Bill James is the author of “Man of the Train” a journalist. With his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James, he has analyzed several similar murders in the early twentieth century, written about by newspapers in neighboring states. And suddenly, it turned out that they had too many of the exact details to write everything off as mere coincidence … The train serial killer chose small towns in the American countryside, breaking into homes at night and killing entire families.
Since his peak was at the very beginning of the twentieth century, when the investigation of such cases was strikingly different from our days and modern investigation methods, the train serial killer remained unpunished. Moreover, in those years, no one for a long time did not assume that behind the terrible crimes could be the same person. And when they did, they still could not unravel the tangle.
The alleged perpetrator rode trains, chose houses near the rails, took an interest in young girls (yes, with terrible goals, if you exclude his main goal – to kill everyone), and mainly used an ax to kill them.
It must be said that there are no particularly gory details in the book. In doing so, the authors drew details from the press, which mixed up the names of those killed and distorted the details. They could write about the sexual motives of the crimes only in hints so as not to shock the public. The sheriffs, of course, did not record what had happened in detailed reports, and the trial, if it ever happened, was swift.
Plot-wise, the book is structured to plunge the reader into the details of one of the most gruesome mass murders allegedly committed by the train serial killer in 1912. He started killing much earlier, but the authors decided to start with the massacre in Williska, Iowa. It is defensible because there is too little information about the earlier murders. There is not much to write about, too many assumptions and speculation, but the nightmare in Williska is more or less known.
Then the chronology of the crimes unwinds to the beginning of the bloody chain, where the traces of the maniac grow paler and paler. But the book provides arguments that confirm the authors’ idea that for more than ten years, one of the most terrible and ruthless serial killers has been operating in the United States.
And even without the gory details, it reads creepy. Ordinary people on an ordinary evening, everyone goes to bed, and at that moment, a train serial killer sneaks into the house and leaves no one alive… Although more than a hundred years have passed since the murders, and the serial killer has long been dead (I hope that at least not his own death and not in advanced old age for all he has done), it is still hard to read the relentless list of victims and descriptions of crime scenes.
From newspaper articles and court documents, the authors have reconstructed how the murders were investigated. It’s horrifying! Whoever was at hand could be blamed: someone else’s son, brother, or fiancé, who was somewhere else at the time of the crime… “Ah, we don’t care. Who could have killed if not him?”
And if the alleged murderer, who was unlucky enough to be nearby on a fateful day, was black, he could have hanged himself right away; he wouldn’t have gotten away with it anyway.
People were eager to find and punish the villain, and here was a black man! It was immediately apparent that he was the murderer. That’s how easy it was for people in the 1900s.
The maniac had nothing to complain about: no one was looking for him properly, no one was comparing the details of the murders, and no one was looking for similarities. A hundred years later, though, it’s not so easy to find a resemblance, either.
But there are too many assumptions in this book! What if the train serial killer had decided to do this or that? But we don’t know what was going on in his head. Was he responsible for ALL the deaths attributed to him, or were there SEVERAL killers who acted similarly? The authors themselves admit that the maniac may have had imitators.
What do crimes have in common?
Here is a list of 33 characteristics that the authors of this book used to identify crimes committed by train serial killers:
- The crime scene is close to the railroad (within a
- The crime scene is near the intersection of two railroad tracks.
- An ax is used as a murder weapon.
- The blows are struck with the butt, i.e., the axe is used as a blunt instrument rather than a cutting and chopping instrument.
- The murderer very often uses an axe belonging to the intended victims, which is kept next to the woodpile or takes it from a neighbor’s y
- The perpetrator leaves the axe at or near the crime scene.
- The murderer prefers to strike at the head.
- The perpetrator’s victims are all members of the family.
- One of the victims is a prepubescent girl.
- The offender pays special attention to the body of the teenage girl: he moves it and lays it down in a certain position. At the same time, he usually leaves the bodies of the other victims lying on the ground.
- The serial offender masturbates next to the body of the teenage girl.
- The crimes are committed at night, usually between twelve o’clock and two o’clock, or with a slight deviation from that time frame.
- The perpetrator covers the victims’ heads with a blanket or sheets to prevent the blood from splashing too much at the time of the blow or immediately afterward.
- The perpetrator also covers the victims’ bodies with a c
- The murderer covers the windows and mirrors with a cloth. In one case, he covered a telephone set with a cloth.
- Attacks were carried out on farms or in other relatively isolated places (before 1908 and for some time after) and in small towns without their own police (after 1908).
- After an attack, the perpetrator often sets fire to his victims’ houses (before 1906 and sometime after).
- In making his forays, the maniac moves from North to south and back along the states along the east coast until 1909, and since 1909 has moved from east to west.
- Crimes are overwhelmingly committed at the end of the week, most often on Sunday.
- The maniac operates in areas where logging and coal mining are active.
- The perpetrator moves a lighted lamp without a lampshade and often leaves it, still burning, at the crime scene.
- The time interval between crimes is usually several weeks. And each new murder the maniac commits, as a rule, at a distance of 100 to 400 miles from the place where he committed the previous one.
- The perpetrator’s range of action in a given period is almost always clearly delineated.
- To satisfy his passion for murder, the criminal shows remarkable dexterity and acts in an uncommonly clear and deliberate manner.
- Having committed a murder, the maniac often leaves the house doors tightly closed and secured with something, probably to make it harder to get in and thus to prevent the bodies from being discovered too quickly.
- In the morning, on leaving the crime scene, the perpetrator drapes the windows and closes the shutters tightly.
- The maniac attacks suddenly and without warning, taking his victims by surprise.
- The perpetrator would murder his victims while asleep (in cases where someone in the house was awake, the maniac would retreat rather than act).
- The murderer does not touch money and valuables, even those lying in a visible place.
- All, or almost all, of the murders are committed in houses with wood heating. Depending on the region at the time, 25 to 50 percent of them were in the United States.
- In many cases, the perpetrator enters the house through the back door.
- Simultaneously, the maniac often removes the shutters from one of the windows and enters the house through it.
- Almost all murders are committed in warm weather.
There is also a characteristic that the authors did not include in the list. The perpetrator often dragged dead bodies from place to place and placed one corpse on top of another. This was done in at least six cases, maybe more. However, they did not include this feature in the list of characteristic features that distinguish the actions of a train serial killer.
When and where was all this happening?
In general, the crimes committed by the train serial killer can be divided into three groups:
- Early murders, when he was still developing his bloody “signature” (from 1898).
- Murders of the so-called “Southern period,” which began in 1903.
- And murders of the “cross-country” period.
Three things distinguish the “Southern” murders of 1903-1909 from the “cross-country” period murders of 1910-1912:
- The 1903-1909 crimes were committed in the South and along the east coast. During the “cross-country” period, murders were committed all over the country from east to west.
- The “Southern” murders were mostly not committed in the small towns but close to them, within a twenty-minute walk. And these towns tended to have limited communications with the outside world. The crimes that occurred between 1910 and 1912 took place in smaller towns. And these towns were somewhat more developed, particularly with police departments.
- After the “southern” murders, the perpetrator, having disposed of his victims, set fire to the house. Afterward, he did not commit arson in most cases but locked the doors and windows tightly when he left.
When a maniac killed people in sparsely populated areas of the South, very little information about his crimes was leaked nationally. However, beginning with the murder of the Meadows family, the situation changed.
The North differed greatly from the South: the literacy rate was much higher, and newspapermen were much more active and professional. Nor was 1911 the same as 1903 regarding the technical side of journalism, with telegraph news services and unionized newspaper workers. Thanks to all this, maniac crimes that occurred after 1909 received extensive and detailed media coverage – unlike earlier crimes, which went virtually unnoticed.
Who was the train serial killer?
The authors give the name of the murderer as Paul Mueller. Yes, a century later, based on old publications, a comparison of evidence, and short police reports, the authors have managed to find the train serial killer. Evidence in favor of their version is provided.
Moreover – the authors have tried to trace the path of the American murderer after he stopped his atrocities on the territory of the States. A very similar crime was committed in Europe in the early twentieth century. It, too, is given a special place in the book.
Who is this he? What do we know about him?
People described Muller as a man “skillful and pleasant,” though they noted that he could be “very irritable. All indications are that Mueller was a hard-working farmhand and a skilled logger. Muller was never seen drunk, although sometimes he might have a glass of something strong or a mug of beer. Muller was by no means trying to please others.
Perhaps Mueller was paid little because of his appearance and manner of speaking. He was unlike the others. Short, stout (he was five feet four or five inches tall and weighed about 155 pounds), with dark greasy hair, a badly trimmed mustache, and the occasional beard, he did not make the best impression.
In 1898 he was about 35 years old. He had learned English relatively recently, so it was sometimes not easy to understand him. The Boston Globe stated that Muller was German, though other newspapers have suggested that he was Polish or Bulgarian.
The most remarkable feature of his appearance was his small, sparse teeth. Many men were later detained because of this characteristic, as well as because of his German accent. Mueller wore a size six shoe. He had a scar from his wrist to his little finger and another above his right eye.
He walked in what was called the sailor’s walk. Muller was, so to speak, an “experienced vagabond” who dressed as if he had nowhere to sleep, even when he had a roof over his head. He was nothing like the well-to-do Brookfield farmers.
The book’s authors believe that the nature of the train serial killer’s actions was due to the action of six factors. Over time, they have undergone some changes.
1. First, he was driven to murder by anger and hatred. He was most likely abused as a child, and as an adult, he was probably not universally loved. He was a short, ugly, miserable bastard whose life was hard and deprived – yet he possessed a great deal of intelligence and other positive qualities, such as industriousness and the ability to plan his actions.
2. Second, he was sexually attracted to young girls, and he had no opportunities for sexual gratification. The authors believe he was ashamed of his desires.
3. Third, in committing crimes, he enjoyed the adrenaline rush. Yes, he liked it when fear sent his blood hormone levels soaring. His eyesight, his hearing, his sense of smell, his sense of touch, nothing else gave him the same sensations. When he contemplated his next attack, this, too, excited him. When he had accomplished what he had planned, he went over and over in his mind what he had done and enjoyed it.
Probably some occasions caused him disappointment, as in Paola, while others were a source of pride and admiration. That is why the authors believe that the serial killer did not commit his atrocities under the influence of alcohol – it dulls the senses. Besides, the consumption of alcohol would probably have made the maniac make mistakes – and he didn’t make them very often.
4. Fourth, there is a possibility that the crimes he committed gave the serial killer a sense of superiority over other people. Police officers often say that criminals think they are smarter than others. In this case, that was the case. Train serial killer was often humiliated and abused.
It seemed to him that life was unfair. For a good reason, he saw the world around him in black. He was not a stupid man, and it is likely that by killing, the train serial killer proved to himself that he was smarter than others. And the best proof for him was that he was able to commit one terrible crime after another without getting caught.
5. Fifth, an important, if not the main, incentive for the maniac was the feeling of power over dead bodies. Of course, he was most attracted to the bodies of teenage girls, but that’s not what we’re talking about now. The authors mentioned many times that the perpetrator dragged the bodies from place to place. Often he would kill the occupants of a house in one room, leaving puddles of blood in it, but eventually, the bodies were found in other rooms.
The train serial killer often would give the corpses special poses, killing people near the house and then dragging them inside. There didn’t seem to be any apparent reason for this. But that’s the thing: the serial killer liked to demonstrate his power over other people’s bodies. He liked to touch them, lift them up and move them around.
6. Finally, the murders became a form of self-identification for the Man with the Train, a form of self-expression. They made him feel like a man with a mystery that no one else could solve. He liked to think that people looking at him had no idea what kind of monster was hiding behind his rather ordinary appearance, though not very pleasant.
“You see before you a short, unattractive man,” he probably thought to himself, “but I can do things (and I have done things) that you can’t even imagine. I am the Monster that terrifies you, and you have no idea it’s me.” The tiny little man cast an enormous, terrifying shadow, and in his imagination, he seemed as huge as she was.
What happened to Paul Mueller after the last murder in the USA in September 1912?
According to the book’s author, there are four possible answers:
- He died.
- He was arrested – not for murder, but for some less serious crime – and imprisoned. For example, he could have been arrested for breaking into someone else’s house when no one was home. In this case, those who arrested Mueller probably had no idea who was in front of them and for what purpose this person had broken into someone else’s home.
- He just stopped killing for some reason.
- He went to Europe and continued killing there.
Either of these options seems like a perfectly logical and plausible continuation of the story. But if you want to know the opinion of the authors of the investigation, they believe that Paul Mueller probably went to Europe and continued his murderous activities there.