The Man from the Train
I have long been fascinated by the notion that knowledge can be created about the past. Dinosaurs are the easiest example. For tens of thousands of years, humans had no awareness that the world had once been inhabited by gigantic beasts. Now, we know not merely that these animals existed, but we have identified hundreds of species of them. We know what they looked like, generally, and what they ate. We know which type of dinosaur lived where, and in what era. We know what happened to them. We have not merely created this knowledge, we have disseminated it so widely across our culture that the average five-year-old now can name a dozen types of dinosaurs, and has a collection of little plastic models of them.
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.