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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

Who Was The Man From The Train? (continuation)

In our previous post, we examined the most notorious and well-documented massacres committed by the serial killer who was named as 'The Man From The Train'. Over a century later, author Bill James believed that they have not only mapped out the full extent of his crimes but also identified exactly who was 'The Man From The Train'.

The Further Killings Committed By The Man From The Train

J. Wesley Allen was not a kind man. He was as physically imposing as he was fearsome and displayed an utter intolerance towards other people. He lived in rural Maine with his wife and young daughter on a large farm, which sat on the Greenville Road, leading to the nearby town of Shirley. From time to time, weary travelers would stop by the Allen Farm as they passed, seeking directions or refreshment and would later relate to other residents tales of the dismissive rage with which the farmer had sent them on their way.

On the evening of the 12th of May 1902, Allen's nearest neighbors saw a dull red glow up in the sky above where the farm situated. So poor was the farmer's relationship with his fellow residents, that not one person elected to stop by and see if he was in need of any assistance.

It would be the following morning before a man taking his children to school found that the Allen household had been completely razed to the ground.

Allen's body was found lying inside what remained of the barn, having been bludgeoned to death with his own axe. There was no sign that he had tried to defend himself and given his formidable size and stature, it was believed that the killer had taken him by surprise whilst he was finishing up his evening chores. The bodies of his wife and child were found in what remained of their bedrooms, both apparently beaten to death in their sleep. The killer had then seemingly returned to Allen's corpse, striking it again and again with the wood axe until the repeated impacts had finally broken the tool into two separate pieces, the blood slick metal blade left carelessly discarded near to where Allen laid.

The woodpile, situated directly between the two damaged buildings, was untouched by the flames. This suggested to the investigators that after the attacker had killed the family, he had deliberately started two different fires, one in each of the buildings. A search of the farm's perimeter revealed that a neighboring shack, which belonged to a local handyman had been broken into. A revolver was missing and an unfamiliar pack of matches was left lying on the table. The local sheriff's initial hypothesis was that Allen had got into a fight with an unexpected caller, who had broken into the shack and then waited there until nightfall, before re-attending the farm to seek their revenge.

But when no suspect was immediately identified, suspicion subsequently fell on the owner of this shack, Henry Lambert. The handyman was something of a loner and accusations emerged that he had been obsessed with fourteen-year-old Carrie Allen. Educationally challenged and illiterate, Lambert was easily convicted of the murders, only to be exonerated several years later when the case against him was deemed non-existent. No further investigation into the crimes would ever take place.

Bill James' Book

Bill James is a notable American historian and writer, who enlisted the help of his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James, to research the Villisca killer. It is from their book 'The Man from the train' that the majority of our information has been taken. Through extensive research of public records and newspapers from the turn of the century, Bill and his daughter have identified 29 mass murders, which occurred across the United States between 1898 and 1912.

Cumulatively, these crimes would claim the lives of a hundred and one men, women and children, each bearing the same distinctive hallmarks of the Villisca slayings. Working together, Bill and Rachel have constructed a detailed and chilling profile of the serial killer who might have perpetrated them. They painted a picture of an introverted and sexually frustrated character, who killed not out of desperation or necessity, but out of a strong feeling of resentment and hostility towards the society that had marginalized him.

According to their theory, this so-called man from the train crisscrossed the country for over a decade, finding employment as a lumberjack and a farmhand. It is believed that he possessed an almost supernatural skill with the tools of his trade and when the work dried up, he would simply hop on a train and move on to the neighboring state. It was in these brief periods between employments that he was thought to be most dangerous, when he would jump down from a slow-moving train in an unfamiliar town catching sight of a nearby family residence and feeling a primal urge growing inside him.

On the evening of the 28th of July 1904, the small settlement of Colfax in Georgia was stunned by the slaughter of a family of five, living just outside the town. Henry Hughes, a local farmer was bludgeoned to death with his own axe that evening whilst working in his yard. The attacker then entered the main residence, murdering his two infant children in their cots, before beating his wife and nine-year-old daughter to death.

The bodies have been dragged into one room before the house had been set on fire. The revelation that the two female victims had apparently been molested worked the community up into a frenzy, with suspicion falling on a nearby settlement of African-American sharecroppers. When two of the workers were arrested on suspicion of the crime, the local sheriff was unable to stop an angry mob from lynching them. This effectively ended any further questions that anybody had to ask about the murders.

The Killings Continued

Two years later, this tragic set of circumstances would sadly be repeated. In the early hours of the 13th of July 1906, young Addie Lyerly awoke in a home in North Carolina to find that the house had been set on fire. Meters from where she laid, her six-year-old sister, Alice, laid dying bleeding from a vicious wound to her head. Addie woke their older sister and the two girls ran to their parent's room only to find two battered bodies dumped on the floor, covered over with blood-sodden bedsheets. Discovering their older brother had similarly been axed to death, all the girls could do was collect their injured sister and dragged her to safety. They exited the burning building by the front door, which had been left wide open when the attacker had fled the scene.

As they laid their wounded sibling down on the floor, the deafening horn of a passing train drowned out their desperate cries for help. The Lyerly residence stood only a hundred yards from the tracks and it was most likely the sound of the approaching locomotive that had saved their young lives. The Hughes residence had also been located a similar distance from the nearest train line, and this would not be the only similarity between the two incidents.

Again, it was the black community that shouldered the blame, with an angry mob overpowering the local militia and hanging the two suspects detained on suspicion of the killings. In reality, the actual killer was by now long gone and this was one of the reasons he so favored offending in the southern states. The social prejudices that existed towards the Mexican and African communities often meant that he needn't worry about any pursuit on the local authorities.

The man from the train would have operated at a time where literacy rates across the United States were low, with little in the way of local media or communication to alert folk to serious crimes in neighboring areas. In the wake of his crimes, if there was no minority group to blame, much like in Villisca, there were always relatives or rivals of the murdered family that would end up accused of committing the crime.

On September the 21st, 1909, George Meadows was awoken by the sound of the dogs barking outside his farmhouse in Hurley, Virginia. When he went outside to investigate, he was shot twice in the gut and knocked unconscious with his own wood axe. His wife, mother-in-law and three children were murdered inside, their skulls have been crushed using the blunt end of the weapon. When the killer discovered George clinging to life outside, he reversed the axe and used it to sever the dying man's head completely from his shoulders.

Howard little was a local resident who had once been convicted of murder whilst working as a private detective. When his wife discovered he had been planning to leave her for another woman, she went to the police claiming her estranged husband had been mysteriously absent on the night of the murders. The community quickly turned on the hapless Lothario, and he was executed by electric chair two years later, maintaining to the last that he had known nothing of the murders. A year later, George Bernhardt was killed with a pickaxe in his barn in rural Missouri. When his son and a farm worker went looking for him, they were similarly dispatched, their bodies concealed under bales of hay.

The murderer then entered the household and hunted for Bernhardt's wife, using a metal clock weight to beat her to death after he found her hiding in a closet. A neighbor, whom they had long feuded with, was arrested for their deaths, but eventually released due to lack of any evidence against them. The many brutal and bloody murders thought to have been committed by the man from the train are distinctive and easy to pick out from others committed at the time he was supposedly active.

If there was such a serial killer, he did not steal money or valuables from the scene and would cover the faces of his victims. During his earlier offenses, he would try to burn the property down to hide evidence, whereas later he would lock and secure the house, covering the windows as he left. All of the locations he targeted were in easy walking distance of a nearby train line, often at points where the train would have to slow down as it passed. He would kill using tools or weapons belonging to his victims, but usually shied away from using the actual blade of the implement itself. The attacks would occur late in the evening, often in households containing young daughters, with evidence left at the scene of sexual assault.

The idea that any of the crimes have been linked did not occur to the authorities until 1911: 13 years after the first murders. On March the 22nd of that year, a school caretaker and his family were beaten to death in San Antonio, Texas. Neighbors were forced to break into the premises which had been locked and sealed from the inside using bedclothes. A bloodied axe was left lying in the middle of the house.

Ten Weeks later, William Hill was killed along with his wife and two young children in the town of Ardenwald, Oregon. The murderer had used their neighbor's axe to bash in their heads whilst they laid sleeping, covering the windows of the house with bed sheets, before he locked the doors and made good his escape. By the time the authorities had linked the two crimes, it was already too late: an elderly couple had subsequently been murdered with an axe as they lay sleeping in their beds at the small railway stop in Ranier in Washington.

Ben and Rachel believed that they are finally in a position to identify the killer and have traced his actions back to the scene of an incident that garnered attention far beyond the borders of the rural town in Massachusetts, where it took place. The settlement in question was West Brookfield and the location itself was a small farmstead, located a short distance from the Boston to Albany Railway line. This was the home of Francis D Newton, who resided there with his wife and young daughter.

On January 7th 1898, Newton got into an almighty argument with his farm hand. When he later settled down for the evening, this farm hand seized the axe from the wood pile and smashed in the heads of all three family members whilst they slept. He then assaulted the two dead women, before covering all of the bodies with blankets. Having taken some valuable coins from Newton's private collection, he had left the blood-soaked axe propped up next to ten-year-old Elsie's bed. He then draped blankets over all the doors and windows, before soaking the building in kerosene and leaving an open lamp nearby, locking the door as he left. The flame, however, extinguished before it could ignite the accelerant and the farmhand would be seen by numerous witnesses hurrying to the local train station to make good his escape.

The Name Of The Murderer

Despite a nationwide search, the suspect was never captured by the authorities. He made a number of short train journeys, repeatedly changing direction in order to prevent his pursuers from guessing where he may be heading. Eventually, the detectives assigned to pursue him gave up and gradually as time passed by, people forgot who he was. He became just another vagabond who dropped off the face of the Earth. The people of the time may have allowed this case to fade into obscurity, but police record certainly didn't, buried for over a century amongst thousands of other unresolved cases, before Bill and Rachel James stumbled across it in their research and learned just who it carried out this depraved act. His name was Paul Mueller, a German migrant who had traveled to the United States in the late 1800s seeking a better life, and he did not forget crime he had committed or the motivations behind it.

Francis Newton had been a miserly and overbearing man, and when the unemployed Mueller had arrived at his door begging for work, he had been quick to employ the German for a pittance. Mueller was a loner, short of stature, possessing notoriously poor looks and with little command of the English language. His whole life he had been treated with suspicion and disdain by those he encountered and finally, Newton's antics towards him caused something dark inside him to snap.

Four years later, living an anonymous and transient lifestyle using the skills he had learned in the Kaiser's army, Mueller might have stopped at a farm he was passing in rural Maine to inquire if there was any work available. When the enraged J. Wesley Allen had emerged from the property, screaming and shouting at him to move along, the scenario would have played out like a carbon copy of the incident that had first caused him to go on the run. Mueller might then have broken into the nearby shack in search of shelter, resolving to punish Allen and his family for the way they had treated him.

Empowered by the ease with which he was able to carry out the murderers and thrilled by the urges towards the female victims the act had inspired, Mueller would supposedly spend the next decade repeating and refining his technique. After the Villisca axe murders in 1912, the killer would disappear into the chaos of the early to mid 20th century, or would he?

In terms of what happened to this man, Bill James surmises that he may have died or had been incarcerated under a different identity for an unrelated matter. But he also speculates that with growing public awareness that a serial killer was stalking the nation's rail network, he instead chose to leave the United States and return to Mainland Europe.

In mid-march of 1922, a German farmer found a mysterious set of footprints in the snow crossing the boundaries of his property in the small Bavarian hamlet of Kaifeck. That farmer's name was Andreas Gruber. Mere days after he had shared this revelation with neighbors, Andreas and the rest of his household laid bludgeoned to death, their bodies concealed under bails of hay within their own residence. Blame for the crime was laid at the door of socialist agitators, love rivals and passing vagrants respectively, but although a stretch, it is not beyond all possibility that the Hinterkaifeck murders could have been carried out by Mueller.

Too old by now to have been conscripted into the army, he could have easily moved around undetected in the chaos of post-war Germany, continuing to satisfy his passing desires without fear of either detection or reprisal. Whilst the savage and inhuman manner with which the man from the train committed his murders is unsettling, the ease with which he was able to commit them and continually evade detection is ultimately more shocking.


If, of course, Bill and Rachel James's theory is accurate, it should be noted that other than the murder of Francis D. Newton and his family, there is not one single shred of evidence to tie Paul Muller to any of these crimes, although the similarity in modus operandi for each of the presented cases is highly suggestive and intriguing. If there was indeed a man from the train, we will never know either the full scale of his crimes or his ultimate fate. We can only hope the society, with its major advances in forensic science, has now progressed to a point where his depraved actions can never again be replicated by any other human being

Our thoughts are with the many families who were slain in cold blood, as well as those wrongly accused of the murders. Paul Muller may never have been brought to justice for his terrible crime in which he murdered an entire family, but at least we finally know just who he was and what he did and that he might possibly have done much, much worse.


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