In 1884, the city of Austin TX was gripped by what newspapers called “an epidemic of murder”. Seven women and one man were killed in horrific fashion by what was dubbed “The Servant Girl Annihilator”. It was one of America’s first serial killers.
Austin TX in 1884
The years after the Civil War were painful ones for the United States, especially in the former Confederacy. The postwar Reconstruction had forced social and racial changes onto an unwilling Southern culture, and tensions were high. The Ku Klux Klan, formed by former Confederate soldiers, was carrying out terrorist attacks on African-American former slaves, and would soon grow to national prominence. The traditional plantation economy was slowly being replaced by urbanization.
By 1884, the city of Austin TX had become a symbol of the new South. Called by some “The Athens of the West”, the city had over 25,000 inhabitants and three colleges, including the University of Texas. Electric lights had begun to appear in the city’s streets, and telephones linked residents together.
When the first murder happened, it attracted little attention. A young African-American woman named Mollie Smith worked as a cook for a prominent white family, and lived in a small apartment attached to the house with her boyfriend Walter Spencer. On the night of December 29, 1884, someone broke into the apartment, knocked Spencer unconscious with an axe blow to the head, and dragged Mollie outside. Her body was found next to the outhouse: she had been raped, and her skull split with an axe.
Then, in May 1885, the body of Eliza Shelly was found after screams were heard coming from her servant’s cabin. Shelly, an African-American, worked as a live-in cook for a former Texas state legislator. She had also been killed with an axe.
The murders continued. In late May, Irene Cross was stabbed, sliced open, and scalped. Found barely alive, she lived just long enough to give a decription of her killer: a heavy-set African-American man. A few months later, eleven-year-old Mary Ramey was raped and stabbed through the ear with a thin iron bar. She bled to death shortly after being found. On September 28, Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washington were both killed with an axe, and two friends staying with them were wounded.
All of these victims were African-Americans who worked as cooks or maids for wealthy white families, and were attacked at night in their servant’s quarters. In most cases the murder weapon, a bloody axe, had been left behind at the scene.
Although “serial killers” are a depressingly familiar phenomenon in today’s America, in 1885 this was something new, and the press, dubbing the unknown killer “The Servant Girl Annihilator”, didn’t know what to make of it. (The world-famous “Jack the Ripper” serial killings in London were still several years away.) The Austin police were headed by Chief Grooms Lee, the son of a local politician who was bedeviled by rumors of embezzlement; several of the city’s twelve police officers were themselves suspected of carrying out robberies. Since the Annihilator seemed to be targeting only African-Americans, the crimes were a low priority for the police.
That changed on Christmas Eve 1885. A white woman named Susan Hancock was found dead by her husband. Her head had been split by an axe, and her body left in the backyard. An hour later, another body was discovered: another white woman, Eula Phillips, was found hacked to death, and her husband James had been struck in the head with an axe and left for dead.
With the “Christmas Eve Massacre”, the city went into a panic. Proposals were made to post soldiers on the streets at night as sentries. The police force was increased to fifty. Police Chief Lee began having his officers randomly stop young black men and question them–and on at least one occasion the police beat a suspect and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t confess. The press was told that bloody bare footprints had been found at several of the crime scenes, indicating that the killer had removed his shoes to prevent making any noise as he approached his victims. One significant detail, however, had been withheld from the press–one of the footprints indicated that the Servant Girl Annihilator had only four toes on his right foot.
The police, however, decided that the murders of the two white women were not the work of the Annihilator, despite the similarities. Instead, they concluded that both women had been killed by their own husbands in a drunken or jealous fit–perhaps using an axe to throw suspicion away from themselves. In separate trials, James Philips was convicted of the murder of his wife Eula (the conviction was later overturned on appeal), and Moses Hancock was acquitted of the murder of his wife Susan.
In February 1886, a 20-year-old African-American man named Nathan Elgin, in a drunken rage, dragged a young black woman out of an Austin saloon and into the street, where he began beating her. A policeman quickly arrived, and when Elgin turned on him with a knife, he shot Elgin and killed him. At the autopsy, it turned out that Elgin had only four toes on his right foot. There were no further Annihilator murders after Elgin’s death. Today, most researchers conclude that Elgin was likely responsible for all of the crimes.