Friday, January 31, 2014


Around the same time that the city of Atlanta was dealing with the slayings of at least 20 young African American and mixed-race women (see our post on the Atlanta Ripper), Louisiana and Texas were dealing with murders of another kind. Once again, the victims were African American and of mixed race – and once again, the murders received little newspaper coverage and as the years have gone by, few people remember these bloody cases.

Between January 1911 and April 1912, an unidentified killer (or killers) slaughtered 49 people in Louisiana and Texas, leaving the police baffled. In each case, the murder weapon was an ax, which was not uncommon at the time. In those days, an ax was often used, especially in cases of domestic murder. Nearly every family had one, since wood had to be split for cooking and heating, and it often became a weapon of convenience. But while there were ax murders all over the country, this string of murders was different. In addition to as ax being used as the murder weapon, all of the victims were mulattos or members of families with mixed-race children. The killer was presumed, by blacks and the police alike, to be selecting victims on the basis of their mixed – or “tainted” – blood.

The first attack took place in early January 1911 in Rayne, Louisiana, when a mother and her three children were hacked to death in their beds. In February, the killer struck again, this time in the town of Crowley, about 10 miles from Rayne. Three members of the Byers family were murdered in an identical manner to the earlier victims. Two weeks later, four members of the Andres family in Lafayette were also murdered in their beds. Each of them had been hacked to death with an ax during the early morning hours.

The killer first struck in Texas on March 22, 1911, when the Cassaway family was slaughtered in their home. Louis Cassaway was a black man who was employed at the Grant School for black children in San Antonio. The bodies of Cassaway, his wife, and three children were found in their home on Olive Street after Louis failed to come into work that day. A friend stopped by to check on him, discovered the bloody scene and called the police.

San Antonio, Texas, 1912

In the front room of their small house, Cassaway was lying on a daybed with his daughter, Louise, who was 6 years old. Their heads had been crushed by the blunt side of an ax and then oddly, the killer had covered Louis’ face with a piece of cloth. In the next room, officers found Louis’ wife (a white woman, whose name was not given in newspaper reports) lying dead in bed with the bodies of the other two children. A baby boy, six months old, was clutched in his mother’s arms, his skull crushed by an ax. Josie, the Cassaway’s three-year-old daughter, was lying dead across her mother’s legs. The police surmised that she had awakened during the murders and had tried to escape. She was struck down before she could climb down from the bed. Cassaway’s wife was the most badly disfigured of all of the victims. She had been struck repeatedly with the blunt side of the ax, spraying blood all over the walls of the bedroom.

The police were baffled by the crime (they had not yet been connected to the murders in Louisiana) and found no evidence of a robbery, or any “rational” motive for the murders. Nothing in the house was disturbed and Louis’ trousers were still hanging from the bedpost with several dollars in the pocket. The Cassaway family had no enemies and in fact, Louis, who had moved to the city from New Orleans many years before, was widely known and respected by whites and blacks alike. His wife had lived in San Antonio for about 10 years. She had married Louis in Mexico and by all accounts, their marriage was a happy one.

On November 29, 1911, the murderer traveled back to Lafayette, Louisiana. Six members of the Norbert Randall family were slain in their beds, each killed with the blunt side of an ax, shattering their skulls. The bodies of Randall, his white wife, and their four children (all under the age of 9) were discovered by neighbors. Their home looked like a slaughterhouse, but this time the police managed to track down some clues. A young black woman named Clementine Bernabet was arrested after witnesses claimed to have seen her in the vicinity around the time of the murders. Clementine, age 19, attended a house of worship called the Sacrifice Church with the Randalls. After being questioned by the police, she stated that she had killed the family because Norbert Randall refused to follow “church orders.” After being subjected to the “third degree,” as the newspapers put it, she also confessed to the murders of the Andres family back in February. She claimed that she had committed those murders with help from her father. The two were arrested and held in custody through the spring of 1912 – but their incarceration didn’t stop the carnage.

On January 19, 1912, the killer returned to Crowley, Louisiana, the scene of one of his earlier crimes and killed a mixed-race woman and her three children as they slept. Two days later, at Lake Charles, Felix Broussard, his wife, and three children were also slaughtered with an ax. This time, the killer left a note behind. It read: “When He Maketh the Inquisition for Blood, He forgetteth not the crime of the humble – human five.”

Stirred by what seemed to be religious implications, the police decided to look harder at Clementine Bernabet and the Sacrifice Church. Informants reported links between the church and certain voodoo cults in New Orleans, but try as they might, the police could find no evidence against anyone in the church. Bernabet herself insisted that the murders were related to a voodoo charm that she had purchased from a local witch doctor. The charm reportedly assured Bernabet and her father that “we could do as we pleased and we would never be detected.” She tried to test the magic by committing the murders. Police eventually dismissed the story and Bernabet and her father were never sent to trial.

Meanwhile, the murderers were continuing. On February 19, 1912, a mixed-race woman and her three children were murdered in their beds in Beaumont, Texas. Seven weeks later, on March 27, another mulatto mother, her four children and a male overnight guest were slain at Glidden, Texas.

The detectives who were not sidetracked by the religious confusion in the case took a more practical approach. They began to note a geographical pattern to the crimes. Since November 1911, the killer (or killers) had been striking at stops along the Southern Pacific Railroad line. This made it simple for the ax murderer to anonymously travel from town to town, always out of sight and one step of the authorities. In those days, it was fairly easy to hop a freight train. As detectives looked over the map, it seemed likely the next murders would occur west along the line, in San Antonio, Texas. And they were right – but there was nothing they could do to prevent it.

Southern Pacific Railroad Station in San Antonio, 1912

During the early morning hours of April 12, 1912, five members of the William Burton family were killed in their beds in San Antonio. Two nights later, the axman claimed the lives of three more mixed-race people at Hempstead, Texas – and then vanished. Nothing was heard from him for the next four months.

As the quiet nights dragged on, black residents of Louisiana and East Texas felt no relief from their fear of the mysterious killer. Blacks began arming themselves and even went as far as to post guards around their homes and neighborhoods. People were naturally filled with panic, despite the number of church and public meetings that were held to try and allay their fears. Fear even led to the deaths of two men in Victoria, Texas, shortly after the Burton murders. A young man named Ernest Smothers was guarding his family home when a friend stopped by to check on them. Terrified when he heard someone trying to open the front door, Smothers opened fire and shot his friend dead on the porch. The shot startled the neighborhood and a neighbor, Max Warren, rushed over to see what was going on. When he saw the dead man, he became scared and hurried back toward his own house. As he was running, someone shouted, “There goes the axman!” Another neighbor shot Warren dead in his tracks.

Arrests were made all over the region and every man who had used an ax as a murder weapon was suspected of being the traveling killer who had slain so many families. Suspect after suspect was picked up in small towns and in railroad yards in Louisiana and Texas. But the authorities were unable to find anyone that they could solidly connect to any of the crimes.

The killer’s four-month hiatus came to an end on August 6, 1912. Late that night, the wife of a mixed-race man named James Dashiell woke to the blinding pain of an ax cutting through her arm. The assailant had been aiming for her head, but had somehow missed and struck her arm instead. As Mrs. Dashiell began to scream the attacker fled from the house. The shaken woman was unable to give any sort of coherent description.

And with that, the 15-month murder spree came to an end, leaving the police and the assortment of detectives who delved into the case without a single solid piece of evidence. Defectors from the Sacrifice Church tried to convince the authorities of a connection between the church and the murders for some time, but detectives never managed to identify a valid suspect in the case.

Could the disenfranchised church members have been right, though? The killer targeted people of mixed race – and notably a number of white women who were either married to or in relationships with black men. According to the church members, the motive for the killings revolved around a verse from the New Testament, Matthew 3:10 --- “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”

Was the killer trying to somehow purify the white race from those he saw as “tainting” it in some way? Perhaps, but it’s likely we will never know. Very little documentation remains about these murders and even the newspapers of the day failed to devote much space to crimes that were perpetrated on “negroes.” Leaving more than four dozen victims in his wake, the killer vanished into history.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Another Little-Known Unsolved Mystery from American History

As almost any historical crime writer can tell you, it is a sad fact that African American murder victims rarely received the newspaper coverage that white victims received. This was especially true prior to the middle part of the twentieth century, when lynchings and race riots were still a tragic reality in American history. The fact that so many people have never heard of the “Atlanta Ripper” murders that took place in 1911 and 1912 is a perfect example of poor reporting by the newspapers of the day. In many cases, white reporters of the era were quick to point out that the killer’s victims were all attractive, well-dressed mulattoes with no “out and out black women” slain by the murderer.

Racial prejudice was rife in Atlanta in the early 1900s and the African American community was rocked by several tragic happenings. Among them was the notorious 1906 Race Riot, but just a few years later, a crime spree began that ended the lives of at least 20 women – four times the number of victims of the original “Jack the Ripper,” for whom the Atlanta killer was named. The murders committed by that original phantom, who haunted the squalid alleys of Whitechapel in London in 1888 were a recent memory to newspaper readers of the day, so it’s no surprise that his notoriety was revived by this new string of killings.

Throughout 1911, Atlanta became the scene of murder after murder. The Ripper’s victims were all young black or mulatto women in their twenties. While there were no fewer than six men arrested for the crimes, it was never ascertained if the killings were the work of one man or multiple men, including the ones who were arrested and tried for the murders. At least one man was convicted of one of the murders, although it’s uncertain based on the newspaper reports which murder he was said to have committed.

As the days turned to years, the murders continued, although with less frequency. By the time the Ripper was finished, nearly two dozen women were dead – and their murderer vanished into history.

Atlanta, 1911

Less than five decades after the Civil War, the Atlanta of 1911 prided itself as the gateway to the New South. With almost a dozen major railroads passing through the city, business was booming. New buildings and homes were being constructed and Inman Park and Peachtree Street had become enclaves for the wealthy.

For a select few of the city’s African Americans, Atlanta was a model for racial tolerance. Black-owned businesses had sprung up on streets like Auburn Avenue. Local colleges like Atlanta Baptist College, Morris Brown and Atlanta University, were considered among the best black temples of learning in the nation.

But for most of the city’s non-white residents, life was far from idyllic. Most worked menial jobs, installing sewers or loading railroad cars, perhaps, or cooking and cleaning in white households, then trudging home at night to dimly-lit neighborhoods like Reynoldstown and Pittsburg. Abraham Lincoln may have given black Americans the right to vote, but early twentieth-century Georgia did all it could to discourage black voters. Segregation, meanwhile, was not just part of daily life; it was the law. Blacks could not be buried in white cemeteries, could not walk through white parks, could not drink in white bars, eat in white restaurants or even drink from white water fountains. 

Nearly five years earlier, on September 22, 1906, what little racial unity existed was destroyed when a crowd of several thousand white men and boys gathered in downtown Atlanta amid unsubstantiated reports that four attacks had taken place on white women at the hands of black men. The white mob went on a rampage. Three days later, as many as 40 black men were dead.

By 1911, the population of Atlanta had climbed to more than 150,000, and whites actively sought to keep their neighborhoods free from black residents. That July, white citizens living on Ashby Street gathered at the Immanuel Baptist Church "for the purposes of suggesting methods of keeping Negroes out of the vicinity." Four black families had already moved in and there were signs that more were on the way. The committee decided to visit property owners in the neighborhood and ask them not to sell or rent to blacks.

Not surprisingly, when young black and mixed-race women began showing up brutally slain, it wasn’t cause for much concern in the local newspapers. Circulated largely among white readers, and staffed exclusively by white reporters and editors, the three city newspapers were far more concerned about crimes among whites. Crimes against blacks – especially those also committed by blacks – merited little attention. This is evident from a story in the Atlanta Constitution from May 29, 1911, which buried a two-paragraph brief on page seven under the headline "Negro Woman Killed; No Clew to Slayer -- Was Found With Her Throat Cut Near Her Home." The brief went on to say that the mutilated body of Belle Walker was found by her sister on Sunday morning, after Walker failed to return home the night before from her job as a cook at a home on Cooper Street.

But it wasn't until two weeks later, after Addie Watts was killed, that the newspapers began speculating that the murders of the "negresses" were perhaps the work of a solitary killer. The Atlanta Journal ran a headline on June 16 that read, “Black Butcher at Work?” even though the story beneath it ran just four paragraphs. The final lines were the first mention in the local press that compared the Atlanta killings to the work of London's serial killer in 1888. "On account of the number of recent murders of Negro women, policemen advance the theory that Atlanta has an insane criminal, something on the order of the famed 'Jack the Ripper.' "

Ten days later, the Ripper had moved to the front page. For the first time, the newspaper examined the similarities in the crimes that had occurred, noting that five Saturdays in a row had seen the murder of a young black or mixed-race woman. In each case, there was evidence that the woman had been choked unconscious, after which her throat was slit from ear to ear and “the carving of the victim – always in the same area of the body – begins.” None of the women had been raped, but from the nature of the mutilations (tactfully unspecified in the articles), it was apparent that the crimes were sexual in nature. As in the case of London’s Jack the Ripper and nearly all of his imitators, reporters claimed that the killer “seemed to possess some knowledge of anatomy.”

On July 1, 1911, a 20-year-old woman named Emma Lou Sharpe was at home on Hanover Street, waiting for her mother, Lena, to come home. It was a Saturday evening and Emma Lou was worried. Her mother had left an hour before to fetch some groceries and still had not returned. This was a cause for concern after the recent murders. Frantic with worry, Emma Lou set out in search of her mother. At the market, she learned that Lena had never shown up. Emma started back home, and as she walked down the dark street, she was approached by a stranger, whom she later described as "tall, black, broad-shouldered and wearing a broad-brimmed black hat."

The man asked her how she was feeling that evening and Emma Lou replied that she was well and tried to walk past him. But the man blocked her path. "Don't be afraid," he told Emma Lou. "I never hurt girls like you." Then he stabbed her in the back. Bleeding, she ran away, screaming for help. Tragically, her mother was already dead, her head almost severed from her neck. The Atlanta Ripper had struck again.
The newspapers had no choice but to pay attention to this bloody string of murders. The Constitution ran a headline that stated, "Theory of Jack-The-Ripper Is Given Further Substance." The story underneath recounted in detail how Emma Lou Sharpe came face-to-face with the man police believed was the Atlanta Ripper. The story noted, “While the ordinary Negro murder attracts little attention, the police department was upon the alert last night, doubtfully [sic] expecting a repetition of the long series of crimes which have baffled every effort of the detectives.”

The authorities now seemed certain that the murders were the work of a single killer. “It's the work of the same man,” said Coroner Paul Donehoo. And as another Saturday approached, the Journal asked the question that was on everyone's minds: "Will 'Jack the Ripper' Claim Eighth Victim This Saturday?" The story quoted an unnamed veteran policeman. He told the reporter, “It’s coming. The Negro will kill a woman before midnight Saturday.”

And he was right – almost. On Saturday night, July 8, 22-year-old Mary Yeldell left the home of W.M. Selcer on Fourth Street, where she worked as a cook. As she was walking past an alley, she heard a whistle. She stopped, and coming toward her was a "negro man, tall, black and well-built, and moving with a cat-like tread." Mary ran screaming back to the Selcer house. Mr. Selcer met her at the door, and then grabbed his revolver. He ran to the alley and found the man still standing there. But when Selcer told him to raise his hands, the man darted back down the alley. Selcer called the police, but their search turned up nothing.

Within days, black churches in Atlanta put together a reward for the capture and arrest of the killer, stating that the "foul and unpunished murders have placed a reign of terror over the laboring class of women of our race." But the reward turned out to be useless. If it had been the Ripper who approached Mary Yedell in the alley, his streak of Saturday night murders had been broken. It didn’t stop him, though; he just switched his slayings to another night.

On Tuesday morning, July 11, a group of men working on a sewer near the intersection of Atlanta Avenue and Martin Street came upon a large pool of blood in the road. They followed the trail of blood to a small gully about 30 feet away and discovered the lifeless body of Sadie Holley, who worked at a local laundry. Her throat had been cut so savagely that she had almost been decapitated.

The police were summoned, but clues were scarce. Sadie had been found without shoes and while they never turned up, investigators did find combs that had been worn by the victim on both sides of Atlanta Avenue. They also round a fist-sized rock that was smeared with blood.

Within 20 minutes, more than 100 onlookers had gathered at the scene. By 9:00 a.m., when Coroner Donehoo arrived, the crowd had grown to an estimated 500 people. Because so many murders had occurred, and because the police weren’t even sure which murders had been carried out by the Ripper, some newspapers called Holley the Ripper’s seventh victim, while another called the murder his eighth, and another speculated that this was victim nine.

In any event, the effect was the same: hysteria. Since so much of the confusion in the case had been directly caused by the official lack of interest in the murders of black women, police patrols were beefed up.  However, since there was no real pattern as to when and where the killer would strike, the increased patrols were mostly for show. The newspapers were suddenly interested in the case and their accounts decried the deaths, especially since all of the victims, “with one exception,” were “hard workers and generally respected by both races alike. The character of the victims is largely responsible for the indignation at the murders, which has been so evident among the better class of Negroes.”

Residents and newspaper editors alike were chastising the police for not finding the killer. By mid-July, Mayor Courtland Winn began publicly leaning on the police chief and chairman of the police commission. “Why the police are unable to cope with the situation is more than I can understand,” the mayor said.
The police were determined to carry on with the idea that they were doing something and within 24 hours after the discovery of Sadie Holley’s body, they arrested Henry Huff, a 27-year-old laborer. Huff had been seen with Holley the night she was killed, police said, and was wearing bloody clothes and had scratches on his arms when he was arrested. But Huff was only held on "suspicion," and in the same Constitution story that described his arrest, the unnamed reporter seemed exasperated with the situation. “The police department has nothing to say in explanation of its inability thus far to cope with the situation, further than the simple declaration that it is doing its best.” The story went on to say that the white community was "aroused" over the killings as well -- killings that "have served to intensify the servant problem.”

Atlanta’s black community was more than simply “aroused” over the murders. Faced with the lack of results from the police, they called on authorities to hire black detectives. Leaders of black churches urged the city council and the governor to add to the reward they had already established for the capture of the killer. Their petition was endorsed by many prominent white residents of the city, including Asa Candler, founder of Coca-Cola and a future mayor of Atlanta.

Not long after they arrested Huff, the police also picked up Todd Henderson at a saloon on Decatur Street. A man claimed that he had seen Henderson with Holley in a drug store, not far from the murder scene, on the night she was killed. Emma Lou Sharpe, who survived a close encounter with a man thought to be the Ripper, was brought into the station to see if she could identify Henderson. When Henderson spoke, a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution wrote that she “shrank back.” Even though a reporter from the Georgian said that her identification wasn’t solid, Emma Lou said otherwise. She told reporters, “That’s the man… If that’s not the right man, I’m badly mistaken.”

The Georgian, like other papers quoting African Americans, took great pains in spelling out their speech phonetically, in ways that reinforced racist stereotypes. For instance, Henderson was quoted as telling police, “Gee, if I wuz 'Jack the Ripper,' I sho wud hev begun on my wife. Fur she's gibe me lots ob trubble.”

Police grew more suspicious of Henderson after he told detectives that he hadn’t owned a razor or a pocketknife in over a year. Detectives found out that, on the morning after Holley was murdered, Henderson had dropped of a razor at a local barber’s shop to be sharpened.

Although the cases against both Henderson and Huff remained circumstantial, police decided to hand over both men to the prosecutor, in hopes that a grand jury would sift through the evidence and decide which man to indict for the murder of Sadie Holley. But were either of them the right man? Even the police didn’t think so. On Thursday, three days after the Holley murder, eight plainclothes patrolmen were assigned to night duty. Police chief Henry Jennings explained the challenges his department faced in tracking down the killer. “The police department is handicapped, seriously so, by its small size, but even if we had more men, we could not stop crime," Jennings said. The week ended with Governor Hoke Smith offering a $250 reward for the Ripper’s capture.

However, the chances of an additional reward accomplishing anything were slim, especially in light of the racism still being publicly displayed by Atlanta city officials. Nash Broyles, the city recorder, also served as a local magistrate. At the trial of Jim Murphy, a black man charged with threatening to cut his wife’s throat, Broyles said, “There is no such thing in Atlanta as a negro 'Jack the Ripper.’ It is just such cases as these that result in these murders of Negro women. I am satisfied that every one of the several Negro women slain recently in Atlanta were [sic] murdered by a different man. There are least 1,000 negro men in Atlanta today who stand ready to cut the throats of their wives at the slightest provocation.”

When asked to explain why so many murders took place on Saturday nights, Broyles had a clever answer.  Saturday night, he said, is the black man's "big night" -- the time when he "tanks up."
Over the weeks that followed, the murders stopped. But police, under intense political pressure, continued making arrests. In virtually each case, the accused was nabbed based on accounts of witnesses who had put them at the scene of the crime. On August 9, the grand jury indicted two men -- Henry Huff, and a new suspect named John Daniel. Huff was indicted in the Holley murder, but the papers offered little information on Daniel, other than to say that his was also a Ripper case.

The absence of murders soon came to an end. On August 31, more than six weeks since the last killing, Mary Ann Duncan was found dead in an area called Blantown, west of Atlanta, lying between a tangle of railroad tracks. It had all of the earmarks of another Ripper murder. The 20-year-old victim was found without her shoes and her throat had been cut from ear to ear.

Despite the indictments of Huff and Daniel, both the media and police were certain they hadn't arrested the true Ripper. That fall, the murders of young women resumed. The body of Minnie Wise, described by the newspapers as a "comely mulatto girl," was found in an alleyway on November 10. Her throat had been cut, her shoes were removed, and the index finger on her right hand was severed at the middle joint.

By this time, newspapers nationwide were running stories about the "Atlanta Ripper." Detectives from other cities offered their services. Mayor Winn was getting embarrassed. In a letter to one of those outside detective agencies, he struck a defensive tone: "Atlanta is known throughout the country as one of the most law-abiding cities of its size in the United States, and its police and detective departments are second to none. ... It is true that in some instances criminals escape arrest for a time, but even escapes of this kind occur in all cities.” Things were looking bad for Atlanta, and they were about to get worse.

Just one week after the mayor’s office sent out the letter, Atlanta saw one of the grisliest murders yet. This time the victim’s head was cut almost completely off, her heart cut out and left lying by her side, and her body disemboweled. The newspapers attributed the crime to the Ripper and on November 23, the Constitution ran an interview with an unnamed detective. Fed up, embarrassed and looking to blame someone, the detective struck out at every black person in the city. He said, “We won't get to the bottom of this thing until we get some help from the Negroes. These murders are being committed among the lower class of Negroes, ignorant, brutal beasts that know nothing else. Their acquaintances are afraid to talk, but if there was a little money slipped them we could find out invaluable clues, and I wager we would land the murderers. ... But we haven't got the expenses.”

At the black churches, pastors warned their female congregants about going out at night. At Big Bethel Church, a basket was passed and $1,200 was raised to add to the reward for the Ripper's capture. The pastors were still clamoring for black detectives to be retained to help track down the murderer.
Meanwhile, Henry Huff, who'd been accused of one of the Ripper murders, was found not guilty by a Fulton County jury. The Georgian noted, “This means that the police department and the county authorities are as far as ever from a solution to the 'Jack the Ripper' murders."

Throughout the winter of 1912, more young women were found with their throats cut, but the pace never again reached the early summer of the year before. In March 1912, the Constitution blandly reported that a grand jury had concluded that an Atlanta Ripper was a myth. "Each murder was committed by a different man. ... In each case, it was the result of jealousy following immoral conduct.” But the story -- which ran just four paragraphs -- didn't explain how the grand jury reached its conclusion. A month later, the same newspaper ran a story with the headline “Jack the Ripper Turns Up Again.”  In this case, the body of a 19-year-old "octoroon" girl was found in a clump of bushes at the end of Pryor Street. She'd been stabbed in the throat.

By the spring of 1912, the daily papers were writing about the Ripper's 20th victim, a 15-year-old "pretty octoroon" found floating in the Chattahoochee River, her throat cut, her body mutilated.

The police kept on arresting black men for the murders. In late April 1912, a man named Charlie Owens was sentenced to life in prison for one of the “so-called Ripper murders committed in Atlanta during the last 18 months.” The newspaper story didn’t say which murder he was convicted for. In a few weeks, the papers were attributing yet another murder to the Ripper. Was this just a ruse to sell papers? Or were the Ripper murders the work of more than one man, committed over a one-year period?

On August 10, 1912, more than a year after the first Ripper murders occurred, Henry Brown (also known as Lawton Brown) was arrested for killing Eva Florence, who had been murdered the previous November. Brown's wife told police that he had come home on successive Saturdays -- the same Saturdays that many of the killings had taken place -- with his clothes bloody, and would sit before the fire to dry them out. Under questioning, Brown revealed intimate details of the other crimes. Detectives believed they'd found their man.

But had they? That October, Brown went to trial for the Eva Florence murder, but a black man named John Rutherford testified that the police had put Brown through the “third degree” during questioning. Rutherford said that detectives had chained Brown’s arms to a chair and then struck him in the head until he confessed. For his part, Brown said he often suffered “hallucinations” and it was clear to the jury that he would admit to just about anything if he was pressured. They acquitted him on October 18 and he became another failure in the Atlanta authorities’ quest to convince someone of the Ripper murders.

Even though the official tally of Ripper Murders ended at 20 – with the murder of a 19-year-old “comely yellow girl” on May 10, 1912 – the Atlanta newspapers did not forget about him and invoked his name several times in the years that followed. In March 1913, Laura Smith was found with her throat cut. Like the other victims, Smith was young, of mixed race, and worked as a servant. Then, in March 1914, three full years after the Ripper murders had begun, firefighters found notes pinned to fireboxes around the city. The author of the notes promised to "cut the throats of all Negro women" who were found on the streets after a certain hour of the night. The newspaper attributed the notes to "Jack the Ripper."

Over time, though, as memories of the murders faded, most of Atlanta forgot about the Ripper. He has since become a distant figure in the annals of American crimes. No reward was ever collected for his capture, no real suspect was ever punished and to this day, the murders remain unsolved.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


An Unsolved – and Mostly Unknown – American Mystery

Just a handful of years before Jack the Ripper waged his campaign against the prostitutes of London’s Whitechapel district, becoming the first world-renowned serial killer, an equally mysterious and vicious murderer set to work ridding the Texas town of Austin of its servant girls. Within a year, the killer had claimed the lives of five black women, one black man and two white women. Thanks to his murderous methods, there was no question, even to an unprepared police force, that they were dealing with one man.

In the beginning, the killer’s taste in victims ran to female domestic servants, hence the name that was given to him by reporters: the Servant Girl Annihilator. The press, as they often did (and still do) had created a faceless monster living in the midst of an otherwise quiet city. Interesting, the case of this maniacal killer who raped and slaughtered women after dragging them from their beds in the middle of the night provides a fascinating glimpse at the bewildered reaction of one of the first American cities to be terrorized by a serial killer, long before anyone had an idea what a “serial killer” was.

Possibly because of the lack of knowledge and understanding about what the police force was facing, this string of murders has never been solved.

Austin’s nightmare began at the end of 1884 at the home of William K. Hall, an insurance salesman who lived at 901 W. Pecan Street (now Sixth Street). The family’s cook, a young mulatto woman named Mollie Smith, lived in a small apartment behind the Halls’ kitchen. Mollie’s boyfriend, Walter Spencer, occupied the apartment with her.

Around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of December 31, Mrs. Hall’s brother, Thomas Chalmers, was awakened by a figure lurching into his bedroom. It was Walter Spencer, bleeding badly from five deep wounds to his head. He cried out to Chalmers, “Mr. Tom, for God’s sake do something to help me! Somebody has nearly killed me.” Spencer was unable to say who had struck him, but he had apparently been hit by an ax. Mollie was missing.

The police were called and they investigated the apartment behind the kitchen. The room was soaked with blood, furniture was knocked over, a mirror was shattered and bloody handprints were all over the walls and door.

Mollie was still missing at dawn, but at 9:00 a.m., a neighbor found her by following a trail of blood leading away from the house. Like Spencer, Mollie had been struck with a sharp object. The attacker had dragged her outside. She was lying in the backyard near the outhouse, about 100 feet from the Hall house, almost nude and chopped into pieces. It seemed likely, from the way she was posed, that she had been “outraged,” or raped. Oddly, the murder weapon had been left at the foot of her bed, which meant the killer had taken her outside, attacked her and then went back into the house and left the ax where it would be easily found. The newspapers noted that Mollie was so badly hacked apart that her body would not hold together in her coffin. 

A reporter from the Austin Daily Statesman called it “one of the most horrible murders that ever a reporter was called on to chronicle – a deed almost unparalleled in the atrocity of its execution.”

Austin, Texas in 1885

The police fumbled badly during the entire case and their willingness to arrest almost anyone who might be a suspect began after the first murder. The first man arrested was William Brooks, a black bartender who was a former suitor of Mollie Smith. He said that he was at a dance until 4:00 a.m. on the night of the murder and had a number of witnesses to back up his story. Three attendees at the party testified that they had accompanied him home after it was over, so he could not have been the killer. In spite of this, jurors at the inquest that followed stated that Brooks was the most likely suspect. However, in March 1885, a grand jury found the evidence against him too weak to justify charging him with murder. The authorities quietly released him.

Five months later, on May 7, 1885, the killer struck again. Dr. Lucien B. Johnson lived on the corner of San Jacinto and Cypress streets. Behind his home was a cabin where his black cook, 30-year-old Eliza Shelly, lived with her three children. At 6:00 a.m. that morning, Dr. Johnson went to the market. While he was away, his wife heard screams coming from Eliza’s cabin. She sent her niece to see what was going on but after the girl peered into the window, she dared not go inside. Dr. Johnson was apprised of the situation when he returned and realized that he had better look for himself.

Steeping into the cabin, he found Eliza lying on the floor. She had a deep cut over her right eye that had been made by an ax. The wound had gone deep into her brain, nearly splitting her skull in two. She likely died instantly, but the killer had gone on to inflict other mutilations on her body. Eliza had a deep, round hole over her ear and another between her eyes, where it was speculated that the killer had stabbed her with an iron bar. He had also broken open a couple of trunks and scattered their contents around the room. Eliza’s bloody body had been wrapped in a blanket from the bed and she had been placed on a quilt taken from one of the trunks. From the way her body was posed and her nightgown was pulled up, the police thought it was likely that she had been sexually assaulted. Unlike Mollie Smith, Eliza had not been taken outside nor was the murder weapon left behind. Dr. Johnson found bare footprints in the dirt outside the cabin.

There was an eyewitness to the murder. All three of Eliza’s little boys were present during the attack, and the oldest, an eight year old, was able to tell a reporter what he had seen. He was still in a state of shock when he told of a man coming into the house and asking him where his mother kept her money. The man said that he was going to St. Louis the next morning. The boy could not see if the intruder was black or white because he wore a rag over his face. He said the man shoved him into a corner, placed a blanket over his head, and told him to be quiet or he would be killed. The next thing he knew, it was daylight and his mother was dead. It was his screaming that attracted the attention of Mrs. Johnson and led to the discovery of his mother’s body.

Once again, the police theorized that the murder was the result of a domestic dispute, but it turned out that Eliza Shelly’s husband was in prison. Almost entirely without clues, the police arrested a “half-witted” black teenager named Andrew Williams – simply because he was barefoot. He was released once it was realized that his feet were not the same size as the prints left at the scene.

Meanwhile, both the black and white communities in Austin were in an uproar over the murders. Shortly after Eliza Shelly’s murder, the Statesman noted, “It is not putting it too strong to say that the dissatisfaction [with the police] is wide-spread and confined to no particular class of citizen.” The paper called for Governor John Ireland to offer a reward for the killer’s capture, declaring: “It does not matter that the victim is an obscure colored woman. Her life was as dear to her, and should have been held as sacred, as that of the proudest lady in the land.”

More arrests followed. Once again, the suspects were black men with only a slight connection to the victims. None of the arrests ever amounted to anything because the authorities were still trying to link the killings to arguments and domestic disputes. They had no idea a sadistic killer was stalking their streets.

The killer claimed his next victim on May 23. Irene Cross lived in an apartment on San Jacinto Boulevard, across the street from Scholtz’s beer garden. The apartment was behind the home of a Mrs. Whittman. Irene worked as a servant for Mrs. Whittman and she lived with her adult son and young nephew. Irene’s son had the habit of leaving the front door unlocked when he came home late, which is how the killer got in. Shortly after midnight, Irene’s nephew was awakened by a large, barefooted black man, with his pants rolled up and wearing a brown hat and ragged coat. When the boy started to cry out, the man said he had no intention of harming him and ordered him to keep quiet. He then went into Irene’s room. A few minutes later, he came back out, knife in his hand. Irene stumbled out after him, crashing through the front door and into the yard. She was screaming and her cries alerted Mrs. Whittman, who telephoned for a doctor. A reporter from the Statesman arrived at the scene even before the doctor did. He was frightened and repulsed by the woman’s injuries, which he described for the newspaper. Her right arm had been nearly cut in two and a gaping wound had been opened halfway around her head, starting just above her right eye. “It looked as if the intention had been to scalp her,” he wrote.

Irene had no idea who had attacked her and, after considerable suffering, she died on the morning of May 25. It was now obvious to everyone that her slayer had been the same man who killed Mollie Smith and Eliza Shelly. A wave of fear swept through the city and some demanded that “every loafer and vagabond, white and black” be run out of the city.

Austin resident William Sydney Porter -- later to be better known as O. Henry -- gave the murderous serial killer the name by which he became famous. 

It was at this same time that the killer acquired his infamous name. Austin resident William Sydney Porter – better known as the short story writer O. Henry – coined the slayer’s nickname in a letter in which he wrote: “Town in fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night.” While Porter spoke in the plural, the Austin police finally realized that they were looking for a single killer. Sadly, reaching this conclusion brought them no closer to making a real arrest.

Two months of relative quiet came and went – “Austin is once more serene,” a reporter noted on June 11. But it would not stay that way for long. The Servant Girl Annihilator returned with a vengeance in August 1885.

When he returned, he claimed the life of 11-year-old Mary Ramey. Ramey lived with her mother, Rebecca, in a cabin behind the home of Valentine Weed, a livery stable owner, on East Cedar Street. The crime scene was only three blocks away from that of earlier victim Eliza Shelly. Around 5:00 a.m. on August 30, Weed heard agonized groans coming from the cabin. He went inside and found Rebecca unconscious. She had been struck in the head by an ax and her skull had been fractured. Mary had been hit in the head with a sandbag and dragged outside into the wash house. She had been raped and then hacked with an ax. As in the case of Eliza Shelly, her attacker had driven an iron pin through her ears.
Weed called for two physicians to help the girl, but it was too late. Mary died a little more than an hour later. Rebecca Ramey could not remember any of the details of the assault and in fact, did not even know that she had been hurt until she woke up and found that she was in a doctor’s care. Her recovery was slow and painful, but by September 15, she was reported to be “almost well,” though unable to tell who had attacked her and her daughter.
As if the Austin police had not been embarrassed enough by their failure to catch the killer, City Marshal Grooms Lee did not show up at the scene until seven hours after the crime had occurred. The police brought in bloodhounds to follow the trail left by the barefooted killer, but the dogs only led the authorities to a neighbor’s stable, where they found a barefooted youth named Tom Allen. His feet perfectly fit prints that had been found in the yard, but it turned out that he had simply walked past that morning, not realizing anything out of the ordinary had happened. He was examined by a doctor who stated that the boy had nothing to do with the murder. Once again, no clues were found and the crime went unsolved.

In the wake of the latest murder, local African Americans organized at the courthouse and formed a committee to help the authorities find the killer. The committee asked the mayor, city council and Governor Ireland to offer a reward for Mary Ramey’s murder, but the authorities declined to do so. After a blistering article about their failure in the newspaper, the citizens of Austin took the initiative and raised the reward money on their own. But it seemed that no amount of money was going to lead the police to the killer.

September 1885 brought another double murder and added a male victim to the Annihilator’s body count. In the dark morning hours of September 28, he found his victims on San Marcos Street. They were the black servants who lived in a small cabin in the backyard of Major W.B. Dunham, an attorney and editor of the Texas Court Reporter. Just before 1:00 a.m., the killer slipped into the cabin through an open window. Four people were sleeping in a single room – Patsy Gibson, Lucinda Boddy, Gracie Vance and Vance’s common-law husband, Orange Washington. Gibson and Boddy did not work for the Dunham family; they were visitors who had chosen a very bad night to call on their friends. The Annihilator struck Gibson and Boddy on their heads with a sandbag, fracturing both women’s skulls. For the other two, he used an ax, which was later found under the blankets of the bed. Within moments, all four of them were unconscious and Vance and Washington were dying.

The killer picked up the battered Gracie Vance, but rather than leave the house through the door, he shoved her out of the open window, leaving a trail of blood on the sill. He then threw the young woman over a fence and dragged her through a weed-filled vacant lot to a stable owned by a neighbor, W.H. Hotchkiss. Investigators came to believe that Gracie must have revived at this point because there were signs of a fierce struggle. The killer had finished his work by battering her head with a brick. As in two earlier incidents, the victim had been wounded above or near both ears and in the temple. She had been raped while she was either dead or dying.

As the Annihilator was finishing off Gracie Vance, Lucinda Boddy had regained consciousness. She stumbled about in the darkness until she found a kerosene lamp. The killer, seeing the glow of the lamp, was concerned enough to leave the stable, run to the cabin window, and angrily demand that the woman put out the lamp. Lucinda screamed and ran out of the house. The killer – for whatever reason – climbed through the window and put out the light. Then he ran after Lucinda, catching up with her at the front gate. Things might have gotten worse for her at this point, but Major Dunham had been awakened by the sounds outside. When he came out of the house with a gun, Lucinda threw her arms around him and screamed, “We’re all dead!” Within moments, Major Dunham sounded the alarm. Mrs. Hotchkiss shouted that she had just seen a man running out of her stable. A crowd of neighbors pursued the killer in vain through a nearby thicket. The group included a former alderman named Duff and a police officer, both of whom fired several shots at the retreating figure.

Orange Washington died from his injuries a few hours later. Patsy Gibson and Lucinda Boddy were taken to the hospital. Doctors were certain that Gibson would die, but she recovered. Lucinda claimed that she recognized the man who struck her and who told her to put out the lamp. Within minutes of the attack, she had told both Major Dunham and Mr. Duff that her attacker was a black man named Doc Woods. Woods was arrested as soon as the police could find him. It was later claimed that he was taken to jail and forced to remove his bloody clothing. Woods insisted that he was innocent and that his bloody clothes were the result of a venereal disease and not murder, but Lucinda Boddy continued to claim that he had attacked her that night. Even after he came up with an alibi, Woods was allowed to languish in jail for weeks. It was finally proven that the blood on his clothing was his own but it took months for him to gain his release.

The Servant Girl Annihilator’s last known victims, both affluent white women, were found within hours of each other on December 24, 1885. Moses H. Hancock was a middle-aged carpenter who lived on East Water Street with his two teenage daughters and his wife, Susan, who was described in a contemporary report as “A beautiful woman, about forty years of age. She was born and educated in the Eastern states and had much literary ability.”

Around midnight, Hancock was awakened by the sounds of groans. Alarmed, he hurried to his wife’s room to find an empty, blood-spattered bed. He followed the trail of blood out the front door, around the side of the house and into the backyard – where he thought he saw a figure jumping over the fence. He found Susan barely alive and lying in a pool of blood. She had been smashed in the face and head with an ax, which the killer had left behind. Her left ear was cut through, she had a wound above her left eye, her cheekbone was cut and her skull was fractured in two places. The Annihilator had again used a long sharp instrument to stab her in the ear with such force that the weapon sank two inches into her brain. Doctors refused to tell a reporter who arrived at the scene whether or not she had been sexually assaulted.

Perhaps frustrated by Hancock’s sudden appearance, the killer struck again an hour later. James Phillips, a well-known architect, lived with his parents about 12 blocks away on West Hickory Street. At 1:00 a.m., Phillips’ mother woke up to hear her infant grandson crying. When she entered the bedroom, she found her son, James, lying unconscious with ax wounds to the head and neck, including a deep cut over the ear. The baby, unharmed but upset, was standing in his parent’s blood-soaked bed. Mrs. Phillips fainted, but soon revived. When she did, she realized that James’ wife, Eula, was missing.

A neighbor heard the commotion and came to investigate. Just as Hancock had done just an hour before, he followed a bloody trail outside. At the end of the trail, he found Eula Phillips lying dead and naked in another neighbor’s backyard. She had been killed by a blow to the forehead from the blunt edge of an ax that had crushed her skull. She appeared to have been raped. A bloody handprint had been left on a nearby fence, indicating that the killer had climbed over it. The ax had been left on the bed – which meant that the killer either had two axes that night or, after raping and killing Eula, he had gone back into the house and left the ax there.

On Christmas morning, the lead headline of the Austin Daily Statesman screamed “BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!” Police brought the bloodhounds back in again. The dogs followed a westward trail up Blanco Street until they had traveled about two miles outside of the city. After that, they lost the trail and could go no farther.

Susan Hancock lingered for a few days after the attack. She died at home on the night of December 28. The reaction to these latest murders was pure and absolute terror. Mayor Robert Johnson called an emergency meeting at the state capitol building that was attended by more than 1,000 citizens. A citizen’s committee on safety was formed and one of their first items of business was to figure out a way to prevent a lynching if the perpetrator was ever captured. Private citizens and businesses raised several thousand dollars to aid police investigations. The committee also raised a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. Detectives were imported from other states and a strict curfew was enforced. Much too late, an additional 30 policemen were hired to patrol the city streets. Governor Ireland finally saw the wisdom in offering a $300 reward for information leading to the murderer’s arrest. By January 3, 1886, the reward had grown tenfold.

To show how hard they were trying, the police made two more arrests. This time, the dirty laundry of two prominent white citizens would be aired in public. As James Phillips slowly recuperated from his wounds, salacious rumors spread that he had killed his wife after discovering that she was working as a prostitute. He was arrested on January 1, in spite of the fact that he would have had to have hacked his own face and head with an ax to pull off the ruse that another attacker had been involved. Phillips was tried and convicted but the conviction was overturned on appeal due to lack of evidence. The second arrest was that of Moses Hancock. He was accused of killing his wife because she had allegedly been about to leave him due to his drinking. Hancock was tried and a hung jury eventually freed him.

The Annihilator was never found. After the double slaying on Christmas Eve, he seemingly retired, died, or more likely, left Austin altogether. There have been a number of candidates named as the possible killer over the years, but no obvious suspects have ever stood out. In 1888, some theorists tried to link Austin’s unsolved murders to the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper in London. Many wondered if the Ripper and the Servant Girl Annihilator could be the same man. Several newspapers pondered whether the killer might have traveled to London when he found that things were too risky for him to stay in Texas. This fanciful solution fails on several points, most notably in that the murders committed in Austin and those committed in London were not even remotely similar in method.

Today, we have much more experience with serial killers than detectives of the Victorian era did. What seemed similar to people in 1888, having seen so few murders of this type, seems quite different to us now. The only real comparison that we can make between Jack the Ripper and the Annihilator is that neither killer was ever identified – and likely never will be.

There’s a great blog online about the case, and its creator, author J.R. Galloway has a highly recommended book on the subject. Take some time to check it out!  

Monday, January 27, 2014


But Did She Really?

Lizzie Borden took an axe
 And gave her mother forty whacks.
 And when she saw what she had done,
 She gave her father forty-one.

The August afternoon was unbearably hot, especially for Massachusetts. The temperature had climbed to well over 100 degrees, even though it was not yet noon. The old man, still in his heavy morning coat, was not feeling well and he reclined on a mohair-covered sofa in the parlor, leaning back so that his boots were resting on the floor and soiling the upholstery of the couch. In a short time, he drifted off to sleep, never suspecting that he would not awaken. 

He also did not suspect that, above his head, his wife was bleeding on the floor of the upstairs guestroom. She had been dead for nearly two hours and in moments, the same hand that took her life would take the life of the old man’s as well.

And even if he knew those things by way of some macabre premonition, he might never guess that his murderer would never be brought to justice.

The case of Lizzie Borden has fascinated those with an interest in American crime for well over a century. There have been few cases that have attracted as much attention as the hatchet murders of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby. This is partly because of the gruesomeness of the crime but also because of the unexpected character of the accused. Lizzie Borden was not a slavering maniac but a demure, respectable, spinster Sunday School teacher. Because of this, the entire town was shocked when she was charged with the murder of her parents. The fact that she was found to be not guilty of the murders, leaving the case to be forever unresolved, only adds to the mystique and fans the flames of our continuing obsession with the mystery. 

 From Left to Right: Andrew Jackson Borden / Abby Durfree Gray Borden/ Emma Borden

Andrew Jackson Borden was one of the leading citizens of Fall River, Massachusetts, a prosperous mill town and seaport. The Borden family had strong roots to the community and had been among the most influential citizens of the region for decades. At the age of 70, Borden was certainly one of the richest men in the city. He was a director on the board of several banks and a commercial landlord with considerable holdings. He was a tall, thin and dour man and while he was known for this thrift and admired for his business abilities, he was not well-known for his humor, nor was he particularly likable. 

Borden lived with his second wife, Abby Durfee Gray and his daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie, in a two-and-a-half story frame house. It was located in an unfashionable part of town, but was close to his business interests. Both daughters felt the house was beneath their station in life and begged their father to move to a nicer place. Borden’s frugal nature never even allowed him to consider this. In spite of this, and his conservative daily life, Borden was said to be moderately generous with both of his daughters. 

The events that would lead to tragedy began on Thursday, August 4, 1892. The Borden household was up early that morning as usual. Emma was not at home, having gone to visit friends in the nearby town of Fairhaven, but the girls’ Uncle John had arrived the day before for an unannounced visit. John Morse, the brother of Andrew Borden’s first wife, was a regular guest in the Borden home. He traveled from Dartmouth, Massachusetts several times each year to visit the family and conduct business in town.

The Borden House at 92 Second Street & the barn at the rear, where Lizzie claimed to be during the murders

The first person awake in the house that morning was Bridget Sullivan, the maid. Bridget was a respectable Irish girl who Emma and Lizzie both rudely insisted on calling "Maggie,” which was the name of a previous girl who had worked for them. At the time of the murders, Bridget was 26 years old and had been in the Borden household since 1889. There is nothing to say that she was anything but an exemplary young woman, who had come to America from Ireland in 1886. She did not stay in the house during the night following the murders, but did come back on Friday night to her third-floor room. On Saturday, she left the house, never to return. 

Bridget came downstairs from her attic room around 6:00 a.m. to build a fire in the kitchen and begin cooking breakfast. An hour later, John Morse and Mr. and Mrs. Borden came down to eat and they lingered in conversation around the table for nearly an hour. Lizzie slept late and did not join them for the meal. 

The Borden's maid, Bridget Sullivan

At a little before 8:00 a.m., Morse left the house to go and visit a niece and nephew and Borden locked the screen door after him. It was a peculiar custom in the house to always keep doors locked. Even the doors between certain rooms upstairs were usually locked. A few minutes after Morse left, Lizzie came downstairs but said that she wasn’t hungry. She had coffee and a cookie but nothing else. It’s possible that she had a touch of the stomach disorder that was going around the household. Bridget later stated that she felt the need to go outside and throw up some time after breakfast. Two days before, Mr. and Mrs. Borden had been ill during the night and had both vomited several times. It has been assumed that this may have been food poisoning as no one else in the family was affected. It may have been the onset of the flu -- or something far more sinister.

At a quarter past nine, Andrew Borden left the house and went downtown. Abby Borden went upstairs to make the bed in the guestroom that Morse was staying in. She asked Bridget to wash the windows. At 9:30, she came downstairs for a few moments and then went back up again, commenting that she needed fresh pillowcases. Bridget went about her daily chores and started on the window washing, retrieving pails and water from the barn. She also paused for a few minutes to chat over the fence with the hired girl next door. She finished the outside of the windows at about 10:30 a.m. and then started inside. 

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Borden returned home. Bridget let him in and Lizzie came downstairs. She told her father that "Mrs. Borden has gone out - she had a note from someone who was sick." Lizzie and Emma always called their step-mother "Mrs. Borden" and recently, the relationship between them, especially with Lizzie, was strained. 

Borden took the key to his bedroom off a shelf and went up the back stairs. The room could only be reached by these stairs, as there was no hallway, and the front stairs only gave access to Lizzie’s room (from which Emma’s could be reached) and the guest room. There were connecting doors between the elder Borden’s rooms and Lizzie’s room, but they were usually kept locked. 

Borden stayed upstairs for only a few minutes before coming back down and settling onto the sofa in the sitting room. Lizzie began to heat up an iron to press some handkerchiefs. "Are you going out this afternoon, Maggie?" she asked Bridget. "There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s this afternoon, at eight cents a yard." 

Bridget replied that she was not. The heat of the morning, combined with the window washing and her touch of stomach ailment, had left her feeling poorly and she went up the back stairs to her attic room for a nap. This was a few minutes before 11:00 a.m. She was awakened a few minutes later by a cry from downstairs.

"Maggie, Come down!" Lizzie shouted from the bottom of the back stairs and Bridget’s eyes fluttered open. She had drifted off into a restless sleep but the urgency of Lizzie’s cries startled her awake. Bridget replied in a flustered voice, asking what was wrong.  

"Come down quick!" Lizzie wailed, "Father's dead! Somebody's come in and killed him!" 

As Bridget hurried from the staircase, she found Lizzie standing at the back door. Her face was pale and taut. She stopped the young maid from going into the sitting room and ordered her to go and fetch a doctor.

Dr. Bowen, a family friend, lived across the street from the Bordens’ and Bridget ran directly to the house. The doctor was out, but Bridget told Mrs. Bowen that Mr. Borden had been killed. She ran directly back to the house. Mrs. Bowen asked Lizzie where she had been when the murder occurred and she said she was out in the yard, heard a groan and came inside. This was the first version she would give of her movements that morning – various others would follow.

Lizzie sent Bridget to summon a friend of the Borden sisters, Alice Russell, who lived a few blocks away and by now, neighbors were starting to gather on the lawn and someone had called for the police. Mrs. Adelaide Churchill, the next door neighbor, came over to Lizzie, who was at the back entrance to the house and asked if anything was wrong. Lizzie responded by saying, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, someone has killed Father!" 

She explained that her father was in the sitting room and asked where she was when he was killed, she stated that she had been in the barn, getting a piece of iron. She didn’t know where Abby Borden was, stating that she had gone out to visit a sick friend. But she added, “But I don’t know but that she is killed too, for I thought I heard her come in... Father must have an enemy, for we have all been sick, and we think the milk has been poisoned." 

 Andrew Borden's bloody corpse was discovered on his favorite downstairs sofa. 

Abby Borden's body was found upstairs. She was struck from behind, likely while on her knees making the bed. 

By this time, Dr. Bowen had returned, along with Bridget, who had hurried back from informing Miss Russell of the day’s dire events. Dr. Bowen examined the body and asked for a sheet to cover it. Borden had been attacked with a sharp object, probably an ax, and so much damage had been done to his head and face that Bowen, a close friend, couldn’t positively identify him at first. Borden’s head was turned slightly to the right and eleven blows had gashed his face. One eye had been cut in half and his nose had been severed. The majority of the blows had been struck within the area that extended from the eyes and nose to the ears. Blood was still seeping from the wounds and had been splashed onto the wall above the sofa, the floor and on a picture hanging on the wall. It looked as though Borden had been attacked from above and behind as he slept. 

Several minutes passed before anyone thought of going upstairs to see if Abby Borden had come home. Lizzie, who previously was sure that Abby was out of the house, now stated that she thought she heard her come inside. She ordered Bridget to go upstairs and check, but the maid refused to go alone. Mrs. Churchill offered to go with her. They went up the staircase together but Mrs. Churchill was the first to see Abby lying on the floor of the guestroom. She had fallen in a pool of blood and Mrs. Churchill later said that she had been so savagely attacked that she only "looked like the form of a person." 

Dr. Bowen found that Mrs. Borden had been struck more than a dozen times, from the back. The autopsy later revealed that there had been nineteen blows to her head, probably from the same hatchet that had killed Mr. Borden. The blood on Mrs. Borden's body was dark and congealed, leading him to believe that she had been killed before her husband. 

Dr. Bowen was heavily involved in the activities of the Borden house on the day of the murder. He was the first to examine the bodies, sent a telegram to Emma to summon her home, assisted Dr. Dolan with the autopsies and even prescribed a calming tranquilizer for Lizzie. He was a constant presence in the house and his involvement with them, especially on August 4, has led to him being considered a major figure in some of the conspiracies developed around the murders. 

A call reached the Fall River police station at 11:15 a.m., but as things would happen, that day marked the annual picnic of the Fall River Police Department and most of them were off enjoying an outing at Rocky Point. The only officer dispatched to the house was Officer George W. Allen. He ran to the house, saw that Andrew Borden was dead and ran back to the station house to inform the city marshal of the events. He left no one in charge of the crime scene. While he was gone, neighbors overran the house, comforting Lizzie and peering in at the gruesome state of Andrew Borden’s body. The constant traffic trampled and destroyed any clues that might have been left behind. 

During the half hour or so that no authorities were on the scene, a county medical examiner named Dolan passed by the house by chance. He looked in and was pressed into service by Dr. Bowen. Dolan examined the bodies and after hearing that the family had been sick and that the milk was suspected, he took samples of it. Later that afternoon, he had the bodies photographed and then removed the stomachs and sent them, along with the milk, to the Harvard Medical School for analysis. No poison was ever found. 

The murder investigation that followed was chaotic. The police were reluctant to suspect Lizzie of the murder as it was against the perceived social understanding of the era that a woman such as she was could have possibly committed such a heinous crime. Other solutions were advanced but were discarded as even more improbable.

A profusion of clues were discovered over the next few days, all of which led nowhere. A boy reported seeing a man jump over the back fence of the Borden property and while a man was found matching the boy’s description, he had an unbreakable alibi. A bloody hatchet was found on the Sylvia Farm in South Somerset but it proved to be covered in chicken blood. While Bridget was considered a suspect for a short time, the investigation finally began to center on Lizzie. A circumstantial case began to be developed against her with no incriminating physical evidence, like bloody clothes, a real motive for the killings, or even a convincing demonstration of how and when she committed the murders. 

Over the course of several weeks, though, investigators managed to compile a sequence of events that certainly cast suspicion on the spinster Sunday School teacher. The timeline ran from August 3, the day before the murders to August 7, the day that Alice Russell saw her friend burning a dress that may (or many not) have had blood on it. The timeline is as follows:

August 3
The timeline began in the early morning hours when Abby Borden sent for Dr. Bowen and told him that she and her husband had been sick and vomiting during the night. He did not believe the illness was serious and there would be no evidence of poisoning found in the Borden autopsies. 

Another incident took place when Lizzie tried to buy ten cents worth of prussic acid from Eli Bence, a clerk at Smith’s Drug Store. She explained to him that she wanted the poison to "kill moths in a sealskin cape" but he refused to sell it to her without a prescription. A customer and another clerk also identified Lizzie as being in the store that morning, but she denied it. She testified at the inquest that she had not attempted to purchase the poison and had not been at the drugstore that day. 

The third incident was the arrival of John Morse in the early afternoon. He came without luggage but intended to stay the night. Both he and Lizzie testified that they did not see each other until after the murders the next day, although Lizzie knew that he was there. 

Finally, that evening Lizzie visited her friend, Miss Alice Russell. According to Miss Russell, Lizzie was agitated, worried over some threat to her father, and concerned that something was about to happen. Borden had a number of enemies made during business dealings and she claimed to be frightened that something might happen to the family.

August 4
Abby was killed, according to the autopsy, at around 9:30 a.m. The killer, if it was anyone but Lizzie or Bridget, would have had to have concealed himself (or herself) in the house for well over an hour, waiting for Andrew Borden’s return. Abby could have been discovered at any moment. 

Abby’s time of death also posed another problem for investigators. According to Lizzie, she had gone out but she obviously hadn’t. The note that Lizzie said that Abby had received, asking her to visit a sick friend, was never found. Lizzie later said that she might have inadvertently thrown it away. 

When Andrew Borden returned to the house, Bridget had to let him in as the screen door was fastened on the inside with three locks. This would have made it extremely difficult for the killer to get inside. Only a small window of opportunity would have existed while Bridget was fetching a pail and water from the barn. In addition, Bridget later testified that while she was unlocking the door for Mr. Borden, she heard Lizzie laugh from upstairs. However, Lizzie swore that she had been in the kitchen when her father came home. 

Borden also had to retrieve the key to his bedroom from the shelf in the kitchen to get into his room. This was done as a precaution because of a burglary the year before. In June 1891, a police captain inspected the house after Andrew Borden reported a crime. Borden’s desk had been rummaged through and $100 and a watch and chain had been taken. There was no clue as to how anyone could have gotten into the house, although Lizzie offered the fact that the cellar door had been open. The neighborhood was canvassed but no one reported seeing a stranger in the vicinity. According to the police captain, Borden said several times to him, "I’m afraid the police will not be able to find the real thief." It is unknown what he may have meant by this but various conspiracy theorists have their own ideas. 

On the afternoon of the murder, four hatchets were discovered in the basement of the house, including one with dried blood and hair on it (later determined to be from a cow). Another of the hatchets was rusted and the others were covered with dust. One of these was without a handle and was covered in ashes. The broken handle appeared to be recent, so it was taken into evidence. 

A Sergeant Harrington and another officer asked Lizzie where she had been that morning and she said that she had been in the barn loft looking for iron for fishing sinkers. The two men examined the barn and found the loft floor to be thick with dust, with no evidence that anyone had been up there. 

Deputy Marshal John Fleet questioned Lizzie and asked her who might have committed the murders. Other than an unknown man with whom her father had gotten into an argument with a few weeks before, she could think of no one. When asked directly if Uncle John Morse or Bridget could have killed her father and mother, she said that they couldn't have. Morse had left the house before 9:00 a.m., and Bridget had been sleeping when Andrew had been killed. She pointedly reminded Fleet that Abby was not her mother, but her stepmother. 

August 5
The investigation continued on the day after the murders. By now, the story had appeared in the newspapers and the entire town was in an uproar. Sergeant Harrington found Eli Bence at Smith’s Drug Store and interviewed him about the attempt to buy poison. Emma engaged Mr. Andrew Jennings as their family attorney. The police continued to investigate, but nothing of significance was found. 

August 6
The funerals of the Bordens took place on Saturday. The service was conducted by the Reverends Buck and Judd, from the two Congregational Churches. The bodies were not buried at that time. The police arrived and removed the bodies for another autopsy. The heads of the Bordens were removed from the body, the skin removed and plaster casts were made of the skulls. For some reason, Mr. Borden’s head was not returned to his coffin. 

August 7
On Sunday morning, Alice Russell observed Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove. She told Lizzie, "If I were you, I wouldn't let anybody see me do that." Lizzie said it was a dress stained with paint and was of no use. 

It was this testimony from Miss Russell at the inquest that prompted Judge Blaisdell of the Second District Court to charge Lizzie with the murders. The inquest itself was kept secret but at its conclusion, Lizzie was charged and taken into custody. The only testimony that Lizzie ever gave during all of the legal proceedings was at the inquest and we will never know what she said for the records were sealed. She was arraigned the following day and entered a not guilty plea. She was then taken to the Taunton Jail, which had facilities for female prisoners. 

After that, Judge Blaisdell held a preliminary hearing. Lizzie did not testify but the record of her testimony at the inquest was entered into evidence by her attorney, Andrew Jennings. The judge declared her probable guilt and bound Lizzie over for the grand jury, who heard the case during the last week of its session.

The Commonwealth, represented by prosecutor Hosea Knowlton, had the disagreeable task of building the case against Lizzie. When he finished his presentation to the Grand Jury, he surprisingly invited defense attorney Jennings to present a case for the defense. This was something that was simply not done in Massachusetts. In effect, a trial was being conducted before the Grand Jury. Many saw this is as a chance that the charge against Lizzie might be dismissed. Then, on December 1, Alice Russell again testified about the burning of the dress. The next day, Lizzie was charged with three counts of murder. Strangely, she had been charged with the murder of her father, her step-mother and then the murders of both of them. The trial was scheduled to begin on June 5, 1893. 

The trial itself lasted fourteen days and news of it filled the front pages of every major newspaper in the country. Between 30 and 40 reporters from the Boston and New York papers and the wire services were in the courtroom every day. The trial began on June 5 and after a day to select the jury, which consisted of twelve middle-aged farmers and tradesmen, the prosecution spent the next seven days putting on its case.

Hosea Knowlton was the reluctant prosecutor in the case. He had been forced into the role by Arthur Pillsbury, Attorney General of Massachusetts, who should have been the principal attorney for the prosecution. However, as Lizzie's trial date approached, Pillsbury felt the pressure building from Lizzie's supporters, particularly women's groups and religious organizations. Worried about the next election, he directed Knowlton, who was the District Attorney in Fall River, to lead the prosecution in his place. He also assigned William Moody, District Attorney of Essex County, to assist him. 

Moody made the opening statements for the prosecution. He presented three arguments. First, that Lizzie was predisposed to murder her father and stepmother because of their animosity toward one another. Second, that she planned the murder and carried it out and third, that her behavior, and her contradictory testimony, after the fact was not that of an innocent person. Moody did an excellent job and many have regarded him as the most competent attorney involved in the case. At one point, he threw a dress onto the prosecution table that he planned to admit as evidence. As he did so, the tissue paper that was covering the skull of Andrew Borden lifted and then fluttered away. Dramatically, Lizzie slid to the floor in a dead faint. 

Crucial to the prosecution in the case was evidence that supplied a motive for Lizzie to commit the murders. This was done by using a number of witnesses who testified to Lizzie’s dislike of her step-mother and her complaints about her father’s spendthrift ways. The prosecution also tried to establish that Borden was writing a new will that would leave Emma and Lizzie with a pittance and Abby with a huge portion of his estate. One of the witnesses called to establish this was John Morse, who first said that Andrew discussed a new will with him and then later said that he never told him anything about it. 

The prosecution then turned to Lizzie’s predisposition towards murder and her strange behavior before and after the events. They again called Alice Russell to testify about the burning of the dress. The destruction of it seemed a possible answer as to why Lizzie was not covered with blood after killing her parents. It was highly probable that she would have been spattered with it if she did commit the murders. In later years, some have theorized that perhaps she wore a smock over her dress during the murders or that perhaps she was naked when she did it. However, the smock would have been bloody and also would have had to be disposed of. As far as Lizzie being naked, this seems doubtful too. Ignore the fact that in the Victorian society of Fall River, a young woman would have never appeared nude in front of her father (even to kill him) and focus on the fact that Lizzie never had time to bathe after killing Abby or in the few minutes between the killing of Andrew and her calling for Bridget. 

To the prosecution, though, the burning of the dress suggested that Lizzie had changed clothing after the murders. But why would she have kept the dress for three days before burning it and what would she have worn for the hours between the two deaths? Someone would have surely noticed a dress covered with blood. 

On Saturday, June 10, the prosecution attempted to enter Lizzie's testimony from the inquest into the record. The defense objected, since it was testimony from one who had not been formally charged. The jury was withdrawn so that the lawyers could argue it out and on Monday, when court resumed, the three-judge panel excluded Lizzie’s contradictory inquest testimony. 

On Wednesday, June 14, the prosecution called Eli Bence, the drug store clerk, to the stand. The defense objected to his testimony as irrelevant and prejudicial. The judges sustained the objection and Lizzie’s attempt to buy poison was thrown out of the record. 

The prosecution called several medical witnesses, including Dr. Dolan. One of them even produced the skull of Andrew Borden to show how the blows had been struck. Unfortunately for the prosecution, these witnesses had an adverse effect on the case as the defense used their testimonies to strike points in Lizzie’s favor. They were forced to state that whoever had committed the murders would have been covered with blood. There was no witness to say that blood was ever found on Lizzie.

Lizzie Borden’s defense counsel used only two days to present its case. For the most part, the defense offered witnesses who could either corroborate Lizzie’s story, or who could provide alternate possibilities as to who the killer might be. The testimony of the various witnesses was meant to do little but provide "reasonable doubt" about Lizzie’s guilt.

For instance, an ice cream peddler testified to seeing a woman (presumably Lizzie) coming out the barn. This bolstered her story that she had actually been there. A passer-by claimed to see a "wild-eyed man" around the time of the murders. Mr. Joseph Lemay claimed that he was walking in the deep woods, some miles from the city, about twelve days after the murders when he heard someone crying "Poor Mrs. Borden! Poor Mrs. Borden! Poor Mrs. Borden!" He said that he looked over a wall and saw a man sitting on the ground. The man, who had bloodstains on his shirt, picked up a hatchet, shook it at him and then disappeared into the woods. The defense also called witnesses who claimed to see a mysterious young man in the vicinity of the Borden house who was never properly explained. They also called Emma Borden to dispute the suggestion that Lizzie had any motive to want to kill their parents.

On Monday, June 19, Robinson delivered his closing arguments and Knowlton began his closing arguments for the prosecution. He completed them on the following day. The judges then asked Lizzie if she had anything to say for herself and she spoke for the only time during the trial. She said: “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.” Instructions were then given to the jury and they left to deliberate over the verdict. 

A little over an hour later, the jury returned with its verdict. Lizzie Borden was found "not guilty" on all three charges. Public opinion was, by this time, of the feeling that the police and the courts had persecuted Lizzie long enough. 

Five weeks after the trial, Lizzie (who henceforth called herself "Lizbeth") and Emma purchased and moved into a thirteen-room, stone house at 306 French Street in Fall River. It was located on "The Hill", the most fashionable area of the city. Lizzie named the house "Maplecroft" and had the name carved into the top step leading up to the front door. 

Lizzie's (or Lizbeth's) home in Fall River, Maplecroft.

In 1904, Lizzie met a young actress, Nance O'Neil, and for the next two years, Lizzie and Nance were inseparable. About this time, Emma separated from her sister and moved to Fairhaven. She and Lizzie stopped speaking to one another. Rumors said that sensational revelations about the murders would follow the split, but the revelations never came. Emma stayed with the family of Reverend Buck, and, sometime around 1915, she moved to Newmarket, New Hampshire. 

Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, at age 67, after a long illness from complications following gall bladder surgery. Emma died nine days later, as a result of a fall down the back stairs of her house in Newmarket. They were buried together in the family plot, along with a sister who had died in early childhood, their mother, their stepmother, and their headless father. Both Lizzie and Emma left their estates to charitable causes and Lizzie designated $500 for the perpetual care of her father’s grave. 

Bridget Sullivan never worked for any of the Bordens again. After the terrible events of the murder and the trial, she left town. She lived in modest circumstances in Butte, Montana until her death in 1948. Those who suggested that she had been "paid off" to keep quiet about the murders could find no evidence of this in what she left behind. 

Many years have passed since the murders in Fall River and they remain unsolved. No single theory has ever been regarded as the correct one and every writer on the case seems to have a favorite culprit. Many books and articles have been written about the case, but each writer puts their own spin on the story. During the early days of the investigation, and well into the days of the trial, a number of accusations were made. At times, the killer was said to be John Morse, Bridget Sullivan, Emma Borden, Dr. Bowen and even one of Lizzie’s Sunday School students. Since that time, there have been other suggested killers. Some of the theories are credible and some are not. 

One of the theories remains that Lizzie Borden actually committed the murders of her parents and managed to get away with it. This theory was especially popular in books written prior to 1940, but many believe it today. Most of the writers who stand by this solution see the court rulings and poorly executed prosecution case as the reason that Lizzie was never found guilty. They simply refuse to see how an outsider could have committed the crimes. But there is that problem of all of the blood. If Lizzie did kill her step-mother, where was the blood that would have been on her dress when she called Bridget a short time later? If she did change clothing (twice in the same morning), wouldn’t Bridget have noticed this? It has been suggested that Lizzie may have gone to the barn between the murders as she claimed to and washed the blood off (there was running water there), but if she did, how did she wash off the blood after her father’s murder? 

Some writers believe that Lizzie and Bridget planned the murders together and that Bridget (when she went to Alice Russell’s house) spirited away the bloody hatchet and dress so that they were never found. This theory is also used to explain the testimony that each woman gave about the day of the murder, never implicating the other. It seems hard to believe that Abby Borden’s fall to the upstairs floor would not have been heard from below, especially since Abby weighed nearly 200 pounds. However, there is no proof of this either and it still places one or both of the women in the role of a depraved killer. 

While it seems hard to believe that Lizzie did commit the murders, it doesn’t mean that she was not guilty in other ways. In other words, while she may not have actually handled the hatchet, she may have known who did. 

One person who has been accused in this capacity was Emma Borden. It has been noted with some suspicion how she may have arranged an alibi for herself, claiming to be some 15 miles away in Fairhaven, but actually returned to Fall River, hid upstairs in the Borden house, committed the murders and then returned to Fairhaven, where she received the telegram from Dr. Bowen. Once Lizzie is accused, the two sisters worked together to protect each other. Later, the women had a falling out over their father’s estate. But we will never know. Neither woman ever spoke of the murder again. 

Another theory accuses William Borden, the illegitimate son of Andrew Borden, who committed suicide a few years after the trial. According to this theory, Lizzie, Emma, John Morse, Dr. Bowen and Andrew Jennings all conspired to keep his involvement a secret because of his illegitimate status and a claim that he might make against the estate if his relationship with the Borden’s was found out. Allegedly, William was making demands of his father, who was in the process of writing a new will. Borden rejected the boy and William became enraged. He first killed Mrs. Borden and then after hiding in the house -- with Lizzie’s knowledge -- killed his father. The conspirators then either paid William off or threatened him, or both, and decided that Lizzie would allow herself to be suspected and tried for the murders, knowing that she could always identify the real killer, should that be necessary. There’s a lot of speculation with this theory, but it’s as possible as so many others.

So who did kill Andrew and Abby Borden? It’s unlikely that we will ever know. It’s also unlikely that we will ever discover just what Lizzie, and her defense counsel, really knew about the events in 1892. The papers from Lizzie’s defense are still locked up and have never been released. The files remain sealed away in the offices of the Springfield, Massachusetts law firm that descended from the firm that defended Lizzie during the trial. There are no plans to ever release them.

The history of the Lizzie Borden case lingers in our collection imaginations, much like the spirits that are still believed to linger at the former Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, which now serves as a bed and breakfast. More than one overnight guest has claimed an encounter with one of the ghosts that remain from the brutal murders. The truth behind such stories remains as elusive as the killer of the Bordens – but the speculation will certainly never end.

Author Troy Taylor has a book on the Lizzie Borden case planned for later in 2014. Keep an eye on the Whitechapel Press website for upcoming information.