Murder came to the darkened neighborhoods of the capital city on New Years Eve 1884. Mollie Smith, a young cook, was murdered with an axe, her body dragged outside and left in the yard. Her employer was also injured. This was the first of a series of eight deaths in Austin over the course of a year. In what became one of the earliest serial murder cases in the United States, the deaths left a bustling city used to political scandal and stories of death on the frontier gripped in terror.
On March 19, 1885, two young servant girls were hit with an axe while they slept. Though they survived, they could not identify their attacker. Another young woman, Eliza Shelley, a cook, was killed by an axe two months later while she slept. This was followed by another murder two weeks later and an 11-year-old girl in August. Police had no suspects, and modern investigative techniques did not exist at the time.
Texas writer and Austin resident William Sydney Porter, also called O. Henry, offhandedly called the murderer the “Servant Girl Annihilator” in a letter in 1885, and the name has since stuck with individuals studying the case. The Servant Girl Murders, as they were typically called at the time, sent the growing city into a panic.
The attacks were brazen, the acts of a madman filled with some undefined and maniacal rage. Age, race and social class made no difference. In each case, the acts were committed while the victims slept and were performed with either an axe or knife. Sometimes the axe was left behind. In many cases, the murderer took his boots off and wandered into the houses barefoot. Police noted a missing toe on one foot. But police were understaffed with only 12 undertrained officers, many of whom were known for visiting local saloons while on duty.
Survivors were never able to identify their assailant. One other witness who spoke to police gave a confusing and contradictory description. Wild rumors ran through the city streets about the identity of the possible killer or even suggested that a gang of men was responsible.
The last two murders both occurred on Christmas Eve, 1885. Two women were murdered by an axe in their homes while they slept. Susan Hancock was killed while sleeping alongside her teenaged daughter, and Eula Phillips, age 17, was murdered blocks away while her husband was seriously injured.
Serial killers usually will stop killing either because they have moved away from the area, they are in jail or institutionalized from unrelated causes, or they die. In 1885, it was considerably easier for people to slip away and disappear from public view. Austin was known for a population that drifted in and out of the city. No similar murders were reported elsewhere in the United States in the years after the Austin murders stopped.
One suspect, Nathan Elgin, was named as a possible suspect by Travis County Sheriff Malcolm Hornsby. Elgin was 18 when the murders started. In February 1886, he was shot while assaulting a girl near a saloon and died shortly afterward. Though Elgin was missing a toe and the murders stopped after his death, no other physical evidence or witnesses at the time was able to conclusively connect him. He had no arrest record, and though he does not fit the typical profile of a serial killer, this neither acquits nor convicts him.
Two trials were held in connection to the deaths. James Phillips was tried for his wife’s death the following May. The death of Eula Phillips by the axe seemed too similar. Though her husband was also wounded, he was placed on trial. It was clearly shown that his footprints did not match those in the other cases, but he was nevertheless convicted of second-degree murder, a conviction that was later overturned. Moses Hancock was tried for his wife’s death in 1886. The case ended in a hung jury.
The Jack the Ripper case shocked the world with the brutal slayings of five women, with these murders taking place in London between August and November 1888. Even at the time, some people speculated the two series of murders were connected. However, no evidence ever emerged to connect the two. While the two cases have a passing similarity on the surface, more in-depth examination shows that the targets and the styles of the murders were completely different. And what is truly more terrifying is that there was likely more than one person capable of such barbarity an ocean apart.
Austin tripled the size of its police force in 1886, set strict curfews and forced the all-night saloons to close at midnight. By 1895, Austin’s distinct Moonlight Towers were set in place across the city to improve lighting and nighttime safety. Even a decade after the deaths, the city was still unnerved by the Servant Girl Murders.
Today, there is still some active discussion and interest in the Servant Girl Annihilator case. A number of books have been written discussing the case. None of the houses where the murders took place still stand, all wiped away by time and progress. Though more than a century has passed — and all survivors, witnesses and possible suspects are long since dead — the case still remains technically unsolved.
The most terrifying things are not ghostly wisps or supernatural bumps in the night. True terror lies is the depths of evil that some people are willing to inflict on others. But even in a world of nightmares, the good is still strong enough to defeat the bad.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org