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Weird History: 20th Century Axe Murders

Axe murders are horrifying enough, but the similarities between high profile axe murders seen across the world in the early 20th century are particularly startling. Iowa witnessed the Villisca Axe Murders in 1912. Then there was the Axeman of New Orleans who terrorized residents in Louisiana between 1918 and 1922. And who can forget Germany's Hinterkaifeck murders in 1922, when strange footprints and sounds coming from the attic days earlier preceded the slaughter of a Bavarian farmer and his family? (There is even a rumor that a maid who quit the household before the Hinterkaifeck murders did so because she was hearing footsteps in the attic and thought the place was haunted).

Eight people were killed in Villisca. Six in New Orleans as well as the surrounding area, with others critically injured. Six people (including the new maid who came to replace the previous one) were murdered in Hinterkaifeck. Each time the killer snuck into the home, either ahead of time or after families had gone to sleep at night. The perpetrator in all three cases used an axe found on the property to commit the crimes. All three cases remain unsolved.

There are theories that some or all of these cases could be connected, the work of one serial killer traveling by train from town to town. The Villisca murders, though perhaps the most well-known, were not the only seemingly random axe murders to take place in the Midwest in the early 1900s.

In The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James and his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James, posit that the same killer was responsible for bludgeoning numerous families in their sleep across America between 1892 and 1912.

Bill James writes:

"With modern computers, we can search tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers, looking for reports of similar events [to Villisca].

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."

Bill and Rachel studied nearly 250 separate family murders that occurred between 1890 and 1920, poring over hundreds of newspaper articles from the period in question. Many victims were killed in the middle of the night with their own axe. Valuables were left untouched and in some cases the bodies were posed with faces covered. Many victims in the midwestern cases lived near train stations and there is evidence in some instances that the murderer stayed inside the home, eating the food and moving around, after killing the family.

You can listen to Rachel McCarthy James talk about the The Man from the Train on the Most Notorious! podcast here. The My Favorite Murder podcast also talked about the Villisca Axe Murders in episode 168 at the 53:35 minute mark here with specific reference to the book The Man from the Train at the 93:40 minute mark.

[Image Credit: photograph by Ryan Moomey via Wikimedia Commons]

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