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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 3

Updated: May 11, 2023

Paul Mueller’s reign of terror between 1898 and 1912 included more than 25 cases and probably more than 100 victims from coast to coast, from the southern tip of Texas to the far northwest corner of Washington State and the far northeast corner of Maine. He was nothing if not thorough. Of the 25 murder cases the Jameses believed Mueller likely committed, 18 of the towns had lumber camps or an active timber industry, which would seem to support the theory that Paul Mueller—an itinerant lumberjack —was the killer.

(The Midwest towns in Illinois, Kansas and Iowa were the only communities that didn’t.)

It seemed that as Paul Mueller hacked his way across America, riding the rails as he did, his bloodlust increased and he became more and more brazen in his violence. In the year 1907, strangely, he was not active at all. Was he in prison? Injured? His activity seemed to build in the last several years and peaked in 1911, when he killed at least 25 people in seven incidents. Later in his gory odyssey, Paul Mueller began to expand his horizons and traveled wildly beyond his regular stomping grounds in the east and south to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest in Oregon and Washington. But, even then, he gravitated to the familiar, for both Ardenwald, Oregon and Rainier, Washington were communities full of German immigrants. In a sense, he may have felt he was returning to the familiar. In both cases, he sexually assaulted the bodies of young females post-mortem and spent considerable time with them.

The frequency of his murders also increased. In Colorado Springs in September 1911, he killed six people the same night in two houses across the street from each other. Then less than two weeks later, three in Monmouth, Illinois. In June 1912, he killed two in Paola, Kansas, and four days later eight in Villisca, Iowa.

There were two other eerie cases that indicate he may have tried to strike twice in one night during this period: In Villisca, at 2:10 a.m. on the same night of the murders, telephone operator Xenia Delaney heard strange footsteps approaching up the stairs of her home, and an unknown hand tried her locked door. The same night of the murders in Paola, another family in Paola had been awakened to the sound of a lamp chimney falling inside their home. A man was spotted exiting that household and a cut screen indicated he had entered through a window. A dress identified as having been owned by Mrs. Hudson, one of the victims of the Paola axe murders, was found at that scene.

After he killed in Paola, Kansas and Villisca, Iowa the press and detectives began to connect the dots of his sporadic killings across the country. And large city newspapers from Chicago, Kansas City and New York were beginning to send reporters to the small-town crimes. Perhaps, Mueller was beginning to feel the heat. Or perhaps his own powerful compulsions to take more and more chances scared him. Writers Bill James and his daughter Rachel believe that Mueller returned to Germany in 1912, when the axe murders suddenly stopped. The next ten years in Germany would be ravaged by war and unfettered violence among the civilian population, as well as hyper-inflation, crime and chaos—a perfect environment for a serial murderer to escape justice.

It’s quite possible that Paul Mueller’s crimes in Germany went unnoticed during the war and the chaos after the war. But one sensational axe murder case finally caught that nation’s attention: The wealthy Gruber family in Hinterkaifeck, Germany, were killed by an axe murderer in March 31, 1922. The case had many signature similarities to Paul Mueller’s alleged cases in the United States. The Hinterkaifeck case was especially sordid because the father and daughter had previously been convicted of incest and the family was notorious in the area. One of the victims, the maid, was killed on her first day on the job! The case remains one of Germany’s most fascinating unsolved murders.

In “Man on the Train,” authors Bill James and his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James, summarized their extensive research in a fascinating breakdown, assigning percentages of probability to the likelihood that Paul Mueller had committed a list of 38 American axe murders. In addition they added one German multiple axe murder—the Hinterkaifeck case. The list of 38 American cases with their assigned probabilities, per the Jameses’ research are:

100% ATTRIBUTION: 59 total (#victims / location / family name / date) 3 West Brookfield MA - Newton 1/7/1898 4 Barber Junction NC - Lyerly 7/13/1906 4 Trenton SC - Hughes 12/8/1904 6 Hurley VA - Meadows - 9/21/1909 4 Beckley WV - Hood 10/31/1909 5 Houston TX - Schultz 3/11/1910 5 San Antonio TX - Casaway 3/21/1911 4 Ardenwald OR - Hill 6/9/1911 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

70% ATTRIBUTION: 30 total 3 Shirley ME - Allen 5/12/1901 5 Cottendale FL - Kelly 10/31/1903 5 Statesboro GA - Hodges 7/28/1904 2 Radford VA - Linkous 212/25/1904 9 Allentown FL - Ackerman 5/14/1906 2 Rainier WA - Coble 7/11/1911 4 Payson IL - Pfanschmidt 9/27/1912

40% ATTRIBUTION: 27 total 2 Trenton Corners NJ - Van Lieu 11/171900 3 Marion AR - Boylan 2/7/1905 3 Cottonwood AL - Christmas 2/7/1906 3 Watauga TX - Gerrell 4/13/1908 3 Crowley LA - Byers 6/27/1911 3 Marshalltown IA- Hardy 5/3/1910 4 Johnson County KA - Bernhardt 12/7/1910 6 Hinderkaifeck, Germany-Gruber 3/31/1922

10% ATTRIBUTION: 37 total 4 Dominion NS - Stetka 3/16/1905 5 Jacksonville FL - Wise 9/22/1905 2 Frazier GA - Hart 3/4/1908 6 Woodland Mills AL - Edmondson 11/25/1908 4 Rayne LA - Opelousas 11/12/1909 3 Byers PA - Zoos 9/20/1910 3 Guilford MO - Hubbell 11/20/1910 6 Mills Addition LA - Randell 11/26/1911 4 Crowley LA - Warner 1/20/1912

In addition to the 89 cases that were assigned 70%-100% probability Mueller committed the murders, 11 more resulted from those who were legally executed for his crimes or lynched by angry mobs. (Four people were legally executed and at least seven black men were lynched by angry mobs and most probably innocently died for his crimes.)

In addition, four others were held in prison, many for very long sentences, before they were released or pardoned and declared innocent. Many, many more suspects were accused and/or detained wrongfully, and many lives ruined. Assigning the above percentages and applying the same to those likely innocent people executed/lynched, the authors attribute 101 victims to The Man from the Train.

If the Jameses’ theory is correct, Paul Mueller is the most prolific serial killer in American history. The number of his total victims we will never know. In nearly all cases in America and the Hinterkaifeck case in Germany, investigations were contaminated, mismanaged or utterly unsophisticated. Clues were trampled or lost to oblivion. Where Paul Mueller’s own body lies—long buried—we most probably will never know. As in life, his trail was lost to history. No trace, at least for now....

I’ll end this series where it started, with Lizzie Borden and a strange little piece of axe murder trivia: Lizzie Borden’s uncle, John Morse (her father Andrew’s brother) arrived in Fall River for an overnight stay the day BEFORE Mr. and Mrs. Borden were killed and was in Fall River during the murders. His neurotically detailed alibi raised eyebrows and he was considered a suspect. After the murders, he moved to Hastings, Iowa, which, as fate would have it, was just 25 miles down the road from Villisca. He lived there the rest of his life as a farmer, horse breeder and shareholder in the Botna Valley State Bank in Hastings. When the Villisca murders took place, an astute detective tracked down John Morse in Hastings. He found him in the cemetery. John Morse had died just a couple of months before the Villisca axe murders...Or did he...?

PHOTOS: (1) The railroad line was a common denominator in Paul Mueller’s MO. All cases attributed to him took place in close proximity to railroad lines, usually freight trains he could hop. Early 1900s investigators Matthew McClaughry and Phillip Jenkins had first made the railroad connection. (2 & 3) Paul Mueller’s bloodlust became more brazen in later attacks. For example, in Colorado Springs on September 17, 1911, he attacked and killed two families in one night, killing a total of six victims. The small homes across the street from each other belonged to the Burnham and Wayne families. Both men were members of the Modern Woodmen of America, a possible link to Paul Mueller, who worked as an itinerant lumberjack. (4) A map of the route and sequence of the axe murders German immigrant Paul Mueller was believed to have committed between 1898 and 1912. (5) One of Mueller’s earlier multiple murders took place in Statesboro, Georgia on July 28, 1904. This composite photograph shows the Hodges family: farmer Henry and wife Claudia, with daughter Kittie Corrine (9), Harmon (2) and Talmadge (6 months). All were killed with an axe and the home burned. Georgia Archives. (6 & 7) Paul Reed and Will Cato, who lived in nearby cabins in an itinerant lumber camp, were tracked down, tried and convicted by an angry mob with nearly zero evidence. The two men right before an angry mob chained them to a tree, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive. Racism and scapegoating of innocent black men would be another cost of Mueller’s carnage. (8) The murder case of the Lyerly family in Barber Junction, North Carolina would be another case of a mob lynching of innocent black men arrested on little to no evidence. Isaac and Augusta Lyerly and two of their children, all on the first floor, were murdered. Five black men were accused of the murders and three were lynched by an angry mob: Jack Dillingham (seated left); Nease Gillespie (seated right); and John Gillespie (standing right). In 2017, Susan Barringer Wells Vaughan, an ancestor of the Lyerly family wrote a book, “A Game Called Salisbury: The Spinning of a Southern Tragedy and the Myths of Race,” that exonerates the black men. (9) A photograph of the Monmouth, Illinois home of the murdered Dawson family, September 30, 1911. The photograph shows crowds of curious onlookers who traipsed through the home, contaminating the crime scene. Such was often the case in small town crime scenes, where police forces didn’t exist or were poorly trained. Inept small-town investigations often hampered justice and uncovering the truth. (10) The Pfanschmidt family of Payson, Illinois, were the last purported American victims of Paul Mueller. Charles (upper far left), his wife Mathilda (lower right), fifteen-year-old daughter Blanche (upper second from left), and 21-year-old Emma Kaempen (upper second from right), a schoolteacher and boarder were murdered. The son, Ray (lower left), who stood to gain a large estate after his father’s death, was arrested and convicted but exonerated on appeal. Esther Reeder (upper right) was his fiancée. (11, 12, 13) The wealthy Gruber family in Hinterkaifeck, Germany, were killed by an axe murderer in March 31, 1922. The case had many similarities to Paul Mueller’s signatures in the United States cases. Bill James and his daughter Rachel believe that Mueller returned to Germany in 1912, when the axe murders suddenly stopped. The next ten years in Germany would be ravaged by war and unfettered violence among the civilian population, as well as rampant inflation, crime and chaos—a perfect environment for a serial murderer to escape justice.

You may also enjoy these related posts:

•The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 1

•The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 2

"The Axe-idental Tourist: Part 3" was originally posted on Facebook and on August 17, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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