"The Man from the Train": a midwest murder case for the history books

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James' nonfiction "The Man from the Train" opens with the brutal murder of 8 people in the quiet town of Villisca, Iowa during the summer of 1912.

The murders rocked the tiny town and fed the newly burgeoning press scene with half-truths and speculation. Though the press could be wildly unhelpful, authorities could now see a continued pattern of murders stringing along the rail lines from small town to small town in the Midwest thanks to the reporting and sharing of information across county and state lines.

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James work backward through time, focusing on the later, more reported murders first, then weaving into the creation of the titular Man from the Train. We see the established patterns and psychoses, then see how the assailant built his skill set of quietly murdering families, then disappearing without a trace.

The authors not only detail the murders of those whom they have concluded are the work of our assailant, but they also detail other crimes and attacks they believe are not the work of the Man from the Train to establish a set pattern for the crimes. This psychological profiling pays off as the reader progresses through the book.

One of my favorite elements of historical nonfiction, whether it be biography, history or true crime, is the well-researched world building authors do to place the reader in their story. Learning about 19th century medical procedures in Candice Millard’s "Destiny of the Republic," or the 17th century philosophy of scientific inquiry in Holly Tucker’s "Blood Work," creates a truly immersive experience for the reader.

The authors detail police procedure (or lack thereof), the press, and the explosion of information that occurred between 1909 and 1912 that allowed police to share information and see the multi-jurisdictional puzzle that our assailant had been creating for almost 15 years.

Police work during the height of the killing spree was quite often crowdfunded and utilized the services of private investigators. Local police departments, especially in the small rural towns where the Man from the Train struck, simply did not have the resources to carry out time-consuming and expensive investigations. This created the need for private investigation firms (the most famous being the Pinkerton Agency) to step in.

One of the best characters (and by best, I mean most vile and opportunistic) is investigator J. N. Wilkerson of the Burns Agency, who was more interested in extorting money from innocent people rather than actually solving the horrendous Villisca crime. With little governmental oversight, this was common practice among investigators, who would declare innocent a suspect brought into custody by local police forces and condemn another party guilty in order to claim a not insubstantial reward for “solving” the crime.

This is only one example of the historical detail the authors go into. The rest are equally fascinating and describe the boons and perils technology brings to any time, whether it’s 1910 or 2017.

I’ve never been one for true crime until recently. "The Keepers," a seven part series that premiered on Netflix that details the continued investigation of a nun’s murder in the 1960’s, proved to be my gateway to the genre. In today’s culture, we are constantly inundated with the idea of violence with no rational motive in fiction and nonfiction, whether it’s in the shower of the Bates Motel or the pages of a memoir by convicted BTK killer Dennis Rader.

The authors of "The Man from the Train" argue early on that this is a relatively new phenomenon, no doubt stroked by sensationalism and media exposure. However, irrational killing was not on the radar of early 20th century police in small rural towns where the murder rate was only one or two cases a year. They often looked for motives such as revenge or passion, which is one of many reasons our assailant was able to kill for so long, undetected.

If true crime and historical sleuthing are your thing, "The Man from the Train" reads like a thriller and gives you a backstage pass into the authors’ research techniques and Sherlockian deductions. It’s a great read and a testament to the archaeological research done to piece together the profile of one of the worst serial killers in the country.

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James will talk about the book at Lawrence Public Library on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. The Raven bookstore will sell copies and a signing will follow the reading.

— Kristin Soper is the programs and events coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.


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