Sometimes, we miss things.
I don’t mean the things we lose. I mean the things we don’t chase. The things we see, think oh, that’s interesting! in the back of our minds, and then bypass them because we don’t have the time or inclination to do more.
A few years ago, when I was reading about twelve years’ worth of local newspapers to find out all I could about George Kimmel and his case, I kept stumbling across unusual stories. Specific stories. Families murdered. Entire families. By an ax. I remember thinking to myself, after about the fifth or sixth one, what the hell is going on here? A serial killer? Or were people just plain freaking crazy in the early 1900s? I jotted down notes about most of them – they’re still in my notebook, along with dates and page numbers of Kimmel-related stories. But I forgot about them.
Most people did.
However, in his new book The Man From the Train, Bill James (and his daughter Rachel) put those bloody drops into a coherent, and disturbing, pattern. Bill James is a baseball writer and statistician; he sees patterns in things. Like me, he saw a pattern in these grisly murders. And he decided to see if the pattern was for real.
James relies predominately (as far as I could tell) on newspapers as his sources. He admits this is problematic upfront – newspapers in the early 1900s were – well, they needed readers. The more sensational the story, the more papers they could sell. And I’m sure there were reporters and editors who weren’t above manufacturing details to make a story more salacious.
You’re probably familiar with at least one of the murders in this book: the vicious ax murders of the Moore family (and two young neighbor sisters) in Villisca, Iowa in 1912. Made famous by the widespread press it got at the time, the fact that the house is now a museum, and the numerous paranormal groups that have done work there, the Villisca murders are almost legend today. How could someone have broken into a house in a town and murdered eight people, with an ax, and no one heard a thing?
James wondered the same thing. The precision of the murders, the professionalism, led him to believe Villisca was only one of many. Thus, this book was born.
It’s a book I have severely mixed feelings about.
I downloaded it to my Nook last Saturday, and could not put it down for the first 75-100 pages or so. James has a great writing style – it will probably grate on professional historians, and it did grate on me by the end, but he makes little side comments and addresses the reader one-on-one, so it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with him. As you can tell from the title of the book, James believes that a.) there was a serial killer on the loose in America between 1898 and 1912, and b.) he knows who it was.
That’s fabulous. But one of the reasons I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book is that James spends most of his time trying to prove that some – not all, but some – of the murders in the book were committed by the Man From the Train (MFT) by reiterating things we, the readers, already know. Once James laid out the criteria by which we could judge whether a crime was committed by MFT, he seriously needed to trust the reader to remember them. Like any serial killer, MFT had a pattern to his kills. I can recite them off the top of my head:
- Near the tracks – within a mile, typically, and often at the junction of two tracks.
- Families with young girls were most often the targets.
- Houses were usually isolated, or in very small towns.
- They were killed with the blunt side of an ax, usually with a single blow to the skull. The ax was usually one the family owned, and it was always left at the scene.
- Lamps were moved, and left without their shades (which I don’t get, and James never explains).
- Bodies were typically moved after death – into other rooms, into piles in a single room, and other creepy ways.
- Like most serial killers, he got off on it.
But James insisted on doing this for every single crime he thought was committed by MFT. After a while, I got the point where I wondered if he was trying to convince himself that MFT had done this – or that MFT existed at all. He also noted that up until 1907, the pattern was consistent – and that after 1908, the pattern changed. He thinks it’s due to a change in the man. I wonder, however, if it is even the same man. Serial killers often take on accomplices. Could the original MFT have died between 1907 – 08, and his apprentice or accomplice taken over? James never entertains this idea.
James also spends entirely too much time on things I felt were trivial, like the feud that occurred in Villisca between a local citizen and a detective. I think that took two chapters. None of it, in my opinion, was necessary for the book he was trying to write. He also talks about crimes that sound as if they were committed by MFT – only to reveal, at the end of the chapter, that for X and Y reason, they weren’t.
The Man From the Train is a popular history. I have no problem with that – I’m sure there are hundreds of historians who do, but as a lower-level college instructor, I want to see books that make history interesting. Anything that draws in readers is a good thing. What I NEED to see in a nonfiction work, though, is sources. There is a point to a Works Cited or bibliography – it lets others follow in your footsteps, look at the same sources you did, and see if they come to the same conclusion or not. But in this book, most sources aren’t cited at all (not properly, anyway). Often, we’re left with, “newspapers said that . . .” and leaves us wondering which newspapers, on what day. (I also take issue with his dismissal and rudeness to Beth Klingensmith and her thesis on this very topic. I don’t know Beth, but I can tell you that if she wrote this as a grad student, her paper, at least, is cited!)
It’s also clear he’s no historian – for instance, while discussing murders that took place in Louisiana, he talks about a black woman and says, “Many stories about her claim that she was only one-eighth black, which cannot be true” (p 334). I do not understand this statement at all. It is absolute plausible, especially in the bayou region of Louisiana, for this to be true. Whites were enslaved all the time (for a good treatment of this, read the awesome book The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey); white masters raped (and sometimes had consensual sex with) their female slaves, and then enslaved the resulting children. New Orleans was under the control of the French, Spanish, British, and Americans at varying points in time. Women who ‘passed for white’ were prized in the brothels. So yeah, this woman could very easily have been one-eighth black.
Yes, mixed feelings indeed. I wanted to see how James had handled the thing I’d missed. I wanted to like it. I had great hopes for it. I just – at the end, I just didn’t. I think James has a great voice, and I think he definitely found something. Of course, he’s in the same fix I am – more than a hundred years on, it’s hard to fit the puzzle together. And James does deliver on the promise to tell you who he thinks the killer is, and why.
If you like true crime, this one is probably up your alley. I was hoping for a great deal more, myself.