, but its popularity has been declining due to safety concerns. Agatha Christie employed digitalis as a murder weapon in six of her novels.


An opiate and well-known pain medication, morphine becomes a poison in Christie’s hands. She features this drug in seven books.


This drug derives from the African Calabar bean. Missionaries in what is now Nigeria noticed that people there used the bean as an ordeal poison to test defendants accused of witchcraft. Curious, the missionaries sent the beans to Great Britain, where physostigmine was isolated. Although highly poisonous, it does have some medical applications. Christie featured this unusual drug in two books, including Poirot’s last case.


A cardiac medication similar to digitalis. Just don’t use too much, like the murderers did in two of Christie’s novels.


We all know this one. This colorless, odorless compound is a common ingredient both in rat poison and murder mysteries. Christie employed strychnine in five of her own mysteries.


Thallium is a metal and chemical element. It used to be popular as rat poison, but many countries have prohibited it due to its popularity as a murder weapon. Christie used it only once, in The Pale Horse (1961), but this one plotline had the most impact on the real world. Her book helped solve real murders and save several lives.

Poisoned powder -- Whodunnit?

Poisoned powder — Whodunnit?, Pixabay

The Pale Horse and poisoning cases

Copycat crimes have always been an unwanted side effect of murder mysteries. Someone might get an idea from a book and try it in real life.

On the flip side of the coin are “copycat” detectives and health care practitioners, who read an accurately-written novel like Agatha Christie’s, learn something from it, and employ that knowledge in real life. That’s precisely what happened with The Pale Horse. It contains an in-depth discussion of thallium poisoning symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and nervous symptoms such as lethargy, numbness, black-outs and slurred speech. Some readers put that to good use.

In one case, a 19 month-old girl whose illness the doctors couldn’t diagnose owes her life to a nurse who had been reading The Pale Horse. She was admitted to the hospital, where a nurse told the attending physician she recognized the symptoms from Agatha Christie’s book. Testing confirmed thallium poisoning and the child could be saved. Her parents had been using thallium sulfate to kill cockroaches at home.

Smoking poison

ADragan,Smoking poison,

The Pale Horse and true crime

But it wasn’t just accidential poisonings the book solved. Ten years after the publication of The Pale Horse, in 1971, Bovingdon, Hertfordshire experienced a spate of poisonings. Workers at a  photographic equipment company fell ill; two even died. Two things alerted law enforcement to thallium poisoning. One worker suggested it to a visiting health inspector, and the forensic pathologist on the case had read The Pale Horse and recognized the pattern. The pathologist was even able to find the metal in the ashes of one of the cremated victims by means of atomic absorption spectrometry. The perpetrator turned out to be Graham Young, the worker who had suggested thallium poisoning. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1975, The Pale Horse helped crack another case. A woman in South America wrote Agatha Christie a letter. She recognized thallium poisoning in a woman whose husband had been trying to poison her. “Of this I am absolutely certain,” she wrote, “that X, had I not read The Pale Horse, wouldn’t have survived.”

Why true crime fans should read Agatha Christie

True crime fans are wont to complain about crime fiction. At the top of their list is inaccuracy. Inaccurate scenarios in the fields of medicine, police procedure and courtroom procedure turn off readers who have some knowledge of those fields. But if you, as a true crime fan and want to select a murder mystery, let it be one of Agatha Christie’s. She’s so accurate she’s made her mark on the real world of true crime.

Miss Marple, one of Agatha Christie's detectives

Lazarenka Sviatlana, Miss Marple,

Have you read any of Agatha Christie’s books? If so, which ones? And what did you think?

Literature on point

John Emsley, “The poison prescribed by Agatha Christie: Thanks to the mystery writer, the deadly properties of thallium sulphate have become common knowledge,” Independent (20 July 1992).

Michael Gerard, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie (Univ. of Texas Press, 2011)

Uwe Künzler, “Mit Arsen und Schwesternhäubchen. Aus der Giftküche der Agatha Christie,” Deutsche Apothekezeitung (1999)

Agatha Christie Limited, “The Pale Horse,” The Home of Agatha Christie (2009).

Benno Rießelmann and Volkmar Schneider, “Giftmore in den Kriminalromanen von Agatha Christie – Anmerkungen aus rechtsmedizinischer und toxilogischer Sicht” (manuscript, 2001).

Meghan Ross, “5 Pharmacist Facts about Agatha Christie,” Pharmacy Times (2015)

Sächsiches Apothekenmuseum Leipzig, Arzneimittel in todsicher Dosis: Die Pharmazeutin Agatha Christie (2003)

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Villisca Ax Murders

The original Moore house, site of the Villisca ax murders. Courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website

The original Moore house, site of the Villisca ax murders. Courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website

This is the stuff slumber party folklore is made of. You’ve probably heard the story, perhaps even at a slumber party. Evil incarnate once waited in the attic for a family to retire. Then it slunk down the stairs to murder them all.

It really happened once, in Villisca, Iowa in 1912, in an event called the Villisca ax murders. And it happened during a slumber party. Ten-year-old Mary Katherine Moore had invited her friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, to spend the night. The next morning the family of six, along with the two young guests, were all found the bludgeoned in their beds. The killer was never caught. Yet the story lives on as a slumber-party myth, whispered in fear between children curled up in their sleeping bags.

Here’s what really happened. Cal Schoonover joins us today with a guest blog about the Villisca ax murders based entirely on witness testimony.

Sometime the truth is just as frightening as the legend.

Just a “normal” house

The wood framed white house sits on a quiet residential street in the small town of Villisca, Iowa. At a quick glance one may not see anything out of the ordinary, but as the sun sets, the house becomes dark. There are no lights on in the house, the absence of electricity makes this impossible. Upon a closer look one will see the house is not so ordinary after all, its curtained windows prevent anyone on the outside from seeing in and the outhouse in the backyard leaves the impression it belongs to another time. This was once an ordinary house, but this is no longer the case as this house has secrets. Dark secrets and to this day holds the identity of a murderer within its walls.

Villisca, Iowa in 1912 was flourishing with businesses and its 2,500 residents did not seem to have trouble finding employment if needed. Several dozen trains entered and left the town throughout the day, causing the only disturbance to the normal quiet town. There was also an armory, a first of its kind, built by the local townspeople and paid entirely by taxpayer money. Times were good in the tight knit community of Villisca; at least it was until June 10, 1912 when the town became forever known for the horrific Axe Murders of an entire family.

The Moore family, victims of the Villisca ax murders

Joe Moore, a victim in the Villisca ax murders

Joe Moore, courtesy of the Villisca Ax Murder House Website.

In 1912 Villisca, Josiah B. Moore was the town’s most successful businessmen. Born in 1868, Josiah or “Joe” as he was called by many, was a success in just about everything he did. He married Sarah Montgomery on a cold December day in 1899 at Sarah’s parents home. The couple went on to have four children; Herman, Katherine, Boyd and Paul. Together, Josiah and Sarah built a nice life for their family in the thriving town of Villisca.

Although Villisca could be buzzing with people who were attached to the railroads, overall crime was rather low. Residents were not afraid to leave their homes unlocked and windows open at anytime of day. Crime existed of course, but nothing like people see in larger cities and until the night of June 10, 1912 when the town was rocked by the murder of not one, but eight people.

The fateful day of June 9

Sara Moore, a victime in the Villisca ax murders

Sara Moore, courtesy of the Villisca Axe Murder House website.

Josiah and Sarah woke early on Sunday, June 9 to get the kids and themselves ready for church. It would be a busy day for the Moore’s at the town’s Presbyterian Church, with morning services and other events that included the annual Children’s Day Program. The Children’s Program was to begin at 8:00 p.m., which was, according to witnesses led by Sarah Moore. By 9:30 the exercises were finally over, and the exhausted towns people of Villisca headed home to settle down for the night. The Moore’s children, mainly Katherine was not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. She had such a great time with her friends, Lena and her younger sister Ina Stillinger, that Katherine asked her dad if the Stillingers could spend the night. Not wanting to spoil his daughter’s fun, Josiah called the Stillinger home to check to make sure Lena and her sister were able to stay.

A slumber party

After a few rings a voice on the other end was heard. It belonged to Blanche, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Sara Stillinger. Her parents “were outdoors now,” but she would pass on the message to her parents. Assuming everything would be okay, Josiah and Sarah gathered up all the kids and began the walk home. The Moore’s, like most people in Villisca did not own a car but the church was only three blocks away from their home. A short walk on the cool, but damp night made the walk somewhat enjoyable.

Given the distance from church to the Moore home, the family should have arrived between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m. What exactly happened upon arrival will never be known for sure. No one could imagine that when the Moore family left church that night, it would be the last time the family was ever seen alive.

An ominously quiet house

Mary Peckham rose out of bed around 5:00 a.m. on the morning of June 10; wanting to get a start on household chores so she stepped out to hang her laundry outside. The only noise was the sound of birds chirping in the dark sky, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Peckham lived next door to the Moore’s for many years and like many small- town residents, people’s routines did not go unnoticed. There was “absolutely no noise,” throughout the night Peckham later recalled. Although she had not seen the Moore family arrive home the night before since she had gone to bed around 8:00 p.m., she could not believe the family would have been out late.[i]

By 7:00 a.m. there was still no sign of activity around the Moore household. Concerned, Peckham walked over to the “unusually still” house and knocked on the door. No answer. She went around to the back of the house and saw none of the Moore’s livestock had been taken care of yet. Peckham let the chickens out of their cage but did not untie the other livestock. Concerned, Peckham went back home and called Josiah’s brother Ross. Maybe, she thought, something happened out of town and the Moore family had to attend to at the last minute? While on the phone with Jesse, Ross’s wife, movement near the Moore’s barn caught Peckham’s attention. From where Peckham stood in her home she could see it was Ed Selley, who worked for Josiah, enter the barn where the horses were.[ii]

A brother discovers the Villisca ax murders

After hanging up the phone, Peckham wondered over to the Moore’s barn to talk to Selley. Maybe he knew something. Within minutes, Ross arrived and found a spare key to his brother’s house. Peckham followed Ross up to the front door and waited on the front porch while Ross went inside to have a look around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until he opened the bedroom door near the parlor. The scene was horrific and something Ross would never forget. The once white sheets on the bed were now stained red with the blood of two small kids. At a fast pace Ross came back to the porch and told Peckham to call the sheriff. “Something awful” has happened![iii]

No sign of forced entry

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the Villisca ax murder victims and the house.

An article in The Day Book, Chicago, 14 June 1912, depicting five of the victims and the house. Public domain, via Wikipedia Commons.

Sheriff Hank Horton arrived at the Moore home and was greeted by Ross and Mary Peckham. Moore led Horton to the first bedroom where the two Stillinger girls slept. Horrified at the sight, the two men then slowly made their way upstairs to look in the other bedrooms. All dead. All still in their beds, covered with blankets and lots of blood. Sheriff Horton and Ross looked around the house briefly, noting that all windows and doors remained locked. Mary Peckham, who entered the first floor of the home noticed the doors needed to be locked from the inside with a key. No key was noticed. There was no sign of forced entry either which is a strong indication the killer was already inside the house when the Moore’s arrived. But how?

Medical attention was not needed, Sheriff Horton knew this but went to get Dr. J. Clark Cooper anyway. “Come with me,” Horton said to Cooper after arriving at Cooper’s office. Wondering why Horton appeared so anxious, Dr. Cooper asked why? “Joe Moore and all his family were murdered in bed.” Shocked at what he heard, Cooper went along with Horton. Waiting for them were Dr. Hough and Mr. Ewing, the towns minister. [iv]

The lamp upstairs: a clue to where the murderer waited

Kerosene lamp

Kerosene lamp. Pixabay.

Noting seemed to be out of place, there was no sign of a struggle. Upon entering the first-floor bedroom “All we could see was an arm of someone sticking out from under the edge of the cover,” Cooper said. There were large amounts of “blood on the pillows.” Cooper slowly approached the bed and lifted the cover and saw what he “supposed was a body.” Cooper told the inquest he did not, along with the other men in the room know who the two children were except they were dead. They stepped out of the bedroom and went upstairs. At the top of the stairs sat a lamp on the floor. Horton reached down and moved the lamp out of the way and the men continued into Josiah and Sarah’s bedroom. Later Horton determined that the killer had used the lamp for light and left it where it was found.

“Here is Joe,” Horton said pulling the cover down. Both Josiah and Sarah were clearly dead, their faces “beaten in.” Cooper left the room and went to check the condition of the Moore’s kids. They also were dead, their blankets stiff with dried blood that was in the process of becoming a jelly like substance. When asked at the inquest, Cooper estimated the family had been dead for at least 5 to 6 hours.[v]

An unsolved case and a town changed forever

All in the house had been killed the same way, by an axe that was found in the room the Stillinger girls slept. Traces of blood were found on it although there was an attempt to wipe it clean. Investigators made note that none of the clothing the victims wore had any holes in it from the axe. The bodies had been covered after they were murdered, and gouge marks were found on the ceiling where the axe blade came into contact as the killer swung the weapon. It was also noted there was a pan of blood stained water on the kitchen table along with a plate of uneaten food. Had these murders been committed today, the killer would almost for certain been caught, but in 1912 this was not so. Finger printing was rather new and DNA testing was a long way off. While there were suspects in the case, no one was ever brought to justice for these crimes. There never will be either. The town of Villisca, once a small friendly town were people knew others business changed after June 10, 1912. Doors and windows were no longer left unlocked, people opened carried guns and feelings old friends had for one another changed.

Thank you, Cal Schoonover!

More on the Villisca Ax Murders

The Villisca Ax Murder House offers tours and overnight stays. Click on the link to find more information about the case, view photos, and make a booking. An extra thanks to the Villisca Ax Murder House for allowing me to publish some of its photographs.

For extra reading, a recent book covers the topic. Author Bill James suggests a solution to the Villisca ax murders were in his 2017 true crime book, The Man from the Train.

About Cal Schoonover

Cal Schoonover, author of the guest post on the Villisca ax murders

Cal Schoonover, with permission

Cal Schoonover holds a BA in 18th and 19th century Military History and is working on his MA in history with a concentration on the Civil War. He plans on pursuing his PhD by the fall of 2019. His articles have appeared in Crime Magazine, the Surratt Courier and Emerging Civil War. com. He lives in Wisconsin with his son James.

[i] Peckham testimony, June 11, 1912.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Dr. J. Clark Cooper testimony, June 11, 1912.

[v] Ibid


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