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July Book Look

Local bibliophiles review their recent reads

This Book Look is the latest installment of a recurring round-up of book reviews by local readers. To contribute to this feature, contact the Kittanning Library. We would love to share your critiques & recommendations with other readers.

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Brad Metzler and Josh Mensch

Book Review by Daphne Ruffner

This is a non-fiction selection - The Lincoln Conspiracy. It is a history of a little known plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln while in Baltimore on his way to Washington for his inauguration. The year is 1861. It reads more like a novel than a history book, but not exactly a page turner.

The intrigue begins in chapter one on a midnight train from Baltimore to Washington. The date is February 23, 1861. The train departed from Philadelphia with special instructions to delay and await a special package. Four passengers board, two middle-aged businessmen, a young woman and her “invalid” brother. All are traveling under false names with weapons. The "invalid” brother is Lincoln. His life is in jeopardy.

The second hero of the story is Allen Pinkerton of Chicago, America’s first private detective. He owns/administers the Pinkerton National Detective Agency which still exists today. The woman is Kate Warne the first woman ever employed in law enforcement.

Prior to this, twenty men gather in Baltimore and secretly select the assassin. They are members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society pledged to uphold southern pride and support southern rights, i.e., white rights and slavery. Baltimore is a “slave hub” where slave dealers are listed in the city directory and slave pens line the waterfront. A common daily sight is shackled slaves paraded down the street to the auction blocks.

The gathering is at a barber shop in Barnum’s Hotel. The barber, Cypriano Ferrandini, is the leader of the Knights. The Knights were founded in the mid 1850’s by a Virginia born doctor and white supremacist, George Bickley. The goal of the group is to spread slavery to the West, Cuba, W. Indies, Mexico, and Central America. There are tens of thousands of members.

After the election there are death threats directed at Lincoln, mostly from the South. Lincoln did not get one vote in any of the slave-holding states. Threats arrive by mail.

The days after the election South Carolina threatens to succeed from the union.

How can Lincoln travel safely from Illinois to D.C.? This is usually a gala affair with many stops. Most people don’t know what the new president looks like. The Secret Service does not exist. The final leg of the journey is through one of two slave holding states.

People turn out in large numbers in northern states. They are shocked by Lincoln’s appearance. A height of 6’ 4” was unheard of. He is homely by anyone's standard. His nose, his ears, hands and feet are very large (in modern times this was thought to be caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary.) He was very thin, his dusty (even dirty) clothing does not fit him well, but, he’s a great speaker.

The journey to D.C. will take 12 days. There is no national railroad system so it involves much de-training and re-boarding different trains, often across town. In a Maryland town there is no bridge over a river. Rail cars have to be decoupled and taken by ferry.

Thirty-nine days after the inauguration, on April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War are fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Two days later Lincoln calls for 75,000 militia for the Union.

The Pinkertons come to Lincoln’s aid a second time as full-time military spies during the Civil War. Pinkerton himself served as a consultant to General George McClellan. Pinkerton and his wife offered their home to the Underground Railroad.

There were no repercussions for Ferrandini. He lived to age 88, continued as a banker and was active in local society, praised by many.

The Knights of the Golden Circle lasted only a few years after the war broke out. It was seen as an inspiration to the Klu Klux Klan.

John Wilkes Booth was a member of the Knights.


Daphne Ruffner is an avid reader and lover of good books. She can be found volunteering at the library and perusing patron donations and book sales for gently-used gems. Daphne plans and coordinates the much-anticipated Kittanning Library Book Sales.

The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

Review by Anita Bowser

My neighbor likes to chop wood. I guess it’s a charming throw-back to a simpler time. He swings his long-handled ax at big blocks of wood in his side yard. Now, keep in mind, I live in an urban area -- a small city, in fact. And, it's summer. Who needs firewood in the summer?

Maybe it’s his therapeutic response to quarantine. Maybe it’s a way to save on a gym membership. I don’t know why he does it. I don’t care. I only know that, for days on end, he leaves his ax sticking out of a stump about 12 feet from the sidewalk on our quiet, well-traveled block. It’s there day and night. I know. I watch. I’m keeping tabs on that ax.

Why does this trouble me so? Well, let me tell you about a book I read a while back.

The Man from the Train, by Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James, is a true crime story that stuck with me long after I finished the book. I call it a story, but it’s actually a collection of stories about – you guessed it – ax murders.

Bill James began his research with one of America's most infamous ax murders. In 1912, a family of six - plus two young visitors - were murdered in Villisca, Iowa. The case was never solved. But, in The Man from the Train, the authors link the crime to a laundry list of similar murders in the early 1900s in which entire households fell victim to a man with an ax.

It turns out, ax murders were somewhat common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Nearly every house had an ax, which was generally kept in an unlocked outbuilding or carelessly left in a nearby wood pile. Of course, this handy tool made a perfect weapon for any irate hothead.

But, the cases documented here weren’t your typical hothead-in-a-rage crimes of passion. These were family slaughters, and if the authors are right, the axes were swung by a serial killer who rode the rails from town to town.

From Florida to Oregon to Nova Scotia and across the mid-west, the authors follow period newspaper reports of murders with striking points of similarity. Bill James methodically ticks off a list of commonalities, like covered mirrors and doors locked from the inside, linking crimes committed during a period before law enforcement and newspapers communicated beyond their narrow jurisdictions.

Though minor elements of the murders varied slightly, in order to be included in the book, some fundamental characteristics were required.

For these authors to attribute a case to the man from the train, the crime had to involve an entire household murdered in the dead of night. Always with the blunt side (back) of an ax. And, always a short distance from a train stop.

It’s a shift in thinking for our 21st century brains to appreciate the world as it was. It wasn’t uncommon for single men to travel from town to town looking for work. Trains, making scheduled stops throughout the day and in the wee hours of the morning, transported strangers to and from whistle-stop communities across the U.S.

Mass communication was limited to only the biggest, global events and news generally stayed within a newspaper’s local readership. Even the most well informed citizens might never hear of events in neighboring cities and states.

It was a different time.

I found the authors’ theory of the crimes plausible and was thoroughly impressed by their exhaustive research. Toward the end, the details of the crimes are so similar that the narrative becomes a bit tedious. But, once you get through those last couple of murders, there is a payoff: the authors name a culprit.

Bill James writes in a very conversational style, which was a bit distracting at first, but it grew on me and I soon felt like I was sharing scary stories with an old friend. This style evokes familiarity and a chumminess that helps diminish the bloody slog of all of those grisly murders.

I recommend The Man from the Train to anyone who likes true crime or history, or to those who just like a creepy tale. It’s a collection of stories you won't soon forget.

I'm reminded of it sometimes at night when I hear a train in the distance and I can't stop thinking about that darn ax my neighbor seems to be using as a lawn ornament.


Anita Bowser is a writer and blogger from Butler County. She’s a volunteer at Kittanning Library and has worked as a reporter, copy editor, content writer and a library director. Her favorite past times include reading, writing and monitoring her neighbor's wood pile. Contact her at and find out more at

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Rhiannon Bowser
Rhiannon Bowser
Jul 09, 2020

Great reviews! I found the second one to be very witty. I’ll have to check both of these books out, they seem really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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