Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Austin Texas Axe Murders
The Servant Girl Annihilator / The Midnight Assassin
3 years before Jack the Ripper would stalk London's East End, During the course of 1885 a series of eight murders had occurred in Austin, Texas; all carried out in a similar manner. The victims were attacked in their beds as they slept; they were struck in the head with an axe and then carried into the yard where they were raped and mutilated. The axe used by the perpetrator was left behind at the scene of the murder. Also left behind were the bare footprints of the perpetrator who forfeited his boots to enable his stealthy entrances and exits.
According to Texas Monthly, the killer murdered seven women (five black, two white) and one black man. Additionally, the killer seriously injured six women and two men. All the victims were attacked indoors while asleep in their beds. Five of the women were dragged, unconscious but still alive, and killed outdoors. Three of the women were severely mutilated while outdoors.
Mollie Smith was murdered, Walter Spencer was seriously wounded.
The first victim was Mollie Smith, a 25-year-old cook working for the Walter Hall residence on Sixth Street (then named Pecan Street). Smith, by most accurate accounts, was 25 years of age and the live-in servant of merchant William Hall. She resided in a small outbuilding behind the Hall home with her boyfriend Walter Spencer. Sometime after midnight on the morning of December 31, 1884, Hall was awakened by Spencer, who was bleeding profusely from several wounds to the head. He explained to Hall that he had been attacked while he slept, and Smith had been taken by the attacker. Hall entered the small room, where he found signs of a struggle and a blood-covered axe. He followed a trail of blood into the backyard, where he found Mollie Smith lying in the snow. She had died from injuries inflicted by the axe wounds to her head, abdomen, chest, legs, and arms.
The following day, the prominent Austin newspaper Austin Statesman ran the following headline: “A Fearful Midnight Murder.” The Austin Statesman, in its January 1, 1885, edition, reported the murder on West Pecan Street as “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.”
Clara Strand and Christine Martenson
A little over two months later, two Swedish servants, Clara Strand and Christine Martenson, were attacked by an unknown assailant while walking home on the night of March 19, 1885. Both girls were seriously injured in the attack, but survived. Little is known about this attack for it did not appear to police, in 1885, or to modern-day researchers, to be associated with the December 31 attack on Mollie Smith.
Eliza Shelly, the night of 6 May 1885.
Shelley, a young woman who worked as a cook for the family of Dr. Lucian Johnson, lived in a small cabin with her three young children behind the home of Dr. Lucien B. Johnson, located on the corner of San Jacinto and Cypress Streets. Johnson, a former state legislator, discovered Shelley after hearing screams in the night. His investigation of the crime scene revealed that Shelley had been struck with an axe, “as to reveal her brain,” and received punctures on her head from some unknown sharp object. Eliza Shelley’s eight-year-old son was sleeping in the same bed as his mother and reported that he had awakened to find a man standing over him and his mother. The boy was thrown from the bed, covered with a blanket, and told to stay quiet. He provided little information to investigators, who had discovered a trail of bloody bare footprints leading away from the crime scene. Investigators also noted that Shelley had received injuries from two separate weapons, neither of which could be found at the scene.
Because of the killer's apparent weapon of choice — an axe — the murders were first known as the Austin Axe Murders until well-known resident William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) wrote in a letter to a friend: "Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead of night." After this letter became public, locals and reporters began referring to the murderer as the Servant Girl Annihilator. William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry, was living in Austin at the time of the murders. Porter coined the term "Servant Girl Annihilators" However, no contemporary newspaper or published source referred to the murderer(s) as "The Servant Girl Annihilator".
Irene Cross murdered by a man with a knife on the night May 23, 1885, a third woman, also a young servant, became the next victim. Irene Cross, who was also a servant in Austin, was attacked late at night in the small cottage where she lived on Linden Street with her son, Washington Cross, and her nephew Douglas Brown. Brown was in the house the night of the attack and gave authorities the first shred of evidence of the killer’s identity. He described the assailant as a “big, chunky negro man, bare-footed and with his pants rolled up.”
Not long after the discovery of Cross, who lived for a time after the attack, reporters arrived to the cabin to discover that she had been stabbed in the head so many times that it appeared she had been scalped. Investigators also revealed that Irene Cross’s arm had been severed from her body. Although the attack was perpetrated with a knife, investigators came to believe that the attacks were connected and escalating in violence.
The people of Austin became aware that a serial killer was roaming the streets of their city, and the police were powerless to catch the killer in a growing city of 23,000. The only plausible explanation that law enforcement could give to the wary public was that an influx of workers to the area, by train or wagon, had brought a sadistic maniac to their town. They released bloodhounds in the areas around the killings with no results. They arrested and questioned possible suspects, but all were released for lack of evidence.
To investigators, the situation was bleak—then the killings stopped. Citizens fell back into a sense of security, convinced, much like modern-day profilers, that the killer had been caught in the commission of another crime or he had moved out of the area for fear of being captured. That was the general mindset of the populace until the night of August 31, 1885, when the killer struck again.
Clara Dick & Mary Ramey, 11, murdered. Her mother, Rebecca Ramey was seriously wounded.
On the night of August 31, 1885, Ramey reported that she was struck in the head with an unidentified object while she slept. She awoke to discover that her daughter was missing from the quarters in which they lived behind the home of livery stable owner Valentine Weed. Mary Ramey’s body was discovered in a nearby alleyway. She had been raped and both of her ears punctured by a sharp object. Once again, bloodhounds were dispatched from the location with little or no sound results.
Gracie Vance and her boyfriend, Orange Washington.
The sixth and seventh victims were killed on the night of September 28. Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washington lived in a small shack on the property of William Dunham. On the night of the attack, the couple had two houseguests, Lucinda Boddy and Patsy Gibson, sleeping on the floor of the cabin. Dunham was awakened in the early morning hours by the sounds of screams and breaking glass. A quick search found Lucinda Boddy in the front yard of the San Marco Street house, scuffling with a man in the darkness. Dunham’s presence scared the attacker off.
A search of the property revealed that Gracie Vance had been raped and then killed with a rock, and Washington had been struck with an axe that did not belong to the Dunham property but was found at the scene. Orange Washington would live for a brief time before succumbing to his wounds the next day. According to the local paper, Vance's "head almost beaten into a jelly."
Austin city marshal Grooms Lee recommended that police increase patrols and place additional officers on the streets of the terrorized city. During the month of October and through the early days of November, nearly a dozen arrests were made in connection with the murders; however, all of the arrests ended in release or acquittal for the suspects. A local newspaper printed a discouraging statement to the citizens of Austin:
"The crimes still remain a mystery, and their guilty authors retain the secret . . . This seems to be a year unprecedented in the character of crimes."
The perpetrator of the Austin attacks, by all outward appearances, was decisive in picking his victims. Nearly all of the victims that the killer had chosen were black servants who lived on, or near, their employer’s property. This fact perpetuated a false sense of security among the white residents of Austin.
Susan Hancock & Eula Phillips
The final two murders occurred on Christmas Eve, 1885, Nine days after the Vance-Washington murders. First, Sue Hancock, described as "one of the most refined ladies in Austin," was found in her backyard (now the Four Seasons Austin) by her husband. Hours later, Eula Phillips, "one of the prettiest women in Austin," was found dead in her in-laws backyard (where the Austin Central Library is now located).
December 24, 1885, when Moses Hancock was awakened in the night with a feeling of dread. He searched his house and property to find his wife, Susan Hancock, lying in the backyard bleeding and clinging to life. She had been hit with an axe, carried to the backyard, and raped. Hancock alerted neighbors and carried his wife into the parlor of the family home, where she died a short time later.
While police investigators were surveying the bloody and scattered crime scene at the Hancock house, word was delivered to detectives that another woman, Eula Phillips, wife of architect James Phillips, was missing and the scene saturated in blood. When they arrived, investigators discovered the lifeless, nude body of Eula Phillips in the backyard of the Phillips’s home. She had been bludgeoned with a piece of wood.
Then, the killing stopped—again.
All the victims, including the last 2, were posed in a similar manner. Six of the murdered women had a "sharp object" inserted into their ears. Some claim an ice pick. Authorities had carefully noted the footprints which were often bloodstained and had made distinct impressions in the soil as the perpetrator carried the weight of the victim.
Apart from general measurements of size and shape, footprints in most instances are not especially distinctive and they would not have been much use to the authorities had they not possessed some unusual feature. But the footprints left behind at the Servant Girl Murder crime scenes did share a very distinct feature – one of the footprints had only four toes.
The authorities never shared this fact with the press or the general public during the course of 1885. The press frequently complained about the secrecy surrounding the murder inquests and argued that making all the details of the crimes public would facilitate the capture of the responsible parties more quickly. The authorities disagreed and kept certain details of the cases to themselves – details that they hoped would eventually identify the perpetrator and link him to the crime scenes.
In the month since the last murders in December 1885, the city’s police force had been tripled in size. A curfew had been enacted and private citizens had organized into patrols to guard the neighborhoods after dark. Strangers were forced to identify themselves or be evicted from the city. Saloons and other raucous downtown establishments, usually open twenty-four hours a day, were forced to close at midnight. A new era of law and order had begun.
According to a July 2000 article in the Texas Monthly, there was an eyewitness who claimed to have seen the murderer, but reported contradictory information to the police.
The killer was variously reported to have been white or dark-complexioned; or a "yellow man" wearing lampblack to conceal his skin color; or a man wearing a Mother Hubbard style dress; or a man wearing a slouch hat; or a man wearing a hat and a white rag that covered the lower part of his face. There were also reports that the killer worked with an accomplice, or belonged to a gang of murderers.
The series of murders stopped when additional police officers were hired, rewards were offered and citizens formed a vigilance committee to patrol the streets at night. Contemporary newspapers reported that the murderer(s) had apparently fled the area, as no more murders were officially attributed to the killer by the authorities.
One suspect, Maurice (no last name given), a Malaysian cook who worked at the Pearl House in downtown Austin. The Pearl House had connections to a majority of the victims of the Annihilator, therefore this theory gained momentum.
It is said that once Maurice left Austin bound for New Orleans and ultimately London, the murders ended.
Late one night in February 1886 a saloon in Masontown in east Austin was the scene of a violent and disturbing incident. The surrounding neighborhood was in an uproar because a drunken, raging man had dragged a girl from the saloon to a nearby house where he could be heard beating and cursing her while she screamed for help. The entire neighborhood had come out in the streets and the commotion caught the attention of a nearby police officer. Police officer John Bracken arrived on the scene and the saloon keeper, Dick Rogers and a neighbor, Claibe Hawkins, went with Bracken to stop the man from beating the girl to death.
Rogers and Hawkins went into the house and pulled the man away from the girl and into the front yard. As Rogers and Hawkins grappled with the man, Officer Bracken got out the handcuffs. The man would not be subdued – he threw off Rogers and Hawkins and knocked Bracken off his feet. The man turned on them and brandished a knife. As Bracken tried to recover a shot rang out. Bracken drew his pistol and fired. The shot brought down the raging man.
The man’s name was Nathan Elgin. There was no explanation for Elgin’s rage at the girl, named Julia. Nathan Elgin was native Austinite and young African-American domestic servant who knew the streets of his hometown. He was also a cook in town.
Bracken’s shot did not kill Elgin instantly but it did leave him paralyzed and mortally wounded; he died the following day. A subsequent autopsy revealed that Bracken’s bullet had lodged in Elgin’s spine which accounted for the paralysis. The doctors had also noticed another detail – Elgin was missing a toe from his right foot.
After Nathan Elgin’s death the authorities unexpectedly had the direct physical evidence they had been waiting for – a foot that matched the distinctive footprints of the killer. But the foot belonged to a dead man.
According to a front-page article in The New York Times of December 26, 1885, 400 men were arrested during the course of the year. According to the Texas Monthly, powerful elected officials refused to believe that one man, or one group of men, was responsible for all the murders.
While the authorities were not able to make use of the evidence against Elgin, the defense attorneys for James Phillips and Moses Hancock certainly were. Eula Phillips, wife of James Phillips, and Susan Hancock, wife of Moses Hancock, had both been murdered on December 24, 1885 and both husbands were subsequently charged with murdering their wives.
In May 1886, during the trial of James Phillips, defense attorneys introduced into evidence floorboards marked with bloody footprints that had been removed from the Phillips house after the murder. They were compared to the footprints of the defendant, who removed his shoes and had his feet inked and printed in an elaborate demonstration in the courtroom. Even though Phillip’s footprints were substantially different in size than the bloody footprints on the floorboards, the jury was unconvinced. The motives of jealousy and drunkenness as argued by the prosecution convinced the jury and they found Phillips guilty of second degree murder.
When the case against Moses Hancock was finally brought to trial, the Hancock received some substantial legal help in the form of pro bono representation by John Hancock (no relation) a former U.S. Congressman, one of the state’s most prominent political figures and one of Austin’s most astute legal practitioners. Also providing assistance for the defense rather than the prosecution, was Sheriff Malcolm Hornsby, who during his testimony, described making a cast of Elgin’s foot after his death, the significance of the missing toe, the similarities between Elgin’s footprint and the footprints left at the Phillips and Ramey murders, and that fact that there had been no further servant girl murders committed since Elgin’s death. Even so, the jury was not completely persuaded and after two days of deliberation, a hung jury was declared and the case was discharged without a verdict.
The verdicts in the Phillips and Hancock trials illustrated the consensus on the Servant Girl Murders and the motives behind them – that the murders had been committed by different persons with conventional motives.
As time passed, suspects in the murders of 1884 and 1885 were questioned, arrested, tried, and convicted; however, all of the convictions were thrown out or overturned on lack of evidence, and Austin police were left without any reliable answers. The next step for Austinites was to sweep the events under the rug. Within a few months of the last murder, the citizens of Austin, convinced that the killer had left the area, stopped talking about the year of murder and mayhem. The Austin Statesman stopped writing about the murders and the event faded into Texas history.
Many theories regarding the perpetrator of the murders have been proposed by researchers, profilers, and criminologists in 130 years since the Servant Girl Annihilator rampaged through the streets of Austin. One theory contends that the murders were committed by a killing pair and it took two people to move the victims so quickly and quietly. Another theory proposes that a random drifter, not a citizen of the capital city, had to have murdered the innocent victims.
The African-American community and some practitioners of voodoo believed the killer was a white man who had magic powers that enabled him to become invisible, as no dogs outside or in fenced-yards adjacent to locations where murders occurred were heard to bark or raise any alarm.
JACK THE RIPPER
And although the killings by Jack the Ripper were more brutal in nature, many believe the Austin and London killers were actually the same person — a person who happened to add horrifying methods to his assassinations.
Eventually, Jack the Ripper's crimes gained international attention while Austin's axe murder mystery was eclipsed by the infamous murders in London. However, interest in the Servant Girl Annihilator murders has recently become the subject of a comprehensive book: The Midnight Assassin by Texas Monthly journalist Skip Hollandsworth. Published in 2015, Hollandsworth's book became a New York Times bestselling title and has plenty of detail, as he spend around 30 years dedicating his life to the research of this case.
One theory is that the last 2 women's husbands were in cahoots and decided to kill their wives on the same night as to remove themselves from suspicion. If another woman was killed when one man was in the presence of the law, then they couldn't have done it, right? This is much like her theory on the last Jack the Ripper victim, in that it wasn't his victim at all, but someone else hoping to use Jack as a cover for his own murder.
Another involves the next couple of stories about more axe murders in the south. You'll have to listen to find out!
The Austin axe murderer case remains a mystery, and in spite of vast amounts of evidence, the events of 1884–1885 will forever remain so.
The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth