Servant Girl Annihilator
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Servant Girl Annihilator
December 1885 newspaper headline relating to the Servant Girl Annihilator
|Other names||The Austin Axe Murderer|
|Victims||8 known victims|
Span of crimes
|December 30, 1884 – December 24, 1885|
The Servant Girl Annihilator, also known as the Austin Axe Murderer, was an unidentified American serial killer who preyed upon the city of Austin, Texas between 1884 and 1885. The sobriquet originated with the writer O. Henry.
According to author Philip Sugden in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the conjecture that the Texas killer and Jack the Ripper were one and the same man originated in October 1888, when an editor with the Atlanta Constitution proposed this conjecture, following the murders of Stride and Eddowes by Jack the Ripper.
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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.
All the victims were posed in a similar manner. Six of the murdered women had a "sharp object" inserted into their ears.
The series of murders ended with the killing of two white women, Eula Phillips, age 17, and Susan Hancock - who was attacked while sleeping in the bed of her 16-year-old daughter on the night of 24 December 1885.
Only one of those arrested, James Phillips, was convicted. He was found guilty of murdering his wife but the conviction was later overturned.
London authorities questioned several American cowboys, one of whom (according to the authors of Jack the Ripper, A to Z) was possibly Buck Taylor, a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Taylor was born in Fredricksburg, Texas, about 70 miles west of Austin.
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.
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.
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.
- Mollie Smith, 25, was murdered the night of 30 December 1884. Walter Spencer was seriously wounded.
- Clara Strand and Christine Martenson, two Swedish servant girls, were seriously wounded the night of 19 March 1885.
- Eliza Shelly was murdered the night of 6 May 1885.
- Irene Cross murdered by a man with a knife on the night of 22 May 1885.
- Clara Dick was seriously wounded in August 1885.
- Mary Ramey, 11, was murdered the night of 30 August 1885. Her mother, Rebecca Ramey was seriously wounded.
- Gracie Vance and her boyfriend, Orange Washington, were murdered on the night of 28 September 1885.
- Susan Hancock was murdered the night of 24 December 1885.
- Eula Phillips was murdered the night of 24 December 1885. Her husband, James Phillips, was seriously wounded.
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 Malay cook suspect
According to the Atchison Daily Globe of November 19, 1888, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a Malay cook "running on ocean vessels" was a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. The newspaper reported that "a Malay cook had been employed at a small hotel in Austin in 1885." Furthermore, the newspaper reported that the Austin reporter:
...investigated the matter, calling on Mrs. Schmidt, who kept the Pearl House, near the foot of Congress Avenue opposite the Union depot, 3 years ago. It was ascertained that a Malay cook calling himself Maurice had been employed at the house in 1885 and that he left some time in January 1886. It will be remembered that the last of the series of Austin women murders was the killing of Mrs. Hancock and Mrs. Eula Phillips, the former occurring on Christmas eve 1885, just before the Malay departed, and that the series then ended. A strong presumption that the Malay was the murderer of the Austin women was created by the fact that all of them except two or three resided in the immediate neighborhood of the Pearl House.
In London on the 13th of August 1888, a sailor named George M. Dodge was interviewed by Scotland Yard. Dodge claimed to have met a Malay cook named ‘Alaska’ (possibly ‘Laskar’, an old Malay word for ‘sailor’) at the Queen's Musical Hall at Poplar, London. He claimed that Alaska was about 35 years old, 5 feet 7 inches, weighed 10-11 stone (around 63-69 kg), and sometimes carried a double-edged knife, which he showed George. The following is what George claimed Alaska told him "he had been robbed by a woman of bad character, and that unless he found the woman and recovered his money he would murder and mutilate every Whitechapel woman he met."
Similar to the murders in Austin, all five of the Ripper’s victims would follow a similar pattern of lower-class women within the radius of Whitechapel, deep throat cuts, severe body mutilations and organs removed, except in the case of Elizabeth Stride. Several witness testimonies of sightings of the alleged Ripper talking to Elizabeth Stride right before she was found dead have provided description of him. One William Marshall claimed the Ripper was "a stout man of about 5 feet 6 inches tall wearing a black cut-away coat, dark trousers, and a cap that was “like something a sailor would wear." A police constable named William Smith claimed, "the man had a dark complexion and a dark moustache, wearing a cutaway coat and dark trousers and carrying a parcel wrapped in newspaper." A recent immigrant named Israel Schwarts claimed "he shouted ‘Lipski’ to a second man… he had a full face, was broad-shouldered, and wearing a dark jacket and trousers with a peaked cap."
Back in Texas, the author of the Statesman followed up on that same lead and tried to contact the Malay cook in London. Before he could reach him, however, he discovered that the cook had left London. After that, just like with the Austin killings, the Whitechapel killings stopped too.
On July 15, 2014, the PBS TV show History Detectives aired an episode on the killings. Using a combination of historical research and modern techniques, including psychological and geographic profiling, they identified a suspect: Nathan Elgin, a 19-year-old African-American cook.
Elgin worked in close proximity to the crime scenes and was missing his little toe which was similar to a footprint believed to have been left by the killer. In February 1886, shortly after the last murder, Elgin was shot and killed by police while he was attempting to assault a girl with a knife.
In popular culture
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" in a May 10, 1885, letter addressed to his friend Dave Hall and later included in his anthology Rolling Stones: "Town is fearfully dull," wrote Porter, "except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night...." However, no contemporary newspaper or published source referred to the murderer(s) as "The Servant Girl Annihilator".
In 2000, Steven Saylor published the novel A Twist at the End, which closely reconstructed the murders and the ensuing trials, with young William Sydney Porter playing a fictional role. The novel was published in the United Kingdom (as Honour the Dead) and has been translated into Portuguese and Hungarian.
Episode 6 (2015) of the podcast Tanis, a mystery/suspense docudrama, is titled "The Servant Girl Annihilator". It suggests a connection between the killings and the mysteries central to the podcast's ongoing story.
Cited works and further reading
- Franscell, Ron (2010). Crime Buff's Guide to Outlaw Texas. Guildford, Connecticut: Guildford Press. ISBN 978-0-762-75965-1.
- Hollandsworth, Skip (July 2000). "Capital Murder". Texas Monthly.
- "How the 'Servant Girl Annihilator' Terrorized 1880s Austin". www.mentalfloss.com. 2017-04-25. Retrieved 2020-03-01.
- "True Crime Society - The Servant Girl Annihilator". True Crime Society. 2019-09-29. Retrieved 2020-03-07.
- Hollandsworth, Skip (2015). The Midnight Assassin (1st ed.). New York: Henry Holt. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-8050-9767-2.
- Galloway, Skip J. R. (2010). The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885. ISBN 1-60910-123-5.
- "Three Murders in One Night" (PDF). The New York Times. December 26, 1885.
- Sugden, Philip (1995). The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-7867-0276-1.
- Rockefeller, J. D. (2016-03-18). America's 14 Worst Serial Killers. J.D. Rockefeller. ISBN 978-1-5306-1924-5.
- The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer ISBN 978-0-805-09767-2 p. 100
- Begg, Paul; Fido, Martin; Skinner, Keith (2010). Jack the Ripper, A to Z. John Blake Publishing. ISBN 1-84454-797-3.
- Russell, Don (1979). The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 306. ISBN 0-8061-1537-8.
- Ramsland, Katherine. "Servant Girl Annihilator". truTV Crime Library.
- "True Crime Society - The Servant Girl Annihilator". True Crime Society. 2019-09-29. Retrieved 2020-03-01.
- The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer ISBN 978-0-805-09767-2 p. 120
- "The Malay Cook: Strange Coincidence in the Austin and Whitechapel Woman Murders". Atchison Daily Globe. Atchison, Kansas: Casebook.org. November 19, 1888.
- "The Servant Girl Annihilator – Nathan Elgin – A Criminology | The Servant Girl Murders Austin, Texas 1885". www.servantgirlmurders.com.
- "Austin still the field of the Midnight Assassin. Two horrible murders in one night". Records of Crime. Fort Worth Daily Gazette. September 29, 1885.
- The Servant Girl Annihilator - Nathan Elgin - A Criminology