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Murder, mayhem and a midnight axeman: How an early American serial killer 'Ripped' apart 1880s Austin

Austin was torn apart by eight slayings dubbed the "Servant Girl Murders" in the late 1800s. (Austin History Center)

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.

Background—Austin, 1885

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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Tito's releases (not so?) ugly sweater line for the holidays, profits to charity

Tito's Handmade Vodka

Show your love for Tito's and for the community this year with a wide selection of not that ugly, uglyish, ugly, uglier, and ugliest holiday sweaters.

There's lots choose from, and plenty of accessories like scarves and socks, plus gear for your dog, too.

All of the items can be purchased online or at the Love, Tito’s Retail Store in Austin, TX. 100% of all net proceeds from online or in-store purchases go to one of the nonprofits we’ve teamed up with.

Click here to see the entire collection in the Tito's store.

Mac and Cheese Fest and Free Art Exhibit
Waterloo Greenway, Good Vibrations Installation

🗓 All weekend

🎨 Creek Show Art Exhibit

Check out this highly anticipated art exhibition with illuminated art along Waller Creek. Tickets are free and the event includes food vendors, dazzling lights, live music, and hands-on activities

All weekend 6 p.m - 10 p.m | 📍Waterloo Park

✨ Mozart's Light Show

This iconic holiday tradition lights up for the first time this holiday season starting this weekend! Reserve your spot for an enchanting light and sound performance, delicious hot cocoa, sweet treats, and some overall fun with your friends or family. The show runs till January 6th.

6 p.m and 9 p.m | 📍Mozart's Coffee Roasters - 3825 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703

🗓 Saturday

🥊 Kickboxing in the Park

This fitness event is free and open to the public. Get your morning started right with a "Fitness in the park" class for kickboxing! The class will be led by certified instructors and is a great way to get a cardio workout in while also honing your self-defense skills.

10 a.m - 11 a.m | 📍 Metz Park

🛍 The Front Market

Support local LBGTQ+ and female artists at this outdoor market with over 150 vendors. Get your holiday shopping out of the way at this event, with vendors for food trucks, handmade goods, raffles, hands on workshops and activities, and more.

11 a.m - 5 p.m | 📍Ani's Day and Night - 7107 E Riverside Drive, Austin, TX 78741

🗓 Sunday

🧀 Mac and Cheese Fest

Did someone say cheese?! If you're like me and always willing to get your hands on a bowl of mac and cheese, then this event is for you. Check out the Mac and Cheese festival happening this weekend to decide which vendor has. the best mac and cheese for yourself, and enjoy the bar with creative cocktails while you're at it. Tickets start at $45.

11 a.m - 3 p.m | 📍Lantana Place - 7415 Southwest Parkway