Why we so fascinated by houses that have played host to horrible murders? Would you dare to live in one? These are the questions posed in American Murder Houses: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of the Most Notorious Houses of Homicide, written by attorney (and Jalopnik contributor) Steve Lehto.
The book weaves its way through decades of American true-crime tales, devoting each chapter to a different dwelling that's played host to a gruesome tragedy: Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Taliesin, where the architect's mistress was among the victims of a mass killing; the posh Beverly Hills home of tabloid darlings the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents to hasten their inheritance; the Chicago town house where Richard Speck slaughtered eight nurses; and others.
It offers a grim blend of history and real estate, and it focuses not on ghost stories, but on a more psychological definition of the word "haunted." We caught up with Lehto to discuss the book, which was released today.
io9: Why did you decide to write this book?
Steve Lehto: This is my tenth published book, and I've got two or three in the pipeline depending on how you count them. I wrote a book called Drawn to Injustice — if you like true crime books, you should check that one out as well — about a guy named Timothy Masters who spent ten years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. That's been featured on 48 Hours and different shows like that. Tim Masters and I co-wrote it, and the book's about him, you know. When that book was done, the editor I worked with at Berkley Publishing Group called me out of the blue and said, "I've got an idea for a book: murder houses!" Now, if you can summarize the book into a thumbnail or an elevator pitch that you can immediately understand like that, that's the litmus test for a brilliant idea.
I have a degree in history and a degree in law. So the book on Tim Masters made complete sense, because the heart of that book is how he was prosecuted, and how that worked out. With American Murder Houses, each house involved a murder, which I have a good way of approaching and understanding because of my legal background. And it's all historical; not all of the houses are as old as the next, but these houses span the period of about 300 years.
So it was one of those things where as soon as my editor mentioned it, I was like, "What a great idea!" We very quickly put together a list of houses, we kicked it back and forth, and the rest is history.
How did you decide which houses to include?
To be in the book, the house had to still exist. That ruled out a bunch, like the Heaven's Gate house, which got bulldozed a long time ago. The John Wayne Gacy house, long gone. The Ed Gein house mysteriously burned down shortly after he was arrested, when word got out about what he'd done. So I only included houses that were still standing, where the house had become a spectacle of some sort. The bulk of the houses, people will have heard of. They'll have heard of the murders, like JonBenét Ramsey, or Manson, or Lizzie Borden. There's a few in there that are more regional, and are not as widely known, but they made the list because the stories are still of such a nature that when you hear it, you're like, "Oh my god!" If you were in town, and you heard the house was nearby, you might go look at it.
But most of them are pretty obvious. Gianni Versace's house has gotta be on the list. Besides the fact that it's one of the most expensive homes in America, his murder made headlines. That kind of thing.
What was the research process like? Did you visit all of the houses?
I didn't. It would have cost me a fortune to travel the country going to look at these murder houses. [Laughs.] And I'm still a practicing lawyer so I haven't got that kind of time. But also my concern was if I approached somebody who's got a murder house, and said, "I'd like to do a chapter about your house," they're gonna tell me to get lost. I can walk by the outside and take pictures, but what does that do for me? I did try contacting a couple [of owners] and I ran into brick walls. I did speak to people at two or three homes, but these are the ones that are open to the public: the Lizzie Borden House, the Villisca Axe Murder house, and Taliesin. You can call the Lizzie Borden House right now and ask how much for a Lizzie Borden bobblehead doll, and they'll tell you.
The problem is if you want to speak to the people who live in a privately-owned murder house, I'm not sure they'd be happy. Many of them aren't looking for publicity. And so I didn't go that route. Instead, I did as much research as I could. The wonderful resource is that most of these murders made headlines, and enough newspapers are digitized where you can find these stories and get their coverage. So it was a lot of research digging through old, old, newspapers, straining my eyes, going that route. [Laughs.]
Were there any that you wanted to include, but didn't?
There were some where I wished the house was still there. That's true of any part of history: buildings disappear over time. But I understand why somebody would knock down a murder house. Especially if people come by to gawk and look at it. Of the three Manson houses, for instance, the one where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, and so on were killed, that house is long gone. The lot is still there, but there's another house there now. As I point out in the book, the only thing that's still standing from the night of the murders is the telephone pole that [Manson family member] Tex Watson used to climb the fence.
But again, I understand why that would be. The psychology behind this is really what's fascinating. We all stop to gawk at a car accident by the side of the road, but eventually the car accident gets cleaned up. In a murder house, the murder gets cleaned up, but the house remains. So people will come by to look at the house forever, as long as it's still there.
You mentioned the psychology of why murder houses appeal to people. A crime could happen in a vacant lot or an office building, but when it's in a house it's so much creepier. Why is that?
I think there's several different things at play here. Think about a high-profile murder. John Lennon gets murdered, and there's a huge, huge crowd of people who showed up at the Dakota, because that's just a natural gathering place. It makes complete sense that in the immediate aftermath of a murder, people will flock to the house. Some people to pay their respects, some people to gawk, some people just love crowds. But as time goes by, the house is a reminder. It's a memorial, whether or not it's intended to be one. The house is the marker. It's where someone died.
In the book, I point out that the Amityville murder house is probably one of the most famous houses in America. The story about what happened there, as told in the horror book and movie, is a hoax. It's not true. But there was a mass murder there that took place in the house prior to that. I think what inspired the Lutz family to write their book was that they got freaked out while living there, and they had to have an excuse as to why they skedaddled in the middle of the night. I think a lot of people have that internal debate: "Could I live there? Would it freak me out? What if I lived next door?" That kind of thing. As I point out in the last chapter of the book, there are even laws that are developing in this arena: do you have to disclose the history of a home if it has a murder history? Because some people would say yes, some would say no, and some would say, "Who cares?"
Would you live in one?
I don't think it would bother me. One of the homes I did go look at was the Gianni Versace house — I mention this in the introduction to my book. It's in Miami Beach, and it's along this stretch of beautiful buildings. Since Versace was murdered, the house has changed hands. It became a hotel-restaurant, and it's got a huge tall wall and an iron gate around it. There's nothing there to indicate what it is, or what it was. I was there a couple of years ago, a decade after the murder, and people would walk up, check the address, and take pictures with their cellphones. So the only reason I wouldn't want to live in a murder house is because of all the traffic out front. I know of at least three or four [murder houses] where they've changed the street address, hoping to deter people from coming by.
Why did you decide to include New Orleans' Gardette-LaPrete House, aka "The Sultan's Palace," which you dub "the murder house where no one was murdered"?
I do indicate that it's fake in the book, but if I hadn't included it, people would have said "Why didn't you mention the house?" I like debunking stuff if I have the opportunity to do so, and that house popped up on every list of murder houses out there. The weird thing about it was, to double check the facts in these cases I was studying property records. And the house was built decades after some of the events were supposed to have taken place in it. So I knew there was a problem, unless they were time travelers. I think I found the source; I think the story originated in 1922 in a book called Legends of Louisiana — I don't know if the author invented the story or just recorded the story, but it was the first I could find it in print. It's amazing how stories, the gorier the better, you can't kill 'em once they take root. And that story will outlive my book, I guarantee it.
Images, from top: Gianni Versace's home in Miami; the Clutter Farmhouse in Kansas, where the In Cold Blood murders took place; Houston home of Andrea Yates, who killed her five children there; and the Pasadena, Texas home of mass murderer Dean Arnold Corll, who committed murders there, and was murdered there himself.
Images credits, from top: Steve Lehto; Jonathan Berry; Ken Carter Photography; Ken Carter Photography.