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!  

No comments:

Post a Comment