Monday, July 22, 2019

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

I have been a fan of Bill James ever since I discovered his first annual Baseball Abstract back in the seventies. James has a way of looking at the same data that everyone else has and coming up with very different and unique conclusions. His work eventually led to a revolution of sorts in the way that baseball General Managers think, and the game has never been the same. So, when I saw that James was applying his analytical talents to a series of 100-year-old murders that had never been solved, I jumped all over The Man from the Train.

 A little over one hundred years ago, there was a series of horrific murders in which whole families in the South, Northeast, and Midwest were murdered in their sleep by an axe-wielding maniac who seems to have taken great delight in crushing their skulls – and performing perversions on the bodies of his female victims, many of them children.  Bill James is very familiar with computers and how they can be used to search “tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers” looking for murders that shared certain characteristics. He had a hunch that an infamous family-slaughter that happened in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912 was not a one-time, random event. James felt that the murder was most likely “part of a series of similar events,” and he and his daughter set out to prove it. That they were actually able to name the killer, was as big a surprise to James as it was to anyone.

Murders of entire families are, thankfully, rare even in our own violent times, so James and his daughter feel confident that they identified almost all of the ones that occurred in this country from the late 1890s through about 1920.  That was their universe. Now all they had to do was research each crime to see what, if anything, they had in common. Serial murderers tend to identify their crimes by the clues they cannot keep themselves from leaving at the crime scene. And very quickly, James and his daughter identified four “markers” shared by many of the crime sites: 
1.    “The heads of the victims being covered with cloth or other items, both before and after the crime.
2.    The house being sealed up tight, with the window shades all drawn, at the conclusion of the crime.
3.    The presence of a prepubescent female, essentially nude, among the victims.
4.    The bodies being moved around the house postmortem for no obvious reason.”

Bill James
But this was just the beginning.  By the conclusion of their research, the pair had identified a total of thirty-four markers shared by these crimes, and it became relatively easy to identify the murders that were almost certainly committed by “the man from the train” as opposed to those that had obviously been committed by a different murderer.  Statistical analysis made it almost easy for them – the hard part was first locating the information they needed to analyze. Newspapers of the day were not the most reliable reporters of facts (and I’m not sure they are much better today), so James and his daughters had to read their stories about the crimes with skepticism.  

Rachel McCarthy James
Sadly, things were very different 100 years ago when it comes to catching killers. There were no state police agencies in the country and the local police were unlikely to share information with other local police departments. Investigators were unable to tell one blood type from another, and DNA analysis was still decades away.  Even distinguishing human blood from animal blood was a challenge to the investigators of the day.  And because the man from the train fled the area immediately after committing one of his mass murders, several innocent people were convicted of his crimes. Some spent decades in jail, some were executed by authorities, and several were lynched (all of them black) by neighbors of the victims. 

Personally, I was intrigued by the fact that the killer struck a Houston neighborhood at one point, and around 1910 worked his way east to west along a stretch of southwest Louisiana towns and into Beaumont, Texas, all places with which I’m very familiar.  Because Jamesspends so much time putting the slaughters into historical context, I come away from reading The Man from the Trainwith a much better appreciation for what life in this part of the country was like at the turn of the twentieth century. That may, in fact, be what ultimately sticks with me the longest from having read this one.

Bottom Line: The Man from the Train is a true crime/history combination that readers interested in criminal history are sure to appreciate. Whether or not you believe that James proves his case against the named killer is not the real point (I, for one, believes that he has). The most satisfying thing about the book is how much about the past can be recreated by someone willing to do the research, and how good Bill James still is at it.  

Book Number 3,419


  1. I love true crime books like this one. :)

    1. This one is also a great history lesson - two books in one. It really makes you wonder what else slipped through the cracks in those days.

  2. Yikes! What horrendous crimes. It really is amazing what a fresh pair of eyes can do for cold cases. This book sounds grisly but fascinating. I'll have to check it out.

    1. Bill James amazed me decades ago with his fresh approach to baseball stats and players. He saw things in those numbers that were right there in front of all of us if we had only we could think outsider the box like this man does. His writes in a conversational style that some people don't like, but I think that's part of the man's charm.