“He was a tiny man who cast a huge and terrible shadow, and he knew that, and in his mind he was the size of his shadow.”
Between 1898 and 1912, an unbelievably large number of families were bludgeoned to death in their homes while they slept, across a wide swath of the United States. Baseball analyst Bill James, with his daughter Rachel McCarthy James researching, uncovered unprecedented links and patterns between the crimes, often using statistical analysis. They believe that in the course of their exhaustive research, they discovered that one serial killer was responsible for the home invasions and murders, and they can identify him.
The Villisca axe murders of Villisca, Iowa in 1912 is the most well-known of this crime wave – the house where the murders occurred is a visitable if macabre tourist attraction. The killer operated at the same time and sometimes near the New Orleans axe murderer but the book posits that they were not one and the same (I’m not sure I agree on that detail). Like unfortunate trends of gun violence or school shootings, axe murdering was apparently the popular preferred method of being a mentally unhinged violent murderer in that day and age. I learned a lot from this book!
James is an influential and innovative figure in his field of baseball history and statistics, and has written many books on the sport. It’s interesting that he turned to such a completely different topic, but it works in his favor as he applies his analytical thinking to the collected facts of these events. The authors have been able to convincingly link up more than it seems anyone previously was able to do.
It’s that statistical, analytical understanding, coupled with thorough research of primary sources including oceans of small-town newspapers, that allowed them to identify a long, carefully curated list of traits that the connected crimes share, with a few especially telling standouts that seem to persuasively indicate the work of the same person. They pored over thousands of newspaper articles from the years involving and surrounding the crimes and were able to compare many clues and coincidences, or what seems to have been accepted as coincidence at the time.
With this hindsight of history and its revealed patterns, plus plenty of data crunching, it’s difficult to imagine another narrative than what they’ve assembled.
“The crimes that we have described…represent a very significant portion of all the family murders that occurred in the United States in those years. Another thing that unites these murders is simply that they are so horrible. Almost every crime in this book was described in the newspapers as ‘the most horrible crime ever committed in this region’ or ‘one of the most terrible crimes ever in this state’ or by some similar phrase…There simply are not many crimes like this.“
A few characteristics stand out especially, either due to uniqueness of the action or prevalence at the scenes, and they help tie together some of the crimes and prove the authors’ thesis that one man was responsible. These traits include his preference for selecting victims close to train tracks, striking with the blunt side of the axe and within hours of midnight, covering victims’ faces and items in the houses like windows and mirrors with cloth, never robbing, often moving the bodies, lingering in the homes after killing, and to top off the horrifying scenario, he showed marked sexual interest in prepubescent girls.
The writing tone is unusual, at least for the type of true crime I usually read. It’s not the cheap or sensationalist style I mostly avoid, it absolutely has good literary qualities, but there are often chatty asides to the reader (“I apologize for the need to write this” etc.) or passages that were oddly strongly opinionated and strayed from the main story. The latter are fewer, but I personally hate when an author chats or makes conversational jokes throughout a book. It’s mostly forgivable here though, because once the whole book is finished, I appreciated the overall impact and what the authors have researched and connected, even if I didn’t love certain styles or chapters.
They make a convincing case, thanks in no small part to their well-researched awareness of what the country, culture, law and law enforcement, and transportation systems were like at the closing of the century.
“The first thing that needed to be done was: open your eyes and see what is happening. Don’t make up reasons why this can’t be happening: it is happening.”
In addition to the relative disconnect between police, sheriffs, and the spread of news and facts across state lines (and the killer’s seeming understanding of this, as he would quickly jump a train in the middle of the night after killing and not strike again for several hundred miles in a recognizable and clear geographic pattern) James drives the above point home. Members of law enforcement and even press were wary of accepting the theory that a single serial killer was at work.
It’s the same denial logic that allowed infamous Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo to kill as much as he did. And at least part of the problem with apprehending certain modern killers whose abundant streaks across various far-flung locations don’t get connected, like Ted Bundy, or are too wildly unbelievable to be accepted as perpetrated by a single person, like the Long Island Serial Killer.
But James stresses this lesson from history, and the stats and analysis presented are sure hard to argue with.
Despite some dry sections or rambling details, and some confusion in the plethora of names and families and potential suspects and the like, it’s a suspenseful, fascinating account and an example of time finally shedding light on a shadowy corner of history.
The Man From The Train:
The Solving of a Century Old Serial Killer Mystery
by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James
published September 19, 2017 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.