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Blood, Gore, Tourism: The Ax Murderer Who Saved a Small Town

100 years ago, someone killed 8 people in an Iowa home. Can unsolved brutality revive a dying town?

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Upstairs, in the children’s bedroom, Tracy whispers that she’s seen the real killers. She says there were two. We’re by ourselves when I startle at a noise from the closet and feel relieved when it’s just a draft in the ceiling. She saw the killers on an annual ax murder anniversary, she says, when Darwin threw a party at the Villisca Community Center, and Darwin’s webmaster said to Tracy and a woman from eastern Iowa that a hypnotist should visit the house.

Says Tracy: “So I turned to the lady from eastern Iowa and said, ‘You know how to do that, don’t you?’ and she said, ‘How do you know I can do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t ask me that question. I can’t tell you. But I am a willing participant.’ And she said, ‘I don’t have any of my stuff.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We can make this happen.’

“We came to the house, but I told her before we did anything I wanted permission. So I came upstairs and I asked Sarah, and Sarah said ‘maybe,’ and I knew it would be one of the women, because I am tied very closely to Sarah and Katherine [the 10-year-old], and I said to Katherine, ‘Will it be you?’ and there was a very eager ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and so I said to Katherine, ‘OK, just a moment,’ and so I went back to Sarah and she said, ‘yes.’

“So I went downstairs and told them I was ready. I don’t remember a lot of what happened. I remember feeling relaxed and feeling like I was looking through glass. The floors … I remember shiny polish … cleanliness. But they told me what happened. I was upstairs, sitting on the potty. (A questionable scenario: in 1912 the house lacked indoor plumbing, but really, when it comes to the instincts of a ghost hunter, do the facts of the case really matter? I’m inclined to say no.) I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and when someone asked what I was hearing, I said, ‘Daddy.’ But then I said, ‘No, that’s not Daddy.’ And later on it took me some time with research to figure out how she (Katherine) knew those weren’t Daddy’s footsteps. First of all, there would have been two sets of footsteps, and if there was only one, the person would have been wearing shoes — and Sarah did not allow shoes in the upstairs. So if Daddy was coming up the stairs — number one, Daddy was asleep — but if Daddy was coming up he’d have been barefoot. I figured all that out. There were things she told me I just had to figure out — how did Katherine know this? How would she know this? Well, she had shut the door. She was done with her business. Then she saw a light through the crack and heard thumping sounds. ‘There’s a thumping, there’s a thumping, and now Mom is awake’—these were the things she told me. ‘And now Mom’s screaming. And now Mom’s quiet.’

“The people watching me told me I was starting to cry, and to be scared, and at some point the boys must have started waking up, because they said I was trying to tell Paul, the little one, ‘Just be quiet Paul, please be quiet, please be quiet, please be quiet.’ He did the thumping here, he did the thumping there, and then an accomplice said something that Mom wasn’t dead. He had hit her but she wasn’t dead, and so I heard more thumping. They let me get to the point when Katherine opened the door, when I was saying ‘He’s looking at me … he’s looking at me … why is he looking at me!?!’ And that’s when they let me come out of it.”

 
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