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.