In 1912, year my grandma Dorothy was born, the Titanic sank and eight people perished at the hands of an ax murderer in Villisca, Iowa while they slept. To this day, no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime. There were no witnesses and neighbors had wandered through the house tampering with evidence before law enforcement could arrive. Plus, the crime occurred before the existence of DNA testing and a central database of fingerprints. The home began renovations in 1994 and joined the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1998. It often appears on lists of most haunted locations in America and featured on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures.
Naturally, I invited my college roommate Bre of Des Moines to join me on a trip to visit the Villisca Ax Murder House since she’s also fascinated by the unusual and the historical. Unlike myself, she’s levelheaded and not easily frightened as long as she never ever encounters any type of clown.
The Villisca Ax Murder House website portrays an isolated, ominous house beneath looming skies. Naturally, this is the scene we expected to find, and our expectations were only exacerbated by our two hour drive through remote, southwestern Iowa without a glimpse of a main street or town, except for the city of Atlantic.
The town of Villisca was not like what we had imagined. Our GPS guided us past stunning homes with sprawling verandas situated along streets lined with mature trees. We blinked twice when we saw a Casey’s on the edge of town and kept our eyes peeled for the ax murder house, thinking it couldn’t possibly be located this closely to a school or beautiful church. It totally was.
There is nothing particularly scary about the house based upon appearances alone. The carloads of families wandering around the property and waiting in groups for tours shattered our visions of pulling up to a quiet, eerie house and greeting a lonely owner for a tour. In fact, I had a difficult time taking a photo of the sign because so many parties scrambled to pose with it. Some merely smiled, while others feigned horror. The Ax Murder House was truly that busy.
Our lighthearted Ghostbusters mood quickly turned somber at this front sign. We found that neither of us particularly liked it. The comic, Halloweeny font contrasted with the tragedy that occurred within the house in a way that made our stomachs feel funny.
Instead of waiting for a photo opportunity by the sign, we wandered into the gift shop and paid our $10 admission fee. “Is it always this busy,” we asked the owner? “It is,” she confirmed. Especially around Halloween.
We also passed on the souvenir Villisca Ax Murder T-shirts featuring the victims’ faces lined floating above the handle of an ax. Like the house’s sign, the shirts created much cognitive dissonance.
The owner instructed us to join the group on the picnic tables and wait for next tour. We poked around the grapevines growing around the trellis.
All of a sudden, a visibly upset teenage girl ran out of the house with her dad following close behind. She complained about getting “scratched.” It was a good thing I was too distracted by photographing the grapevines to look at the big scratch on her arm, because I would have nope’d my way out of there and waited for Bre in the car. The tour guide kind of shrugged and said such things happen.
The scratching incident did not scare anyone away, and so our guide began our tour by providing an overview of early 20th century Villisca and the crime. I was fascinated to learn Villisca’s population has actually decreased from 2500 to about 1,200 since 1912.
When the previous group exited the house, we entered in a single-file line and I made sure we walked in the middle. Our guide pointed out where the events of the murder took place and clarified that the furnishings were not original. We were allowed to explore the house and take as many photos as we desired as long as we did not walk onto the weak attic floor. With a wave and a chipper, “Have fun!” she left us to our own devices.
The two family photos on the walls are real.
Everyone deals with unease and fear in varying ways. Bre and I treated the house like a grave site, moving through each room in a somber, delicate manner while others cracked jokes and nervously giggled.
The house was so small that we walked upstairs in shifts. Each step bumped and creaked and when someone dropped their phone, we all jumped.
One young man thought it would be funny to hide in one of the children’s bedrooms and jump out to scare a friend. Unfortunately, the person he launched himself at turned out to be someone other than his friend.
Bre and I didn’t linger very long inside the home. Simply put, we felt a huge degree of sadness. I also developed a headache, more influenced by the fact that I entered the house hyperventilating out of unease, than by any supernatural influence.
As the first ones out, we chatted with our tour guide, a Villisca resident, and asked her how the community feels about the Ax Murder House being the town’s main tourist attraction. She replied that the community used to feel less enthusiastic about their claim to fame but now appreciates how it cultivates tourism. Before she left to greet the next group of tourists, she suggested we peruse their binders of accounts written by people who spent the night.
This one gave us the most goosebumps.
The cellar doors are opened wide to invite guests to visit this most recently renovated part of the house. We walked beneath the house for a brief moment and stared out at the sky. “Wouldn’t it be strange if the doors suddenly swung shut?”I asked. Bre’s icy gaze said “no,” and we hightailed it out of there.
On the way home, we cruised around Villisca’s main street area. The Rialto theater and an open cafe caught my eye. Des Moines Chef & Restauranteur George Formaro recommends the pork tenderloin at TJ’s Cafe.
So, what types of people travel to the site of an early 20th century ax murder, anyway? People who are simply interested in history or are fascinated by the unusual. Ghost hunters grasping for an encounter with the paranormal and people with a strong stomach for gallows humor. There are lots of people like us and we learned that we aren’t quite as strange as we had fancied ourselves.
Like Bre, my initial reaction to our visit to the Villisca Ax Murder House was to feel bothered that the actual site of a horrific murder is treated as a spooky, boo! attraction. But as macabre as a pilgrimage to this house may seem, another reality is that it’s bringing visitors to Villisca and ensuring that no one will forget these families any time soon.
Travel Information: Villisca, Iowa is located four hours from Mason City, Iowa, two hours from Des Moines & one hour from Omaha, NE. Tour season spans April 1st-November 1st, Tuesday-Sunday between 1-4 p.m. with the last tour beginning at 3:30. Admission costs $10. The house is also available to rent overnight for $428 for up to six people. Bre knows someone who rented the house with friends. He reported that nothing unusual happened, though one girl felt scared and slept in the car. I really can’t blame her.
Regarding age-appropriateness, I saw families with youth that appeared to be as young as 10. Obviously, the subject matter discussed is graphic and disturbing. Frankly, I was disturbed by the teen who claimed to have gotten “scratched.” The grade-school version of myself would not handled a visit to this house well, as I remember how scared I felt visiting Ford’s Theater in elementary school.
For further reading: Interesting article published in Salon: Blood, gore, tourism: The ax murderer who saved a small town by Nick Kowalczyk