A family was murdered in rural Iowa, in 1912, with an axe. While people were prosecuted (one of them hounded for years by a detective running a con) for the murders, no one was ever definitively convicted. The murder of the Moore family is the starting point for Bill and Rachel McCarthy James, a father and daughter team of amateur detectives, in The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery.
The Vilisca murders (which are excellently covered by Holly Frey and Tracey V. Wilson on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast) were organized. Very little evidence was ever recovered. And yet, there are hallmarks of a serial killer in terms of ritualistic behavior with the posing of the bodies and the placement of items the killer touched. These hallmarks and the level of organization led James and James to look for other, similar murders. They found…quite a lot. By the time they wrap up their case, the two had found a string of murders stretching from 1898 to 1912 across half the country.
James and James spend more than 90% of the book (according to the kindle app) linking murders. They combed decades of articles from newspapers, large and mostly small, looking for “The Man from the Train.” The pair also cite books that have been written about one of the murders or another (with frequent criticism about what the authors of those books missed), and the odd police report. Towards the end of the book, they sort dozens of family ax murders into cases they’re certain were the Man, some they’re mostly sure were the Man, some they thing might be the Man, and a few that only have a few of the markers of the Man. Because news coverage is spotty in many of the areas where these murders occurred—sometimes the victims’ names are unknown—I understand the James’ hesitation in ascribing nearly 100 murders in multiple states to one person.
The James also detour into related cases in which people were falsely accused of one or more sets of murders. People who happened to be in the area and/or were of low social status, especially if they were African American, were arrested, forced to confess, and sometimes even convicted. The most heartbreaking stories are the ones in which African American men were lynched by outraged whites. The story of the Vilisca murders, in the James’ version of events, becomes a long story about how Frank Jones was harassed by J.N. Wilkerson, a detective for the Burns Agency, who turned the case into a years’ long con and bilked people out of thousands of dollars.
The James are, I think, quite correct that conditions were probably perfect for the Man from the Train. About half of the murders occurred before journalists made widespread use of wire services to share information. Many of the articles the James cite read like a telephone game—with bonus tidbits that were clearly invented to make the stories more sensational. Because police departments were small and full of untrained officers at the time, agencies like the Burns Agency or the Pinkertons were hired to investigate. Rewards were offered to anyone who could solve the murders, which led to hasty arrests and convictions of innocent people. Fingerprinting and blood-typing were in their infancy. When you throw in people who were either making up stories for attention or were coerced into a confession, the cases are a mess from beginning to end.
The review copy of The Man from the Train I received did not include a bibliography of sources the James’ used. I hope the published edition does. Without that bibliography, I wasn’t able to evaluate the quality of the James’ information on my own. I was bothered by the lack of references (barring one) to police reports or academic sources (again, with one exception). I do agree with their premise that the Man from the Train probably existed and, if he did commit the Vilisca murders, it is likely that the murderer was active for a number of years before that murder. When they accuse the Man of committing the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders (also covered by Stuff You Missed in History Class*), however, I think that’s several bridges too far.
In addition to my questions about the James’ sources, I did not like Bill James’ voice in the book. He is often sarcastic when he “talks back” to the contemporary people or other amateur detectives who’ve taken on one or more of the murders. Reading the book feels like sitting down with Bill James (rather than both authors) and having him make his case to the reader directly, with plenty of second-person pronouns, colloquialisms, and flourishes of oral speech. (I lost track of the number of times James would end a sentence with, “Okay?” or something similar.) The voice of the book bothered me, but I have a strong preference for more a more academic, serious tone when it comes to nonfiction about history.
I am equivocal about The Man from the Train. On the one hand, I do think the James’ are probably right that there was one murderer who killed people over a long period of time. I’m not sure I trust their sources—mostly because I couldn’t evaluate a lot of them. The tone rubbed me the wrong way and I was occasionally confused by the way the many, many cases were presented. I think this book should be read alongside other accounts of the murder. Basically, I think readers should do their own additional research. (I tend to argue that anyway, being a librarian.) The jury, to use the cliché, is still very much out for me on the Man from the Train.
I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 19 September 2017.
* I tend to trust Frey and Wilson of SYMIHC because they use a wider variety of sources, not just newspaper accounts, and often talk about the problematic issues with those sources.