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.
- The origins of Austin's boomtown status in 19th century - austonia ›
- "Forget the Alamo" highlights slavery in Texas History - austonia ›
- Austinites retell the history of South Congress Avenue - austonia ›
- Where to find Austin's moon towers, and why we love them - austonia ›
- Three injured, one suspect in custody after axe attack in downtown Austin - austonia ›
- Four injured in Austin Sixth Street shooting during SXSW - austonia ›
- Four injured in Austin Sixth Street shooting during SXSW - austonia ›
- Three injured, one suspect in custody after axe attack in downtown Austin - austonia ›
- The Servant Girl Annihilator – Nathan Elgin – A Criminology | The ... ›
- Texas prosecutor: More than 60 deaths now linked to serial killer ... ›
- Learn about Austin's first (and most notorious) serial killer on this ... ›
- How the 'Servant Girl Annihilator' Terrorized 1880s Austin | Mental ... ›
- Austin's 'Servant Girl Annihilator' serial killer continues to baffle ... ›
- FBI: Inmate is most prolific serial killer in US history - News - Austin ... ›
- Murders in the Night: Austin's Serial Killer ›
Genetic engineering company Colossal Biosciences announced it has started de-extinction of the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger.
Partnering with the University of Melbourne and its Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab on these efforts, Colossal says bringing the tiger back could “re-balance the Tasmanian and broader Australian ecosystems.”
“With our planet’s biodiversity at risk, we will continue to contribute scientific resources to preserving the species and ecosystems necessary to sustain life,” CEO Ben Lamm said.
Founded last year, Colossal aims to further develop technologies for marsupial conservation efforts and say they are the first to apply CRISPR technology for the purpose of species de-extinction.
The company has its headquarters in Dallas with Austin ties through its software and hardware team. Also with Lamm, who is former CEO of Austin AI company Hypergiant.
Ben Lamm and co-founder George Church
The Tasmanian tiger marks Colossal’s second de-extinction project. Before its work on the Australian marsupial that was eradicated nearly a century ago, Colossal announced its plans to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
Now, Lamm said they are thrilled about teaming up with the Melbourne lab, which is headed by Andrew Pask, a marsupial evolutionary biologist and Tasmanian tiger expert.
Pask said this is a “landmark moment” for marsupial research and that the technology from the project will influence the next generation of conservation efforts.
“Additionally, rewilding the thylacine to the Tasmanian landscape can significantly curb the destruction of this natural habitat due to invasive species,” Pask said. “The Tasmanian tiger is iconic in Australian culture. We’re excited to be part of this team in bringing back this unique, cornerstone species that mankind previously eradicated from the planet.”
\u201cIntroducing Texas #pumas reinvigorated the Florida panther population.\u201d— Colossal Biosciences (@Colossal Biosciences) 1655137149
Colossal points to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and the Tasmanian Devil to Australia as examples of the importance of rewilding species to their original habitats. Through that, Colossal says, damaged ecosystems can be restored and revitalized.
To achieve the successful birth of the Tasmanian tiger, Colossal says advancement of current marsupial assisted reproductive technology is required. The work goes beyond the Tasmanian tiger though and Colossal says this technology will be instrumental in the preservation of marsupials at large. The company notes this is especially important in Australia, which faces a fast rate of biodiversity loss and where marsupials are highly concentrated.
Colossal boasts investors like nature gaming group Untamed Planet and local Australian non-profit WildArk, as well as actors the Hemsworth brothers.
“Our family remains dedicated to supporting conservationist efforts around the world and protecting Australia's biodiversity is a high priority,” Chris Hemsworth said. “The Tassie Tiger’s extinction had a devastating effect on our ecosystem and we are thrilled to support the revolutionary conservation efforts that are being made by Dr. Pask and the entire Colossal team.”
- UT begins $6 billion fundraising campaign, biggest ever among ... ›
- Experts share how 'nanoinfluencers' influence 2020 election - austonia ›
- UT researchers working to address racial bias in AI - austonia ›
- Dell Medical Center brings psychedelics to veterans and other ... ›
- As the EPA faces limits on greenhouse gas regulations, Texas ... ›
- UT researchers help with major discovery on star formations - austonia ›
- Austin's Benchmark Research plans vaccine trial for kids - austonia ›
- Texas Real Estate Research Center - austonia ›
- EnergyX grows Austin presence with larger lab and more hires ... ›
Construction on additional structures for Apple’s Northwest Austin campus could start in February.
The August filings with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation are the latest glimpse at the campus that was announced in December 2018. The campus is expected to be 3 million square feet with 12 office and amenity buildings, parking garages and other facilities once it’s finished.
Plans on the three structures in the filings are estimated to total $279 million and are expected to reach completion by February 2025.
One of the planned structures is a $100 million five-level building. International firm HKS Architects, which opened an office in Austin earlier this year, is listed as the designer.
Another multi-story building also designed by HKS is expected to be 298,977 square feet and cost $118 million.
The last structure in the filing is a $61 million parking garage with nine levels and 3,500 spots for cars.
The initial phase of the tech giant’s campus could welcome 5,000 employees and maybe even reach 15,000 upon completion, Apple has said.
- Austin apple workers discuss #AppleToo movement - austonia ›
- See Austin's new Apple campus under construction - austonia ›
- From Google tower to Apple campus: 6 Austin developments you'll ... ›
- Apple plans for new EV while growing Austin presence - austonia ›
- An Austin-based Apple activist has been fired from the company ... ›
- $2B development coming near Austin's new Apple campus - austonia ›
- Apple shipping iphones from Austin domain northside store - austonia ›
- Austin office market hits record high - austonia ›
- The typical compensation for a Big Tech worker in Austin - austonia ›