About 40 minutes into our phone call, as Rachel McCarthy James and I are discussing the sourcing of her book, The Man From the Train, she pauses. “I’m sorry. Give me a second,” she says. “A neighbor dog just came by, and I’ve got to let him in before he gets run over by the train that’s going by my house.”
It’s a humorous, creepy moment. McCarthy James’s book, co-written with her father, is the story of murders committed by a man who, as he traveled across the country, slaughtered entire families. He would kill each one in their own home, with their own axe. Oftentimes, once the deed was done, the house and the bodies were set on fire.
And what linked the crimes — aside from the criminal himself — was proximity to the train tracks.
McCarthy James’s father is Bill James, best known for helping birth sabermetrics and serving as a central character in Moneyball. But he’s equally passionate about true crime. In 2012, he published the contentious, exceptional book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Bill had become interested in the killings that would eventually form the basis for The Man from the Train after seeing a television program about the 1912 Villisca axe murders, in which six members of an Iowa family and their houseguests were bludgeoned to death. The case was never solved.
Until now, perhaps.
The Jameses (who built considerably on the foundational work of a graduate student named Beth Klingensmith) are certain the murderer who killed that Iowa family and dozens of other families around the country — making him, arguably, the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history — was a man named Paul Mueller.
McCarthy James and I spoke, and then corresponded, several weeks ago about her research, her famous father and how the two of them found the Man From the Train.
I’m surprised not to see headlines like JAMES FAMILY SOLVES CENTURY-OLD STRING OF AXE MURDERS. I wonder if people just think it’s too ridiculous a proposition?
It does seem ridiculous because it is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that somebody got away with this for 15 years and, basically, nobody connected what he was doing. What’s really ridiculous to me is how many of these murders are forgotten so quickly — and not just the ones that we wrote about.
I studied close to 250 family murders between 1890 and 1920, and a lot of them were bizarre and weird. Even the ones that are semi-famous have been sort of forgotten, like when Frank Lloyd Wright’s servant killed a bunch of people in 1914. You don’t hear about that story anymore, and it’s nuts.
The Man from the Train is a deeply violent book. On a psychic level, what was it like to work on this?
It’s pretty horrible. 2013 was the year I found the killer, and it was a rough one personally. I started working on the book the same time that I moved from Virginia to Kansas. Not long after that, my mother-in-law died, which really sucked. Things were changing so quickly that I just kind of adapted.
I never worked on it at night. If I worked on it at night, then I would get no sleep. It’s hard to sleep after you’ve been looking at murders in newspapers for a couple of hours. I forced myself to work on it only during the morning and early afternoon, when there was plenty of light out. After that, I got a day job at my old elementary school at its after-school Boys and Girls Club program. That helped to kind of even it out.
That said, once you start researching this, and you know you’re looking for horrible murders and stories of children dying, your brain does kind of adjust. Like when you’re going in a cold lake and your body temperature adjusts to the water.
Why did Bill ask you to help with this?
That was my mom’s idea. He’d worked with both my brothers doing baseball stuff; he likes to work with us and give us some opportunity while we’re coming up in our career. I also needed a job because I’d just moved back to Kansas. My parents knew I was good at research from my undergraduate studies and the writing I’d done. So my mom suggested that dad hire me as a research assistant. He wasn’t expecting me to find as much as I did.
I can imagine.
It took four years to write, but neither of us were working on this full-time. We were both doing other stuff, which helped to stop us from being consumed by it. Dad has a tendency to get started on projects before he sells them. He and my mom, actually, have been working on a book about Kansas history since even before Man From the Train got started. But I don’t think he told anybody about Man From the Train until we were about a year into research. At that point, he wrote up the book proposal.
He thought it was going to be a much shorter thing than it was — that he was just going to write a little bit about Villisca. It just spiraled.
How many sources did you have? How many different newspapers, or different editions of newspapers?
Oh, boy. It’s well into the thousands. I’d say 10,000 at least. From the 1890 through 1920 list alone, I looked at at least five records per source, so there’s 1,000-something right there. I mean, it was four years of looking at newspapers. I’d go through at least 100 newspapers a day, and a lot of times, I was going back over the same newspapers at the same time.
A lot of the times, you’d look for, say, information about the 1903 murder of the Kelly family. And oftentimes what you’d find are stories that had nothing to do with it. Stuff like, oh, the murder of President Harrison, or Sarah Kelly has her birthday. And then “axe” gets mis-transcribed as “of” or “and.” So there are lots of false hits to get through.
In the end, we probably referenced 1,000 or so newspapers in the book.
Near as you can tell, did the social prominence or race of the victims have any bearing on the quality of the reporting?
It was very difficult to find information about the murders of black families. We think there are probably at least two or three crimes that we haven’t found yet, and I’d wager it’s likely because the victims are black. They were less likely to be profiled. In the case of [a black man named] Louis Casaway, he was well-known to the people of San Antonio, and to the newspaper staff. He wasn’t infrequently in the paper before he was murdered, so I think that was the exception that proves the rule.
In terms of status, sometimes it was associated with poor coverage, but there were some that were from fairly prominent families that didn’t have a ton of reporting, either. Like the 1901 murder of the Allen family in Maine didn’t get a lot of coverage, but there was a real focus on the trial.
So there was definitely a correlation between the race and the class of the victims and the quality of the reporting, but it wasn’t one-to-one.
Once a year or so, there’s a new book about the identity of the Zodiac killer. And I’ll read it, and in the moment I’ll think, Oh, this is making a good case. But it isn’t, really. How did you interrogate your assumptions and ensure you weren’t getting caught up in the excitement of solving this case?
One thing we did is we made sure that I was looking at as wide a number of cases as possible. I looked at pretty much every family murder I could find between 1890 and 1920. As we went along, and became more confident, we were shedding cases. We would identify a case early on and say, This is potentially related. Then, as we gained more information about [the killer’s] habits and his patterns by finding other cases that fit the pattern we had established, we were able to say, Okay, this one no longer makes as much sense as it once did when we had less data points.
The fact that we worked for so long on this, and went back and forth on these cases for so long, helped us to feel more confident about which ones we were including or excluding for our tallies. Having two authors was a benefit, because we were able to ask questions and try to poke holes in the case if we found ourselves at a point of disagreement.
Did you run your theory by anyone else, someone who wasn’t a member of the James family?
In terms of looking at the totality of the case, no one other than our editors and the people at Scribner. I know when Dad was trying to sell them on the book, he had to explain the case in some detail, but otherwise, no. I would talk about it often to my friends because people are generally impressed when you claim to know the solution to a famous crime. But since the 1898 crime through which we identified him was forgotten — as were most of the crimes in this book — it would’ve taken a lot of time to explain each of the threads connecting these crimes over the years. And if I did that, I would’ve been worried about the theory circulating. I was worried about getting scooped!
In a recent interview, Bill said, “Crime stories are fascinating because they are about those parts of ourselves that we don’t talk about. Crime stories are about lust and greed and anger and resentment. … Crime stories are the places where those things bubble to the surface.”
Myself, I like true crime because, done right, like with Killers of the Flower Moon, it allows you to learn about history in an interesting way. With The Man From the Train, we learn about that period in the early part of the 20th century when telephones and cars existed, but hadn’t reached every town in America. But in hindsight you can see it all coming.
I think Dad’s writing shone the most, honestly, when he was talking about these small towns that he grew up in. I mean, his parents were born right around these years, and they grew up in small-town Mayetta, Kansas — the kind of place that The Man From the Train attacked. I hope readers will take away a greater sense of empathy for these tiny towns that are just as interesting, fascinating and worthwhile as the largest city on Earth.
Could you describe for me that moment when you stumbled on the murderer?
The day before I found the first crime, I was working on what we now believe to be his second crime — the murder of the Allen family in Shirley, Maine in 1901. And I asked Dad, “What exactly should I be looking for in terms of his first murder?”
He wrote back,
“Well… I don’t exactly know. We have to work it back until we have a time frame where there doesn’t appear to be a crime that is a part of the series … a period of two years or more. Then, at the end of that, there’s a crime that just isn’t EXACTLY right; it’s what the Man From the Train WANTED to do, but he didn’t pull it off, somehow….”
On the night of January 17, 2013, my husband Jason left to go to a concert. My house — Dad’s former office, which we now rent — is closer to train tracks than most of the houses in this book, about 50 feet away. By now I love the trains and find them musical and comforting, but at the time, I wasn’t used to them at all, and also, I was looking for a train murderer, so it was more than a little creepy to be alone in my house with my two cats and a lot of half-unpacked boxes.
That night, I was researching another case, one that didn’t make it into the book. In June 1900, a man named George Champion got in a bar fight and went to go hide with his former employer, George Goodwin, in Maine. When the news of Champion’s residence in the household got out and Goodwin decided to host another friend by the name of Fred Bertsch, Champion got mad. He also knew that Goodwin was a wealthy man, and so that motivated him to kill the family, behead Bertsch and burn the house down.
But before Champion was caught, the North Adams Transcript included this paragraph in their recounting of the crime:
“The crime recalls many others which have occurred in the rural districts of New England, especially the one at Brookfield, Mass., where the Newton family was murdered by a farm hand, Paul Mueller.”
I Googled the names and locations and found something on Google Books called History of the Department of Police Service of Worcester, Mass., from 1674 to 1900, Historical and Biographical by a man named Herbert M. Sawyer, which contained the following paragraph:
“The Worcester police worked for over a year in connection with the state police to cause the arrest of Paul Mueller for the murder of the Newton family in West Brookfield. Mueller murdered Francis D. Newton, wife, and daughter Elsie with an axe on the night of Jan. 9, 1897, and was seen walking in the direction of the Boston & Albany railroad, where he took a train leaving at 1 o’clock in the morning. Not a trace of him has been found since.”
As soon as I read it, I had a strong gut feeling that this was it. So I called my dad a bunch, which is a drastic move because Dad doesn’t often pick up his phone. I then called my mom to see if she could get him on the phone, but he was in Boston working for the Red Sox — he keeps saying he was at a Jayhawks game, but they didn’t play that night and I’m sure he was in Boston. He didn’t get back to me until 3 in the morning, which was okay because I was still up collecting evidence.
Dad says now that he didn’t think I could possibly be right at first, and it’s true that he wasn’t immediately convinced — neither was I! But it immediately changed the book. He began referring to it as “our book” and thinking about how to organize the book around this event.
Did you learn anything more about Mueller, either that you didn’t put in the book or since the book was done?
Pretty much every detail we learned about him we put in the book. We only knew probably 500 words of material about him, specifically his physical appearance, where he’s from, his skills and his family. We don’t know too much, so we’re pretty careful to put every single thing we know in there.
Oftentimes you guys engage in what’s essentially profiling of the Man From the Train. That’s a practice that’s come under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism. Was there any hesitation to doing it?
Well, that was mostly Dad — not to throw him under the bus. I think that most of his speculations were pretty defensible, and they made sense. I mean, I think a big part of why Dad did it is because it helps the narrative. And anyway, he’s pretty clear that he’s speculating. A lot of people have said to me, You know, I agree with you, but it’s conjecture. And they’re not totally wrong. We’re presenting to you our view of the case, the crimes and the person who did them.
We’re also hoping that you, the reader, will find your own opinion, and you’ll look into this for yourself.
Last year, in her podcast In the Dark, journalist Madeleine Baran said, “The perfect crime is just an excuse for the failures of law enforcement, and we buy it, but really there are no perfect crimes. There are only failed investigations.” So I wondered, could your methods be brought to bear on seemingly unsolvable — but actually very solvable — cases?
I don’t think my specific methods are necessarily transferrable to any one case. In each case, what you’re looking at is a time capsule from whenever they were committed and the shortcomings and potential misunderstandings of potential sources of information. The most important thing, when going back and looking at a crime that has yet to be solved, is trying to understand what they didn’t have at the time and what perspectives they were missing.
With the Man From the Train, Beth Klingensmith, who realized that all the crimes were connected by train stops, understood things about genealogy and about the crimes that the investigators, at the time, did not.
Then, building on her scholarship, Dad and I had the time and money to dig through these newspapers that Beth was not able to. It’s a question of opportunity. It’s a question of asking the right questions, about seeing where you need to push that you haven’t before.
If you could pick one unsolved crime or series of crimes to revisit, what would it be?
I do want to say — solving a crime has never exactly been a dream for me. I’ve long enjoyed true crime writing, but except for Villisca, I’ve never been much of one for theories about death, until this book. Maybe that was an advantage in approaching this story — I wasn’t sure what I would find, but I wasn’t hell-bent on being right.
After thinking about it, I most ardently wish to further explore the Black Family Murders, as detailed late in the book. I have no idea who committed 90 percent of those crimes, and I’d love to get the chance to focus on them as my primary topic.
I would also love to take a look at the Bloody Benders in the 1870s. They went somewhere else and killed more people, I’m sure of it. I’d love to figure out where and who.