Bill James links century-old ax murders with stories, logic
On Dec. 10, 1910, long before Leawood was a city, a concerned postman and neighbors around the Bernhardt farm found three men in the barn, bludgeoned to death.
A fourth body, that of 75-year-old Emeline Bernhardt, turned up in a bedroom closet. She appeared to have tried to hide from a killer swinging the blunt side of a pick ax.
The slayings went unsolved.
More than a century later, baseball historian and metrics nerd Bill James is on the case.
James, of Lawrence, links the carnage at the Bernhardt farm — which stood near what now is 135th Street on the Kansas side of the state line — to dozens of similar ax murders from Oregon to Maine to Florida. He believes all could have been carried out by the same monster, someone James calls The Man from the Train.
“The Man from the Train” is also the title of James’ forthcoming book that he co-authored with his daughter Rachel McCarthy James. It could only have been plucked out of history by a person with the obsessive curiosity and attraction to statistical probability as James.
He has been called the “Sultan of Stats,” Major League Baseball’s analytics pioneer. In researching ax murders of the early 1900s, however, James relied less on statistics and more on logic to conclude that a serial killer, riding the rails, invaded homes and unleashed mayhem on perhaps 100 victims.
“He just liked to kill,” James said in a recent interview. “He was good at it.”
McCarthy James, also of Lawrence, assisted in the research. Together they chronicled a 15-year spree of slayings across small-town America, peaking in 1912 with the unsolved slaughter of eight persons, ages 5 to 43, in a home in Villisca, Iowa. Coming days after the murder of a Paola, Kan., couple, the Villisca rampage is the most infamous crime tagged to The Man from the Train.
Supposing that he committed just half of the murders that the Jameses have identified, the man would rank among the most accomplished killers in U.S. history.
In some cases innocent persons were charged with the murders and executed, the Jameses contend. Commonly, African Americans were wrongly implicated; at least two were lynched in Georgia.
Late in their book, the authors out the true killer, they believe, by name. This story will not spoil the ending. But until the publisher Scribner releases the book Sept. 19, you would have never heard of this murderer by name anyway.
So many similarities
Bill James’ brain usually is engaged in matters less macabre.
“I dream about baseball every night,” he said. “I’ve never in my life dreamed about ax murders.”
James, 67, is a senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox. His writings on baseball-by-the-numbers — some argue way too many mind-numbing numbers — date to the late 1970s, when he offered crude publications while working in a Lawrence pork-and-beans cannery.
From the Bill James Baseball Abstracts to one previous foray into true crime published in 2011, the Holton, Kan., native has toggled between breaking down the national pastime and acts of violence with casual, sometimes playful prose.
(“Skeptical?” asks the preface of the latest book. “Of course you’re skeptical. You’re either skeptical or you’re stupid, and you don’t look stupid. But hear me out....”)
It’s a tale hard to fathom: A man travels the country finding families to kill, which he does with the grisly gusto of Hollywood’s “The Terminator.”
“If he got into a home, nobody inside would live through it,” said McCarthy James.
And the Man from the Train never was caught.
If the Jameses are correct, he murdered for more than a decade before anybody thought of connecting the crimes, despite their similarities:
▪ With rare exception, the victims died from the blunt side of an ax, not the blade.
▪ They lived in thinly populated areas within a short walk of a railroad track.
▪ The crimes occurred without warning, without a robbery, and typically around midnight on a warm weekend.
▪ Many victims were bludgeoned in bed while sleeping.
▪ The bodies of young females often were arranged in sexually suggestive positions. And nearly every victim — no matter the gender or age — was found with a cloth over the head. (The three men in the Bernhardt barn in Johnson County were covered with hay.)
▪ The axes were left at the scene, typically alongside a lantern with the chimney removed.
The authors cite more than 30 commonalities — not all of them applying to every killing. But the bulk share enough similarities to allow the Jameses to float “a mathematical answer” to the question of how many homicides, in a given year, one would expect to be out of the playbook of The Man from the Train.
“Zero,” they write. “As a random set of facts, you wouldn’t expect any murders to meet all of those conditions, in a typical year or a typical five-year period.”
And yet, they wove a good enough case to lead Publisher’s Weekly to declare: “The strength of the book hangs on [the authors’] diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsible for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced.”
Can there be more?
Why didn’t sleuths figure this out a century ago?
Elementary, my dear Watson: No search engines.
Without the internet, Bill James has no book. A simple search of “family and murders” was enough to rev up McCarthy James’ research on her laptop.
Online newspaper archives and obscure true-crime accounts via Google Books allowed the Jameses to compare far-flung killings that authorities back then had little means of chasing down.
Jennifer Gatewood Owens, a University of Missouri-Kansas City assistant professor of criminology, said that news of the era traveled slowly, no federal database of crimes existed and telephones were rare in homes, especially around small towns.
“Imagine how many calls you’d be making to even begin to know there was a connection between these murders?” Owens said.
The time and expense of stitching together a serial-killer case would’ve kept many investigators from starting down that path, she said: “Gathering this evidence a long time ago would’ve required someone thinking way out of the box.”
In then-rural Johnson County, investigators took the usual approach to the murders at the Bernhardt farm.
They keyed in on logical suspects.
Thinking the deaths in the barn had to be the work of more than one person, police rounded up former hired hands, a neighbor who quarreled with the Bernharts and drifter in a nearby town who was talking up the murders. All would be exonerated.
Eighteen days after the slayings, the press declared the investigation stuck and soon gave up on the story.
The Jameses picked it up from there.
Their internet searches revealed that the farm sat close to train tracks that still curve from Kansas into Martin City. And the crimes involved an unflinching killer bent on finishing the job. The Jameses think that the three victims in the barn — George Bernhardt, 40, and two younger hands — were felled by someone hiding in the hay and attacking as each ventured in alone.
A few years later some suspicion turned to a man named Dudley. He reportedly once worked for the Bernhardts and later was convicted for killing a Stillwell couple. Before being hanged by a mob for the Stillwell crimes, Dudley is said to have told an inmate that he committed the earlier murders.
So who crept through that Johnson County farm 117 years ago: Dudley or The Man from the Train?
“I don’t know,” Bill James acknowledged.
Careful not to apply his analytics too broadly (as critics of his baseball work have charged), James said it may never be known for sure if all 100 or so victims cited in “The Man from the Train” died by the same hands. Still, he and his daughter predict the book will spur deeper research into the cases that they found — and many others they missed.
“I think the numbers might grow,” Bill James said.
As for now, the Sultan of Stats said he is happy to put a murderous “bastard” behind him and focus on behavior in baseball.
“I like athletes,” he said. “There is nothing to like about The Man from the Train.”
The noted baseball statistical guru Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James will appear for “The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery.” 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21. Kansas City Public Library-Plaza Branch, 4801 Main. kclibrary.org or rainydaybooks.com, 816-701-3400 or 913-384-3126