Using unprecedented, dramatically compelling sleuthing techniques, legendary statistician and baseball writer Bill James applies his analytical acumen to crack an unsolved century-old mystery surrounding one of the deadliest serial killers in American history.
Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villasca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.
When celebrated baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery: they learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal. In turn, they uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America.
Riveting and immersive, with writing as sharp as the cold side of an axe, The Man from the Train paints a vivid, psychologically perceptive portrait of America at the dawn of the twentieth century, when crime was regarded as a local problem, and opportunistic private detectives exploited a dysfunctional judicial system. James shows how these cultural factors enabled such an unspeakable series of crimes to occur, and his groundbreaking approach to true crime will convince skeptics, amaze aficionados, and change the way we view criminal history.
The Man from the Train Preface I have long been fascinated by the notion that knowledge can be created about the past. Dinosaurs are the easiest example. For tens of thousands of years, humans had no awareness that the world had once been inhabited by gigantic beasts. Now, we know not merely that these animals existed, but we have identified hundreds of species of them. We know what they looked like, generally, and what they ate. We know which type of dinosaur lived where, and in what era. We know what happened to them. We have not merely created this knowledge, we have disseminated it so widely across our culture that the average five-year-old now can name a dozen types of dinosaurs, and has a collection of little plastic models of them.
In my day job I am a baseball writer. We know many, many things now about the baseball players of the 1950s and 1960s, about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson and Stan Musial, that those men themselves did not know and could not possibly have known when they were playing. We have pieced together records of their careers that are far more complete than the records which were kept at the time. Modern historians know things about the Romans that the Romans themselves did not know and could not have known.
A hundred years ago and a little more, there were a series of terrible crimes that took place in the American Midwest (although it actually started in the Northeast and the South, the midwestern portion of the series is the well-known part). The most famous of these crimes are the murders in Villisca, Iowa, but it is apparent to anyone who will take the time to look that the Villisca murders were a part of a series of similar events. I was reading about that series of crimes and I had a thought. “I’ll bet there were others,” I thought, “that the contemporary authorities never linked to the same criminal.”
With modern computers, we can search tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers, looking for reports of similar events.
And I found one.
And then I found another one, and another one, and another one. I hired my daughter as a researcher, and she started finding them. We had no idea what we were dealing with. And we never dreamed that we would actually be able to figure out who he was.
By the time he came to Villisca, The Man from the Train had been murdering randomly selected families for a decade and a half. People had been executed for his crimes; people had been lynched for his crimes; and people were rotting away in prison for his crimes.
Skeptical? Of course you’re skeptical. You’re either skeptical or you’re stupid, and you don’t look stupid. But hear me out. Have I got a story to tell you.
Bill James made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s with his Baseball Abstracts. He has been tearing down preconceived notions about America’s national pastime ever since. He is currently the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox, as well as the author of The Man from the Train. James lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Susan McCarthy, and three children.
Rachel McCarthy James lives in Lawrence, KS with her husband Jason. She studied creative writing at Hollins University, and her work has previously been featured in publications including Bitch, Broadly, and The New Inquiry. The Man from the Train is her first book.
“Impressive . . . an open-eyed investigative inquiry wrapped within a cultural history of rural America.” —Wall Street Journal
“[An] incredible book . . . one of the most readable works of non-fiction I’ve ever picked up . . . 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) . . . Even more remarkable than the exhaustive research and addictive narrative, the [authors] actually seem to solve the case and reveal the identity of The Man From the Train. Skeptics may balk, but I’m convinced.” —Raleigh News & Observer
“Truly spectacular . . . The book shines when we get to see the Jameses’ thinking. Like the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Keepers,’ it’s fun to watch these amateur detectives solve a puzzle. And solve it they do — after 400 pages, when Rachel discovers the killer’s first crime way back in 1898. Did they get it right? I’m pretty sure they did. Either way, the final twist in the story—set 10 years after the Villisca murders on the other side of the Atlantic—gave me chills.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Man from the Train is a beautifully written and extraordinarily researched narrative of a man who may have killed 95—or more—people, dating back more than a century, mostly in small-town Middle America . . . This is no pure whodunit, but rather a how-many-did-he-do.” —Buffalo News
"[A] suspenseful historical account . . . The strength of the book hangs on [the authors'] diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsibile for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bill James, with his daughter, Rachel, has done something truly extraordinary. Not only has he solved one of the most tantalizing mysteries in the annals of American crime--the sensational case of the 1912 “Villisca Axe Murders”--but he has tied it to a long string of equally savage, though completely obscure, atrocities. The result is his discovery of a previously unknown serial killer who roamed--and terrorized--the country a century ago. Brilliantly researched and written in James’ snappily conversational style, The Man From the Train is a stunning feat of detection, an un-put-downable read, and a major contribution to American criminal history.”—Harold Schechter, author of The Serial Killer Files and The Mad Sculptor
"I began The Man on the Train a skeptic. Could the notorious Villisca Murders of 1912, an unsolved crime so well-chronicled over the past century, really be the work of a killer whose victims numbered well into the dozens? But by the end, Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James totally sold me on their reasoning, exhaustive research, and their sly, sober portrait of a justice system totally overmatched by the techniques and monstrosities of a man fitting the serial killer prototype we know almost too well. That they also fingered the culprit and name him is an even more shocking bonus. Don't even think about missing out on this beautifully brilliant, bananas book."—Sarah Weinman, editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 1950s