Thoughts on “The Man From the Train”

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.

51977447However, 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.

 

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“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

Osage_murders_9

Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

Why I Hate Goodreads.com

I was talking with a friend yesterday about the importance of getting to know something before you hate on it. Obviously there are things you can hate without knowing them, like a serial killer. Or an animal abuser. Or a child pornographer. I think we can all agree that we don’t need to sit down to tea with people like this in order to dislike them. (Though as writers, we may find something in that teatime conversation that makes them into a well-rounded antagonist – again, something most of us probably don’t want to do.)

But I hate Goodreads.com.

There. I said it. I realize this is like saying “I don’t think Bradley Cooper is good-looking.” I realize that for a reader and an aspiring author, this is probably a Kiss of Death. So be it.

I’ve tried to get into it. I’ve tried to give it a chance. And to be fair, I did find my new favorite YA series, “Shades of London” by Maureen Johnson, there two weeks ago.

But there are so many things to hate about it. The layout. The font. (News flash:  the rest of the world uses sans-serif fonts for a reason.) The God-awful number of typos on the site (for a site about READING, the number of typos I can find on just one page of Goodreads’ own policies – not reviews, but content that they post, is ludicrous. Get. A. Proofreader. I cannot take a site seriously if it has that many typos.).

But most of it comes down to the PEOPLE on the site – the reviewers.

As far as I can tell, most of the people who leave reviews on Goodreads fall into the following categories:

  • People who spent most of middle school being shoved into lockers or trash cans. Or both.
  • People who turn to Goodreads to torment people because if they didn’t, they’d be well on their way to becoming serial killers.
  • People who SERIOUSLY need to go get lives. Who need to go volunteer in a soup kitchen or a humane society and see what life is really like outside four bedroom walls and the covers of a book.
  • People who are so pathetic that the only way they can feel good about themselves is to bring others down.

Goodreads’ own policies encourage this behavior. In their Review Guidelines, they come right out and say “Goodreads has some of the best book reviews anywhere. Our members are passionate, knowledgeable readers, and their contributions to the site are what make it such a vibrant and fun place.”

Another quote from their Review Guidelines: “Don’t be afraid to say what you think about the book! We welcome your passion, as it helps the millions of other readers on Goodreads learn what a book is really about, and decide whether or not they want to read it. We believe that Goodreads members should see the best, most relevant, thought provoking reviews (positive and negative) when they visit a book page. Our job is to show members those reviews, and not show reviews that we deem to not be appropriate or a high enough level of quality.”

In other words, we here at Goodreads are too lazy to figure out what’s trash and what isn’t, and intend to rely on the community to police themselves. Members *can* flag posts they feel are inappropriate and/or break the rules. But I’m willing to bet that none of these are ever removed.

News flash, reviewers:  A pathetic attempt to make yourself feel better by trashing someone else’s work – or worse, trashing someone else – is just that:  pathetic. It shows that you have zero maturity, zero self-control, and frankly, zero self-confidence. Your attempts to be clever are not clever in the slightest.

Those of us who truly love books and writing are out doing what we love to do, not wasting countless hours trying to convince everyone else that We Are Right and You Are Wrong by writing long, involved, and nasty reviews of books we may OR MAY NOT have read. We hold rational discussions. We recognize – because we’re writers, too – that the book you so zealously and callously demolish in your review is someone’s baby. As such, it deserves respect. That person got off their ass and wrote something, and finished it, and it was good enough to get published (unless it was self-published). That’s more than YOU have ever done, I’m sure of it.

(For clarification, here are links to Goodreads’ guidelines, as well as another page explaining in more detail what is and what might not be allowed. I still find these to be as fuzzy as a Persian cat wearing a mink stole.)

https://www.goodreads.com/review/guidelines

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1499741-important-note-regarding-reviews