The Man from the Train
This book was recommended by the women of the My Favorite Murder podcast, way back when.
This book follows the murders of families across the United States between the years of 1898 and 1912. The murders are connected by a string of details that all point to the same killer, who could be one of the most deadly serial killers in the history of the United States.
I wish I liked this book more, honestly. I think I did at first, but it got more repetitive and less about the facts. Also, for a book tracking the murders of over 100 people, it’s a little too lighthearted and quipy at parts.
I think, to sum up the book, I’ll use a quote from page 414: “So what happened in this era, and who killed all of those families in Texas in 1912? We don’t know. We’re not sociologists or psychologists or criminologists or detectives. We’re not even real historians. We’re just writers. These are the facts as best we can tell.” All of that is true, except that they present more than facts sometimes, and it’s not for the betterment of the book. Like most things, I’m going to talk about what I didn’t like before I mention what I did.
First of all, neither of these people have anything to do with true crime before this book. Bill James is the primary author, Rachel McCarthy James his daughter-turned-research-assistant-turned-coauthor. Bill was a baseball analyst who decided to use his experience with baseball on a crimes over a century old and with little evidence to support anything, hence why a lot of them are unsolved or the murders were pinned on innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. It works, sort of, but kind of not really?
This book is a lot of two people trying desperately to connect the dots mostly through old newspaper clippings, which they say themselves are hardly reliable, and sometimes through the police reports that they also say are unreliable and not the greatest. A lot of speculation had to go into this story, because there were so many holes that needed to be filled, and not all of the speculation pays off, because in the end they might have a name of a man that soon after disappeared into the wind. It’s an unsatisfactory ending that everyone should have seen coming because these crimes are a century old, and so much has happened between 1898 and 2012 when they started their research.
From a forensic standpoint, I can empathize with the frustration of the authors with the detectives and police force. However, in the time span this book covered (1898-1912 ish), the investigators really only had 2 things: fingerprints, and later, blood typing, neither of which were any real use since the Man from the Train jumped around so much from state to state. Nothing much has changed in the way of inter-departmental communication for small towns states apart, as far as I can tell. We have IAFIS now, for fingerprint identification and matching, but that would only help maybe three of the murder cases mentioned in the book that had fingerprints, in blood, from the murder weapon. But the biggest speculation is whodunit, because without someone to compare the prints to, you just have a string of murdered families that you can connect, but not to a culprit. The main reason I bring this up is that the authors spent a great deal of time ridiculing the detective work in these cases and while the detectives probably deserved it (they were pretty incompetent, but such were the times), the authors failed to recognize that they are armchair detectives themselves. “You wouldn’t think that amateur detectives with no background in criminal investigation would make a mistake like that, but somehow it happened” (the Oregon chapter, I forget which page). This is a rich line coming from amateur detectives with no background in criminal investigation themselves, but I digress.
Smaller than the points above and below, but since there are two authors, the use of “I” and “we” is very confusing. Sometimes, it’s “we.” More often than not, it’s “I,” and you have no idea who “I” is. From a writing standpoint, I hate it.
Now, here’s the kicker: the authors, and whoever edited this book, are problematic. I understand it’s a heavy topic and you’d like to make jokes to lighten the load. There are lines, though, and pretty hard ones with topics such as these. For instance, take this quote from page 158: “One of Wilkerson’s nutty witnesses was a prostitute names Alice Willard; I am sorry, a lady named Alice Willard.” It doesn’t matter that she was a false witness called by a corrupt detective to testify against an innocent man. It doesn’t matter what she did in order to make ends meet. The fact that they tried to make a joke concerning Alice and her sex work in this quote doesn’t sit right with me. I know that in 2012 people weren’t exactly hip to the positive spin on sex work (I know I wasn’t until I graduated high school and actually started thinking for myself), but this book was published in 2017. By that point, the authors should have known better, both for this quote, some of the other “jokes” they make at the expense of victims or people deemed ‘lesser’ by society, and some of the racially charged language used around the specifically black men and women affected by these crimes. The authors make it clear they don’t agree with the murders of innocent black people at the hands of a mob, but then use outdated and racist terms to talk about said innocent black people. It’s grossly inappropriate and uncalled for, especially in the 21st century by people who claim to “know better.”
Onto the brief things I liked. The authors did what they could. They took on years of research to try and track a number of crimes that were old, under investigated, and not properly documented. They knew it was going to be hard work with little payoff, and they did it anyway. I can respect that. They also played to their strengths. Rachel was great at researching, and did her best to dig up any and everything she could. Bill added in statistics, and their ideas of where the crimes fell within those statistics. He worked out a system that applied to the family annihilations they uncovered, the details surrounding the murders, and the possible suspects. I may not agree with Bill’s sentiment on believing absolutely in their conclusions, but whatever floats your goat.
This book took me 12 hours to read, not because it was heavy, but because, somehow, I would get bored. That, on top of all the things I didn’t like, is why I rated this book so low. The few good things and things I liked about the book was not enough to save it from the not good things, which is disappointing. But hey, it was an MFM recommendation, and so far I’m 1 for 4 from them (Before the Fall was a good book, but the recommendations for this book, Last Podcast on the Left, and their recent deal with Amazon really aren’t it for me).
Trigger warnings: murder, blood, body horror, racism, pedophilia, racial slurs, sexual assault, infidelity, chronic illness, domestic abuse, fire, fire injury, gore, hate crime, injury, injury detail, child death, death, stalking