Real Crime

Over a Century Ago, a Mysterious Axe Murderer Rode the Rails, Chopping Up Families Along the Way

Rusty axe with country house in the background.
Photo credit: Semen Lihodeev/Alamy Stock Photo
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    Over a Century Ago, a Mysterious Axe Murderer Rode the Rails, Chopping Up Families Along the Way

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      Rachel McCarthy James, Bill James

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      Over a Century Ago, a Mysterious Axe Murderer Rode the Rails, Chopping Up Families Along the Way

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      July 14, 2020

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      A+E Networks

Around 1912, there was a spate of killings in the American Midwest, the most famous of which was the axe murder of a group of eight people in Villisca, Iowa.

As baseball statistician and historic crime enthusiast Bill James read about these murders, he theorized that there were other murders that authorities at the time (or at present time) never linked to the same criminal.

In his book “The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery” he—along with his daughter Rachel McCarthy James—piece together news stories from throughout the country during that time, documenting murders from Florida to Washington State that are eerily similar. They also create a profile of the man they feel is responsible for most of them, based on the details of his crimes— most of which are specific and consistent from murder scene to murder scene, including the fact that the suspect always killed in close proximity to a train station. Axe murderers need a quick escape route, after all.

Below you’ll find the story of one of the mass murders James believes may be attributed to this mysterious and terrifying man.

The Scandalous Schultzes

Houston Heights, Texas, founded by Oscar Martin Carter in 1891, was the first planned community in Texas. In 1910 it was separated from Houston by about a mile, but linked by streetcars and railroads. Houston at that time was a city of 78,000. Houston Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918.

On the night of Friday, March 11, 1910, Gus Schultz, a lineman with Houston Electric, hosted a “sort of entertainment” for family and friends with his wife, Alice, at their home at 732 Ashland Street in Houston Heights. The Schultzes lived in an unpainted three-room cottage fifty feet from the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. (The KATY railroad; we will see the KATY several more times in our book.) There was beer, piano, guitar, and good company. The couple partied pretty hard considering they had two young children, a three-year-old girl named Bessie and a six-month-old who may have been a boy and who may have been named Sandy, although accounts are not consistent. The house was in a segregated white area, one block over from the black part of the neighborhood.

Gus Schultz was twenty-three; Alice was twenty-one. At the party she wore a tight-fitting, low-cut pink dress that showed several inches of her legs—provocative in that era, when dresses normally covered the tops of the shoes. For several days following March 11 there was no sign of life around the Schultz house. The house was locked up tight, and all of the curtains had been drawn. An African American woman named Maggie Nelson did the Schultzes’ laundry. On Wednesday, March 16, Ms. Nelson found the laundry from the previous week still hanging on the clothesline, the house still locked, and the Schultzes’ guns visible underneath their house. Ms. Nelson talked to a neighbor lady, who had also been concerned about the family, and the neighbor lady called the sheriff. The sheriff pulled the guns out from under the house (two rusty rifles and a shotgun) and recognized the smell of death emanating from the residence. Late in the day on March 16, police broke into the house, where they found the bodies of five people—two men, a woman, and the two small children. All five had apparently been murdered with an axe. The bodies had been piled on top of one another, and Mrs. Schultz (Alice) was found nude except for a thin nightshirt. The little girl, Bessie, was also found almost nude. There was blood all over the walls. The crime scene was described as “the most gruesome of all the tragedies that have occurred in and about Houston.” The stench in the house was so overpowering that police had to open the windows for several hours before they could begin the investigation. A swarm of flies filled the room where the bodies were found.

The first thought was that Schultz had found his wife with another man, had murdered the two of them, then killed the children and taken his own life. This theory was abandoned when it was discovered that Schultz had been hit in the back of the head with an axe or some other blunt instrument, and also that his body was on the bottom of the body pile, suggesting that he may have been the first to die.

The extra dead man in the house was Walter Eichman, who had been living with the Schultz family and…well, we have to get to it sometime…was apparently enjoying intimate relations with Alice Schultz. Eichman was not her only lover, nor even her favorite. Whether their relationship is more accurately described as “open marriage” or “sex work” is not entirely clear, but men who were not her husband often gave Mrs. Schultz expensive gifts.

Alexander Horton Sheffield was one of those men. He signed his name “A. H.” and went by the name of Sandy, the same name as the Schultz’s baby. Sheffield, although he was a married man with two children, had lived in the Schultz house until Eichman moved in. Sheffield was tall, handsome, and came from a family with money. Shopping recently for jewelry, Alice Schultz had volunteered to the jeweler that Sheffield was the only man she had ever loved, or ever would. Eichman—also married—was the brother-in-law of the man who actually owned the house. While Sheffield lived there they had told neighbors that he was Mrs. Schultz’s stepbrother, although this was not true. A previous landlady had evicted the family because of the odd relationship between Alice and Sandy. After moving out, Sheffield had continued to visit Mrs. Schultz frequently.

About twenty-four hours after the bodies were discovered, Sheffield was arrested in connection with the crime. He would live in the shadow of the charges for more than three years, although there was never any real evidence against him. Sheffield had attended the “dance” at the Schultz house on March 11, in the company of a seventeen-year-old girl; Sheffield was twenty-seven. He had returned for a visit on the following Sunday, under somewhat odd circumstances. Passing by the Schultz house, he had seen a cow wandering loose, about to destroy the laundry hanging on the line. He knocked on the door but was unable to rouse the family, because, of course, they were all dead. He had put the cow back in the pasture, and then tried again to get someone to come to the door. That failing, he had made a curious remark to a neighbor to the effect that the family must all have gone boating and had drowned. Sheffield also told police that he had seen the three guns stacked in the Schultz house on Friday night, and had seen them under the house on Sunday. None of the weapons had been fired in a long time.

Sheffield, who worked as an engineer for a brewery, emphatically denied any knowledge of the crime, and gave a rational explanation for the curious remark to the neighbor. He said that he knew that the family intended to go boating on Saturday. When the family seemed to have disappeared, his only thought was that they had not returned from the boating expedition. The explanation made sense, and Sheffield was released at the time.

Eichman was found with a mosquito net covering his head, and Bessie with her head shoved down into the bedclothes. The sheriff theorized that either the murderer had spent considerable time in the house after the crime, or he had returned to the house a day later.  All of the bodies had been found stacked in one room, but large pools of dried blood were found in a different room. There were no indications of a robbery. The house had not been ransacked, and no weapon was found in the house. An axe was later found in a nearby well, with bloodstains still visible on the handle, although the axe had been sitting partially submerged in water.

We will see this syndrome many times in this book: that the sheriff fairly quickly understood what had happened here, but then went into denial about it. Several days into the investigation, the sheriff told a reporter that the only thing he could figure was that the crime was committed by a “fiend who may have developed a homicidal mania and satisfied his lust for blood,” and who had disappeared via the train track after the crime. That was, in fact, exactly what had happened: The Man from the Train was a homicidal maniac with an insatiable lust for blood, and he had hopped a freight train and skipped town four days before the crimes were discovered.

Among all of the crimes in this book, this is one of those that we are most certain was committed by The Man from the Train. There are triggers for us, beyond the obvious ones like an axe, midnight, the murder of an entire family in one event, and the extreme proximity to the railroad, things that are like flashing lights saying “this is the guy.” This event has four of those markers:

1. The heads of the victims being covered with cloth or other items, both before and after the crime.
2. The house being sealed up tight, with the window shades all drawn, at the conclusion of the crime.
3. The presence of a prepubescent female, essentially nude, among the victims.
4. The bodies being moved around the house postmortem for no obvious reason.

As time passed the sheriff began to feel pressure to solve the crime, and began to rummage about for a prosecutable candidate. The sheriff was Archie Anderson. He was sheriff of Harris County for a long time, colorful, and information about him can still be found on the Web.

Some weeks after the murders a woman named Lydia Howell (name also reported as Powell) had a mental breakdown. She had been at the party the night the Schultzes were murdered and was much affected by the murders. She was convicted of lunacy and sent to an insane asylum.

Later still, a man named Frank Turney was arrested in connection with the crime; he had also been at the party. Pressured by police, Turney “confessed” to his involvement in the murders, and implicated Sheffield as well as Lydia Howell. His story was that the three of them had waited after the dance until the family fell asleep, and that Sheffield had murdered the family with a window weight while he guarded one door and Miss Howell guarded the other. Turney said that he knew nothing about the murders until after the deed was done. In July 1911, more than a year after the crime, Sheffield and Turney were indicted by a grand jury. Sheffield was released on bond in October of that year, and was scheduled to go on trial for the murders on December 4, 1911.

It appears that Turney was a vulnerable man who told police the story they wanted to hear after being pressured and perhaps beaten by the police, and also promised by the police that he would not be prosecuted. Once he was out of police custody he began to say that the story he had told police was not true. After he reneged on the account, the police attempted to prosecute him as well as Sheffield. But without Turney’s story, they had no case against Sheffield or Turney; all the evidence they had, other than the odd relationship between Alice and Sheffield, was Turney’s story, which pretty much everybody knew was a police fabrication.

In December 1911, Sheffield was free on bond, but Turney, who had accused Sheffield under a promise of immunity, remained in jail. Sheffield’s trial was postponed from December until the following April, and then postponed until October. The prosecution was stalling for time, still hoping to put together a case somehow. In October 1912, Turney was released from custody, and the prosecutor acknowledged that his confession would not hold up in court. In May 1913, three years after the crime, the charges against Sheffield were quietly dismissed.

Despite his blatant infidelity, Sheffield’s wife stuck with him throughout the ordeal. He returned to his employer, had another son, and lived almost sixty years after the crime, passing away in 1968. Lydia Howell regained her sanity, was released from the insane asylum in 1913, and left Houston Heights for unknown places in 1916. The house at 732 Ashland Street no longer stands, and the nearby railroad line is now a bike path.

Excerpted from The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James. Copyright © 2017 by Bill James. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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