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How to Get Away with Murder, 1884 Style

The Savage Saga of the Servant Girl Annihilator

TL;DR: Yo history buffs, this podcast ep is all about the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” a wild serial killer from 1884 Austin. It’s got the lowdown on these gruesome murders, the massive freak-out they caused, and how peeps back then started figuring out crime-solving. It’s like a mix of horror and history, peeling back layers on the social and racial vibes of the times. Think of it as a throwback true crime saga showing how far we’ve come in understanding and solving such creepy mysteries. 🕵️‍♂️🔍💀


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Trigger Warning, this episode includes discussions of brutal murders, child murder, and rape. Listener discretion is advised.

Welcome to “Bygone Echoes,” where history’s whispers become today’s conversations. I’m your host, Courtney, and today we’re traveling back to 1884, to a time of gaslights and mysteries, right into the heart of Austin, Texas. 

In the heart of this burgeoning city, a series of gruesome murders unfolded, each more harrowing than the last. They called him the Servant Girl Annihilator – an ominous title for a shadowy figure whose identity remains shrouded in mystery to this day.

These were not just crimes; they were a silent symphony of horror that played out on the cobblestone streets of Austin. Women were brutally attacked, their lives cut short in the still of the night. The city, once a beacon of the Old West, transformed into a canvas of fear and suspicion. Unfortunately, many of the records from this period are conflicting, ill-documented, or just purely fabricated. 

As we delve into this chilling chapter of history, we’ll tread the line between fact and folklore, between the known and the unknown. Join us, as we unravel the tale of the Servant Girl Annihilator, in an episode that explores not just the crimes, but the society, the panic, and the legacy of one of America’s earliest serial killers.

Picture the world in 1884. The industrial revolution is in full swing, churning the gears of progress and change. The air is filled with the soot and promise of steam engines. Across the ocean, the Statue of Liberty, a beacon of hope and freedom, is still a dream away from New York Harbor. Mark Twain published the literary classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and in the world of science – Louis Pasteur developed the Rabies vaccine. It’s a world teetering on the edge of modernity, where gaslight battles the encroaching tide of electric light.

In the broader USA, the air is thick with change, a nation rebuilding its identity after the Civil War. The wounds of the conflict are still fresh, and the nation grapples with its aftermath – from Reconstruction in the South to the growing pains of an industrial North. It was a time of inventors and innovations, robber barons, and rising labor movements. Women’s suffrage, a whisper in earlier decades, is now a growing chorus, demanding a voice in the destiny of a nation reborn.

The landscape of Texas was as varied and wild as the state itself. Think of a scene where the untamed spirit of the frontier, cattle rustling, notorious outlaws, simmering racial tensions, and stretched-thin law enforcement all mixed. Crime rates swung like a saloon door across Texas, often fueled by heated land disputes, resource battles, and personal grudges. Cattle theft and property crimes were rampant in certain areas, and with a legal system still finding its footing, folks sometimes took the law into their own hands – hello, vigilantism. If you’re looking for neat crime statistics from this era, you might be disappointed. Back then, keeping detailed records wasn’t exactly a top priority, so a lot of that data is like dust in the wind – hard to catch and piece together.

Let’s focus on Austin, Texas. It’s a city on the cusp of transformation, a microcosm of the American spirit of the time. Not yet the vibrant capital we know today, Austin in 1884 is a frontier town evolving into a metropolis. Its streets are a labyrinth of contradictions – dusty roads that lead to opulent mansions, and saloons sit alongside stately government buildings. And there were a lot of saloons. The Capitol building itself is under construction, a symbol of the city’s lofty aspirations.

Austin is a melting pot of cultures and peoples. Cowboys drive cattle through its streets, while politicians debate in its halls. The city is home to a diverse population – Mexican-Americans, newly freed African-Americans, and European immigrants, each adding a distinct thread to the city’s rich tapestry. Yet, beneath this bustle and diversity lies an undercurrent of tension – racial, cultural, and economic divides that silently shape the lives of its inhabitants.

Women at this time were expected to be the very image of modesty and restraint, spending their days spinning around the heart of their homes – cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. For married women, their identity was like a vine intertwined with their husbands, often without the right to own property by themselves. Fashion for these women wasn’t just clothing, it was a statement. Corsets cinching waists, long skirts brushing the floor, high-neck blouses – all stitching together the ideals of Victorian modesty and femininity. 

Healthcare? That was a bumpy road, especially when it came to childbirth. Most women relied on home remedies, with professional medical care a rare treasure. The experience of being a woman back then was even more complex when you factor in race and class. 

Black women bore the dual burdens of gender and racial discrimination. Employment opportunities were mostly low-paying jobs like domestic work. Yet, in the face of segregated and substandard education and healthcare, their resilience shone brightly. These women were pillars in their communities, actively participating in church life and the nascent civil rights movements, all while balancing household responsibilities and their work outside the home. This period, even before the stringent enforcement of Jim Crow laws, was already marked by profound racial divisions.

Amid this complex backdrop, where Southern charm intertwines with the untamed spirit of the West, a dark chapter is emerging. The city, caught in its historical crosswinds, is about to be rocked by a series of mysterious and savage crimes. These chilling events will not only rattle Austin to its core but will also mark a pivotal shift in the archives of criminal investigation.

As we delve into the heart of this mystery, let’s tread with respect and care, for these are tales not just of unsolved crimes, but of lives cruelly and prematurely ended.

On December 30, 1884, a day that was just like any other for Mollie Smith, a 25-year-old mixed-race domestic servant in Austin. Mollie, known for her spirited nature and defiance of societal norms, lived near her employer’s home with her boyfriend, a bold choice for an unmarried woman of her time. That night, as she and her boyfriend slept, an intruder wielding an axe launched a vicious assault, leaving both Mollie and her boyfriend unconscious. Mollie was dragged near her employer’s house, where the violence continued, and she was raped and murdered. Her body was left in a haunting scene, almost floating in a pool of her own blood. Miraculously, her boyfriend survived the attack. This savage crime sent ripples of shock and disbelief through Austin. Violence was not unheard of in this era, but the raw brutality of Mollie’s murder stood out. 

As 1885 unfolded there were no solid leads on Mollie’s case. Life went on as normal for most. But, let’s not gloss over a grim reality of that era – the streets of Austin were far from safe, especially for female servants. Newspaper clippings from those days paint a harrowing picture of frequent harassment, break-ins, and even assaults and robberies against servants of all backgrounds. 

A six-month cooling-off period followed, with the killer not striking again in May 1885. Eliza Shelley was a 30-year-old black cook to a prominent Austin family. She raised her three young sons alone while her husband served time in a penitentiary. The family lived in a tiny cabin behind her employer’s home. While Eliza and her children slept in their shared bed, a man wearing a white face covering broke into the cabin. The killer murdered Eliza with a hatchet, inserted and removed sharp object into her skull, then wrapped her in the bedspread and placed her on the floor next to the bed, where the children slept. Her children slept peacefully as most of the horror occurred, but her oldest son–around 8 years old at the time–was awakened by the commotion and recounted, “A man came in the room and asked me where my mother kept her money,” he said. “I told him I didn’t know. He told me to cover up my head. If I didn’t, he would kill me.” In the aftermath the local paper painted Eliza in a positive light, remarking on her good character, temperament, and steadfastness; a faithful wife, mother, and employee. 

Just weeks later, the killer struck again. Irene Cross, a black woman in her late 30s working as a domestic servant, was a widow and mother. One night, a knife-wielding attacker left her with horrific, fatal injuries. The assault was so severe that her arm was almost severed, and witnesses shockingly described her as appearing to have been scalped. 

Demands for justice echoed through the city, and with each passing month a palpable fear gripped Austin. The random and gruesome nature of the attacks, combined with the inability of law enforcement to catch the killer, caused widespread panic. The newspapers made it worse. They sensationalized the attacks, amplifying public fear and significantly impacting on daily life. Many servants began sharing lodgings, hoping there was safety in nymbers. Others, slept in their employers kitchens for safety. Some even thought some type of evil or demon was the culprit. The black community was desperate to protect these vulnerable women, and some even turned to Hoodoo, a slave-era folk magic. Sadly, in the face of such unrelenting terror, nothing offered much solace. 

In August, the killer struck again. A widowed domestic servant named Rebecca Ramey, a black woman in her late 40s was viciously attacked with a club while she slept in her employers kitchen. Instead of murdering Rebecca, the attacker turned his attention to her young daughter, Mary. Mary was only 11 at the time, and was the youngest of Rebecca’s children. Mary attended grammar school, with dreams of someday becoming a teacher. Mary was dragged to the backyard, attacked, stabbed through the ear with an iron rod, and raped. She survived only a few hours after being found. The brutality inflicted on Mary, distinct from earlier attacks, signaled a dreadful escalation: now, even children were not spared.

As the leaves turned in autumn, Austin remained under a dark cloud of violence. In September, the city’s nightmare continued. Gracie Vance, a 20-year-old domestic servant, and her boyfriend, Orange Washington, found themselves ensnared in this unsettling reality. With the shadow of danger looming ever closer, they, along with two fellow servants, clung to the belief that there was safety in numbers, sharing their humble abode for the night. Orange, tragically, met his end under a cruel axe strike. The other two servants were attacked but, by some stroke of fortune, survived. Gracie, in a heart-wrenching echo of previous tragedies, was ripped from the sanctuary of her home, subjected to a brutal and merciless attack, and murdered, adding another sorrowful chapter to Austin’s troubled tale.

Things were quiet for a while. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1885, Susan Hancock was sleeping peacefully in her home, while her husband slept in another bed in the house. Susan was known as a “refined lady”, a white woman in her 40s, a wife, a mother, and—not a domestic servant. On that day, she was dragged from her bed into the garden, where she was violently murdered. She was found with a sharp object protruding from her skull, which laid open in two peices. 

Shockingly, only 1 hour after Susan was discovered, Eula Phillips was found dead in the wealthiest neighborhood in Austin. Like Susan, Eula was white and was a wife and mother–and, only 17 years old. She was struck with an axe while sleeping, carried into the backyard, raped and murdered. These final two murders left the community and authorities even more baffled. 

And then, as quickly as they began the murders stopped. 

As we piece together the crimes, a haunting pattern under the cover of darkness emerges. The assailant, favoring an axe or other sharpened weapon as their ghastly instrument, struck with a violent and disturbing intimacy. Victims were often attacked while asleep, completely unaware of the looming horror. Post-attack, many of the bodies were disturbingly staged outdoors, signaling a brazen defiance of societal norms.

The victims, diverse in backgrounds, were not exclusively women or servants, challenging early assumptions about the killer’s target profile. However, a majority were women, predominantly servants, highlighting societal vulnerabilities and gender-targeted violence. Rumors suggested some early victims lived in non-traditional arrangements, possibly frowned upon by the community, adding another layer of complexity to the killer’s motives.

The nature of these attacks – personal, vicious, and executed with terrifying precision – underscores the killer’s predilection for invading the sanctity of homes, striking fear in the very place where victims should feel safest.

Now, let’s turn the pages back to the investigation and the waves it created in the public sphere.

In the 1880s, police work was in its infancy, especially in a burgeoning town like Austin. The police and detectives, armed with little more than basic investigative tools and intuition, faced a daunting task. Without the advantages of modern forensics, they relied on eyewitness accounts and rudimentary evidence gathering. Their methods, though earnest, were often hampered by the limitations of the time, leading to frustration and dead ends.

As fear gripped Austin, the public reaction was a mix of panic and morbid fascination. Newspapers played a pivotal role, sensationalizing the murders, often at the expense of factual reporting. Headlines screamed of the “midnight assassin” and “blood-curdling crimes,” fueling a climate of fear and suspicion.

The media coverage was relentless, and the community found itself in the grip of a true-crime frenzy. This was more than just news; it was a story that played on the deepest fears of the public. Citizens began to take extra precautions, altering their routines and fortifying their homes against a threat that seemed omnipresent.

As the investigation trudged on, several theories and suspects emerged. One theory suggested a group of malevolent individuals, working in concert to spread terror. Another pointed to a lone, deranged individual driven by unknown motives.

Among the suspects, few names gained as much attention as Nathan Elgin, a local cook with a criminal record. After he died in an unrelated incident, a series of clues seemingly connected him to the crimes, but conclusive evidence was never found. Other suspects included itinerant workers and unknown drifters, but again, nothing concrete materialized. Often, they blamed the spouses or significant others of the victims. 

The lack of a solid lead or arrest led to widespread criticism of the police. The community’s trust in law enforcement wavered as the murders remained unsolved. This period, marked by fear and uncertainty, cast a long shadow over Austin, altering the city’s social fabric.

In the face of such darkness, the city of Austin stood at a crossroads, caught between the horror of the present and the hope for justice that seemed increasingly elusive.

The string of chilling crimes that shook Austin in the 1880s didn’t immediately transform the city, but they certainly set the wheels of change in motion. As Austin journeyed through the closing years of the 19th century, it was a tale of a city trying to find its footing. Balancing the excitement of growth and modernization with the stark lessons from a deeply unsettling chapter in its history, Austin was slowly peeling off its Wild West persona to don a more structured, urban cloak.

These events etched deep scars the collective psyche of Austin, and Texas as a whole, casting a long shadow of vulnerability and altering perceptions of safety. Whenever similar crimes occurred, newspapers sensationalized the news as the reappearance of the Austin murderer. This period became a crucial turning point, pushing the city’s law enforcement towards more advanced policing and investigative methods.

In the wider realm of crime investigation and forensic science, the unsolved Austin murders hold a significant place. Occurring at a time when forensic methods were still in their infancy, these cases were stark reminders of the need for more sophisticated investigative techniques. They predated the notorious Jack the Ripper cases, which would later bring global attention to forensic science, highlighting just how much was yet to be learned and developed in this field. Surprisingly, many linked Jack the Ripper to the Austin murders–speculating the acts were committed by the same person. 

The haunting legacy of these events continues to echo through literature and media, capturing our collective imagination with a blend of grim fascination and solemn respect. It’s important to note, though, that not every reference to these crimes has been approached with the gravity they deserve. The author William S. Porter, later known as O. Henry, was a young man living in Austin while these crimes took place and once casually dubbed the murders the work of the “Servant Girl Annihilators.” Before I did my research, I found a certain allure in the term’s dramatic flair. However, after delving deeper into the subject, I recognize its insensitivity and I want to apologize for any earlier casualness on my part. I certainly have a much better understanding of the profound impact and tragedy of these events. They deserve to be spoken of with a reverence that honors the lives lost and affected.

Though there may be no grand memorials to commemorate the victims, their stories remain an integral part of Austin’s complex historical narrative. These harrowing murders, predating the more infamous Jack the Ripper, stand as a somber reminder of the relentless pursuit of justice and the human toll of crime during an era on the cusp of significant advances in forensic science.

These murders, to this day, remain unsolved. 

And that wraps up today’s episode of “Bygone Echoes.” We’ve delved into a haunting narrative of Austin in turmoil, where fear reigned supreme and the pursuit of justice was hindered by the era’s limitations. The unsolved Austin murders of the 1880s, with their chilling mysteries and tragic losses, reveal a dark past in what’s now a bustling city. As we leave the gaslit streets of 19th-century Austin, we carry with us the stories of those lost, and the enduring quest for answers that remains, even to this day, an unfinished chapter in the annals of American crime history.

Next time on “Bygone Echoes,” we delve into the eerie world of Victorian-era asylums. These institutions, often misunderstood, were places where treatment and torment blurred. We’ll explore their origins, societal attitudes towards mental health, and their portrayal in literature. Join us for a haunting journey through the history of asylums, revealing tales of compassion, cruelty, and the legacy that shapes our understanding of mental health today.

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