“Massacres, Trains, and Iowa” lecture connects Iowa axe murder to serial killer

Ella Hawkins

Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James, authors of “The Man From the Train,” dove into the history of a series of axe murders in the late 20th century during a lecture Wednesday night at the Memorial Union. 

After extensive research, this father-daughter duo believes all of these murders were committed by one man and has written a true crime book about their findings.

Around 100 people gathered in the Great Hall to hear Bill and Rachel speak. Students, alumni and others were in attendance for the perfect Halloween story and discussion. A few spectators took the chance to ask questions and share their own theories about the mystery of these axe murders.

“I won’t tell you how many books I have read about serial killers because I don’t want you to think I’m crazy,” Bill said. 

This project began around 12 years ago when Bill began to believe there was a connection between a series of murders in Iowa, Nova Scotia, Oregon, Kansas, Florida and Arkansas. His schedule was full with other job responsibilities at the time, so he hired his daughter, Rachel, to help him with the research.

The Villisca Axe Murders is a notorious case in Iowa’s history. In the middle of the night in 1912, a person entered the home of the Moore family and murdered the two parents and their six children with the blunt side of an axe. 

Using the blunt side of an axe was not the only unique occurrence in this case. The murder occurred near a train station in a small town with little to no regular police force, and nothing was stolen from the house. The victims were also covered with sheets or fabric, and the axe was left out in plain sight following the murders. 

The shared characteristics led Bill and Rachel to believe that 14 other family murders were committed by the same person. They eventually uncovered the true identity of this deadly serial killer, Paul Mueller.

Mueller came to the United States in 1890 from Germany. He was a short, stocky man and had multiple tattoos of axes on various parts of his body.

It is suspected that he traveled to small towns on the railroad, borrowed an axe from a family’s house, murdered them and hopped back on the train to his next destination. He worked as a fireman on the railroad and knew the scheduling well, making for an escape easy.

Bill and Rachel have accounted for 100 deaths that Mueller is responsible for over the time span of a decade and a half. They are still conducting research today and making further discoveries related to these cases.

To dive deeper into the story of Bill and Rachel’s discoveries about “The Man From the Train,” their book is now available at the ISU Bookstore.

The lecture was live-streamed and will be available on the Iowa State lectures website until Nov. 10.