Howdy folks! Today’s blog is a bit of a divergence from the historical topics we normally discuss. Let me state right now that this is a story about some extremely violent murders, so readers who are squeamish about such things should consider whether they want to read further.
My wife made the suggestion that I do a kind of dark topic for Halloween, and I had recently heard the story of the Servant Girl Annihilator, so it seemed like a natural choice. I found it very odd that as a lover of history, especially Texas history, I had never heard of this horrific tale. I knew about other serial murders that occurred in roughly the same time frame; Jack the Ripper, H. H. Holmes, and the Axman of New Orleans, but these killings that took place in my own state had somehow eluded me. It seems that you couldn’t swing a cat during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, without hitting a knife or axe wielding killer.
In late 1884, the city of Austin, Texas was already emerging as the cultural and educational capital of Texas, as well as the literal capitol. There was great enthusiasm and hope that as the century was drawing to a close, the violent events of the nineteenth century were giving way to a more peaceful and perhaps even idyllic age. This hope would soon be shattered, and it would start with the discovery of Mollie Smith’s body. She was the black cook for a wealthy family, and her dead body was found next to the outhouse behind her employer’s house. Her cause of death was a massive head wound, which was caused by blows from an axe.
Over the next year, several more black servants were brutally murdered with an axe, and in one case, with a knife. In one instance the boyfriend of one of the victims was killed, and in another instance the eleven-year-old daughter of a victim was also murdered. As horrible as the killings were, the white population could at least take comfort in the fact that all the victims were black, even though several of the murders were committed at the homes of the victim’s wealthy employers. This veil of comfort, however, was about to be ripped from the eyes of the cities elite, and it would come at what is normally the happiest and most peaceful time of year.
On Christmas Eve of 1885, the body of the first white victim was found. Sue Hancock was discovered by her husband in their back yard, and had been struck on the head with an axe. An hour later, Eula Phillips was found in the alley behind her father-in-law’s home. Phillips had been savagely beaten with an axe and was found in the nude. Inside the house, her husband was discovered severely injured, but still alive. These latest victims were not only white, but they were wealthy as well, and unfortunately, in a sign of the times, it was their race and status that finally caused the police and politicians to take action. Large rewards were offered and investigators flooded into Austin from all over the country but to no avail.
The killings stopped with the deaths of Phillips and Hancock, but the murderer was never found. In a surprising turn, the husbands of the last two victims were arrested and tried for their killings, but both were acquitted. The murders were used to advance careers and to destroy political rivals, but little actual progress was ever made, even though theories and rumors persisted for years. Most of the families and officials involved left Austin afterwards and quickly faded into obscurity, much like the killings themselves. In a city trying to grow and evolve from its frontier past, leaving the past buried with the dead may have seemed like the wisest and most expedient option available. Whatever the motivation may have been, they did a good job because this historian was taken totally by surprise by this gruesome tale.
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