Susan Barringer Wells grew up in Salisbury and is a Lyerly descendant. She recalls hearing about the Lyerly murders that took place on Friday, July 13, 1906 and the lynching of the three African American members of the Gillespie family for the crime on Aug. 6, 1906, in Salisbury, N.C.
“I was looking into my family history when I discovered the murders of my great-great aunt, her husband (who is also a past 5th cousin), and two of their children. Shocked that my mother had never mentioned this to me, I was determined to get to the bottom of what happened. But then when I tried to gather the facts from 1906 papers, something about the duplicitous nature of the reporting made me want to get to the bottom of that story.”
Wells mother told her that her great grandfather kept fingernails of one of the hanging victims as souvenirs. Her research into the double tragedy led her to believe that the three Gillespie’s were innocent. In 2007 she published, A Game Called Salisbury: Spinning of a Southern Tragedy and the Myths of Race. The name of the book came from an article she uncovered that was published soon after the lynching took place in Rowan County.
Two older boys had tied a noose around six-year-old Embler Kibler’s neck and left him hanging from a nail driven into a wall. Kibler got free after the other two boys left and told his parents how he got the ugly red mark around his neck. The other boys were brought before a magistrate in Asheville on Aug. 10, 1906, The boys explained they were playing a new game called “Salisbury.”
The Iredell County Public Library hosted Susan Barringer Wells for a book signing on Dec. 9, 2007. Wells saw the lynching as being partly the fault of Rowan County Sheriff David R. Julian for charging the Gillespie’s without any evidence connecting them to the crime and for not protecting them from the lynch mob.
She also blamed Judge Benjamin Franklin Long of Statesville who had the prisoners brought back from the Mecklenburg County jail to Salisbury for trail despite warnings of potential mob violence. Judge B.F. Long would go on to become one of N.C.’s most prominent judges. His wife, Mary Alice Robbins Long founded the Statesville Women’s Club and helped start the Statesville Public Library. One of Long’s descendants is the fresco artist Ben Long.
In writing her book Wells relied heavily on articles from The Landmark and other newspapers. She points out that the old Iredell County courthouse was the venue for one of the trails. Joseph P. Caldwell, publisher of the Charlotte Observer at the time of the crime and former owner and publisher of the Landmark, also plays a prominent role in reporting the Lyerly story.
Wells came to believe that the Gillespie’s and the Dillingham’s were innocent of the axe murders of Isaac and Augusta Lyerly and their two youngest children. In her book she proposes that it was actually Isaac Lyerly’s oldest son Joseph Graham Lyerly, who committed the crime. Joseph was 40 at the time of the murders and lived on his own farm next door to his father’s. He supposedly did not get along with his stepmother Augusta, and wanted to make sure he inherited his father’s property instead of Isaac’s second family.
A Game Called Salisbury was published in 2007, but a later book published in 2017 titled The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery points the finger at a new suspect in the Lyerly murders. The Man from the Train was written by renowned baseball writer Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James.
Their research has identified what is perhaps one of America’s first serial killers. A man who between 1898 and 1912 used the blunt side of an axe to murder families across the country while they slept. James began his research with an attempt to solve the Villisca axe murders of six family members and two-house guests in Villisca, Iowa, on the night of June 9, 1912.
During his research on the Villisca murders James found similar crimes committed across the country in Nova Scotia, Oregon, Kansas, Florida, Arkansas, and other locations including Rowan County, N.C. The crimes all had similarities. The murderer in each case used the blunt side of an axe to kill his victims. All the crimes were committed at night and all were attacks on families as they slept. No money or valuables was ever taken and there seemed to be no connection between the victims and their killer.
The murders occurred during a time when cooperation between law enforcement officers was limited by lack of communication. There was no TV, radio, or Internet reporting on the crimes. News of the murders was limited to local newspapers and rarely went past the county line. Law enforcement had only basic forensic skills and no criminal database. The phase “Serial Killer” had not been invented yet.
Local police simply looked for a local murderer. Men were arrested, but most were released for lack of evidence. A few were convicted, executed, or in the case of the Gillespie’s lynched. The Jameses research led them to believe that all these people were innocent and that the murders were the work of one man.
There were other similarities between the crimes. The killer always struck in rural remote areas where there was little or no police. The families all had barns that the killer could have hidden in until the family was asleep. None of the families had a dog. All of the families had an axe usually laying by a woodpile. The killer used only the blunt side of the axe to kill his victims and always left the weapon in plain sight outside the house. The killer usually covered the victims with blankets or sheets prior to killing them and covered the windows from the inside. The bodies of the victims were usually moved and sometimes stacked and their faces covered with cloth.
The killer always locked the doors to the house and escaped out a window. The homes of the victims were always within close walking distance to a train depot. The killer traveled by train hence the name of James’s book, The Man from the Train. The killer would get off at a depot walk to a nearby house and kill his victims before returning and catching another train. By the time the crime was discovered the killer was long gone.
Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James feel certain that the Man from the Train murdered 59 victims in 14 families. They also feel he may very well have killed an additional 94 victims in another 25 family murders. They even link him to the 1922 Hinterkaifeck murders in Germany.
The Jameses have identified a German immigrant named Paul Mueller, a part-time lumberjack, as the Man from the Train. His motive appears to have been a sexual attraction to young girls who lived in the homes. The adults in the homes were killed quickly while in bed while the girls killed showed defensive wounds. They also believe that Mueller returned to Germany sometime after killing the Hudson family in Paola, Kansas on June 5, 1912.
The murder of the Lyerly family took place during a period when the killer was most active. The Man from the Train killed the Boylan family of Marion, Arkansas on Feb. 7, 1905, the Wise family in Jacksonville, Florida, on Sept. 21, 1905, the Christmas family of Cottonwood, Alabama on Feb. 7, 1906, the Stetka family of Dominion, Nova Scotia on Feb. 16, 1906, and the Ackerman family of Allentown, Florida on May 13, 1906. The Lyerly murders took place in Rowan County on July 13, 1906.
The Lyerly home in Rowan County was located near the Barber Junction Depot. Barber Junction was a railroad intersection eleven miles west of Salisbury where both the east and west line and the north and south line met. Trains would stop at the depot so passengers could change trains.
The Jameses believe the older daughters of Isaac and Augusta Lyerly survived because Mueller was forced to rush from the house to catch the next train and make good his escape.
Susan Barringer Wells, now Susan Wells Vaughan, who authored A Game Called Salisbury and is herself a Lyerly descendant believes that the Man from the Train almost certainly killed four members of the Lyerly family in their home in Rowan County near the Barber Junction Depot. Both she and the Jameses believe the three African American Gillespie family members lynched in Salisbury were innocent.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
June 3, 2020