German Ax Murderer in America

Recent recent reveals a serial ax murderer was active a century ago.

Recent recent reveals a serial ax murderer was active a century ago. © zef art, Shutterstock.com, with permission.

June 1912 marks the 107th anniversary of a murder so gruesome it gave rise to urban legend. You’ve probably heard the story. Someone hid in an attic and snuck down to butcher an entire family during the night. It really happened. With an entire family of eight murdered and no solid suspect, the Villisca Ax Murders of June 10, 1912 counts among 20th century America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

A previously unknown serial killer

The Man from the Train, book cover, courtesy of Scribner.

The Man from the Train, book cover, courtesy of Scribner.

But the story is even bigger and more shocking than we realized. New research reveals the Villisca ax murderer was a serial killer. The ax murderer might have been one of America’s most prolific killers, according to a new book and a 2018 finalist for the prestigious Edgar Award for Fact Crime. “This is no pure whodunit, but rather a how-many-did-he-do,” wrote the Buffalo News in a review of The Man from the Train (Scribner, 2017).

Author and baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter Rachel tackled the case by scouring old newspaper accounts. They identified a long list of factual patterns – called “signatures” by detectives – that pointed to a single perpetrator in a number of similar crimes. As the cases they discovered broadened in both number and geographical scope, one factual pattern explained the ax murderer’s mobility: He used the train to travel around the country, kill families, and escape unnoticed. The ax murderer usually committed his crimes within a mile of a railroad.

Journalists and detectives wore the typical blinders of their time: They focused on a regional, not a national, story. The ax murderer wreaked calamity across the country, and due to his new-found mobility on the railroads, the country wasn’t even aware until the end of his American crime spree.

The ax murderer was probably a hobo.

The ax murderer was probably a hobo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

Using newspapers to identify the ax murderer

 Not only do Bill and Rachel James make a sound argument that many cases between 1898 and 1912 are connected, they make a convincing case they found the killer. Bill told Rachel to try to find the killer’s first crime, because he was then most likely to have made a mistake. She did. And he had made a mistake. A witness identified the ax murderer as Paul Müller (spelled Mueller in American documents), an immigrant from Germany (possibly Austria), but he slipped through law enforcement’s fingers.

The ax murderer enjoyed a peak of activity in 1911-1912 and then suddenly stopped. Rachel James thinks that’s because he knew law enforcement had become aware of him and his use of the trains. She thinks he moved back to Europe.

A connection to Hinterkaifeck?

Paul Müller’s background raises a fascinating international correlation. My German readers will know Hinterkaifeck – as Germany’s most notorious unsolved murder and the basis for Andrea Maria Schenkel’s prize-winning debut crime novel, Tannöd, in 2006. Not even ten years after Villisca, an ax murderer dispatched a family of six on an isolated Bavarian farm called Hinterkaifeck on March 31, 1922. Those murders bear many of the signatures of the American ax murderer: an ax as the murder weapon, wounds on the head, stacking the bodies, covering the bodies with hay, and different treatment of a young, female victim. You can view a photo of the original crime scene here.

Some common signatures of Hinterkaifeck and the American ax murderer 

Railroad tracks.

Railroad tracks. Pixabay, with permission.

  1. Entire family murdered
  2. Nighttime
  3. Ax
  4. Murderer used a weapon he found at the scene
  5. Blunt side of the ax (Hinterkaifeck – screw sticking out caused holes in the heads)
  6. Young girl’s body treated differently
  7. Bodies stacked
  8. Bodies covered
  9. Isolated house
  10. Within walking distance from train station

Railroad signature in the Hinterkaifeck murders

Hinterkeifeck memorial.

Hinterkeifeck memorial. Andreas Keller [Copyrighted free use, via Wikipedia]

Rachel James writes that to the best of her knowledge, the Hinterkaifeck murders occurred within a mile of a railroad, but she can’t be sure, because she couldn’t find the precise location of the farm. I live in Germany and speak the language fluently, so I was able to find it and clarify this question.

The Hinterkaifeck farm buildings were demolished in 1923, but a memorial stands on the location. You can find the memorial in Google Maps or Google Earth by entering “Hinterkaifeck Andachtsstaette.”

Fortunately, Germans have already thought about the railroad in connection with the murder. You can find a map of the old rail lines from 1922 posted online, as well as a list of distances and the old train schedule.

The closest the train track came to the Hinterkaifeck farm in 1922 was at the Edelhausen train station, 1.8 miles away as the crow flies, but if you took the existing foot path, it was 2.6 miles. That distance, perhaps a little more than in the American murders, isn’t great enough to rule the American ax murderer out.

That gives Germany a brand new, intriguing suspect.

Interview with author Rachel James

Rachel James joins us for an interview today to talk about her research and conclusions.

Hobo riding atop a box car.

Hobo riding atop a box car. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

What clued you into the fact that the murders at Villisca were not the perpetrator’s first?

That was actually pretty well established by the time Dad and I came on the scene. Even people in 1912 were aware that this was happening regularly; he was called Billy the Ax-Man at the time. In more recent years, there was some scholarship on the pattern that we relied on when we began this book. The most notable pieces of research were the documentary Villisca: Living With A Mystery and a research paper by Beth Klingensmith written for an MLS degree in 2006, which detailed the pattern found in the crimes. When I came on as a research assistant, Dad had already found another crime outside of those patterns – the 1909 Meadows murder, which is the first chapter of the book. So we were on our way in that sense.

How did you go about researching other ax murders around the country?

I used newspaperarchive.com for all my research. It’s an incredible resource on the world’s worst website, and it was super frustrating and I couldn’t have done it without them.

At first, I just looked for axe murders right around the time of the Meadows murder. There were not many, because he wasn’t active then. Once I started poking around earlier in the decade, I found tons more. Once we had too many to keep track of in our heads, I began to research more systematically. I would go through every month from January 1890 to December 1920, searching for the phrase “family murder”, and then I would look for his hallmarks.

How could you tell if the Man from the Train perpetrated the other ax murders? I.e., what were the hallmarks of his crimes?

A whole family murdered in the middle of the night with the back of an axe without any clue as to the culprit would be the first thing I look for. That’s not common at all. With most of the crimes I looked at, the murder was committed by a member of the family, or was committed during the day. There are a few cases that fit this profile that we don’t believe he committed – i.e. the black family murders of 1910 and 1911 in Louisiana and Texas – but those are rare exceptions.

Further confirmation was provided by the presence of his idiosyncrasies at the scene. If the bodies were moved, if the windows and doors were covered and locked tight, if the back rather than the blade of an axe was used, if the chimney of the lamp was removed, if mirrors were covered…. if we had more than one of these elements, we became pretty sure. There’s a long list of 34 signatures that we list near the end of the book.

How did you find the crime you consider his first?

I was looking at another crime in New England around 1900. At the end of a newspaper article, there was a reference to the Newton family in 1898. I googled it, and come to a book on Google Books about police history in Massachusetts. They had a description of the crime that ended in the identification of Paul Mueller, and the information that he was last seen headed for the train. At that point, I had enough information to find the newspapers I was looking for, and I stayed up until 3 AM finding everything I could.

What emotional reaction did you have?

Train track.

Train track; Pixabay, with permission.

It was disorienting! I wasn’t expecting to find the actual first crime, so it was an unbelieving feeling that I could have found it, and so quickly – only a couple months after I started working for Dad.

Did you take the Servant Girl Annihilator/Midnight Assassin ax murders in Austen, Texas (1884-1885) into consideration?

That was a little beyond our scope. We were pretty confident that the Newton crime was his first because of his relationship to the family and because of some key differences between that crime and his later crimes. Furthermore, the Man from the Train was pretty specific about attacking families, not individuals. However, since the targets were primarily black and the crimes happened in Texas, I would be interested in exploring the connection between the Servant Girl Annihilator murders and the attacks on black families in Louisiana and Texas 25 years later.

Why do you think the Man from the Train might have been the ax murderer of Hinterkaifeck in Germany?

We’re not sure about that one at all, but it’s interesting, right? The fact that Paul Mueller was German or Austrian, the profile of the family, the secrecy and efficiency of the crime, and the use of an axe all correspond with these American crimes. It’s just an idea, a bit of guidance for future researchers.

Thank you, Rachel James!

 You might also enjoy reading:

 Villisca Ax Murders (a guest blog by Cal Scoonover with a discussion of the original evidence)

Tramp Signs: Secret Symbols of Criminals and Vagabonds (a discussion of the secret symbols hobos used a century ago, especially in Europe)

Literature on point

 Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James, The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery (Scribner, 2017).

Peter Leuschner, Der Mordfall Hinterkaifeck: Spuren eines mysteriösen Verbrechens (apus-Verlag, 1997, rev. ed. 2007).

Reviews of The Man from the Train

“Truly spectacular . . . The book shines when we get to see the Jameses’ thinking. Like the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Keepers,’ it’s fun to watch these amateur detectives solve a puzzle. And solve it they do — after 400 pages, when Rachel discovers the killer’s first crime way back in 1898. Did they get it right? I’m pretty sure they did. Either way, the final twist in the story—set 10 years after the Villisca murders on the other side of the Atlantic—gave me chills.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

 “Impressive . . . an open-eyed investigative inquiry wrapped within a cultural history of rural America.”
Wall Street Journal

 “Bill James, with his daughter, Rachel, 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.  Brilliantly researched and written in James’ snappily conversational style, The Man From the Train is a stunning feat of detection, an un-put-downable read, and a major contribution to American criminal history.”—Harold Schechter, author of The Serial Killer Files and The Mad Sculptor

 “[A] suspenseful historical account . . . 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.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

6 Comments

  1. Shelby Harriel
    Jun 30, 2019

    Thanks for sharing this! Mark and I really enjoyed this book. We still haven’t had a chance to Villisca yet even though Mark lives “only” four hours away. But it’s definitely on our list!

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 2, 2019

      I think you mentioned that before on Cal’s guest blog on Villisca. Let me know if you do visit — it sounds interesting.

  2. Graham Clayton
    Jul 2, 2019

    “It’s an incredible resource on the world’s worst website” – I agree 100%!

    The National Library of Australia Trove website is how a newspaper archive should be displayed:

    https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 2, 2019

      Here’s to hoping that the Americans learn something from the Australians! Thanks for commenting, Graham.

  3. susan voth
    Aug 28, 2019

    This is very interesting and I’ll be buying the book. It seems almost incredible that they couldn’t tie together the murders of the different families more quickly a century ago. I also used newspaperarchive.com for genealogy research and think that it’s an excellent resource. I know back in those days probably many families didn’t lock their doors because they knew all their neighbors. It’s too bad he was never caught and forced to pay for his crimes.

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 29, 2019

      Glad you liked the post and I hope you enjoy the book! Thanks for commenting, Susan.

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