Interest in true crime has to be at an all-time high worldwide right now, with the number of documentaries, podcasts, TV shows and books devoted to the topic of murders too high to count.
One incredible book that shouldn’t get lost in today’s flood of true crime material is The Man From The Train: The Solving Of A Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James with research assistance from his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James.
The book centres around the Villisca axe murders of 1912, a case often described as the greatest unsolved crime in American history. I count at least seven podcasts with episodes on the Villisca murders – in fact, a true crime podcast is where I first heard of Villisca.
But James’ book goes way beyond that one horrific act – the gruesome murder of an entire family of six plus two young neighbour girls in the small town of Villisca, Iowa – to connect that crime to a series of axe murders (perhaps as many as 110 victims in all) that took place across the United States between (as best the Jameses could determine) 1898 and 1912.
One of those murders, of the Lyerly family, took place near Salisbury in 1906, and resulted in the mob lynching of three African-American men now believed to be innocent of the crime.
James uses the research and statistical skills he honed as the author of the series of Baseball Abstracts (Free Press) books in the 1970s and 1980s to make his case: that the Villisca murders and many others like them were committed not by persons known to the victims, nor by robbers, but by a psychopathic madman who rode the rails from Florida to Washington state, carefully picked his targets, and then carried out his mayhem in a pretty predictable way.
The Jameses discovered that a large number of the axe murders they found by scouring newspaper reports from the period had the same characteristics: the murders took place near a train track; entire families were murdered; the weapon was picked up outside the home – perhaps in a woodpile — and dropped at the scene; the murders took place on the same day of the week and same time of day; the blunt side of the axe was used instead of the sharp side; the victims were murdered in bed while sleeping; there was the presence of young children – usually young girls – in the home; there was often an oil lamp at the scene with the glass globe removed; there was never any sign of robbery at the murder scene.
James recounts each of the murders they discovered, making a case for each one to either be counted or discounted as a Man From The Train murder. If it doesn’t fit the criteria, he doesn’t try to force it. He lays out the facts in a straightforward but not gratuitously gory manner, calculates the likelihood that it could be attributed to anyone other than The Man From The Train given the variables present in the case, and decides yay or nay.
He does all of this in a way that makes The Man From The Train one of the most readable works of nonfiction I’ve ever picked up, right from the first page:
“It is a warm night, most often on a weekend. There is a very small town with a railroad track that runs through it, or sometimes along the edge of it. You can’t get more than a few hundred feet away from the railroad track and still be in the town. He is looking for a house with no dog. He would prefer a house on the edge of town, just isolated enough to provide a little bit of cover. A big two-story house would be best, with a family of five. A barn where he can hide out from sundown until the middle of the night…. He is looking for a house with a woodpile in the front yard, and an axe sticking up out of the woodpile.”
James has a conversational style of writing that draws the reader in, even when he departs from murders to offer short history lessons on 19th century detectives-for-hire (pretty bad), 19th century newspapers (not great) and mob justice (truly horrifying).
What endears James’s writing style to me even more is his propensity to go smart-aleck when appropriate. Despite the gruesome subject matter – I intentionally avoided reading it too close to bedtime to save myself from axe-murder nightmares – I found myself chuckling throughout the book.
“You wouldn’t think that amateur detectives with no background in criminal investigation would make a mistake like that, but somehow it happened,” James writes about the investigation of an Oregon case botched by private investigators.
In discussing a man named Ray Pfanschmidt being wrongly accused of murdering his family in Payson, Illinois, James writes: “By the time the Schmidt hit the Pfan, he was living in a tent at a job site in Quincy.”
James obviously couldn’t help himself. And I love him for it.
Even more remarkable than the exhaustive research and addictive narrative, the Jameses actually seem to solve the case and reveal the identity of The Man From The Train. Sceptics may balk, but I’m convinced. – The News & Observer/Tribune News Service
The Man From The Train
Authors: Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James
Publisher: Scribner, true crime