Saturday, October 29, 2011

Villisca murder house still mystifies, divides

The site of unspeakable horror in 1912 still fascinates visitors.

A case could be made on this Halloween that a house in Villisca has the most horrifying and strange history of any in America.

Most know it as the site of the grisly ax murders of the J.B. Moore family and two visitors in 1912. But what has followed in the 100 years since has been nearly as strange.

It’s now run like a bed and breakfast — without the bed or the breakfast. Visitors come from all over the U.S. to stay overnight in the house, bringing balls and children’s toys for the “ghost children” to play with, cameras to take pictures of “orbs” and sleeping bags to lie on the floor because they aren’t allowed to sleep in the beds where eight people were murdered.

Earlier this week, guests were heard running from the house screaming in fright at 11 p.m. They jumped in their car and never returned.

Guests pay $400 a night to scare themselves silly.

What lodging in Iowa carries that price and is filled nearly every night, weekday or weekend, nine months of the year?

Martha Linn, 74, is the somewhat reluctant owner and innkeeper, a recent retiree of the county auditor’s office. Her husband, Darwin, died in July. She never wanted him to buy the place but insists she must keep it open to pay her bills, although the contents and building of the downtown Olson-Linn Museum that he started will be sold next summer.

“The house makes money, but I can’t afford to keep both of them going,” she said, standing outside the house. “Darwin never wanted this to be a ghost house. It’s just what happened.”

That’s not saying she hasn’t come to believe something odd has happened here in the 100 years since the murders. Her husband did, too, and this Halloween is very tough for her.

They were married 54 years, farmers before all this happened. She doesn’t regret buying the house now. They have traveled overseas and entertained people from all over the world because of it.

But walking through the small frame house, she often shakes her head. Guests have put lamps under one of the children’s beds. A toy xylophone was left on the bed (for the ghost children to play, of course). Chairs were pulled into a nearby attic space where the killer was thought to have hidden with his ax in hand.

“People just go in there and sit,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Here’s how it all unfolded, endlessly resurrected in legal documents, books, documentaries, newspapers and a fictionalized film.

Several years of investigations and trials followed the murders of J.B. Moore, his wife and four children, and two children visiting that night. They were axed to death, one by one, in their beds. Holes were left in the ceiling from the ax upswing. Clothing was draped over mirrors.

No one was ever convicted. A Kansas City detective tried to pin the crime on a successful local businessman, F.F. Jones. Jones later sued for slander. Then a peculiar traveling preacher, Rev. George Kelly, turned himself in and made a confession, but later recanted and was acquitted.

Speculation on who did it split the town for generations — and still does, to some degree.

Newspapers, including The Des Moines Register, kept the story alive, running lengthy series and feature-length articles on the murders in the 1930s and 1940s and up to 1981.

Villisca residents, including Darwin Linn, despised the attention. When he ran in the Drake Relays in high school, other runners saw his town name on his track shirt and made fun of the town’s horrible past.

Then a 1987 town celebration included a memorial service for the Moore family, and that revived the gruesome tale. Linn couldn’t ignore the central historical event of his town. He had opened the Olson-Linn Museum in downtown Villisca in 1989 because he was fascinated by history, so when the “murder house” on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Second Street went up for sale, he bought it in 1994.

Linn began an extensive restoration to return the home to its 1912 condition. He found original doors, windows and trim in an old shed behind the house. He tore off a porch that had been added, took out a bathroom and removed siding to find the original underneath. He won restoration awards for his work and proudly led visitors to the museum through the house as part of their visit.

Then came a twist. Martha Linn is fuzzy on the dates, but more than a decade ago a Des Moines disc jockey talked the Linns into letting him and his crew stay the night in the home.

“When we came here in the morning they were pacing the floor,” Linn said.

Apparently, the disc jockey heard children playing in the home during the night.

Word spread. Filmmakers began researching the home for a script, using a book on the murder history as a guide. “Haunting Villisca,” a fictionalized account of the murders, was released in 2006 and is still shown at independent film festivals, including the Wild Rose Film Festival in Des Moines in November.

A fresh round of publicity led producers of TV and radio shows and paranormal investigators to ask to spend nights in the home. Three years ago, Linn said, the home was opened to the public for overnight visits.

“There’s a procession of cars always going out to the cemetery to see the graves,” said Susie Enarson, who was the Villisca mayor in 1987 when the murders were made part of the town celebration, a decision she now regrets.

Recent exploitation of the events has “cast a pall” over the lives of good people tragically murdered, she said. Older folks in town warned her back then not to bring it up again, but she couldn’t imagine that people would one day want to take sleeping bags into an old house without a bathroom or showers and spend the night.

“That house was a home for many families since the murders,” she said. “And now, all the sudden, it has ghosts?”

There are other detractors. Ed Epperly of Decorah, a retired professor, has been studying the murders since the 1950s, has six file cabinets full of information, and has finished a draft of a book he hopes to release next year.

“To have people looking for spirits trivializes it, reduces it to a teenage fascination,” he said.

Over the years, he has felt a need to correct the record, insisting that Jones was unfairly accused. Some residents in town say it ruined the Jones family.

“The slaughter of his character was almost as bad as the murders,” he said.

And the promotion of the home as a ghost house only adds fuel to his fire. He says the history has been distorted to add more sensation, such as information that some victims were dragged through the home.

“It needs a more historical analysis, not paranormal for publicity sake,” he said.

Linn defends the home’s twist of fate. On the house’s official website are accounts of Darwin’s recounting closet doors that open and close on demand, people who have heard voices, and the bright orbs floating in the air that even Martha Linn claims to have seen on digital cameras right after they were taken.

“When paranormals go to Gettysburg, does it upset them?” Linn asked. “That was always Darwin’s thing: History first, paranormal second. We used no taxpayer money, no grants. It all came out of our pockets.”

People in town were afraid weirdos would come to town, the “gothics and people with tattoos,” she said. In fact, some of the nicest people she met, and the only lodgers so far she served breakfast, was a group of “Wiccan witches from Des Moines.”

“They come down and don’t bother anybody,” Linn said. “People seem to forget, this is private property.”

Visitors remain curious because it’s a mystery, and for some people an other-worldly mystery. In the dim light of the Ax Murder House, it was enough to be proud of what her husband accomplished.

“He loved history. Even when he was so sick and was on oxygen, he came down here to the house,” she said, standing beneath the framed photographs of the Moore family, whose murders changed a town forever.

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