The Lyerly Family

May 10, 2013


This is a horrible story to tell, but it is true so far as words can reproduce the scene, and its record should not be lost from the annals of crime.


--John Charles McNeill

Salisbury, North Carolina

July 14, 1906



                The house of Isaac and Augusta Lylerly sat just across the road from a railroad track, near Barber Junction in Rowan County, North Carolina.   Barber Junction was not a town; it was a railroad intersection with a name. There was a railroad line going east and west, and a line going north and south, and where they met in a rural area eleven miles west of Salisbury there was a small depot, where passengers riding in one direction could change trains and wait out the time difference.    The train depot still exists; it was moved to Salisbury, a little north of Salisbury, in the 1980s.    If a westbound train stopped at Barber Junction and a tramp hopped off the back end of a long train, he would have seen the Lylerly house just across the road, perhaps 200 yards from the spot where his feet hit the ground.

                Let us say that on the evening of July 13, 1906, a man hopped off the train at Barber Junction.    It was Friday the 13th, and a dark, partially overcast night.   There was an old two-story house, a hundred-year-old plantation house that had been in the Lyerly family through generations of slave holders and generations of share croppers.   A family of seven lived there in 1906—Isaac and Augusta, a young boy and a young girl, and three older girls who worked hard on the farm during the days and slept on the second floor at night.

                Sometime before midnight Addie Lylerly awoke to the smell of smoke.   Addie was the middle of the three older girls.  She had asthma, and the least amount of smoke would disturb her breathing.   She ran down the stairs into a nightmare.   Her father was dead; he had been hit in the head with the blunt side of an axe.   Her mother lay dead, half-way out of the bed; she had been hit, apparently, both with the blunt side of the axe and the sharp edge, although Addie did not see all of this at first, since Augusta (her mother) had been covered by a pillow.  

                I will spare you the ghastly descriptions of her brother, John; let us just note that he was dead.   John slept in the bed with his father, a common practice of the time, and that bed was on fire.   A bureau drawer and its contents had been saturated with kerosene, dumped over John’s body, and set on fire.   The youngest daughter, Alice, was not dead but dying, moaning in pain.  The other bed in the room was not on fire, and the room was not on fire.   Not certain who might still be alive, Addie pulled her father’s body and her brother’s body off of the burning bed, and then ran up the stairs screaming for her sisters.   

                The three girls began getting pitchers of water and pouring them on the fire.   The house did not have inside plumbing, but they were able to get the fire under control with the water that was inside the house, and threw the smoldering bedding into the yard.   They carried Alice, the six-year-old girl who was still alive, into the yard, and tried to tend to her wounds, but the bedding was setting fire to the yard, so they had to draw water from the well to put out that fire.     

The front door had been left open, and a window was also open.   Money and other valuables were left in the house, a good bit of money, actually.  Some of the money was in plain view, in the bedroom where the murders had occurred.   A lamp which had been on the bureau in the murder room—and which had been seen there by two of the daughters after Isaac Lylerly was sound asleep—had been moved to the mantle.   A bloody axe, last seen resting in the woodpile nearby, had been discarded near the open door.

                The girls pulled themselves together and went for help.   Carrying Alice, they walked in a group to the house of Filmore Cook, a neighbor who lived about three-quarters of a mile away.  Alice would die at the Cook house the next afternoon.   There were other neighbors who lived closer, including a half-brother who did not get along with his father’s second wife, the murdered Augusta, but the Cooks were people that the daughters knew well and trusted.   There were sharecroppers’ cabins around them, and their pathway through the night took them right past the house of one of those sharecroppers, that of Jack Dillingham, close enough to reach out and touch the house.   As they passed the Dillingham cabin they fell completely silent, fearing that it could have been Dillingham who had attacked their family.   When they reached the Cook house, sometime near midnight, the Cooks loaded up horses and coaches and rushed back to the Lyerly place.

By the wee hours of the morning a crowd of neighbors had encircled the house.   There was a grove of huge sycamores and elms in the front yard; a reporter on the scene early in the morning reported the grove filled with buggies and saddle horses and people speaking somberly in low tones.   A telegram was sent to the county sheriff, who drove to the scene at breakneck speed, arriving between four and four-thirty AM.    A telegram to the governor’s office put in motion an effort to get bloodhounds, and a special train was arranged to send the sheriff from neighboring Forsyth County hurrying to the scene with a carload of bloodhounds, which arrived about eight AM.   At least two sets of bloodhounds were brought to the house, but the hounds proved useless, perhaps due to the crowd that had encircled the property or, more probably, because the scent could only have led as far as the railroad line.

                Before the sheriff was even on the scene, suspicion had settled on the share-croppers.  The share-croppers, of course, were all black; this was the South, this was 1906.  The Lyerly girls mentioned to someone that they had tiptoed quietly past the Dillingham house, and it was discussed as well that there had been some words passed in the previous week between Isaac Lyerly and another sharecropper, Nease Gillespie.   Jack Dillingham was arrested about 5:00 in the morning of July 14, about six hours after the murders.  Nease Gillespie’s cabin was raided, and some of his possessions seized, about 6 AM.   Reporters from at least three newspapers were on scene not long after sunup.

Nease Gillespie was not quite likeable enough to be called a "character".    Whereas most of the other sharecroppers in the area had lived near Salisbury for generations, Nease had moved there (or moved back there) after he had matched up with Fannie Gillespie.   He took her name, probably because her name was known in the area.  Fannie had an 11-year-old grandson; the boy was named Henry Mayhew.   Henry Mayhew had a white father, was blue-eyed and looked almost white, but he lived with Fannie and Nease.    (The book about this case, A Game Called Salisbury, insists, apparently based on a census record, that Mayhew was Fannie’s son, rather than her grandson, but this cannot be correct.)

                Nease was abusive to Fannie and Henry, and, although Nease had lived with Fannie for many years and had married her about 1902, he had fathered a son, John Gillespie, with Fannie’s daughter.    Nease was a hard-working man, a nervous, intense, excitable man, and probably an intelligent man, but he lived an extremely hard life and drank a lot of hard liquor and had a temper, and he was hell on those who lived with him.   Fannie would say in court that she and Nease hardly ever spoke, and that she would stay away from him as much as she could. 

The telegram sent from the depot at Barber’s Junction to the governor’s office early that morning began with the words "An unknown man entered the house. . ."—a supposition, but a reasonable supposition.    But later that afternoon, a coroner’s jury would conclude that "the Lylerlys were murdered with axes in the hands of Nease Gillespie, his son, John, Jack Dillingham and wife and George Ervin and Henry Lee."  

They forgot to indict Booker T. Washington.   Later that afternoon, Henry Mayhew was "subjected to a severe examination."  (Salisbury Post).   The eleven-year-old boy, subjected to a severe examination, began telling people that he had heard Nease confess to committing the murders.   It was worse than that; in Henry’s stories, not only had Nease confessed to the murders, but he had implicated Jack Dillingham and the other four accused.    As is pointed out by Susan Barringer Wells in A Game Called Salisbury, this story can’t reasonably be true; there couldn’t plausibly have been four to six people in that bedroom swinging axes, or they would have killed one another.     Mayhew’s story is irrational, changed numerous times in the following weeks, and was completely contradicted by every adult involved, but. . .this is the South, and it is 1906.   When there was a terrible crime, people immediately assumed that the blacks had done it, and some members of the press literally said and absolutely believed that Mayhew was telling the truth because he had white blood in his veins.   He may have been black that morning, but when he accused his relatives of the murders, his white blood came through.      

                So began the struggle to avoid a lynch mob.   Some of the newspapers began immediately, in the first 24 hours after the crime, to refer to the accused sharecroppers as murderers—not alleged murderers, not accused murderers, but murderers.   The accused were moved immediately in secret to a prison in Charlotte, beyond the reach of the outraged people of Rowan County.    A mob formed in front of the Rowan County jail anyway, and refused to believe the prisoners were not there.   The sheriff wasn’t there either; his son, one of the local newspaper guys, was designated to act in his stead.   The sheriff’s son told the mob that the prisoners were not there, but they didn’t believe him.   A delegation of the would-be lynchers was selected to search the prison, and then a second delegation, and then a third.   At length the mob came to accept that they had been denied blood, and they broke up.  

                A grand jury was scheduled for early August.    Assuring state officials that local passions had cooled and that the accused could be protected, Rowan County officials moved the prisoners back to Salisbury on August 6.  It was an insufferably hot day, still and stifling inside the courthouse, and extraordinarily tense.   At 3:40 that afternoon, the grand jury returned a true bill, indicting all six of the accused.   The trial was scheduled for the following day.

                The accused had an attorney; according to A Game Called Salisbury, they had an extremely good attorney.    Within an hour, the attorney filed for a continuance, claiming that a) it would be impossible to get a fair hearing in the emotional cauldron of the time and place, and b) that he had been denied any opportunity to interview possible defense witnesses, who were being held by the state.   Within moments, the motion for continuance was denied, and the trial was set to begin the next morning.    

                The attorney demanded a special venire of 200.   The judge expressed the opinion that this was unnecessary, but, being the fair-minded jurist that he was, granted the special venire, and ordered the sheriff to have 200 potential jurors in the courthouse at 10 o’clock the next morning.   The court adjourned for the day about 5:30 that afternoon.

                Ms. Wells, in her book, debates whether the responsible parties were genuinely trying to prevent a lynching, or whether they were complicit in the tragedy that occurred that night, and acting out a charade.    Myself, I don’t question their sincerity, merely their competence.   By "responsible parties" I mean the sheriff, the jailers, the judge, the mayor, and other local officials.  

                In the 1880s lynching was quite common, and was widely equated with justice in the minds of many Americans.   By 1906 it had acquired a bad odor, and it was much less common.    It is my experience that people have an immense capacity for self-delusion.   I think that the responsible parties, for the most part, had merely deluded themselves about their ability to manage the situation.    They wanted to believe that the people of Salisbury were progressive, forward-looking citizens in step with the rest of the nation, rather than that they were backward, ignorant louts who would do the wrong thing.    I don’t doubt that most of the people of Salisbury were forward-looking citizens in step with the nation; it’s the other 25% you need to worry about. 

                Anyone could have foreseen the second tragedy approaching.   The newspapers wrote editorials, urging the public to stay calm and allow the system of justice to work.    The sheriff issued statements to the same effect, and sent telegrams reassuring the governor’s office that he would and could protect the lives of the accused.   The judge spent much of the day, August 6, repeatedly lecturing the courtroom about the need to remain calm and respect the law.  They all saw it coming, and they all insisted that they had things under control.   

                Jake Newell was the very good attorney assigned to the accused.   "I reached Salisbury and saw the crowd at the court house and heard it talk," Newell told a newspaper two weeks later.  "I knew that trouble was brewing."   Newell was warned by the sheriff to stay in his hotel room, that it might not be safe for him to be on the streets.   About eight o’clock that night, Newell went to the Rowan County jail to confer with his clients.   "Already a crowd had gathered," he said, "But there was practically no demonstration.   When I talked to the guards, they informed me that they were afraid for me to go into the jail, as it would create a suspicion of the removal of the prisoners.   The guards at this time were thoroughly rattled and totally inadequate and incompetent."  Newell crossed the street to the hotel where the judge was staying, and informed him of the conditions. 

                The judge declined (or refused) to wire the governor’s office and ask for help.  He conferred with the other officials as to what should be done.   They decided that the sheriff, the mayor, and the prosecuting attorney would address the crowd, and admonish them to stay calm.  People were gathering at newspaper offices in nearby cities, following the situation from the wires.  The Charlotte Observer, describing the situation in a dispatch sent out at 9 o’clock that night:  (at) this time things look blue for the negroes.    Swarms of people are congregating in the streets, and all they lack is a real plucky leader.  At this very minute 500 men have congregated in front of the jail, where a dozen or more deputies sit with their guns across their knees.  A few keen yells would set the crowd on fire and it would storm the jail.   If the deputies do their duty they may have to kill some of their fellow men." 

                Salisbury had installed a railroad car system in 1905.   With every railroad car that passed the jail, a dozen more men would hop off and join the mob.  Others tied up their horses and walked in, people filtering in out of the mountains and arriving on trains from nearby towns.   A lone man jumped the fence surrounding the jail yard, and was arrested.   A man stood up, a man about 40 with a strong voice.   "C’mon boys," he said.   "Are we going to let our white women die and not fix the niggers that killed ‘em?" 

                There was an exchange of gunfire, shots fired from the crowd, but the guards stood their ground.   The sheriff crossed the street back to the hotel, and conferred again with the other authorities.   There was a local militia, known as the Rowan Rifles.   The Rowan Rifles were ordered to report for duty, probably to the courthouse, about two blocks away.  The judge, the mayor, the sheriff, the solicitor (county attorney) and others repeatedly addressed the mob, imploring them to disperse. 

                While the main action was at the front of the jail, three rioters with a sledge hammer broke down the back door and headed up the stairs.   They were taken into custody.   The judge, at 5:30, had ordered that flood lights be kept on around the jail throughout the night.   The mob now began to break out the lights, one at a time.   

                The man who had emerged as the leader now rose again.   "Let our men out and we will leave!" he shouted.    The sheriff approached him and negotiated a deal:  the sheriff would release the three men who had broken into the jail, and the leader—identified by newspapers only as "the man with the Panama hat"—would urge the crowd to go home.    (The newspapermen almost certainly knew who the man with the Panama hat was, but never said.   Probably the Panama hat was a code that let the readers into the secret, without forcing authorities to file charges.)   He was good to his word; he urged the crowd to disperse, and they began to comply.   It was about 10 o’clock at night.

                But, in the words of the Charlotte Observer, "the dangerous men had not yet arrived."   The crowd wandered off down side streets, where they gathered and regrouped.

                At this moment the Rowan Rifles, ordered onto the scene an hour earlier, reported to the jail.   The appearance of the Rowan Rifles seemed to enrage the mob, which began throwing stones at the militia and firing a few shots into the air.   The Rowan Rifles either had not been issued bullets or had been ordered not to fire them, but to fire blank cartridges.   They fired their blank cartridges into the air.   This made the crowd even angrier.

                Two of the men in the crowd were injured by shots fired from the other rioters.     The sight of blood seemed to startle the mob, which began to calm down again.     After ten o’clock, the Charlotte Observer reported the situation under control, and the mob dispersing once again. 

                And then they weren’t.   About 10:30, the leader of the Rowan Rifles ordered the militia to abandon their posts.    They were being overwhelmed.  At 11 o’clock, the governor’s office ordered the state militia in Charlotte, Greensville and Statesboro to put on special trains, and rush to the scene.  Moments later, the order was rescinded.    It was too late.   The mob was in control of the jail, and in control of the prisoners.   

                Surprisingly—and here again we get to the issue of good faith—surprisingly, the mob did not murder all of the accused.    The women held in connection with the crime—Fannie Gillespie and Della (Young) Dillingham—were roughed up a little bit and left in their jail cells, as were the juveniles, Henry Mayhew and Della’s baby, who she had with her.   The lynch mob arranged an impromptu "trial", which—more surprisingly—acquitted two of the accused.    At first the leaders of the mob set these two free, and then, fearing that they would be murdered on the streets, returned them to the "custody" of the sheriff.   Left in the control of the mob were Nease Gillespie, his fifteen-year-old son, John, and Jack Dillingham.   These three were marched about a mile through the streets of Salisbury to a city park, to an old oak tree where, it is said, a good many men had been hung before.  

                The mob tried to force the three men to confess to the crime.   They were whipped with thin branches, cut with small knives, and battered with fists and wood.  They were forced to kneel and pray at the foot of the oak.   To the end, all three men loudly insisted that they had nothing to do with the murders of the Lyerly family, and that they knew nothing about the crime.    Between eleven o’clock and eleven-thirty on the 6th day of August, 1906, twenty four days after the murders of the Lyerly family, the three men were hung from the oak tree in Worth Park.   Bullets from the crowd were fired into their dead and dying bodies.

                The remaining defendants were held in custody until the following January, as were the material witnesses Fannie Gillespie and Henry Mayhew. Their trial was moved to Statesville, 26 miles to the west of Salisbury (15 miles west of Barber Junction.)   The prosecution tried to present a case against them, but Henry Mayhew, the eleven-year-old boy who had been bullied into betraying his family, was not allowed to testify.   What he had to say was hearsay.  There are exceptions to the exclusion of hearsay from a trial, but, since Nease Gillespie was dead, the exceptions did not apply; thus, Mayhew was not allowed to testify.   The prosecution quietly dropped the case in the middle of the trial.   The accused were each given a small amount of money, and allowed to leave the area.

* * *

                As I have stated repeatedly, most of the information in this article comes from A Game Called Salisbury, by Susan Barringer Wells.   It is Wells’ conclusion, and mine, that there is no real evidence against the men who were murdered on August 6.   In my view, there is every reason to believe that these murders were committed by The Man from the Train.  

                There are two anomalies in this case, if it is considered as a part of our series of crimes.   The first and more serious anomaly is that three girls who were in the house at the time of the murders survived the incident.   This is the only time in the Man from the Train’s career that he missed people who were in the house at the time of the murders.      

                The lesser anomaly is that the front door of the house was wide open after the murders, whereas our murderer normally locked the house up as tightly as he could lock it, and then jammed something into the doorframe to make the doors hard to open.   These two anomalies have a common explanation.   Think about it for a minute; you can figure it out.

                You got it?

                He heard a train coming.   There weren’t a lot of trains on the east/west line, probably two or three trains a night, maybe less.   If he missed a train, it might be hours before there was another one.  

                Out in the country you can hear a train coming miles away.    As he was nearing the completion of his business in Isaac Lyerly’s bedroom, he heard the distant bleating of a train whistle.   He had maybe eight minutes to catch the train, maybe ten; the train would stop briefly at the crossroads with the north/south line.  Hurriedly, he dumped the bureau drawer on the victims’ bed and set fire to it, without taking the time to search the rest of the house, as he normally would have done, for more victims.   He left the door open as he ran for the train.  

                Despite those anomalies, there is more than enough reason to conclude that this is our guy.    The extreme proximity to the railroad tracks, the motiveless murder, without any warning, of a peaceful family asleep in their beds at the time they were attacked, the use of the family’s own axe, taken from their yard and dropped at the scene, the money left in the house and money left in plain view, the use of the blunt side of the axe, the moving of a lamp or lamps, the placing of a pillow over the body of one of the victims,  setting the house on fire at the end of the crime or attempting to do so, breaking into the house through a window. . .it’s him.    His previous murders had occurred in the same general part of the country—in the South, near the eastern seaboard.  

                Throughout the story of the Man from the Train, there are small details that knit the narrative together, and here is one of those.    After the murder of the Ackerman family, which occurred just 61 days before the murders of the Lyerly family (May 13), the Man from the Train boarded a northbound train.   We assume that he boarded a northbound train because Barber Junction, where the next murders occurred, is north and east of Milton, Florida, where the Ackermans were murdered.  

                Had he boarded a southbound train after committing the Ackerman murders, the Man from the Train would have been or could have been trapped on a small peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico as the Ackerman murders were investigated.    In his best case scenario, he could not have gone more than ten miles south before he would have had to change trains, or turn around and ride back past the murder scene. By boarding a northbound train, he could have ridden the train for hundreds of miles before he jumped off.

                So was the Man from the Train lucky, that he hopped a train going the "right" way for him, or was he aware of what he was doing?   Did he know the train schedule?   Did he let a southbound train pass, after the murders?  

                It’s a small point, and I’m just speculating.   We don’t know that he headed north immediately after murdering the Ackermans; it is merely a reasonable surmise, given the fact that he was about 500 miles north of there eight weeks later.    He could have gone south, realized he was trapped on a peninsula, and fled east or west on another line.   He could have gone south, and then ridden back north past the Ackermans after the train turned around.   He almost certainly knew the Florida panhandle (where the Ackerman murders occurred) very well, because he had committed numerous murders there before 1906.

                There is a second small point here, similar to the first.    Many of the murders, like the murders of the Lyerly family, occurred not merely right next to a railroad line, but at places where a train would have to stop or slow down, which would facilitate a non-paying customer—a freighter tramp—jumping on or getting off.    The Lyerlys lived at the junction of two rail lines, where a train going either east/west or north/south would have had to come to a complete stop to make sure there was no cross traffic.   These multiple rail lines, of course, also multiplied the opportunities for the Man from the Train to hop a ride and escape before being seen in the area after the murders. 

* * *

                This description of Fannie, from the Charlotte Observer of July 21, 1906, is worth re-printing for its own merit; this is edited for size and scope, but essentially the same as it originally appeared, and this is describing a courtroom appearance:

          If the blackest old hag in darkest Africa were brought here and put side by side with Fannie Gillespie, the wife of Nease, it would require an expert student of negro faces to tell which was the native of America.   I have never, in all my experience with negroes, seen Fannie Gillespie’s equal.  She is black, dirty, mean and stubborn.  For two inches back the hair has been clipped from her forehead, and the remaining kinks are done in thread.   For several inches around her eyes the skin of her face is dark colored, as if she had applied tar to her face until it had come to be a part of her.  She wore a filthy, short dress and nothing more.  Her feet were naked, wrinkled and scaly. 

          "Fannie Gillespie," she said, "is my name."  This is an instance where the man took the name of his wife.  Nease, who had been known as Mich Graham, became a Gillespie when he married Fannie.  The children in neighborhoods where Fannie has lived, fear her.  They say that she is crazy and likes to run people.  

          She is not formidable looking, but when her foot falls it does so without making a sound or making a track.  She glides swiftly, but silently.   One thinks of the missing link as she approaches him.  

          "What is the matter with your face and head old woman?" asked a lawyer.

          "Nease put pitch on me and cut my hair while I was asleep.  He has been doing that for a long time.   I guess he does it for it happens while I am asleep.  He has whipped me many a time."  . . . .

          Fannie Gillespie is a wonderful woman.  She looks like a savage, but she thinks well.   It was plain to one and all that she lied yesterday, but there was no way to correct her.  . .Old Fannie is cunning.   She knows what to say and what not to say.  She has a certain sort of nerve.  Although she was coaxed here, the effect would have been the same had she been threatened.  Half a savage and half a wizard, she is an interesting character.   One moment, those who watched her as she fenced with Mr. Hammer, Mr. Kluttz or Mr. Linn were almost sorry for her, but the next they felt for the lawyers. 

Clyde Kluttz, a major league baseball catcher and long-time scout, was a native of this area, and is buried in Salisbury.   He almost certainly was a relative of the lawyer, Kluttz, who is referred to in this passage.

The reference to the "Missing Link" there is also noteworthy, for the reference assumes that the reader knows and understands the Theory of Evolution in some detail.    This is almost two decades before the Scopes Monkey Trial, so I was just surprised to notice that. 

After being released from prison on or about January 31, 1907, Fannie moved to Statesville, where she continued to raise and care for her grandson, Henry Mayhew.


* * *

William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was a native of Greensboro, 50 miles from Salisbury.   In 1906 he published his most famous story, The Gift of the Magi.   The falsely accused woman in this story was named Della (Young) Dillingham.    The name of the young woman in The Gift of the Magi, the young woman who sells her hair to buy a gift for her husband—you all know that story?—is Della Dillingham Young.   

The Gift of the Magi, however, was originally published on April 10, 1906—three months before the murders of the Lyerly family.    This means that either:

a)  Porter knew Della Dillingham somehow unconnected to this famous crime (which is certainly possible, since they were from the same area),

b)  The use of her name or the elements of her name is just a weird coincidence, or

c)  The commonly cited publication date for The Gift of the Magi is incorrect.

I don’t know which it is, but I would put my money on (c).   It’s a Christmas story; why do you publish a Christmas story in April?    I would bet that it wasn’t actually published until later that year.


* * *

In a case that I wrote about here on May 18, 2012, a man named Howard Little was convicted of murdering a family in Hurley, Virginia on September 21, 1909.   When I wrote that article I was uncertain whether The Man from the Train had committed that murder or not.   Based on the research I have done in the last year, I now believe that he did.

In that case, the #1 piece of evidence against Howard Little was a lantern which supposedly belonged to the victims (actually, to neighbors of the victims, who had loaned it to the victims.)   Twenty or more persons appeared in court to identify the lantern.  

There is a lantern in this case which plays a very similar role, except more confusing.   Apparently a lantern was found discarded in a field not too far from the Lyerly home in the hours after the murders, and the investigators tried to use the lantern to tie the accused to the crime.   Where and when exactly the lantern was found, and by whom it was found, is never clear.  There was a black church near Barber Junction, within two miles of the Lyerly home, and several white people testified that they thought the lantern belonged to the black church.   

It seems unlikely, frankly, that any of the people who testified that they thought that lantern belonged to the black church had set foot inside that church in the previous five years, and it also seems unlikely that the lantern had anything at all to do with the crime.   No one had ever seen any of the persons who were lynched in possession of the lantern, and there was no blood on the lantern or anything else to tie it to the crime.  It just seems like it is being used as a way to say that the blacks must have done it.  

In a later crime there is a flashlight that is found "near" the scene of the crime and which is associated with the crime, again, with no real evidence to establish any link.  It may be that a lantern is, like the bloodhounds, like the money the victim has hidden in the house because he/she doesn’t like banks, simply a part of the ritual associated with a crime such as this.


COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

Links to The Man From the Train series for newcomers:

The Meadows Family
Crime: September 21, 1909
Location: Buchanan County, VA
Published: May 18, 2012

The Zoos Family
Crime: September 21, 1910 (typo as 1920)
Location: Byers, PA
Published: May 19, 2012

The Bernhardt Family
Crime: December 10, 1910
Location: Martin City, MO
Published: May 23, 2012

The Hardy Family
Crime: June 5, 1910
Location: Laurel, IA
Published: May 28, 2012

The Hart Family & Damon Family
Crime: March, 1908 & February 9, 1908
Location: Frazier, GA & Corry, PA
Published: August 14, 2012

Arlo Whitbeck
Crime: March 18, 1908
Location: West Union, IA
Published: August 20, 2012

The Lyerly Family
Crime: July 13, 1906
Location: Rowan County, NC
Published: May 10, 2013
6:41 PM May 17th
Great to see The Man From the Train saga return!
2:50 PM May 15th
How ludicrously amazing is the internet circa 2013? Downloadable PDFs of 100-year-old train schedules? A tool that searches mentions of ANY phrase in ANY book ever published? It's nuts.
7:44 PM May 13th
To JohnC again. . .I looked it up myself with your excellent guidance; thanks. If I read it right it's actually six trains a day with scheduled stops at Barber Junction, plus some west-bound trains that weren't scheduled to stop there (although, if I understand the train practices of 1906), they would have had to stop briefly for safety reasons, even if there was no service from Barber Junction.
2:04 PM May 13th
Responding to JohnC, I would be very interested to know what time there were west-bound trains stopping at Barber Junction. My guess is that he didn't KNOW the train schedule; he just heard a train and ran. Of course, even though trains had schedules, it was not uncommon for some trains (on long runs) to be hours behind schedule.

Responding to 77Royals, there are dozens of patterns to the crimes, and it's a central part of the puzzle trying to figure out what is an explainable anomaly and what indicates that this is not him; it's just a crime that happens to look like his. But it's too long to get into in this venue.
1:55 PM May 13th
Regarding the use of the phrase "missing link" - Google has a tool that allows you to search the full text of all the books they have digitized as part of the Google books project. You can see a graph of the frequency of use for any word or phrase. For American books, "missing link" peaks around 1886 (I guess Darwin's "Origin of Species" and "Descent of Man" were showing their full impact by then), falls by about 40% by 1906 and then peaks again around 1925 thanks to the Scopes trial. Doesn't reach the same level again until 1979. (Maybe due to rise of religious right?) Anyway, it only searches books but it's a fun tool. See the chart at:​hare=
10:01 AM May 13th
Is there any pattern to the crimes, as to the location and time, or is it all random?
12:29 PM May 12th
The 1910 Official Guide can be downloaded here:

It takes a long time, but on page 1070 you can see schedules for passenger trains for Salisbury, N.C. - Morristown, Tenn.; there were three a day in each direction, each stopping at Barber.

Not that that shows anything, but having looked it up, thought I'd mention it.
12:31 AM May 12th
The railroad schedule was, and is, called the Official Guide, and it listed all the passenger train schedules in the country -- and in 1906, practically every railroad did have passenger service. It also listed high priority freights, according to Wikipedia.

The railroads introduced Standard Time across the country in 1883, to make the schedules work. Of course, before radio, people out in the country may not have had any way to keep time as exactly as city dwellers, but any railroad station or telegraph office would have had the correct time as a matter of course.

This doesn't disprove the killer being surprised by a train. Watches could be fast or slow, if he even had a watch, and trains could be early or late.

11:26 PM May 11th
There is a sexual component to some of the crimes, and yes, the newspapers did gloss over it, which could mean that we're missing the evidence of it in others.
1:27 PM May 11th
Bill, I just realized, in case I'm forgetting it, there doesn't seem to be any obvious sexual component in any of these killings. Isn't that highly unusual for serial killers? Or maybe the news reporters of the time were glossing over such details?
10:04 AM May 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Hate to poke a hole your thesis, but it's pretty well established that "The Gift of the Magi" was first published on April 10, 1906 in the collection THE FOUR MILLION. The story itself was published in a newspaper in 1905, quite possibly Christmas of 1905 (my O. Henry critical text is in the office, and it's a Saturday, so cannot confirm place or date of story publication) so we're back to your two other theses.
9:18 AM May 11th
As always, Mr. James, I read your words with interest. You seldom disappoint, but I can't resist, "It was a Friday the 13th, and a dark, partially overcast night."......."It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out. A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon. While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up." Charles M. Schulz, "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night," Snoopy.
3:54 AM May 11th
I understand the Gillespie name was prominent and prolific in small towns around the Charlotte area 100 years ago (likely still is). It's not surprising Neale would take his wife's name. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was born across the state line in Cheraw, SC, went to high school in Laurinburg, NC at a noted music institute. After that the family moved to Philadelphia where Dizzy launched his career. I co-hosted a weekly one-hour jazz radio show (WPFW, PBS) in Washington, D.C., mid-70's, once spent a memorable afternoon with Dizzy and his Cuban cigars. He ironically reminisced a bit about his childhood in Cheraw but left no doubt about the nastiness and cruelty he grew up around. He was something of a hooligan as a teen-ager, well-known to and resented by the prominent white gentry, some of whom survived into the 1960's to suffer Dizzy invited back to get the key to the town and a statue of himself erected in the town square. Dizzy's given name was John, his father was James. No idea whether Dizzy was related to the protagonists of this incident. Accounts would be second-hand at this point, but I suspect there may be a lot more back story to be gathered from the Gillespies now living in the Carolinas and elsewhere.
1:40 AM May 11th
Ms. Wells offers a wide variety of possible explanations for the Lyerly murders. Her essential point--which I agree with--is that very little ties the sharecroppers to the murders, but she makes an argument that goes, essentially, "The Sharecroppers COULD have done it. It is extremely unlikely that ALL of them were involved, but SOME of them could have been involved. Or the son who lived nearby who had a rocky relationship with his father--he could have done it. Or one of the daughters could have done it; I mean, there have been lots of women who killed people with a hatchet. Or one of the daughters had a boyfriend that the mother didn't like; he could have done it. Or there was this guy who escaped from an insane asylum 60 miles away a week before the murders; he could have done it. Or this neighbor could have done it. Or this other sharecropper who was never accused. . .he could have done it."

If she ever realizes that it could have been done by a man who just jumped off the train and killed a family at random, I missed that ...she may have mentioned that possibility; not sure.

Responding to the issue about the train schedules. ..there was a Universal train schedule which carried the times that every PASSENGER train in the country was supposed to be at each stop. I'm blanking out on what it was called. It was published annually beginning in . . .I want to say 1858; 1858 or some year close to that. ..AND IT IS STILL PUBLISHED TODAY. In this era it was routinely carried by traveling salesmen. The country in that era was blanketed by traveling door-to-door salesmen. It is possible (but unlikely) that The Man From the Train carried a copy of this guide in his pocket, although it is unlikely that he was paying for his transportation most of the time.

I appreciate your supportive comments. The events in Salisbury are an absolutely fantastic story, and I simply tried to do justice to them.
12:35 AM May 11th
So, for those not keeping track at home, how many murderous episodes are we up to? Are there more to come? Any idea who this guy was?
9:57 PM May 10th
You ask, "Did he know the train schedule?" I'm sure you know this, but in 1906 the concept of a reliable train schedule was still coalescing, and such things as a standard and agreed-upon single time for "noon" across what we now know as a "time zone" -- nothing like that existed yet, it was still coming into being. Each town basically had its own noon, and any appointment you made, certainly a generation or two earlier, would be very approximate by its very nature. Around this time banks would advertise their importance and reliability by offering the exact time on the corner of their buildings, because there was no place to get the exact time. In my opinion, this fact argues in favor of your supposition, which is that even the most time-obsessed axe murderer could know with only so much exactitude when the train was going to pass by -- he would not have assumed that of course, the train will be there at 3:06 and no later, which means his actions would have been partly a gamble under all circumstances. He would have done what he wanted to do on the assumption that he could break it off and catch the train, just as you're saying he did. If you want to know more about the regimes of time during this period, check out A Geography Of Time by Robert V. Levine. Interesting book.
7:31 PM May 10th
Wow. This is a terrific article. Bill, when and how did you first come up with your theory about The Man from the Train?
5:20 PM May 10th
Wow. Another great entry in the saga. Two questions:

Did Ms. Wells, in her book, offer any theories as to the true identity of the murderer?

And, I think, you have been mentioning that this series is destined to be a book. Do you have a sense when that might be ready for publication? It will be a great read.
2:43 PM May 10th
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