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The surprising things I felt when I visited an ax murder house

It's been called one of the "scariest," "most haunted" and "creepiest" houses in the Midwest, but what is it really like inside the Villisca Ax Murder House?

Attic
Investigators speculated that the killer might have hidden in the attic either before or after the murders. Paranormal investigators have reported the balls in the attic moved for no reason.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum
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VILLISCA, Iowa — Over the years, if I mentioned to friends that we were going to Iowa to visit my husband’s family, I was bound to get questions such as:

  • "Does your husband’s family live near 'The Field of Dreams?'” No, but we’ve been there.
  • "Do they really eat those giant pork tenderloin sandwiches and Maid-Rites?" Yes, and they're delicious. 
  • Most likely from a Gopher fan: “You know what the initials I.O.W.A stand for, right?" Yes, I do. Google it.

The fact is our trips to the Hawkeye State are pretty great and usually involve some of what I just mentioned — eating a lot of good food and visiting a few notable tourist spots.
They don’t usually involve stepping into the scene of a brutal ax murder from the early 20th century.

But that's what we did earlier this summer, when we visited (cue the scary music) the Villisca Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa, a site in southwestern Iowa about halfway between Omaha, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa, heralded by some as “one of the most haunted places in America.”

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The Villisca Ax Murder House in Iowa attracts thousands of visitors a year. Tourists tour the home where 8 people were killed by an ax murderer. The crime is officially unsolved, but fairly new evidence suggests the suspect could have been a serial killer that rode the rails looking for victims at stops throughout the Midwest.
Tracy Briggs

It was my daughter Laura’s idea to check it out after she saw something online about what happened here — the horrific ax murders of six members of the Moore family and two houseguests in the early morning hours of June 10, 1912.

As a fan of the true crime genre, I was intrigued and said, “Why not?”

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We were also joined by my younger daughter and my sister-in-law, a former fourth grade teacher known more for her killer Buster Bar dessert than any love of true crime. It wasn’t her thing, but she’s a sport. So off we went.

I won’t go into all of the details of what happened in the house, beyond the fact that the eight people were killed by an ax murderer while they slept and that the crime is still unsolved. For more detail, I wrote a story for The Vault about house, along with the accompanying podcast.

Other stories by Tracy Briggs
Some people claim the devil himself visited the tiny town of Villisca, Iowa, that summer night in 1912, when 8 people were killed by an ax murderer. Others say he already lived among them. After more than a century of idle gossip and speculation, some amateur sleuths might have just figured it out.

Instead, I’ll give you a look behind the scenes at what it felt like to be there.

As we turned off Highway 71 to Villisca (population 1,162), we passed buildings you’d see in a lot of smallish Iowa cities — Casey’s General Store and a Dollar General. The Ax Murder House is further down the road on Second Street past the Villisca United Methodist Church and the middle school.

It looks like most of the lovely homes here, until you see the sign in the front yard: “Villisca Ax Murder House.”

The home first built in 1868 had a few owners after the infamous murders in 1912, but these days it’s owned by Darwin and Martha Linn, who refurbished it and opened it up to tourists. It costs about $10 for a guided tour. If your group wants to spend the night here, it’ll cost $428. (Ummm, yeah. No thank you.)

Martha Linn
Martha Linn was not on board when husband Darwin talked to her about buying the ax murder house."I was born and raised here in Villisca. I've always know the story of the ax murders. I didn't want anything to do with it," she said. But when their bid on the home was accepted in 1994, they made the best of it by opening it up to the public. Linn said it turned out well because she's gotten to meet so many nice people from all over the country.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

After tour guide Johnny Houser told us the tragic tale from the backyard, we stepped into the house and back in time. It was pretty creepy to see the kitchen look just the way it would have in June 1912.

Even creepier? The living room looked a lot like the living room in the farmhouse my husband’s parents lived in for more than 50 years. The dark woodwork around the doors was nearly identical.

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The winding, narrow stairs to the upstairs bedrooms where most of the murders happened creaked with every footstep. We found mirrors covered in sheets and dolls staring back at us from the kids' beds. The sun was shining into the windows, but that didn’t help the sense of darkness here. It was hard not to feel the heaviness.

Johnny Houser in the bedroom
Tour guide Johnny Houser points to the second story of the home where most of the victims were killed. I was freaked out that the woodwork on the door behind Houser was identical to the woodwork in my in-laws' home built around the same time period.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The attic, where the killer was alleged to have hidden, felt claustrophobic. However, some paranormal investigators have said in the past, they believed it was lighthearted, teasing child spirits that usually want to make contact.

We didn’t stay in the house very long. I stayed longer than my sister-in-law, who I found checking her phone near the barn out back. We appreciated our time at the Villisca Ax Murder House. The staff was friendly and welcoming.

If you’re into this kind of thing, it’s probably worth a stop. If you’re a paranormal investigator, an overnight stay might even be your cup of tea.

But for me, I think I’ll stick to the “Field of Dreams” and Buster Bar dessert.

Tracy Briggs Back Then with Tracy Briggs online column sig.jpg
Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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