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5 road trips to help you explore America’s ghosts, murder in the Midwest, and the Civil War

You’ve got just enough autumn left to take a weekend — or more — away.

road trips
Take a road trip!
Jarno Holappa/Shutterstock

It’s fall — the perfect time for a road trip.

The roads aren’t yet slippery with ice, the trees are awash in vibrant colors, and the weather is just nippy enough to require a jacket, but not so cold as to require staying indoors.

Fall is also a great time to reflect on the nation’s past — or, at least, the long march toward winter always puts us in a contemplative mood. You can look back in a number of ways — by traveling to Civil War battle sites, say, or visiting famous, purportedly “haunted” locations.

So we’ve come up with five road trips — one lengthy and four you can complete in a couple of days or even a few hours — to spark those autumnal feelings.

Get in the car. Winter’s on the way.

Trip 1: Creepy New England history with Aaron Mahnke

Estimated trip length: 8 hours and 10 minutes. We recommend spreading it over a long weekend.

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Aaron Mahnke is a novelist and the host of Lore, a popular podcast that digs into history to find eerie incidents from the past (it’s also being adapted for TV). Some of Lore’s tales have supposed supernatural roots; others are just creepy things that happened. A New England resident, Mahnke provided us with just the right pit stops for a quick, haunted jaunt through some of America’s oldest locations.

Stop 1: Hadley, Massachusetts (Lore episode)

Mary Webster wasn’t the most popular woman in Hadley. She was shipped off to Boston in 1683 to be tried as a witch, but was acquitted. A year later, she was blamed for the mysterious illness that was slowly killing the town hero and elder, Philip Smith.

Rather than risk another acquittal in Boston, a handful of men from the town took justice into their own hands. They pulled her from her home in the middle of winter and — I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s too powerful.

Stop 2) North Adams, Massachusetts (Lore episode)

Hoosac Tunnel
Check out the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts — but maybe don’t go inside.
Doug Kerr/Flickr

The Hoosac Tunnel was carved through five miles of mountain in western Massachusetts in 1865. There were nearly 200 deaths during the construction, but one event in particular has left its mark.

A week after Ringo Kelly made an error that ended the lives of two co-workers when he mistakenly set a dynamite charge too early, he mysteriously went missing. His body turned up exactly one year later — in the same spot where the fatal explosion had occurred. He’d been strangled to death.

Stop 3) Danvers, Massachusetts (Lore episode)

The Danvers State Hospital was once the pinnacle of modern mental health care, but a century of use and abuse led to its slow decline. Built on the hill that once belonged to a cranky Salem witch trial magistrate, the hospital quickly earned a reputation for crowded quarters, filthy conditions, and ice pick lobotomies.

The hospital is gone today, but the graveyard is still there, right behind the modern condos that replaced it. The condos, by the way, are built atop the network of old tunnels that once connected the hospital buildings. That’s one basement I have no desire to visit, even if I could.

Stop 4) Exeter, Rhode Island (Lore episode)

On the morning of March 17, 1892, a group of Exeter’s townsfolk dug up the graves of three local women. They were looking for the vampire responsible for the deaths of others from town. In the end, they placed the blame on a young woman named Mercy Brown, and burned her organs right beside her grave in the cemetery.

Today, hundreds of vampire lovers visit her grave each year. It’s fitting, some say, for the real-life woman whose exhumation inspired Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, Dracula.

Stop 5) Freetown, Massachusetts (Lore episode)

Marking the southern corner of a mysterious patch of land known as the Bridgewater Triangle, Freetown is full of unusual tales. The local Freetown State Forest has been home for decades to rumors of dangerous creatures and satanic rituals. The triangle as a whole plays host to more of the same.

Ships and planes might not disappear inside the borders of the triangle, but the swamps and forests there seem to hold more than their fair share of cold spots, whispering voices, and cursed ledges. Enter at your own risk.

Stop 6) Tolland, Connecticut (Lore episode)

When Daniel Benton built his small, red cape-style home in 1720, he had no idea what sort of visitors it would play host to in the centuries to come. Even now, three centuries after its construction, you can still visit and see the grave of Benton’s grandson Elisha and Elisha’s fiancée Jemima, who are buried on opposite sides of the driveway.

Enjoy your stroll on the quaint New England property around the house, but keep your eyes on the windows. More than a few tourists have seen things they weren’t expecting. Specifically, the long-dead lovers.

As told to Todd VanDerWerff

Trip 2) A Civil War journey with Tony Horwitz

Estimated trip length: 6 hours, 33 minutes. Take this trip over a long weekend.

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Tony Horwitz’s books live in the territory between travelogue and historical document. His Confederates in the Attic is one of the best books about how the legacy of the Civil War continues to mark the country, and his most recent book, Midnight Rising, follows the story of John Brown, the abolitionist whose raid on Harpers Ferry kick-started the war. A Pulitzer winner for his reporting on low-wage workers for the Wall Street Journal and president of the American Society of Historians, Horwitz shared with us his ideal Civil War road trip.

Stop 1) Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The scene of John Brown’s raid in 1859 and constant fighting throughout the Civil War, Harpers Ferry is extremely compact, picturesque, and well interpreted by the National Park Service. It’s one of the best places in America to absorb history and scenery, by foot, in half a day or less.

Stop 2) Antietam battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Cannons are lined up at Antietam battlefield.
Adam Parent/Shutterstock

It’s a pleasant 30-minute drive into Maryland to the battlefield at Antietam, site of the bloodiest day of combat in US history.

Antietam is the best-preserved major battleground in the East, with cornfields, snake-rail fences, farmhouses, and other features that closely resemble their appearance in Mathew Brady’s famous photographs. Also, Antietam was a one-day battle, so it’s fairly easy to take in and understand in a few hours.

Antietam bonus: It’s just a few miles from Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a historic college town with nice restaurants, lodging, and shopping.

Stop 3) A drive through the Virginia countryside

Cross the Potomac at Brunswick, Maryland, and continue south into the rolling piedmont of Northern Virginia, where the Confederate cavalryman John Mosby launched his famous raids.

The countryside around towns like Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville, and Delaplane is among the most scenic in Virginia, a great place for a leisurely few hours’ drive with stops at sites associated with Mosby (suggested routes).

Stop 4) The battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness, all in Virginia

After taking in the scenic countryside, continue south for about an hour to these clustered battlefields.

This area was fought over more than any other in the 1860s, and though much less pristine than Antietam, it’s a good place to grasp the scale and horror of Civil War combat. Rather than try to take in all the battles, choose a few of the most dramatic sites, like the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania and the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station, where the rebel icon died after his wounding at Chancellorsville.

Stop 5) Richmond, Virginia

After another hour’s drive south, you’re in Richmond, capital of the Confederacy and chockablock with Civil War museums and memorials (and nearby battlefields, if you haven’t gotten your fill).

Some of the best sites: Hollywood Cemetery, the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, the murals and museum at the Virginia Historical Society, and the colossal statues along Monument Avenue in the Fan District, a lovely historic neighborhood to tour on foot.

Richmond bonus: much better soul food and other Southern grub than you’ll find farther north in Virginia.

Stop 6) Appomattox Court House, Virginia

Appomattox Court House
The McLean House is where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.
Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Lastly, follow Lee’s Retreat Route, a meandering drive of about 100 miles, beginning south of Richmond and ending at Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

You can follow the story of Lee’s retreat on AM radio and at waysides along the well-marked rural route. Appomattox, a small national historical park that includes the farmhouse where Grant and Lee met, is an apt and moving place to conclude your Civil War tour.

As told to Caleb Lewis

Trip 3) Haunted America with Colin Dickey

Estimated trip length: 10 to 14 days

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Got 10 days to kill? Want to drive cross-country? Colin Dickey, author of the new book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, is just the man to guide you. Dickey’s book posits that many of America’s darkest periods are encoded in our stories of haunted houses and locations.

“I wanted to look at both the ghost stories that we tell and also the kinds of places and houses that get ghost stories attached to them, then the kinds of stories we unveil by unpacking those a little bit,” he says. This is the longest of our trips, but it’s well worth it for fans of American history, or American horror, or both.

Stop 1) Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles has a pretty spectacular collection of haunted hotels, particularly a lot of the famous, lavish hotels downtown LA is known for, like the Millennium Biltmore, or even more modern ones like the Bonaventure. There’s also the Cecil Hotel, which is this rundown place that used to be home to a couple of serial killers.

The nice thing about LA is there’s a haunted hotel for every budget. But the one I really love is the Biltmore — it dates to the ’20s and it’s this great, grand old LA hotel. It’s where the Academy Awards were held the first couple of years. Most famously, perhaps, it’s the last place where Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was seen alive. She’s probably their most famous ghost.

Stop 2) San Jose, California

Go to the Winchester House. The story that gets most commonly told is that Sarah Winchester — the daughter-in-law of Oliver Winchester, who owned the Winchester Rifle Company and introduced the world to the “gun that won the West” — moved from New Haven, Connecticut, out to what were at the time the countries and pastures of California, after a series of deaths in the family.

She bought this farmhouse and over the next couple of decades enlarged it considerably into this massive space with over 161 rooms. Some people say she believed she was haunted by the ghosts of anyone who had been killed by a Winchester rifle.

That’s the story people tell. The true story — which I cover in Ghostland — is perhaps a little less dramatic and a little less exciting, but what I find so fascinating about that house is that it centers on a woman who lives by herself, who doesn’t remarry, doesn’t have children, and thus becomes somewhat vilified.

Stop 3) Reno, Nevada

Outside Reno, there is a place called the Mustang Ranch, which is one of the most famous legal brothels in the country and also quite famously haunted by a number of different ghosts.

It was started in the ’70s by a guy named Joe Conforte, who became friends with a boxer named Oscar Bonavena. It looked like Bonavena was having an affair with Conforte’s wife, and Bonavena was shot and killed in the parking lot one day. According to ghost-hunting shows, he is now haunting the Mustang Ranch.

Depending on your price point and your interest, you don’t need to spend too much time at the Mustang Ranch. They do have a little restaurant there, where you can have a nice meal.

Stop 4) Estes Park, Colorado

Stanley Hotel
Dare you stay in the Stanley Hotel, the building that inspired The Shining?
Sean Xu/Shutterstock

The Stanley Hotel is a pretty spectacular hotel set in some really beautiful mountains. It’s perhaps most well-known for being the inspiration for Stephen King’s book The Shining.

King and his wife checked in to the Stanley Hotel on the last night of its regular operating season before the winter. They had the hotel entirely to themselves. They ate dinner in a lavish ballroom with music coming from nowhere. That was the night that he got the idea for the book.

Honestly, when you hear stories of ghosts at the Stanley Hotel, they sound a lot like those that appeared in the Stanley Kubrick film based on the book — people in tuxedos and ball gowns wandering down the halls. Did the ghosts create the movie, or did the movie create the ghosts?

Stop 5) St. Louis, Missouri

The next fun stop would be the Lemp Mansion, where you can spend the night in addition to having dinner in a creepy dining room.

The Lemp family were a brewing empire in the 19th century. They were one of the first families to bring German beer to the country, and they made a vast fortune.

But in the early 20th century, the Lemps suffered a series of disasters. The patriarch killed himself in 1904, so the business fell to his son, who was not good at business and couldn’t weather Prohibition, which killed the company. He killed himself in 1922. Another brother would go on to shoot himself in 1929, along with one of their sisters, who died under somewhat mysterious circumstances — pretty clearly suicidal, though not conclusively — also in the ’20s.

This family that represented the kind of immigrant-made-good, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American success story became overwrought with despondency, despair, and depression in two short decades. The house now gives regular ghost tours, and it’s believed by many to be haunted by the various Lemps.

Stop 6) Moundsville, West Virginia

Moundsville Penitentiary
The Moundsville Penitentiary is a gloomy place.
Keith McIntyre/Shutterstock

We’ve been going from lavish place to lavish place, so get yourself to the now-defunct Moundsville Penitentiary, often labeled as one of the most haunted prisons in the country.

It’s a really daunting affair, built out of these castle-like stones with turrets that make it look like a medieval fortress. It was built at a time when the idea was to make the building itself seem gloomy and melancholic so the prisoner would arrive at prison with this sense of foreboding and despair, and that was part of the punishment.

It was functioning until the early ’90s; through much of the 20th century, it was operating at three to four times its operating capacity and was an absolute horror show. You had terrible overcrowding situations that were civil rights violations that went up to the West Virginia Supreme Court, with prisoners arguing that the conditions were cruel and inhumane.

A lot of the hauntings, as you might imagine, come from this environment of extreme deprivation and degradation of the laws. I think of Moundsville as an example of ghost stories that arise out of our own neglect and shame.

Moundsville’s name actually comes from Grave Creek Mound, one of the largest Native American burial grounds in the country, and it’s literally across the street from the penitentiary. It’s this massive hill that rises about 100 feet from the ground, and it was built by the Adena people, of whom we know very, very little. It, too, has an eerie vibe about it. The two sites, the prison and the mound, look at each other across the street.

Stop 7: Salem, Massachusetts

Salem is the home of the Salem witch trials, but also the House of the Seven Gables, which is the house that was owned at one point by the aunt of Nathaniel Hawthorne and from whom he got the inspiration to write the novel of the same name, which itself is one of our earliest books about a haunted house.

In the book, the idea is that one of the witches, before she is executed, has cursed the future owner of the house, so the house itself is cursed by this injustice.

The house itself is, as you might imagine, reported to be haunted, although the staff itself seems to downplay the hauntedness. That’s in contrast to the rest of the town, where there’s a tourist industry built around Salem’s past. The House of the Seven Gables tries to be a bit more stately.

As told to Katie Hicks

Trip 4: A tour of Midwestern murder with Todd VanDerWerff

Estimated trip length: 3 to 5 days

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Vox’s critic at large Todd VanDerWerff grew up in the Great Plains of the American Midwest, and he really won’t shut up about it. Here’s a medium-size, eerie trip for those who like empty spaces.

Stop 1: Cleveland, Ohio

You have two possible points of interest here. The first is the story of Bay Village’s Sam Sheppard, a doctor first convicted (in 1954), then acquitted (in 1966), of killing his wife, Marilyn. (Sam Sheppard was the basis for The Fugitive.) A circus of a trial was found to have contributed to his conviction, and whoever killed Marilyn Sheppard has never been found. The Cleveland Police Museum will set up a presentation on the trial, by request.

Or you can just visit the museum’s exhibit on the “Torso murderer,” a never-caught serial killer active in the 1930s who left behind mutilated (you guessed it) torsos. Seven and Zodiac director David Fincher has long been rumored to be making a film about the unsolved mystery, but it has yet to materialize.

Stop 2: Bath Township, Michigan

Bath Township
This plaque has been erected at the site of the Bath School massacre.

Bath Township is site of the deadliest school massacre in history, perpetrated by the school board treasurer, Andrew Kehoe. In May 1927, Kehoe, angry at a series of professional and economic failures, first killed his wife at home, and then used explosives to blow up both his property and one wing of the local school, killing 38.

He then drove his truck up to the site and blew it up, killing both himself and several bystanders. Forty-five people died in total, with 58 injured. A museum on the deaths is located in the local middle school.

Stop 3: Chicago, Illinois

There’s plenty of spooky stuff to see in Chicago, but your best bet is to explore the history of H.H. Holmes, perhaps America’s most prolific serial killer. He built a massive “murder castle” for young women to stay in during the 1893 World’s Fair — and many of those women were never seen again. The book Devil in the White City brought him to greater prominence.

A few remnants of the murder castle remain, but instead of trying to explore them yourself, I recommend taking one of several guided tours dedicated to Holmes.

Stop 4: Plainfield, Wisconsin

The town of Plainfield isn’t exactly pleased with being the former home of murderer Ed Gein, convicted of the death of two women (in 1954 and 1957) but also of digging up graves and littering his property with the remains, so you might have to organize your own tour. Gein inspired several iconic cinematic killers — including Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface.

Stop 5: Mankato, Minnesota

Mankato is the site of the largest mass execution in American history, which happened on December 26, 1862. The military hanged 38 Native Americans for their part in the 1862 Dakota War, which was fought over the government’s breaking of treaties. (In this case, “Dakota” refers to the tribe the hanged men belonged to.) Originally, 303 were sentenced to death, but Abraham Lincoln exonerated 265.

Stop 6: Villisca, Iowa

Stay in the Villisca Ax Murder House, they said. Have a good time, they said.
Laura Bernhardt/Flickr

Unlike many small towns that have been home to horrific murders, Villisca has embraced the events of June 1912, when an entire family of six — and two additional kids staying over with one of the children — was murdered with an axe while they slept. The killer covered the faces of his victims after the murders were committed, and later sat down at the kitchen table for a bite to eat before slipping out the door just before dawn. He or she was never caught.

Not only can you visit a museum in the home where the murders happened, but you can — for a hefty fee — spend the night there, should you so desire.

Stop 7: Labette County, Kansas

Complete your tour of Midwestern murder by visiting the site of the former home of the Bender family, better known as the “Bloody Benders.” The four Benders — who said they were a family but probably weren’t related — set up a small countryside inn for those traveling westward in the 1870s, and while “daughter” Kate entertained the guests, another family member would bash in the guest’s head with a hammer. Then the guest’s throat would be slit and the body dumped through a trapdoor into the cellar.

The Benders escaped just as word of their deeds made it out into the general public, and though rumors of sightings (or capture) have floated ever since, nothing definitive has ever been proved. They simply seemed to vanish.

Trip 5) Day trips of the weird with Lauren Katz

Estimated trip length: Any of these locations will take up a few hours of your time. Driving time depends on where you live.

Vox writer Lauren Katz has made a hobby of visiting museums, national historic sites, and other places of interest. We asked her to list some of the weirdest and spookiest she knows of, for those of you who might not have time for a road trip but could get away for an afternoon.

Day trip 1: Bodie State Historic Park, Bridgeport, CA

Bodie is as good as ghost towns get. A mining town from the 1800s, it’s now in a state of “arrested decay.” There’s an eerie desert silence as you walk around what was once home to about 10,000 people in the middle of the hills that lie north of Mono Lake. Peer into homes, stores, and a schoolhouse with everything left in exactly the same place as it was when Bodie was a working town.

Day trip 2: Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA

Winchester Mystery House
The famous “door to nowhere” opens in the side of the Winchester Mystery House.

Even if you can’t make time for the longer “Haunted America” trip above, the Winchester Mystery House is still worth a day trip if you’re passing through Northern California. Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, oversaw around-the-clock construction of this house from 1884 until her death in 1922. Doors open to nowhere, and stairs stop mid-flight. Be sure to check out the seance room.

Day trip 3: Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, PA

President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor, the tallest skeleton on display in North America, and Einstein’s brain are all among the highlights of this bizarre medical history museum. The museum’s stated mission is to help the public “understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Whether you’re a student of medical history or just delightfully grossed out by organs preserved in jars, you’ll likely find something of interest.

Day trip 4: Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Philadelphia, PA

Edgar Allan Poe
Poe wrote The Raven here.
Daniel M. Silva/Shutterstock

A handful of cities claim Edgar Allan Poe as their own, but this house in Philadelphia — the only one still standing of his many residences during the six years he spent in the city — is where he wrote some of his most famous, unnerving work. The furnishings are rather sparse, but a trip down to the basement, eerily reminiscent of the one described in Poe’s short story “The Black Cat,” is enough to send chills through your entire body.

Day trip 5: Salem Village Witchcraft Victims' Memorial, Danvers, MA

The Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693 took the lives of at least 19 people. But while they are most associated with Salem itself (obviously), the infamous period actually began in the neighborhood of Salem Village — now Danvers, Massachusetts. A memorial to the victims, which was dedicated in 1992, sits directly across from the site of the original meetinghouse where many of the executions took place. It’s worth a visit on its own, or as part of a stop in Danvers during the “Creepy New England History” trip above.

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