Between 1898 and 1912, a madman was loose in America. Dozens of families across the country were murdered in their beds, bludgeoned with the blunt side of an axe. Some of their houses were set on fire. The bodies of many victims—if they were prepubescent girls—were posed after death, and there was evidence that the killer masturbated at the crime scene. The most notorious of these murders, the June 1912 slaughter of the Moore family and their house guests in Villisca, Iowa, shocked the nation and remains a staple of lurid Midwest folklore. The case was never solved.
The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, by noted baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, offers an explanation not only for the Villisca murders, but for scores of other cross-country killings that spooked America at the turn of the century. The Jameses have an advantage that contemporary reporters and investigators did not: namely, access to newspaper archives, digital maps, and spreadsheets. Based on deep-dive analysis, they argue—elegantly and persuasively—that these seemingly haphazard murders were connected, and that one man is to blame. If that’s true, and if we attribute all of these slayings to him, we’re talking about the worst serial killer in U.S. history, responsible for more than 100 deaths. That body count dwarfs those of our heretofore most industrious bogeymen Gary Ridgway, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy.
It’s a seismic allegation, and the Jameses acknowledge that readers are right to be skeptical. After all, how did a killer this prolific evade capture for so long? And more unbelieveable, how did subsequent generations of crime buffs fail to connect the dots on these killings? The Villisca murders alone have been dissected in at least two books, a documentary, several podcasts, an infinite heap of Reddit threads, and a widely panned horror movie. Yet, the case is as cold as ashes.
One reason that the crimes remained disconnected a century ago was that information was disconnected. There was no FBI, no federal crime databases, and most investigations were left to small-town police or private detectives, some of whom were either amateurs or actual con men on the make for a quick buck. As the Jameses note, it was an era when cops relied on psychics and bloodhounds to unearth leads. Forensic science as we know it didn’t exist. Fingerprint records were still in their infancy. Crime scenes became mob scenes as neighbors and rubberneckers gathered to gawk and inadvertently taint evidence.
Then there’s the matter of publicity. “Many people either never read the newspaper or skipped disinterestedly over stories about out-of-town murders,” the Jameses write. “Some people were illiterate. Farmers spent long days in the fields, particularly in midsummer, and went irregularly into town. Not everybody got the news.” In this kind of vacuum, crowdsourcing information or witnesses was like asking someone for directions to a town they’d never heard of.
The third and most important reason that the crimes went unsolved, however, also explains the name of the book. The killer targeted houses that were a stone’s throw from railroad tracks. As the Jameses tell it, he rode the rails, roving from one murder to another, as anonymous and footloose as the hobos who still traveled by boxcar. He got work where he could, logging wood in some isolated camp for a few months before moving on to his next kill. His bloodlust took him as far afield as Florida, Washington state, Maine, Texas, Kansas, and points in between.
But how do we know that these far-flung murders are related? The Jameses list 33 unique “signatures” that define the killer’s methodology and that recur with startling frequency at numerous crime scenes. Among them: victims’ proximity to railroad tracks, death by the blunt side of an axe, the killing of an entire family at once, the posing of bodies for erotic stimulation, blankets pulled over victims’ heads (perhaps to minimize blood spatter), covering windows and mirrors with cloth, doors locked or jammed shut, lamps without their chimneys left to light the crime scene—the list goes on. While any of these characteristics, or even a handful of them, might be observed at different crime scenes, it’s unlikely that they’d be observed at multiple crime scenes over several years and not be the handiwork of a single killer. And to their credit, the Jameses aren’t overeager to convince you that they’ve cracked the case. “I am not here to argue with you, and you can believe what you want to believe,” they write.
Although the Jameses speculate that the killer began murdering people in 1898 and continued over the next decade (whereupon he either died, was imprisoned, or emigrated), they pinpoint 1911 and 1912 as “an aneurism” for axe murders. There were approximately 248 familicides in the U.S. between 1890 and 1920, an average of about eight families murdered per year. In general, entire families aren’t often killed together, and when they are there’s usually a suspect and a motive. By 1911, though, “axe murders start appearing like dandelions.” Besides the eponymous man from the train, an unrelated axe murderer simultaneously terrorized New Orleans (recounted in Miriam C. Davis’s excellent The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story), and a string of family murders rattled Acadia Parish, La. A creole woman named Clementine Barnabet confessed to the latter crimes, relating a gothic tale of voodoo, human sacrifice, and backwoods religion. The Jameses doubt that Barnabet actually killed anybody. It seems that the authorities may have agreed, since she was released from prison in 1923, only 10 years into her life sentence, never to be heard from again.
The idea that axe murders somehow represented America’s id during a period of runaway modernization is one of the book’s many fascinating theses. “There are trends and fashions in crimes as much as in any other area,” the Jameses write. They cite the gunfighters of the 1870s, the train robbers of the 1880s, the celebrity gangsters of the 1930s, and the political assassinations of the 1960s. To that list we can add the airplane hijackings that were a hallmark of the 1970s, the rightwing extremists of the 1990s, the suicide bombings of the 2000s, the terrorism that is ubiquitous still, and our current national moment of white male rage.
A similar point is made in Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which tells the story of a troubled couple who burned down dozens of abandoned buildings on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2012/13. “America fretted about its rural parts,” Hesse writes, itemizing the region’s economic backslide, “and the arsons were an ideal criminal metaphor for 2012.” Likewise, at the dawn of the 20th century, axe murder was a visceral rebuke to a period of technological disruption, including the spread of automobiles, airplanes, telephones, and electricity.
Of course, it’s easy to overstate the symbolism here. Axes were a common household tool back then, left visible and easily filched in a woodpile near a family’s house or barn. It was a weapon of convenience rather than connotation. Still, you can’t help but read these murders as a parable of alienation. The lone drifter stalking the country by train, itself a mode of transport from a bygone era, to literally smash apart families with an instrument that evoked America’s timbered frontier. The murders suggest a melange of sexual frustration, dislocation, nostalgia, and anomie. It was one of the last criminal sagas in our national history to exploit the idea of America as a wilderness unspoiled by modernity, a country where you could still get away with murder.
Indeed, “murder leaves the idea of murder hanging in the air,” the Jameses write, and in certain places it can also leave the residue of racism. The killer haunted the Deep South at a time when lynch mobs and vigilante justice were waning but still possible. “When a terrible crime occurred, people immediately assumed that black people had done it,” and local newspapers were often quick to parrot that notion. At least seven men were lynched for the killer’s crimes, and The Man From the Train records their names and suggests that they were innocent.
The most unexpected (almost breathtaking, really) moment of the book comes 400 pages in when the Jameses tell us the name of this mysterious killer. The disclosure attests to the heroic nature of archival research. Chasing a reference from a 1901 Boston Globe article, Rachel McCarthy James used Google Books to browse an obscure 1904 history of the Worcester, Mass., police department, and there, in a brief note about the 1898 murder of the Newton family, was the name of a suspect who was last seen boarding the 1 a.m. train. “Not a trace of him has been found since,” the note added.
The Jameses have found more than a trace of this vanished killer, and The Man From the Train is a riveting, evocative feat of reportage and historical sleuthing. It’s a true crime thriller, but it’s also an audacious whodunit in which the mystery is both who the killer was and how the authors managed to excavate his identity more than a century later. It’s also, finally, a testament to the forgotten casualties of history, those unlucky victims who were murdered and buried without justice, and blameless people who were accused of the crimes.. The book serves as an epitaph for them. Ghosts are written into its pages.