A Solution Without Satisfaction

The Man from the Train

'The Man from the Train'Bill James’ The Man from the Train is an ugly book, but for the most part you shouldn’t read that as a criticism. It’s ugly in three ways, and two of those were certainly unavoidable given the subject — the murders of more than 100 people in the early part of the 20th Century.

But the third way could have been mitigated to at least some degree. It would have been an admittedly difficult task, but the book — admirable though it is in several ways — is fundamentally unsatisfying. (It was published last year, and will be out in paperback in October.)

The primary ugliness is obvious. James, researching and writing with his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, explores dozens of gruesome mass murders promising to tie a great number of them to a single perpetrator who traveled the country by train.

The next layer of ugliness is communities’ response to the murders, which almost always involved finding a scapegoat. A horrific portion of those folks were lynched or legally executed, and it shouldn’t surprise you that racism played a substantial role in a lot of those.

At its best, the book is a study of a time and a type of place — a rural area or small town with little or no established police force, when forensics and communication were so crude that a highly skilled serial mass murderer was never in real danger of being identified, let alone caught. In fact, few of these crimes were understood to be related — at the time, but also in the century since. James is unerringly patient in explaining how this particular monster was able to operate without fear, and the author is both empathetic and incredulous in detailing what seems a monumental failure of law enforcement to understand the nature of what was happening.

In a way, the entire story of The Man from the Train is only possible because of its circumstances. There was this brief window during which somebody could easily travel the country to commit these crimes and not have them connected while still leaving behind enough information that, 100-plus years later, a diligent and thorough researcher could (with a little luck) finger the culprit. The trains made the spree possible; the realities of rural law-enforcement meant there were limited means and opportunities for communities to understand what they were actually dealing with; and, eventually, the development of forensics and newspaper wire services meant that our killer knew he couldn’t keep butchering families without risking getting nabbed.

This is fascinating stuff, and I wish I could report that James presented his material in an artful way that offsets the inherently off-putting subject. But even early in a book that runs more than 400 pages, the third ugliness becomes obvious: The author cannot escape the numbing repetition of murders and aftermaths, as — for the most part — only the names, dates, and places change.

Creating Knowledge

The book’s preface sketches out its intriguing premise: “I have long been fascinated by the notion that knowledge can be created about the past.” His prime example is dinosaurs, creatures no human being saw but about which we now know a great deal. He also cites baseball, because of course James is best known as a thinker and writer about the sport:

“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.”

James ends with this: “Have I got a story to tell you.”

The core problem of the book is that it’s not much of a story. It’s not even an argument. It’s a bunch of data points that are so unusual yet consistent that only an idiot could fail to see them as related once they’ve been collected. The achievement of the book is that careful assemblage.

To be fair, The Man from the Train is loaded with good stories. As a rule, the deeper James delves into a specific crime, the more interesting it becomes — even though, in reality, the best stories in the book are nearly always digressions, because they involve people wrongly accused. (They’re not entirely digressions, because — as James notes — the innocents who were killed by mobs or the criminal-justice system are in a sense also victims of the Man from the Train.)

But these side stories are filled with characters, and it’s a marvel to see that so much vivid detail has survived, waiting to be unearthed from newspapers and other documents. James’ writing style is conversational (sometime to a fault), and he’s a good raconteur.

Far too often, however, the reader is left to slog the through the 10th, 15th, or 20th retelling of the same basic narrative, with the relevant details noted and emphasized ad nauseam — the proximity to train tracks, the time of the murders, the blunt side of the axe head, the prepubescent female, the entrance through the back of the house, the lamp with its chimney removed ... .

When a case doesn’t conform to enough to the telltale collection of 33 different Man from the Train criteria, James will still tell the story and offer his conclusions, and you’re left to take him at his word.

All in all, the book spends far too much time laying out the research on a case-by-case basis, making it hard to read but for the desire to see the case finally solved. When that resolution arrives, it’s interesting enough, but it comes down to one lucky find: McCarthy James located an 1898 case that sure looks like it was the genesis of the Man from the Train’s murderous ways. Case closed.

The conclusion is plausible and perhaps even likely. For reasons James and McCarthy James make clear, what they can tell us about the man is scant, but readers will likely be mildly disappointed that there’s not a fuller accounting of the murderer.

Still, the book delivers on the promise of its subtitle — “The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery” — and you could be forgiven for forgiving its manner, because what other choice did the authors have? They needed to show readers that a bunch of mass murders were committed by one person, but not all the mass murders of families during that time period. Making those cases requires patient detailing by the authors, and some indulgence from the reader.

Avenues for Exploration

James has clearly thought about the challenges of presenting the material, as his chosen structure demonstrates. He opens with a tease of the famous murders at Villisca, Iowa, in 1912. Section I details murders from 1909 to 1912, and Section II deals at length with Villisca and another crime more than three months later. For the most part, these are “high information” cases where there are stories to tell beyond the gruesome murders. He puts the most-compelling stuff up front.

Sections III and IV go back in time to what are mostly “low information” cases from 1900 to 1908. Outside of evaluating these crimes with the Man from the Train checklist and detailing his body count, these sections don’t add much to the book. If you’re getting impatient, skip them altogether — and then read Section V’s “Conversation with the Reader” before jumping ahead to “The First Crime.”

That recommendation illustrates the inherent limitations of the material. Given the number of incidents, everything inevitably bleeds together.

But I’m convinced the book could have been a lot stronger, and James missed several opportunities. Combining and perhaps halving Sections III and IV would have given him some breathing room to explore other avenues without making the book any longer.

A few maps would have been enormously helpful, as James repeatedly says that the geography and time intervals are far too neat to be anything but proof that most of these mass murders are part of a series.

Also missing from the book is any sense of the “solving,” which it seems to me would have been a fascinating read, particularly as a respite from all the unsavory goings-on. One premise of the book is that it didn’t take Bill James to solve this mystery; anybody with Internet access could have linked these crimes together and maybe even found the killer.

So how did James and McCarthy James do it? And why had so many people — particularly given the persistent interest in the 1912 Villisca axe murders — failed to make connections that were hiding in plain sight?

I expect the answer is somewhat mundane, but it deserves more than the preface’s recounting of “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.”

James entirely ignores the thrill of a good detective story. The Man from the Train is almost entirely findings and conclusions, and I would have loved to read about the process — false starts, a-ha! moments, dead ends, and the transitions from “looking for ... similar events” to attempting a comprehensive accounting to searching for the culprit.

I would have also liked to read some outside analysis of James’ conclusions — the crimes he believes were committed by one person, the murders he thinks were unrelated, his identification of the Man from the Train, and the likelihood that “The First Crime” actually came first. Surely he could have presented his work to some law-enforcement professionals and amateur detectives to confirm his findings and, where appropriate, raise doubts about them.

And the book nearly begs for the insight of contemporary profilers of criminal psychology and serial killers. Throughout the book, James comes to unimpeachable logical conclusions about the Man from the Train — that he was an itinerant laborer who had no trouble finding work, that he was short, that he was smart and strong, that he was almost certainly a logger. But when he gets into the man’s psychology, he seems out of his depth. He merely offers that the Man from the Train loved to kill, and that he was sexually attracted to young girls — both of which are self-evident.

But what does “The First Crime” suggest about the man? How does our killer get from the inaugural murder to the next one in his brain? How long does that take?

What was behind his sexual fixation on young girls — and are they the true purpose of his crimes? If so, why does he target entire families instead of just girls?

Do his patterns and intervals make sense, and are they meaningful? How likely is it that he was actually inactive in the periods James infers? What might some of his signatures — most notably, using the blunt side of the axe — suggest, psychologically?

Why did his methodology evolve, and what does this tell us about him? Does his process indicate somebody of unusual intelligence and preparation — thoughtfully developed to avoid detection — or was it the happiest accident a serial mass murderer could ask for?

Does the Man from the Train as an anonymous entity conform to what we know about serial killers generally, and how? Does the person James believes was responsible, and how? Are there modern equivalents of the Man from the Train?

If James is even remotely accurate about the number of victims, the Man from the Train would be the most prolific known serial killer in United Sates history, and he’d probably be in the top five worldwide. Or maybe he’s not, because lists of serial killers generally only include those active in the middle of the 20th Century and beyond. Some additional context on serial killers would help us understand whether he was a special type of monster.

Alas, James seems shockingly incurious about these questions and issues. Outside of naming the Man from the Train, he shows almost no interest in him as a human being, or as an example of aberrant psychology.

There’s this hint of self-satisfaction in the whole endeavor, that detailing and connecting these crimes and naming a perpetrator were wholly sufficient and satisfying. They might have been for James, but the subject is begging for more.

Leave a comment

Close