I was given The Man From The Train for Christmas, even though true crime is not usually my thing. Bill James is usually a baseball writer I have admired since the early 1980’s, who also turns out to have an interest in true crime. I read his Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence a few years ago. This was largely devoted to understanding which crimes capture the popular imagination, and why. In true baseball statistician fashion, James put up charts and spreadsheets and devised a formula to predict what crimes would be most written about. Along the way, he gave opinions on how the popular suppositions of guilt were often wrong, and why. He was thorough in reviewing both the crime scene evidence and the popular media accounts after. James is quite convincing on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, for example, that her parents were entirely innocent of the murder and explaining why people thought so anyway despite the lack of evidence.
The Man From The Train continues in this vein, assembling evidence from dozens of murders from 1897-1912 and connecting some as likely to have been committed by the same person. Those familiar with James’s baseball writing will see the same approach to the data: What things should we be looking for to answer our questions? How reliable is our information, and in particular, where could people now and a century ago be easily misled by? What patterns do we see? Are there other possible explanations, or confounding factors? Also quite usual for him is to ask What are the dogs that didn’t bark? Baseball questions are a good grounding for thinking in general.
He got started on the quest by noting that the Villisca Axe Murders seem to have been committed by an experienced murderer who had made himself in multiple ways difficult to discover afterward. From that observation he wondered if he had killed before and if there were other murders that showed similar features. He found many, with varying degrees of certainty, but very possibly over a hundred victims across the country.
So, recommended if you like following that sort of deductive reasoning and can endure the gruesome details that have to be discussed.
Yet it is the second theme of the book which interests me more in terms of discussion here. At every stop until the last few incidents, the police, private detectives, and townspeople blamed local people for the murder. In most cases the suspects were soon released for lack of evidence, though they might live under a cloud the rest of their lives. Yet in others, innocent people were imprisoned and even executed, by the state or by lynching. Once a plausible explanation was in place, it was difficult or even impossible for people to discard it, no matter what the contrary evidence. If the police believed the motive was robbery, they would stick to this even when nothing was taken and valuable items were left untouched. Once the townspeople believed it was revenge, or a love triangle, or an ex-con who lived nearby, they could not shake that idea and kept reverting to it, even when investigators or courts provided definitive evidence that the accused could not have been there.
James notes grimly that for vulnerable and disliked people, especially if they were black, it was best not to have murders happen nearby, as they might be seized, accused and executed regardless of evidence.
What was fascinating about this is that occasionally some person early in the investigation would announce that it was an unknown madman who had killed and left, and put that story out, but the need to catch someone and punish them was so great that this correct assessment would be buried under the avalanche of evidence of people making up evidence in order to associate themselves with the story. Neighbors would remember hearing an argument earlier in the day that never occurred, or profess to recognize a lantern left at the scene as belonging to a person across town. In one early case nearly 20 people claimed to identify a particular lantern as belonging to an adjoining farm, yet no one involved had the presence of mind to ask “Really? How many lanterns from this town would I recognize? Would I even recognize my own if it weren’t hanging in its usual place?”
In a few cases, even the policeman or detective who had initially declared the murder was the work of a drifter who killed and then hopped on the nearby train would get swept up in the local focus on a particular suspect. In our discussions here of narrative triumphing over facts, it is frightening to note that even a correct explanation, if it leaves out enough elements as to be unsatisfying, will be rejected in favor of an obviously false one that at least checks off enough boxes. Towns were unable to accept the idea that it was a random drifter who was quickly out of reach. Someone must be found.
There was likely pressure from other directions as well. There is always a market to get rid of unpopular people in the neighborhood, especially those with a history of violence, and even a bad excuse is often enough. When rewards are offered, no one is going to collect if no one is convicted. Associating crime with other disliked behaviors also gives us the illusion we can be safe. Well, she certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered, but it’s not safe to run around with men that aren’t your husband, is it?
I do wonder if the pattern had been noticed earlier, so that the ground was laid for people to accept that a roving killer of set pattern was using the trains across whole regions to escape at night, they would find tying themselves into that story sufficient. There were many incidents where noticing the similarities to other murders was possible, and a few where it is remarkable that two murders of entire families fifty miles and two months apart were not associated – usually because people had so thoroughly bought into a false explanation for the first one that they could not consider an alternative. It might have prevented some of the murders if people knew what to be alert for. At minimum, it may have prevented the executions of some innocents.
So. Apply this same unfortunate characteristic of we humans to our explanations of why political opponents act as they do, and what the motives of foreign leaders are. We refuse to not know, to hold a question aside for insufficient evidence to answer. We will answer, even if wrong. Would we be impossibly anxious and distracted without this feature, unable to get the firewood gathered or the children out to play?