THE ATLANTA RIPPER
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.
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.