Crime Scenes Make Killing With Tourists

Give yourself 40 whacks if you forgot to wish Lizzie Borden a happy birthday. America's most famous axe murderess would have been 145 this week. And though she's no longer with us, you can still sleep in her bed -- as long as you make reservations.

The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, Mass. -- the very spot where Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death -- has been restored to its 1892 splendor, when the abode earned its infamy. As the twisted nursery rhyme goes:

"Lizzie Borden took an Axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she had seen what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one."

Borden was eventually acquitted, and now, a night in her room is $200. Or if you want, you and your friends can rent the entire seven-bedroom house for $1,160. One couple is even planning to marry there later this year. On Halloween, of course.

Too creepy? If you'd rather, the house offers daily tours, where you can pick up $5 hatchet-shaped silver earrings, gift books, T-shirts ("Axe Me Where I Live … ), or a $10 vial of basement dust, which comes with a letter of authenticity.

"It's a little piece of history, a mystery that people can still share in," says co-owner Lee-ann Wilber, who purchased the premises two years ago.

All over the country, yesteryear's crime scenes are today's tourist destinations. Go to Jesse James' farm in Kearney, Mo., and see the bullet hole in the wall from when the famed gunslinger was killed.

James was standing on a chair and straightening a picture, when a member of his own outlaw gang shot him in the back in hopes of collecting a $10,000 reward. The bullet is under Plexiglas and on display, along with a casting of James' skull.

At the Dalton Gang hideout in Meade, Kan., you can creep into the 95-foot-long escape tunnel that runs under the 19th-century abode. More action awaits at Ma Barker's place over in Oklawaha, Fla., where they annually re-enact the Jan. 16, 1935, gunfight, when police riddled the home with 3,500 rounds of ammunition.

Then, try relaxing at Al Capone's Hideout in Couderay, Wis., a fortified lakeside estate with bulletproof walls, gun turrets and a guard tower. It's now a restaurant and bar.

Just don't confuse it with the mob boss's other makeshift museums, including a onetime Chicago speakeasy that's now "Al Capone's Hideaway & Steakhouse." Among other historical items, a sign in the men's room says, "Big Al Was Here."

It's no wonder contemporary crime scenes fetch big bucks. Three weeks ago, the Modesto, Calif., bungalow once occupied by convicted double murderer Scott Peterson and his slain pregnant wife, Laci, sold for $390,000 -- $10,000 more than Laci's parents were asking for the place.

"It's probably the most controversial home in the world," the buyer, Realtor Gerry Roberts, told The Associated Press. Roberts says, however, he plans to live there with his wife and three children.

A week later, a bidding war broke out over the home of BTK killer Dennis Rader, who admitted to killing 10 people in Wichita, Kan., between 1974 and 1991.

One bidder, Byron Jones, offering $60,000 for the home -- $3,000 more than its assessed value -- says he was planning to sell the abode, "inch by inch," over the Internet.

Exotic dance club owner Michelle Borin finally plunked down $90,000, saying she has no plans to live in the place. She just wanted the proceeds to help Rader's family. A court, however, may hold up the sale as victims of the killer press a wrongful death suit.

"It's just hideous to allow people to profit from crime," says Polly Franks, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition of Victims in Action. "Think of what this means to the people who suffered."

People often feel compelled to visit tragic locations, a motivation that might go back as far the very first battlefield monument. But you can't say crowds go to Capone's hideout or Borden's place to pay their respects.

"It's really a matter of time and taste before something like this becomes acceptable," says Chris Epting, author of "Elvis Presley Passed Here," the latest in his series of pop cultural landmarks.

Perhaps only in America can an outlaw like Jesse James rob a railroad in 1873, and then, 81 years later, get the railroad to erect a monument to commemorate this evil deed. And you'll find such a monument in Adair, Iowa, where his crew committed one of the first train robberies of the Old West, hauling off $2,000.

Borden was the bane of Fall River, but long after everyone directly related to the case had passed away, the quaint Massachusetts hamlet accepted -- in some respects even embraced -- its spot in history.

Here are some other crime scenes that have become magnets for tourists:

1. Bonnie and Clyde's Latest Hit
How's this for a quick getaway? On the third weekend of May, some 5,000 Bonnie and Clyde aficionados make an annual pilgrimage to Gibsland, La., to witness the re-enactment of the fateful 1934 shootout that marked the bloody end for the Romeo and Juliet of armed robbery.

The couple's two-year crime spree had left at least 12 people dead. They had stopped on Route 154 to help a farmer with a flat tire when they were ambushed by six officers.

Bonnie and Clyde made headlines in their day, but festival coordinator Billie Gene Poland says they would have been forgotten footnotes in true crime magazines if not for the 1967 blockbuster movie, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

"People just started coming here, asking questions. Finally, someone said, 'You're sitting on a goldmine,'" Poland says.

"We aren't doing this to glorify crime. We aim to honor the law enforcement officers and to teach people about the real history."

Criminal historians and relatives of both Bonnie and Clyde and also the officers who pursued them have participated in festival forums and attended the roadside shootout show. The extravaganza features actors from Denton, Texas, where the lawless lovebirds twice robbed the local bank.

Each year, the actors roll out the same vintage Bonnie and Clyde car that was used in the movie, and every year it's shot up like Swiss cheese. The real getaway car was purchased for $85,000 and is on display at Whiskey Pete's Casino, just outside Las Vegas.

Just to indicate the enduring popularity of the couple, candles and love notes are regularly found left at the couple's graves in Dallas. They're buried 10 miles apart, however, because Bonnie Parker's mother disapproved of the relationship and would not stand to see them side by side for eternity.

2. Alferd Packer's Flesh-Eating Festival

You could say Alferd Packer -- the first American tried on charges of cannibalism -- got his just desserts. In 1874, he was convicted of throwing a dinner party in really bad taste. Nowadays, he suffers an afterlife of totally tasteless jokes.

In the rugged winter of 1873, Packer was trapped in Colorado's San Juan Mountains along with five other prospectors. He emerged 65 days later looking suspiciously plump.

Packer never denied that he ate his colleagues. He claimed that he killed only one victim, and that was in self-defense.

As legend has it, at the sentencing, the presiding judge told Packer, "There were nine Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them," and sent him off to die.

But Packer escaped the hangman's noose through a technicality. He was tried again, convicted, and served 40 years. But he proclaimed his innocence to the very end.

Now, in Lake City, Colo., where America convicted its first cannibal, they celebrate Alferd Packer Days -- a two-day celebration, with coffin races, bone-throwing contests, and excursions to Dead Men's Gulch, where Packer's victims were exhumed. The next gala will be held on Memorial Day.

In nearby Littleton, where Packer was buried, the local museum in past years has hosted a re-creation of the prospector's criminal trial, topped off with a "Beef Alferdo" memorial dinner.

Cannibal jokes have become especially popular at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After a 1968 student protest over lousy on-campus grub, students voted to rename a cafeteria the Alferd Packer Grill. They subsequently began celebrating their own Alferd Packer Day with a speed-eating contest featuring barbecued ribs and steak tartar.

Two of the university's most famous students, "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, based their first collaboration, the 1996 feature film "Cannibal: A Musical," on Packer's life. The movie poster promised, "All Singing! All Dancing! All Flesh Eating!"

3. 'Wild Bill' Hickok Lives On
These days in Deadwood, S.D., "Wild Bill" Hickok gets himself killed four times a day, seven days a week, and that doesn't include a few staged gunfights in the streets. It's the only way to keep a gold rush of tourists happy.

Casino gambling brought a big boost in the early 1990s, and the HBO series that chronicles the outlaw legends born here, has given this Black Hills frontier town major international exposure, with tourists flocking here to walk the same streets as Calamity Jane.

As legend has it, on Aug. 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at the Old Style Saloon No. 10, and gave the world a lesson on why you should never sit with your back to the door. A shifty drifter named Jack McCall wandered in, just as Hickok drew what's now known as a "Dead Man's Hand" -- a pair of black aces, a pair of black eights and a nine of diamonds.

Hickok was shot in the head, and he's buried on nearby Mount Moriah, where many people come to show their respects. Some couples have even married there dressed in 1800s Western garb.

"I think Hickok was a good man, given the time and place he lived," says Marcus Vilimos, an actor who plays Hickok at the Old Style's daily shows.

"In those days, you had to do some unconventional things to do what was honorable. That's what people are attracted to. This place is rich with stories."

If you decide to test your luck at the Old Style, it's your lucky day if you draw the infamous Dead Man's Hand. The casino pays out a $250 prize.

Losers can still take home a $7 souvenir saloon thong. Just don't give it to a stranger if your back is to the door.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.