Review: The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

Bill James, Rachel McCarthy James

September 19, 2017

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery shows legendary statistician and baseball writer Bill James applying his analytical acumen to crack an unsolved century-old mystery surrounding one of the deadliest serial killers in American history.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am addicted to true crime stories, especially cold cases and those involving serial killers. Movies, television, books—it doesn’t matter. I am there. Which is not as morbid as it sounds. It’s the motivation behind these types of crimes that fascinate me.

Of course, some are better than others. Sensationalizing the crime and the exploitation of victims turn me off. Too much gory detail is a no-no as well. Dry, just-the-facts-ma’am delivery can put me to sleep. Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James hit the sweet spot with The Man from the Train.

Using a conversational tone and including just the right amount of detail to bring these one-hundred-year-old crimes to life. The victims are humanized—even the incidental ones—while the perpetrator goes unnamed until the very near the end.

The little house at 321 West Dale Street in Colorado Springs is just a bit less than a hundred yards from the railroad tracks. It is still occupied today; if you compare photos from then and now it is obviously the same house, with a porch roof now in danger of collapsing. Like few other crimes in this book, the scene is not forgotten. If you stop by the house, the current neighbors will know which one you’re looking for and will point it out to you. The unfortunate residents of the house in September 1911 were the wife and children of A.J. Burnham. A.J. had tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was then called. Whatever you call it, in that era it was killing more than 100,000 Americans a year. People who had tuberculosis were advised to move to the mountains, which was 10 percent more effective than telling them to keep their fingers crossed. Colorado Springs was in the mountains so there was a tuberculosis sanatorium, where people who had TB went to get better or, in most cases, die.

May Alice Burnham had a sister named Nettie Ruth. Nettie and Alice were working together on a sewing project. On Wednesday, September 20, Ms. Ruth walked to her sister’s house at 321 West Dale, carrying some clothes that were in need of mending. May Alice did not answer the door. The house was locked up tight, and all of the window blinds were drawn. A grocery bill had been tacked to the front door by a grocer’s clerk who had been unable to raise anyone inside the house. Nettie thought that May might be visiting a neighbor who lived down the street, but the neighbor said she hadn’t seen May for several days. Concerned, they placed a call to the sanatorium where Albert (A.J.) lived and worked as a cook. Albert said he hadn’t been to the house in a week.

The neighbor had a key to the Burnham house. As they placed the key in the lock, Nettie said, “Oh, suppose we find May and her babies dead in the house. It would be terrible, terrible.” The lock stuck.

There is no way to know for certain who he was. Even the two authors are not in complete agreement about which of the crimes profiled here were the work of The Man from the Train. However, the reasoning behind including a crime or not is logically presented and left to the readers to decide whether they agree.

The world was obviously different in the early 1900s. No internet or cell phones. No DNA testing or even blood typing. Fingerprints were just starting to be accepted. Unless a crime made the national news, people a town or two away might not have even heard of it. So local police, if the town even had a police presence, had very little to use in solving a crime of any kind.

Because local police were on their own, when they were confronted with a high-profile murder case it was common practice to hire private investigators to help out. This was actually the second thing the local officials would do; the first thing they had to do was to raise money to hire a private investigator. There wasn’t even an organized, regular system to fund such investigations. Local officials would try to raise funds for an investigation by:

  1. Asking the victim’s family for financial assistance,
  2. Establishing a reward fund to which citizens could contribute,
  3. Appealing to the city government for funds, and
  4. Asking the state government to help out.

More or less in that order. If the family of a victim had any money, they were expected in the normal case to establish a reward fund. Sometimes the money would be used to hire investigators. In other cases private investigators would flock into the case, working on spec. If the private investigators were able to create a case against someone, they would claim the reward.

This was a dreadful system.

I hadn’t heard of this particular series of murders and mayhem before reading the book. To my great surprise, two of the murders occurred in my adopted hometown. Two families living next door to one another were viciously killed on the same night. Coincidentally, I received a notice that a downtown “Murder Walk” will take place this summer. I don’t know if they will include these two, as they are not exactly located downtown, but they would be an interesting if gruesome addition.

We tend to think of serial killers as a modern phenomenon. The authors prove, to my mind, that they existed more than one hundred years ago. Will someone prove they have always existed? I’ll read that book if they do.

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