Villisca Ax Murder House and Museum
A lot of houses in this part of Iowa look like they could be ax murder houses. Blackened and frayed by years of strong weather and hard use, they give off a Norman Bates-y gothic-creepy vibe. And Villisca seems especially fit for such a place, with empty storefronts, silent streets, and a population that's half of what it was a hundred years ago. A large, jaunty pig stands next to the town sign, "Pork Center of Southwestern Iowa." Has it always been about slaughtering here?
It sure was in the pre-dawn of June 10, 1912, when an unknown butcher crept into Josiah Moore's house and killed everyone in it: Josiah, his wife Sarah, and six children aged 5 to 12. With an ax. The murderer was never identified and the house became a source of shame for Villisca. According to our local guide, Darwin Linn, kids from neighboring communities would taunt Villisca school teams with a chant of "ax murder town!"
"The house had a stigmatism on it," Darwin told us. "You know, murders and that sort of thing."
To the credit of its citizens, Villisca left its infamous house unmolested (unlike people in other Iowa towns). It passed through a series of owners and renters until the mid-1990s, when pigs and chickens were its only occupants. The neighbors wanted it torn down as an eyesore. That's when Darwin stepped in.
"The governor came out and said that tourism brought in more money to Iowa than the entire corn crop," Darwin told us. "And it got me to thinking." Darwin, a retired farmer, figured that the ax murder house would make a good True Crime tourist attraction. So he bought it. "I didn't tell my wife about it for about a month." he remembered. "She was a little cool about it for a while."
Darwin cleaned up the house and "brought it back to 1912" as he puts it. He took out the electricity, the plumbing, the garage, and brought back the outhouse, the chicken coop, and the barn. He found furniture and decorations typical of the time, and placed them in the exact spots where the original furnishings had been on the night of the murders. He hung a frayed calendar turned to June 1912 in the kitchen, and photos of the doomed family in the parlor. He added a ramp outside to make the first floor accessible to wheelchairs. The house's only other nod to modern life is a window air conditioner in an upstairs bedroom, run off of electricity from a very long extension cord. "If that wasn't up there," Darwin told us, "you'd have a good idea what Hades is like."
The reason that it's up there is because Darwin was wrong about the appeal of the ax murder house. True Crime people have shown only a mild interest in touring it. The big draw comes from ghost-hunting people, and many of them want to stay overnight in the house. In the murder rooms. "People would visit, have a paranormal experience, write about it, and Boom! We went from 18 visits a day to 200," Darwin said. "I never realized there were so many paranormal groups in this doggoned country."
The house is small and sparse by today's McMansion standards. "The Blue Room" on the ground floor is where two of the children were murdered; the upstairs bedrooms are where everyone else was killed. Darwin tries to demonstrate the house's supernatural power by using a crystal on a string to contact the dead mother. "Are you there?" he asks as the crystal sways, but mom doesn't want to talk. We saw and felt nothing while we were in the house, but that's insignificant (Our obliviousness can be astonishing at times -- just ask our wives).
There are some other ax murder stops of note in Villisca: the graves of the victims in the town cemetery; news clippings and a few artifacts at the Olson-Linn Museum on the town square; and, next to the murder house, an old, transplanted barn set up as a visitor center (creepy in its own way, with an off-season Halloween coffin and a forlorn clown dummy seated in the video room).
A relatively new "Ax Murder House" sign in drippy blood letters hangs from the porch of the house. Its boldness perhaps conveys Villisca's acceptance, or maybe it just says something about the needs of the town. You really can't ignore your ax murder house when ghost-hunters feature it as one of the most haunted places in the U.S., and the paranormal tourists are coming in, wanting to see it and spend money.
Darwin is modest about his foresight. "Right place, right time," is all he'll say. "It's been kind of exciting for an old man." Does he ever thinks about selling out, now that his judgment has been vindicated and he can get much more than he paid for the house? "I suppose," he says, "but I'm having too much fun!"
Darwin Linn passed away in July 2011. His wife, Martha, auctioned off the contents of the Olson-Linn Museum in 2012, but vowed to keep the Ax Murder House open as an attraction. The actual ax murdering ax is in the collection of the state museum in Des Moines.