Servant Girl Annihilator
|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 killings
|December 30, 1884–December 24, 1885|
A serial killer, who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, preyed upon the city of Austin, Texas, during the years 1884 and 1885. The killer's name originated with the writer O. Henry.
The murders represent an early example of a serial killer operating in the United States, three years before the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel. In her book, Jack the Ripper: The American Connection, author Shirley Harrison asserted that the Texas killer and Jack the Ripper were one and the same man, namely James Maybrick.
According to author Philip Sugden in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the conjecture that all the murders were committed by 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.
According to Texas Monthly, seven women (five black, two white) and one black man were murdered. Additionally, six women and two men were seriously injured.
All the victims were attacked indoors while asleep in their bed. 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. Rumors say the existing Austin Moon Towers were installed for safety ten years after the murder spree.
- 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, was murdered on the night of 28 September 1885.
- Orange Washington was murdered during the attack upon Gracie Vance. Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were seriously wounded.
- 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 June 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:
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 had a club foot 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.
- Hollandsworth, Skip (July 2000). "Capital Murder". Texas Monthly.
- 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". New York Times. December 26, 1885.
- Sugden, Philip (1995). The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-7867-0276-1.
- 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.
- "The Malay Cook: Strange Coincidence in the Austin and Whitechapel Woman Murders". Atchison Daily Globe. Atchison, Kansas: Casebook.org. November 19, 1888.
- PBS Servant Girl annihilator
- "Austin still the field of the Midnight Assasin. Two horrible murders in one night". Records of Crime. Fort Worth Daily Gazette. September 29, 1885.