Friday, March 18, 2011

A Field Trip to the Villisca Ax Murder House

The town of Villisca, Iowa, rests just off U.S. 71, a sleepy, friendly town of 1,344 that in 1912 was the site of seven brutal murders.

The Moore family and two of their children’s friends staying the night were killed by someone swinging an ax. Someone who’d paced the attic smoking cigarettes, waiting for the family to come home from a June church picnic and go to sleep.

The murders have never been solved.

Darwin and Martha Linn bought the murder house years ago, worried a piece of local history may be torn down. They’ve since found they bought something with the house – ghosts.

“I haven’t been pushed or my hair hasn’t been pulled,” Darwin said, but he knows spirits are in the house. Too many visitors have told him so.

In the 2009 fall semester at Northwest Missouri State University, I taught the one-time offering “Paranormal Journalism” and took 22 students on a field trip to the ax murder house. It was only a 50-minute drive. I would have felt guilty if we hadn’t gone.

A little about the class; the mainstream media has frustrated me for years with the terms “little green men” in stories of UFO sightings, “who you gonna call?” in reports of ghost sightings, and references to “Harry and the Hendersons” with Bigfoot stories. Each reference turns the story into parody. I proposed this class to my university as an effort to teach young journalists to report on the paranormal as seriously as they would a city council meeting or a car wreck. The university said OK. The field trip was just a bonus.

In 1912, the two-story ax murder house sat on the outskirts of town. It’s now just a few blocks away from downtown. We pulled up to the house at dusk in two university vans, a light mist promising for a chilly night.

The house spread in front of us, seeming larger than it was. Maybe the oval sign that spelled “Ax Murder House” in bloody letters had something to do with that.

Pie-shaped windows from the attic of this white building – the same room where the murderer waited with an ax (the Moore family’s own ax) – stared into the coming dusk like angry eyes. A few students were a little tentative. Cool.

One student, Karra, was a little more than tentative. She seemed unnerved.

Weeks before the trip, Karra related a dream about the ax murder house. In the dream she was in the second-floor children’s bedroom and a doll – a Raggedy Ann-type doll – lay on the bed. As she approached the bed, the doll turned its head and smiled. She awoke screaming.

Before we arrived at the house, I assured her everything would be fine.

I was wrong.

As tour guide Johnny Houser led us into the structure horror swept through 97 years before, we broke into groups, one going upstairs, the other exploring downstairs. Moments later, terror-filled screams rang throughout the house from the second floor. I rushed to the stairway and met Karra pounding down the steps screaming.

“The doll,” she screamed.

Although nothing unexpectedly moved or smiled when she’d walked into the children’s upstairs room, the wallpaper, the bed, the comforter, and the Raggedy Anne-type doll sitting on the bed were the same as in her dream.

That wasn’t the only thing strange on that field trip.

A student, Logan, carried a Franks Box, asking the device random questions as a group followed him into an unnaturally cold cupboard.

A Franks Box is a radio receiver that randomly tunes to spots on a radio dial with the thought that spirits may be able to communicate through this white noise, much like they do with EVPs, but in real time.

I have my doubts about any electronic device that’s “supposed” to detect ghosts, but something happened with the Franks Box.

In the van, before we pulled up to the Ax Murder House, I instructed my students to be respectful and to not – under any circumstance – be a jerk. Even to something they couldn’t see.

One student, Stratton, didn’t follow my advice. He walked throughout the house shouting things like, “Coward. Come face me. If there’s a ghost here, show me.”

Crowded in the cupboard with six people, Logan began asking questions.

“Is there someone here with us?”

Static, followed by a distinctive male voice, “yes.”

This device was scanning radio frequencies. I discounted that “yes” as naturally random.

“Do you want us to leave?”

Static again, followed by the same voice, “yes.”

Odd, but still accounted for.

“Is someone making you angry?”

Static, “yes.”

Still within the realm of normalcy. Although repeated three times, this was just one word. I wasn’t reading anything into the Franks Box.

“Are they here in this room?”

Static, “no.”

Hmm. A different word.

“Who’s making you angry?”

Static, “Stratton.”

Stratton? A device randomly scanning radio signals came up with the name of the only person on the field trip who was trying to make something angry. Bill, John, Aaron, or Dave, I could have brushed off easily. But Stratton? The box answered the question, and the answer was correct.

I’ll never be convinced something like a Franks Box is legitimate, but I can’t say it’s not.

Students also reported a planchet moving on a Ouija board and a ghostly finger tapping a girls’ shoulder.

You can see some of these accounts, and more stories of the paranormal, at

For more information on the Villisca Ax Murder House, or to schedule a visit, go to

Copyright 2011 by Jason Offutt

Got a scary story? Ever played with a Ouija board, heard voices, seen a ghost, UFO or a creature you couldn’t identify? Let Jason know about it: Jason Offutt, P.O. Box 501, Maryville, Mo., 64468, or Your story might make an upcoming installment of “From the Shadows.”

Jason’s newest book on the paranormal, “Paranormal Missouri: Show Me Your Monsters,” is available at Jason’s blog,

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