September 19, 2017

A New Book From Bill James

Bill James - the iconoclastic writer, historian, and statistician, and a Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Red Sox - has a new book on the shelves today - but The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery (written with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James) - has nothing to do with baseball.

According to Scribner:
Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villasca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

When celebrated baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery: they learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal. In turn, they uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America.
James's intense interest in true crime was revealed in his 2011 book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Chuck Klosterman, who interviewed James for Grantland, called it "a fascinating, comprehensive, deeply strange book".

Harold Schechter, an Associate Professor of English at Queens College, has written extensively about American crime (especially serial killers) and popular culture. He says that James has
done something truly extraordinary. Not only has he solved one of the most tantalizing mysteries in the annals of American crime - the sensational case of the 1912 "Villisca Axe Murders" - but he has tied it to a long string of equally savage, though completely obscure, atrocities. The result is his discovery of a previously unknown serial killer who roamed - and terrorized - the country a century ago.
I don't know anything more about this book than what I read in the pre-publication materials, but I'm excited to read anything James writes (or says; the Q&A linked above is extremely thought-provoking). He has a natural, smooth, conversational (and often wryly humorous) tone, even as he explains research techniques and offers in-depth analysis. James, a born skeptic, has made a career out of asking questions, and his journey towards a possible answer is always fascinating and often more satisfying than the answer itself.

James, from the Preface:
In my day job I am a baseball writer. We know many, many things now about the baseball players of the 1950s and 1960s, about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson and Stan Musial, that those men themselves did not know and could not possibly have known when they were playing. We have pieced together records of their careers that are far more complete than the records which were kept at the time. Modern historians know things about the Romans that the Romans themselves did not know and could not have known.

A hundred years ago and a little more, there were a series of terrible crimes that took place in the American Midwest (although it actually started in the Northeast and the South, the midwestern portion of the series is the well-known part). The most famous of these crimes are the murders in Villisca, Iowa, but it is apparent to anyone who will take the time to look that the Villisca murders were a part of a series of similar events. I was reading about that series of crimes and I had a thought. "I'll bet there were others," I thought, "that the contemporary authorities never linked to the same criminal."

With modern computers, we can search tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers, looking for reports of similar events.

And I found one.

And then I found another one, and another one, and another one. I hired my daughter as a researcher, and she started finding them. We had no idea what we were dealing with. And we never dreamed that we would actually be able to figure out who he was.

By the time he came to Villisca, The Man from the Train had been murdering randomly selected families for a decade and a half. People had been executed for his crimes; people had been lynched for his crimes; and people were rotting away in prison for his crimes.

Skeptical? Of course you're skeptical. You're either skeptical or you're stupid, and you don't look stupid. But hear me out. Have I got a story to tell you.


Shawn J Kelley said...

Looks like a fascinating book. I imagine that someone from the publishing house did the front cover. Doesn't it look a lot like the cover of the second volume of Saul Friedlander's classic study of the Holocaust?

Shawn J Kelley said...

Apologies. Here's a link to the book cover.

I shouldn't try to post while simultaneously preparing for class and watching a close Sox game.