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True-crime tours draw tourists to grisly murder scenes

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Step inside, if you dare. (Museum of Death)

Crime isn’t typically a selling point for a city. But there’s something about murder and mayhem of times gone by that temptingly taps the psyche of those interested in exploring the seedier, bloodier, deadlier underbelly of a place.

After all, London boasts numerous Jack the Ripper walking tours, proving that there is indeed an audience for the macabre when it comes to tourism.

Shop windows in the Whitechapel area of east London, once the haunt of Jack the Ripper (Photo: AP)

For the morbidly curious — and hey, we’re not judging — select tours across America also cater to this fetish. True-crime dramas such as “CSI” and “Cold Case” have only enhanced the appeal in recent years.

We’ve rounded up companies that turn headline-grabbing stories of murders and serial killers into dark history lessons. These tours venture into the shadows, away from the cookie-cutter stories that so often define a place, exposing the evil lurking among us and weaving it into a city’s narrative thread.

When you take one of these tours, you can legitimately say it was “killer.”

The site of a Manson Family murder (Photo: Dearly Departed Tours)

The Helter Skelter Tour, Los Angeles, Calif.

Operator: Dearly Departed Tours

“It’s become a bigger thing than I thought it would be,” says Scott Michaels, owner of Dearly Departed Tours. “People have a wide-eyed fascination with it.”

He’s talking about his three-and-a-half-hour tour that chronicles the Manson Family Murders and sells out regularly. The tour sprang up from his own fascination with Charles Manson and the seven high-profile murders that rocked Los Angeles in 1969 — murders that Manson was convicted of orchestrating.

“Ultimately, this is history,” says Michaels. “Charles Manson was a part of the ’60s just like Peter Fonda, Mama Cass, and the Beatles. I remember when the murders happened. It really affected people, the fear. America made him into a boogeyman.”

The tour provides a comprehensive exploration of this “boogeyman,” couched in the colorful pop culture of the era. With group sizes limited to 13 guests, the multimedia tour by van visits sites relevant to the Manson Family and its crimes, while featuring film, audio clips, and music from 1969.

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Your true-crime tour guides, Hope and Thomas (Photo: French Quarter Phantoms & Ghost Tours)

True Crime Tour, New Orleans, La.

Operator: French Quarter Phantoms & Ghost Tours

Ghost tours are a dime a dozen in the French Quarter of New Orleans. So storyteller Thomas Webb decided to offer something different: horror based on real crimes.

“I wanted to do a tour about some of the interesting and disturbing things that have happened in New Orleans that don’t have ghosts attached to them,” he says. “I felt like these stories were being neglected, because they don’t fit the ghost story genre or good-time party town image of New Orleans, and people needed to hear them.”

Among the handful of stories woven into this 90-minute tour is that of the “Axman,” a serial killer who terrorized the Big Easy in 1918-1919.  The Axman broke into homes and split his victims’ heads open with — you guessed it — an ax. The case remains unsolved to this day.

“We’re telling them real stories, verifiable stories, stories found in newspapers, and books,” says Webb. “It’s often more frightening when it’s something that really happened.”

The apartment building of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of multiple homicides. (Photo: AP)

Cream City Cannibal Tour, Milwaukee, Wis.

Operator: Hangman Tours

Milwaukee is known for its breweries, “Laverne & Shirley” — and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Amanda Morden of Hangman Tours says the company surveyed travelers while taking tours in other cities and opted to move forward with a tour centered around the serial killer, because he sparked international curiosity: “Whenever we told people we were from Milwaukee, they’d often say, ‘Oh, that’s where Jeffrey Dahmer’s from.’”

Watch: Inside Jeffrey Dahmer’s Home

Dahmer was convicted in 1992 of murdering 15 men and boys, whom he raped, killed, dismembered, and ate.

The walking tour takes guests down the same streets where Dahmer stalked and poached his victims, while recounting his past, his crimes, and his effect on the city. Morden stresses that information comes from meticulous research and interviews with law enforcement, prosecutors, and reporters familiar with the case.

“We have guides for this tour present the material in a straightforward fashion, no banter or joking,” says Morden. “We’ve had professors of forensic psychology take the tour, history professors, people matriculating to the FBI.”

While the tour has triggered controversy since launching in 2012 — mainly because the case is still fresh in the minds of many who lived through it — Morden says curious out-of-town visitors are booking, especially women. 

A spooky hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York (Photo: Boroughs of the Dead)

Murder, Scandal and Vice, New York City, N.Y.

Operator: Boroughs of the Dead

“I’ve always been interested in the creepier side of life,” says Andrea Janes, a writer who turned her passion for weaving macabre narrative into a tour company with a dark focus.

Among a bigger menu of ghost- and Edgar Allan Poe-themed tours, Janes offers a 90-minute walking tour that recounts some of the most brutal crimes of 19th-century New York City, taking guests through areas of Old World Gotham that once festered with evil and vice.

“I’m not necessarily looking for the most gruesome stories,” Janes says, “but the most interesting characters.”

As a writer, Janes has a knack for uncovering the lesser-known crime stories of Antebellum New York and bringing them to bone-chilling life for her guests. Among them is that of Emma Cunningham, considered the nation’s first female murderer despite ultimately not being convicted in 1857 of stabbing her lover 15 times.

Janes’s tours attract intellectuals, history buffs, thrill-seekers, and people attracted to dark things. “I once had a 12-year-old boy ask how many liters of blood are in the human body,” she says.

The Ferris wheel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Photo: AP)

Devil & the White City Tour, Chicago, Ill.

Operator: Weird Chicago

Gangster tours are wildly popular in Chicago. But for those who know the story, the legacy of H.H. Holmes is far more chilling than that of Al Capone.

Considered America’s first serial killer, Holmes gained notoriety with a modern audience in Erik Larson’s best-selling book, “The Devil in the White City.” This 19th-century killer who struck during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is now the subject of a three-hour bus tour. 

“We’ve never had one that’s not sold-out,” says Troy Taylor, co-owner of Weird Chicago.

The tour is a blend of Chicago history, including stops at old Exposition sites. But Taylor says the storytelling is anchored by people’s fascination with Holmes, who supposedly killed as many as 200 visitors to the fair.

“There would not be nearly as much people interested in the 1893 World’s Fair if not for H.H. Holmes,” he says. “People got turned on to this history because of a serial killer.”

Police mug shot of Ted Bundy, 1980 (Photo: AP)

Capitol Hill True Crime Tour, Seattle

Operator: Private Eye on Seattle Ghost & True Crime Tours

Pair a trip to the Space Needle with a walk in the footsteps of America’s most prolific serial killer, Ted Bundy.

Jake Jacobson layers in the story of Bundy during her three-hour tour of Seattle’s hip Capitol Hill neighborhood, a place where he once lived and stalked his victims. Bundy was convicted and executed for raping, murdering, mutilating, and beheading scores of women in the 1970s — many in the Seattle area.

“Anybody can do a Capitol Hill tour,” says Jacobson. Adding true crimes “is a unique way to see the city. Ted Bundy is a part of the tour, but he’s certainly not the whole tour.”

Among the murder and crime stories incorporated into the tour, Jacobson also highlights one of Seattle’s most famous musicians. “We feature Kurt Cobain and whether his death was a suicide or a murder,” she says. “There are lots of opinions about that.”

 

(Exterior, Museum of Death)

Museum of Death, Hollywood, Calif.

“We have people pass out all the time,” says JD Healy, co-founder of Museum of Death, when describing visitors who step into his museum on Hollywood Boulevard and get overwhelmed — despite the upfront warnings.

The museum houses a stomach-twisting collection of serial killer artwork, crime-scene photos, death footage, execution devices, and other items related to death. No topic surrounding death is taboo during the self-guided tour. 

Some of the museum’s original items — which include artwork and letters by icons of evil such as John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, and “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz — were gifted to Healy, an artist, after he directly contacted the criminals as part of an art installation project in the early ’90s. The personal collection grew bigger and more macabre over the years, enough to inspire opening up a museum.

 

A display at the Museum of Death in Los Angeles (Photo: Museum of Death)

Among the other macabre items on display: a staged re-creation of a room from the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 (complete with clothes from one victim) and crime scene photos from the infamous Black Dahlia murder in 1947. The museum also recently acquired the Thanatron, the intravenous drip machine built by Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian to assist in suicides.

Healy says the experience isn’t meant to sensationalize, but rather confront people with their own mortality. “Death happens to everyone,” Healy says. “We’re all born to die.”

As this museum demonstrates, some just experience a more gruesome death end than others. 

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