Murder, mayhem and a midnight axeman: How an early American serial killer 'Ripped' apart 1880s Austin
On Christmas Eve of 1884, the city of Austin was given a less-than-jolly surprise as two married white women, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips, met their grisly ends to a mysterious murderer.
The slayings were the latest—and last—in a series of murders that plagued the town from 1884 to 1885, a spree that was believed to be the work of a serial killer later dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator. Sound similar to Jack the Ripper? Surprisingly, some Ripper sleuths believe that Jack's first victims may have been in Austin just three years prior to his famous London killings.
The murders ripped a young Austin apart, causing the city's raucous nightlife to come to a halt and servant women everywhere to keep their eyes peeled and doors locked. But perhaps most chilling is that the city's most prolific killer was never caught.
Though it's never seen Ripper infamy, the Servant Girl Annihilator has been subject to many books, podcast episodes and articles in the past—and some even falsely claim that Austin's famous moontowers were built as a result of the midnight murders.
It's a journey to capture the hullabaloo of a murder-stricken 1880s Austin, but we'll try to give you the gist here and let you decide whether or not you'd like to get to be the case's next Sherlock Holmes.
Pecan Street in the 1800s before it was renamed Congress Avenue. ("The Midnight Assassin" by Skip Hollandsworth/Austin History Center)
With around 23,000 residents, mid-1800s Austin was a once-tiny outlaw town that had seen enormous growth in a few short years.
With the fledgling University of Texas giving the town the nickname the "Athens of the South" and the Texas Capitol just a year or two from being constructed, the town was bridging the gap between the Wild West and post-Industrial modernity.
Jan. 1, 1885, began a year of unprecedented violence for the small city as four Black servant women, an 11-year-old Black girl, one Black man and two white women were murdered by axe or knife in just under a year. Several others were injured.
Before it was even officially named, Austin was faced with one of America's first well-documented serial killings. A visiting writer dubbed the killer the "Servant Girl Annihilator."
The city's ragtag police force, led by a saloon-loving City Marshal named Grooms Lee, fell under intense scrutiny as they scrambled to stomp the unprecedented crimes. Detectives from Houston and the famous Pinkerton crew were hired to solve the mystery, and Lee hired a new chief and expanded the police force by December of 1885.
News of the crimes was broadcast in grisly language on front pages of the then Austin Daily Statesman and even the New York Times. As quickly as it had started, the "Athens of the South" was on the verge of collapse.
Doors were locked, visitors were apprehended immediately after they entered the city, and even the city's raucous 24-hour saloons began closing at midnight. Neighbor turned against neighbor, and the city's ne'er-do-wellers became some of the case's biggest suspects.
According to the Statesman's May 30, 1886 edition, "all these murders occurred about midnight, in a majority of instances on moonlight nights, and the same mysterious and utterly impenetrable silence, unbroken by sound or cry, reigned while the assassin was at his terrible work."
Some older residents began to believe that the silent marauder had supernatural powers that kept him from alerting nearby dogs. Other residents speculated that a gang of the city's most evil were behind the gruesome crimes. But with all of the crimes' similarities, most were convinced that a singular sinister force was behind the terror of 1885.
Over 400 men were arrested in the case, at least one lynching was narrowly evaded and two husbands of the suspects were tried in court. One was convicted, though the case was overturned within six months.
But unbeknownst to 1885's Austinites, the killer would never strike again. Had the "Servant Girl Annihilator" been arrested, killed, or skipped town?
About the victims—when and where the crimes occurred
Suspects—Ripper theories and the case of the missing toe
Austin police were given a hard task as they looked for the mystery killer—especially as eyewitnesses gave them seemingly opposite information. The mystery killer was described as a man who was light, dark or "yellow"; had been seen wearing bizarre outfits including a women's dress; and was sometimes identified as different local delinquents, though they were never found guilty.
The lovers of murder victims, including Richard Spencer, Moses Hancock and James Phillips, were prime suspects, though both Spencer and Phillips had been hacked with an axe themselves.
Spencer was acquitted after a few days of the death of his girlfriend Gracie Vance, and a suspect, Vance's former lover William Brooks, was also proven innocent after a brief interrogation.
Moses Hancock was unharmed in the killing of his wife Susan and made it difficult for pro bono lawyer John Hancock to prove him innocent. Susan was afraid of any drunk man and had even written a letter telling Moses she would leave him, though she never did. The letter was used to prove Moses' abusive drunkenness, which had escalated in the wake of Susan's death, though his 16-year-old daughter Lena always backed up her father. After intense family conflict during the trial, Moses was acquitted with a hung jury in 1887.
A drunken, jealous James Phillips was next on the chopping block for the murder of his 17-year-old wife Eula. James had good reason to be suspicious of his young wife—Eula had already likely had an abortion after becoming pregnant with another man's baby and had visited an "assignation house," or rent-by-the-hour romance hotel owned by local prostitute May Tobin, on the night of her murder.
Phillips barely survived the axeman's encounter, but he was still strongly suspected of murdering his adulterous wife and was convicted of the murder. Phillips served six months before his conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals.
Soon the trail went cold, and few new theories were provided for decades. But some modern-day theorists, including former UT professor and extensive researcher J.R. Galloway, have provided new insights into the centuries-old murders.
The Ripper connection
In the years after the bloody year, tales of Austin's serial killer flew mostly under the radar as tales of Jack the Ripper came in London three years later. But some have given evidence that the two crimes could be connected.
A Malay cook—"perhaps named Maurice"—was reported by a Statesman reporter in 1888 at The Pearl House at the time of the Austin crime spree of 1885, and conveniently left in January of 1886, just after the Annihilator's final murders. The Pearl House was located just next to the neighborhood of almost all of the crimes.
Perhaps coincidentally, a Malay cook was named as one of the suspects in the London crimes just a few years later.
Author Shirley Harrison posed a different Ripper story. A Liverpool man named James Maybrick, who Harrison says signed as "Jack the Ripper" and confessed to killing prostitutes in his journal, was apparently in Austin at the time of the killings. In Harrison's book, "Jack the Ripper: The American Connection," she presents Maybrick's apparent diaries and finds his motive—Maybrick had apparently seen his wife having an affair in the streets of London and periodically returned to the area to conduct murders. Maybrick's marriage woes wouldn't improve—he died from poisoning (likely from his wife) after both crime sprees had ended in 1889.
The case of the missing toes
The midnight Austin assassin had a damning detail unknown to the public—he often went barefoot, and bloody footprints were often found at the scene of the crime. Interestingly, he appeared to be missing a toe on his right foot, and perhaps more interestingly, two possible culprits were found that fit that profile.
The first suspect was Alex Mack, a local troublemaker who happened to be missing the same toe. Mack was attacked by detectives and officers, who tied a noose around his neck outside of a bar one day. A local patron intervened last minute and stopped the potential lynching, but Mack was then beaten for nine days during police questioning. He was never tried or convicted for the crime.
But just after the final murders of Christmas Eve occurred, a new possible culprit emerged—a young man named Nathan Elgin. Elgin made the papers in February 1885 after drunkenly dragging a woman from a bar to his brother's house nearby, where he subsequently beat and berated her.
A local policeman, saloon keeper and neighbor put a stop to the attack, but Elgin resisted arrest and brandished a knife before he was shot. Elgin died the following day, and the Servant Girl Murders never occurred again.
Galloway paints a damning picture in his criminology of Elgin. A later plaster of his foot matched that of the missing-toed killer, and several other bits of evidence, including Elgin's criminal past, his history of living with servant women and his knowledge of the neighborhoods in the murder, all contribute to a possible culprit for the infamous murders.
Not satisfied? You can read all about the crimes on Galloway's website, go on a Murder Walk tour downtown that takes you through the murder locations, or check out other accounts, including a PBS investigation, a My Favorite Murder podcast episode and Harrison's book.
All news clippings and other information on the crime was provided by the Austin History Center.
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Just as the world takes a breath from the Delta variant-induced third COVID surge that pushed hospitals past capacity this summer, a new variant—the omicron—is forcing countries around the world to once again consider shutting their doors.
It's too early to tell whether the variant will have the devastating effects of the Delta variant, the Mu variant—which accounted for 3% of U.S. cases before dropping off almost entirely by October—or somewhere in between. But as omicron continues to rise sharply in all provinces of South Africa, the Biden administration is reintroducing some travel restrictions that went into effect Monday.
As the variant spreads to countries around the world, including Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, the World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern"—though some are calling the move premature.
What is omicron?
The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, is now under strict watch from the WHO after quickly spreading throughout Southern Africa.
It's genetically different from the Alpha and Delta variants and has up to 30 mutations in its genetic code, leading some to worry that the risk of retransmission from those who have already had COVID could be high. The strain's mutations could also aid omicron in beating out other strains and spreading more quickly to hosts.
Omicron is the latest version of the coronavirus to cause concern. Here’s what we know about where it’s spread so far and what makes it different than other variants that came before. https://t.co/ncciXnIuw9
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 29, 2021
It appears to be doing the trick. While an Associated Press report found that case numbers in South Africa are still well below other pandemic peaks—3,220 new cases were reported in South Africa on Saturday— up to 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng are omicron.
The strain's effects seem to be mild so far, and hospitals haven't been overburdened yet, though hospitalizations are rising.
And doctors worry that the full extent of the variant hasn't been realized. Vaccine hesitancy is strong among South Africa's youngest population—22% of those aged 18 to 34 are vaccinated—and most of those infected with COVID have been in those younger age groups. Doctors worry that older age groups will be more adversely affected.
And while experts in the country expected a fourth surge and possible variant, the omicron still came as a "shock" as it quickly spread to all nine South African provinces and other continents. It's now the first strain labeled as a "variant of concern" since the Delta variant.
It's unclear if the variant is more immune to vaccines, although some signs indicate that it's a possibility.
Where has it been detected?
Cases of the Covid omicron variant have appeared in more than a dozen countries as of Monday. https://t.co/2bPapBIYK2 pic.twitter.com/idnQ6LjIfH
— NBC News Graphics (@NBCNewsGraphics) November 29, 2021
The omicron strain still hasn't been detected in dozens of countries, and it's far from the first strain to make a mark since Delta. But it's coincided with a quick uptick in cases in South Africa, where it was originally found, and became the dominant strain in Pretoria, a city of around 750,000, in just a few weeks.
Omicron is now present in nearby Botswana and has jumped on board flights to Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Hong Kong has detected three cases, while 10 European nations including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Germany have found a total of 45 cases. Canada has detected three cases, and none have yet been found in the United States.
What has been done?
Against the wishes of both South Africa and the WHO, several countries have decided to once again shut their doors.
After detecting an omicron case, Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, while Morocco suspended incoming international air travel for two weeks. Dozens of countries are restricting travel from Southern Africa to South Africa's chagrin—the government said travel restrictions are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The WHO also called for borders to remain open as closing borders appears to have a limited effect on the spread of variants, and many countries are hesitant to clamp down on restrictions that have limited its citizens for so long.
The United States said in a statement Friday that it would restrict travel from eight southern African countries except for citizens and permanent U.S. residents who test negative for the virus.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it's "too early to say" whether tightened COVID restrictions will be needed to combat omicron but that citizens must be ready to do “anything and everything” to prevent its spread.
When will we know more?
The WHO said it will take around two weeks to gauge the full effects of omicron, from its ability to evade vaccines to its contagiousness.
For now, countries have once again urged their citizens to get vaccinated. Some vaccine companies have already spoken about the strain, including Moderna, which said Sunday that a new vaccine that protects against the variant could be released in early 2022 if needed.
For now, Fauci said that the country must "prepare for the worst" just in case omicron becomes the culprit of yet another surge.
“Inevitably, it will be here. The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here hopefully we will be ready for it,” Fauci said.
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Homeowners in Windcrest, Texas don't take Christmas lightly. Decking out their home in thousands of lights, one Windcrest couple even won ABC’s Texas episode of “Great Christmas Light Fight” that aired Sunday.
Known as "Christmas sweethearts," John and Brenda Wilson were awarded $50,000 after going up against fellow Texans, including a family in Amarillo and two families in Corpus Christi, in the ninth season premiere of the lights show.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
Their holiday display featured a hand-built sled, a train called the Peppermint Expressway with actual peppermint smoke coming out of it and Santa's reindeer "in training." Designer and judge Taniya Nayak noted the linework of the lights displayed on the roof and the positioning of the red and lime green color palette.
"Right off the bat when the lights turned on, I couldn't believe how beautiful these peppermint lights were... it's just such a fun, happy, yummy, delicious vibe to it," Nayak said when she announced the Wilsons were the winners. "It really made a smile go from one ear to the other on my face."
Judge Nayak said she also enjoyed that their display had different stories behind each section.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
John, or "Mr. Christmas" as Brenda called him, said he has been putting on a Christmas lights display for over 20 years—and it's only got better since he met his Mrs. Clause 12 years ago. The two said they met online and were 98% compatible.
"Brenda and I grew up back in the 50s when things were very simple, so we wanted to create something from when we were growing up," John said on the show.
And their efforts paid off: along with their monetary prize, the couple earned a light-bulb-shaped trophy.
KSAT reports the home got the attention of the show's casting directors last year, who encouraged them to apply to be on the show. The show was then shot last year, but the couple didn't learn they won until this year.
While being on the show is their intro to stardom, locals are familiar with the Wilsons' yearly display in the light-centric Windcrest. Each year their home is part of the Windcrest Light Up, a decades-old tradition where residents go all-out with their holiday light displays. They've won at least three grand prizes in the Windcrest contest and several other category first-place prizes.
The Windcrest Light Up kicks off Dec. 4.
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The countdown to the holidays has begun—do you know where your presents are? If you didn’t get your shopping done over the Black Friday weekend, never fear, there are plenty of department store alternatives to check out right here in Austin.
Shopping local is the gift that keeps on giving, so here are some local artisans to keep in mind.
Willinglee Gift Boxes—1412 E. 37th St.
For the recipient who has it all, give them the unexpected with a carefully curated gift box for any occasion. From the “Autumn Indulgence” package that includes beer caramel candies and a massage candle to the “Cozy Cottage” package that includes upcycled tea towels and a California poppy grow kit, you’ll find new local goodies to get them hooked on.
Moonthyme—2015 Manor Rd.
For your local homebody, get them some upscale home goods to enhance their cozy abode. Moonthyme, whose slogan is “thoughtful provisions to inspire,” deals out ceramic spice jars, handwoven decorative baskets, luxurious bath products and everything in between to keep your home looking comfy even in the cold weather.
Yarrow and Sage ATX—701 E 53rd St.
For the one who is counting the seconds until the next spooky season, Yarrow and Sage ATX has all the crystals, potions and bulk incense galore. The store sells all the astrological curios an enthusiast could dream of from pendulums, pipes and tarot cards to really lean into the witchy vibe.
TOYS & GAMES
Austin Nature Works—2389 Stratford Dr.
Who’s to say that toys can’t be pretty? Not only are the toys from Austin Nature Works an aesthetic choice for young learners, but they’re also sustainably made and will plant a tree for every purchase made.
Tanuki Games—6929 Airport Blvd.
For all your tabletop needs, Tanuki Games is taking family game night to the next level with hard-to-find games from all over the world. Try out Dune: House Secrets, which coincides with the new film, Machi Koro 2, a Japanese Monopoly-esque game, or the elusive Game of Cat & Mouth.
Toy Joy—403 W 2nd St. and 4631 Airport Blvd.
So popular among Austinites, local toy retailer Toy Joy even has a location inside the Austin Bergstrom-International Airport. From mainstream toys that you’ve seen on TV to potato clock kits, models of the “This is Fine” meme, to DIY models, you might even find some whimsical gifts for the adults in your life.
Faraday's Kitchen Store—12918 Shops Pkwy
In a land where food is king, get the chef in your life the tools to make magic happen in the kitchen. Located in the Galleria, Faraday’s Kitchen Store carries cookware for indoor, outdoor, baking and electronics. Plus, if you want to send a well-intentioned hint, Faraday also offers cooking classes.
Give the gift of good eating this holiday season with Farmhouse Delivery, a local company that brings the goodies of your local farmer's market right to your door. From meats, produce, baked goods or ready-prepared meal kits, you can most likely get it local and delivered to wherever you need.
For your favorite tea lover, why not challenge their palate this holiday season with a custom-made tea-filled gift box. Local female-founded tea curator Sips By will send out a box of four news teas every month to your herbal-obsessed loved ones.
Black Pearl Books—4803 Burnet Road
Sweeping the nation with its T-Pain and Normani mini-film for Black-owned Friday, Black Pearl Books is founded on a principle of keeping local dollars in the community and welcoming all in its store. It’s not all books either—grab a Lizzo coloring book, merch, puzzles and cookbooks as well in-store.
BookWoman—5501 N. Lamar Blvd.
The female-run book store set up shop 45 years ago and has been running ever since with stocked shelves by women and a passion for uplifting marginalized voices. Check out BookWoman’s staff picks because it is never too late to inspire a love of reading.
Austin Creative Reuse—2005 Wheless Ln.
If you’re looking to foster the creative spirit this holiday season, head to Austin Creative Reuse, where you can find lightly-used bulk craft and school supplies for a fraction of the new price. You might have to do some digging but imagine the look of a handmade craft basket under the tree!
For that special someone who always brings a pop of color to the room, consider gifting them a new handmade accessory to don. Lys Santamaria’s unique beaded designs are made with love and honor the world around us with beaded earrings inspired by Winter Storm Uri, magic eyes and statement accessories.
Austin is revitalized in WatercolorATX’s dreamy portraits of scenes familiar to Hill Country dwellers. You can have a custom watercolor done of your favorite place, person or pet, or choose from already-painted originals or prints.
CLOTHING & JEWELRY
The Verde Store—506 Congress Ave. and 10414 McKalla Place
Team spirit lasts all year long, even when fútbol season is over, so grab the Austin FC die-hard you know some quality merch. Inside the Verde Store you’ll find the signature shade of Verde and options for all types of fans.
Vinca—1800 E. 4th St.
These quirky little accessories aren’t for the faint of heart but they are guaranteed to catch some eyes. Doling out chainsaw earrings, stabbed heart brooches, alien tractor beams and sea critter jewelry, Vinca’s accessories will make for an… unforgettable gift.
Viva La Silk
Hand-dyed, sewn and styled in Austin, Viva La Silk’s silk accessories are made with versatility and sustainability in mind. The scarves, robes, tops, pants, veils and more are made from 100% reclaimed silk, so the “wearable art” pieces are affordable and comfy.
There are hundreds of local businesses to support—even if it isn't on this list, you can probably get it local.
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