American Folklore: Iowa

American Folklore: Iowa

Iowa was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and has a long Native American history going back before that. There is a lot of folklore here to explore. Here are some of the highlights of it.

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Admitted to the union in 1846 as the 29th state, Iowa is the 26th largest and 30th most populous state. It is known for being an agricultural state, and its capital, Des Moines, is often listed as one of the safest places to live in the country. It used to be part of Spanish Louisiana, and then French Louisiana, before coming into the possession of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. It had a Native American history hundreds of years long prior to European exploration. In that time, there has been plenty of folklore tales that have sprung up in the area. Here are some of the highlights of Iowa folklore.

Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel

Oakland Cemetery is a historic one, located on Iowa City’s north side. It has a monument in it of a black angel, and this monument has been the subject of speculations of hauntings and other bad things for a long time–in fact, since it was built in 1912. The rumors around it started because the angel was not always black. It used to be bronze. Rumors started that the bad deeds of those who were underneath it caused it to become black. Then, rumors of hauntings began. It is now one of the most popular and well-known folktales in the state.

Villisca Ax Murder Site

You often hear “ax murder” stories in folklore, but they are hardly ever real, at least not in a literal way. In Iowa, it really happened, in 1912 (the same year the black angel was erected, interestingly). Josiah Moore and his family and guests were all murdered in Josiah’s home, and the house is now called the Villisca Ax Murder House. What makes the murder of a man, his wife, children, and friends of the children who were staying over that night is that the murders were never solved. To this day, no one has any idea who did it or why. The story is often featured on unsolved mysteries or hauntings TV shows. Guided tours of the house are available today, and the truly brave can book an overnight stay. It is said the ghosts of the victims can sometimes be heard, and even seen in the house, giving clues to help solve what happened to them.

The Legend of Stony Hollow Road

According to local legend, a woman named Lucinda was waiting to be met by her lover, standing by the cliffs along Stony Hollow Road in Burlington, Iowa. Her lover did not come. They had planned to run away together, and she was very much in love with him. When he did not come, she jumped off the cliffs. The story goes that her spirit stays on this road, and can be seen there today, walking along the edge near the cliffs. It is said that if you say her name three times while on this road, you will feel her watching you. Only the bravest (or most foolhardy) people do it.

The Earling Exorcism

One of the last official Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcisms took place in the Iowa town of Earling. It is also a partial inspiration for the novel (and later, movie), “The Exorcist.” Many of the details of it remain vague to this day, but of what is known, a young woman who lived in Earling underwent an exorcism there that lasted three weeks, which inflicted great pain and suffering on her while the priests were doing it. In the end, several evil entities were removed from her, and she healed. A pamphlet was also written about it called “Begone Satan,” by the Reverend Celestine Kapsner.

The Creepy Jordan House

Located in West Des Moines, the Jordan House is a well-known historic landmark in the city, as one of the place’s earliest homes, and also a famous stop on the Underground Railroad. The house is, today, said to be haunted by Eda Jordan, the daughter of the house’s original owner. Eda is said to have crossed over when she was still quite young, from a fall from the banister on the stairs. Tours of the house are given today, and they have reported hearing (and sometimes seeing) a child playing in the house’s halls.

Iron Hill’s Ghosts

Located in Charles City, Iowa, there was a train accident in the 1920s. In the accident, there was a fire on the train that trapped and killed a few of the orphan children who were passengers on it. On the hill near the tracks were the accident happened, visitors sometimes report hearing phantom cries of children, and sometimes the smell of smoking wood. There have even been sightings of small, ghostly children playing in the woods and finding small, charred toys with which to play.

The Mental Health Institute

It seems there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, or folklore tales about mental institutions. It may be that their very nature lends itself to creepy things happening in them once they shutter their doors. In this particular tale, there is a mental hospital built in Iowa in 1873, when there was notice of an increase in the need for such a place after the Civil War. The institute was originally called the Independence Hospital for the Insane. Over the years, thousands of patients stayed there, for varying lengths of time. Unlike most mental health institutes that are the subject of folklore, this one is still open, known now as the Mental Health Institute. Guided tours of it are available, where the history of mental health institutes is discussed, relics of the past can be seen, and visitors sometimes report feeling creepy things watching them as they wander the halls of this ancient building.

Helen of Voorhees Hall

Helen is one of the most famous ghosts in Iowa. She is sometimes seen roaming Voorhees Hall at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was once a student there, who died during the worldwide 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which was during her freshman year there. Those who have seen her believe that she is trying to complete the college experience she never got to have, and is still hanging around a century later because of it.