The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(probably closer to 3.5 stars)
I picked this up because I’m a big fan of Bill James’s Popular Crime. This was fairly different – it’s about retroactively tracing a serial killer and figuring out who he was.
About halfway through the book I thought “man, is this whole book just going to be describing a series of murders that are all pretty similar?”, because it was getting kind of boring even though I do enjoy Bill James’s writing style. But some of the crimes got more interesting, and the end where he looks back at all of them and proposes a solution is also fascinating. (and convincing!) I did have trouble getting to that point, though – there are so many crimes and so many people introduced and dispatched quickly that it all can blur together.
But there were definitely some interesting bits about the nature of “police work” in the early 1900s!
– Newspapers from that era were happy to opine about who had done it. Here’s an excerpt from the Trenton Times in 1900:
Robert Hensen, a Trenton colored man with an unsavory reputation, is the one suspected of having done the shocking dead. […] the civil authorities are at work collecting evidence which, it is expected, will fasten on him, beyond a doubt, the monstrous crime, and send him to the gallows […]
So basically “he’s obviously guilty, now we just need some evidence!”
– Especially in rural areas, for tough crimes the victim’s family would try to raise a “reward fund” of donations from the townspeople, then use that money to hire a private detective. Back then private detectives would mostly just try to infiltrate gangs of criminals and see if someone would admit to committing the crime.
– In Cottonwood, Alabama, a private detective became convinced that that a man he hired to bring him meals knew something about the case, so he hired a ventriloquist to come with him and secretly throw his voice to the man’s mule and ask him questions! This kinda worked, as the man said who he thought had committed the crime, which was enough for the police to arrest that person(!) but he wasn’t convicted, thankfully, because there was no evidence.
– What happened in the aftermath of the Villisca, Iowa killings was probably the most interesting part of the book. (these are the most famous murders, although I hadn’t heard of them before this) The detective investigating the crime and the sheriff both believed the murders had been committed by a serial killer from out-of-town; however, J. N. Wilkerson (a private detective) came on to the scene two years later and decided to pin the murders on Frank Jones, who was a successful businessman and politician in the small town. The author compares him to Harold Hill, the con man from the movie “The Music Man”, which happens to be set in a small city in Iowa around the same time. Wilkerson was charismatic and essentially tried to blackmail Jones by getting a compatriot to claim that there was a report that had evidence that Jones had committed the murders, and for $25,000 (a lot of money back in 1915!) the report would never see the light of day. The idea was that if Jones showed interest this would be evidence against him. Jones didn’t bite, but Wilkerson started spreading rumors and raising money from townspeople who thought that Jones was guilty. This started to work, and Jones lost a primary, then started to fight back by hiring his own private detective. Then Wilkerson hatched a plot to break in to Jones’s store to try to “gather evidence”, but Jones knew about it because of his private detective (i.e. spy) and foiled it. It continues on from there; the story is pretty incredible, but eventually Wilkerson got banned from practicing law in the state, ran for county attorney(!), and basically lost.
The book is impressively researched, and I enjoyed it once I got past the first half or so.
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