The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 1
Updated: May 11
Nearly everyone has heard of the sensational Lizzie Borden axe murder case of 1892 but, growing up in Iowa, our state had a case that was far worse and remains unsolved to this day—127 years later. In the tiny farm town of Villisca, Iowa, an entire family and a friend—eight poor souls, most of them children from one family—were killed in their beds one summer night in 1912. The incident rocked the nation, not only for the brutality of the killings, but the fact that similar multiple murders were happening all across the nation.
Dozens of family murders across the land—all under eerily similar circumstances — took place in a 15-year period from 1898-1912. The silent slaughter terrified Americans.
Our story begins not far from Lizzie Borden’s town, Fall River: only 80 miles northwest and six years later in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. The Lizzie Borden murders inspired tremendous morbid obsession across the country, as well as a spate of axe murders including another one in her own town as she was being tried for her parents’ murders. In fact, between 1892—the year of the Lizzie Borden case—and 1912, there was an average of eight families murdered by axe per year! Who knows if a German immigrant named Paul Mueller in West Brookfield, Massachusetts was inspired by her case? But it is believed he went on to commit at least 100 more axe murders across the nation for the next 15 years. But let’s start at the beginning...
Paul Mueller was a German immigrant who spoke very poor English. He was described as an itinerant lumberjack, very powerful, fearless in his physical projection but socially awkward, sullen and strange, and intimidating to others. He was the hired farmhand of Francis Newton (40), his wife Sarah (41), and their adopted daughter, Elsie (11) on a farm near West Brookfield, Massachusetts. When the parents and daughter were found hacked to death by the blunt end of an axe, all clues pointed to their hired farmhand, who had disappeared suddenly. Bloodhounds had tracked his scent to the nearby railroad, where he had escaped. A massive manhunt ensued, but Mueller was long gone. The case was never solved.
Two more multiple axe murders would take place in New England in the next 2-1/2 years with many of the signature characteristics of the first murder attributed to him. His career as a serial axe murderer was born. He traveled the rails, hopping freight trains, expanding his killing spree to the South, then the Midwest, then Texas, then finally the West Coast, and back again. As an itinerant lumberjack, he often followed lumbering camps. He seemed scientific about his patterns. And, he was particular about how he used the tool of his trade: the sharp end of the axe was for wood, the flat end was for people.
If he stayed too long in one region of the country, investigators began to connect the dots, so he varied his travel patterns wildly. But, even then, one Chicago investigator was beginning to uncover similarities between his crimes across the country. With Villisca, Iowa, then Payson, Illinois, the investigator was getting closer. Then, suddenly, Mueller’s trail went stone cold. It wasn’t until much later—100 years later—modern researchers would link Paul Mueller to more than 100 murders across the entire country in a fifteen-year period.
The first researcher was named Beth Klingensmith, who as a graduate student at Emporia State University wrote a thesis called “The 1910’s Ax Murders.” Her motivation was very personal. Klingensmith had become interested in genealogy and sent for some ancestral death certificates. She was shocked when she got her great, great, great grandmother’s certificate and it read cause of death: “Blow to head with axe.” It turned out her great, great, great grandmother had been killed by her very own grandson. And that wasn’t all. The grandson had killed his mother, too, Beth’s great, great grandmother!
As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was believed Henry Lee Moore had killed as many as 25 people with an axe. Thus began Beth’s quest. The more she studied the case, the more she believed Henry had, indeed, killed his mother and grandmother, but had not killed other victims. Her research became her graduate thesis. (She is now a Senior Researcher at Colorado State Corrections.)
Klingensmith first focused on the Villisca, Iowa, multiple murder, which had been attributed to Moore by some. But she found that Villisca was not at all isolated and shared many striking similarities with at least six other multiple axe murders. She began to study 1910s law enforcement, small town culture, media involvement, and also the theories of Justice Department agent investigating the cases at the time, Matthew McClaughry, who tied other crimes across the country to Villisca and another investigator, Phillip Jenkins, who wrote a treatise on serial murders in the U.S. from 1900-1940. Jenkins theorized that serial killings were enabled by a transportation system, primarily the train network. From her research and piggybacking off McClaughry’s and Jenkins’ work, Klingensmith identified nearly 14 signature characteristics of about 7-10 multiple murders and concluded that they were probably perpetrated by one serial killer, but not Henry Lee Moore.
Then a father-daughter team of writer-researchers picked up where Klingensmith left off. Who better than a famous baseball statistician and his researcher daughter to connect the dots of Mueller’s madness, crunch the numbers of his carnage (even though a century too late). Bill James is a famous baseball analyst who developed a system of baseball analytics called “Sabermetrics.” The movie “Moneyball” is based on his concept.
James was also fascinated with the unsolved Villisca axe murders of 1912 and applied statistical analysis to the crimes. But he uncovered far more than he bargained for. He began to recognize patterns and links to many other axe murders. He then enlisted his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James, to help him with research. The Jameses discovered Klingensmith’s thesis, which aided them in formulating a stunning theory: that one man named Paul Mueller had perhaps committed more than 100 of the murders! The result of their research was a popular book called “The Man on the Train.”
Between Klingensmith’s, then the Jameses’ research, a number of signature characteristics tied many of the murders—perhaps more than 100— to one serial killer. They were: (1) murders took place very near a railroad junction; (2) the slaughter of entire families in small towns with little or no police force; (3) a barn on the property provided a hiding place to observe the families; (4) the families had no dog to warn of an intruder; (5) the killer used the blunt edge of an axe as a murder weapon; (6) the killer left the axe in plain sight; (7) the killer covered mirrors and victims’ faces with sheets or blankets; (8) the killer moved or stacked bodies after the murders; (9) killer covered windows from inside the house with sheets or towels; (10) the absence of robbery; (11) Often-but not always—a kerosene lamp was used with the chimney removed; (12) Many crimes were committed near lumber camps or en route; (13) The father and mother were usually killed first; (14) Faces of victims were struck numerous times but the rest of the bodies were not damaged; (15) The cases where the homes were burned after the murders, there had usually been a struggle with victims, usually the man of the house; (16) killer had a sadistic sexual attraction to pre-pubescent girls. While adults were typically ambushed and murdered in bed while sleeping, girls showed defense wounds or other evidence of struggle, and media reports of the crimes often included veiled references to the killer's having ejaculated at the crime scenes or sexually violating female corpses after death.
The Jameses broke out 37 multiple murder cases across the country into levels of probability that Mueller had committed the crimes: 59 deaths were rated at 100% probability, another 30 at 70%, others at 40% and 10%. They attributed about 108 murders to Mueller:
MURDERS MUELLER MAY HAVE COMMITTED 3 - West Brookfield MA - Newton family 1/7/1898 2 - Trenton Corners NJ - Van Lieu family 11/171900 3 - Shirley ME - Allen family 5/12/1901 5 - Cottendale FL – Kelly family 10/31/1903 5 - Statesboro GA Hodges 7/28/1904 4 - Trenton SC Hughes 12/8/1904 2 - Radford VA Linkous 12/25/1904 3 - Marion AR Boylan 2/7/1905 3 - Cottonwood AL Christmas 2/7/1906 9 - Allentown FL Ackerman. 5/14/1906 4 - Barber Junction NC Lyerly 7/13/1906 3 - Watauga TX Gerrell 4/13/1908 6 - Hurley VA Meadows 9/21/1909 4 - Beckley WV Hood 10/31/1909 5 - Houston TX Schultz 3/11/1910 3 - Marshalltown IA Hardy 5/3/1910 4 - Johnson County KA Bernhardt 12/7/1910 5 - San Antonio TX Casaway 3/21/1911 4 - Ardenwald OR Hill 6/9/1911 2 - Rainier WA Coble 7/11/1911 3 - Colorado Spgs CO Burnham 9/17/1911 3 - Colorado Spgs CO Wayne 9/17/1911 3 - Monmouth IL Dawson 9/30/1911 5 - Ellsworth KA Showman 10/15/1911 2 - Paola KA Hudson 6/5/1912 8 - Villisca IA Moore 6/9/1912 4 - Payson IL Pfanschmidt 9/27/1912
TOTAL MURDERS: 108
PHOTOS: (1) This three-part series will examine evidence surrounding 100 axe murders of the late 1800s/early 1900s, recently attributed to one serial killer named Paul Mueller. (2) The 1892 Lizzie Borden axe murder case shocked and mesmerized the country and seemed to inspire a monstrous trend of axe murders across the country for the next 20 years. An average of eight families were murdered by axe every year during that time. Paul Mueller was believed to commit his first multiple axe murder six years after the Lizzie Borden case and just 80 miles northwest of her town. (3) A map of the 27 murder cases and 108 total axe murders Paul Mueller was believed to have committed between 1898 and 1912 shows the sequence and route of the murders. Among numerous commonalities of the crimes, one was especially evident: all murder sites were near railroad tracks where the murderer could hop a freight for a quick getaway. (4) Missouri axe murderer Henry Lee Moore was previously believed to have killed as many as 25 people with an axe. But when researcher Beth Klingensmith was doing a genealogy search of her family ancestors and found that her ancestors had been killed by Moore, she began a quest to learn more. That quest prompted ground-breaking research and became her graduate thesis. Her work would help two other researchers formulate a shocking hypothesis: they believed they had solved more than 100 unsolved axe murders at the turn of the century. (5) “The Man on the Train” was written by famous baseball analyst Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James. The book posits that one man, Paul Mueller, may have committed perhaps 100 murders across the nation. (6) The now dilapidated home of one of the axe murder cases was owned by a black man and white woman who were illegally married near San Antonio. The book, “Man on the Train,” discusses many racial aspects of the murders and how innocent blacks were scapegoated and tragically lynched as perpetrators because of rampant racism of the time. (7 & 8 ) The Villisca 1912 axe murders of eight victims in Iowa shocked the nation. The Jameses and Beth Klingensmith first focused their research on Villisca, which led to other shocking revelations.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
• The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 2
• The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 3
Originally posted August 13, 2019 on NotesfromtheFrontier.com & Facebook
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