History of Austin

The horrifying history of Austin's infamous Servant Girl Annihilator

The horrifying history of Austin's infamous Servant Girl Annihilator

downtown austin history 1880s
Austin in the 1880s.  Courtesy of the Austin History Center

Most people consider the University of Texas Tower shootings on August 1, 1966, as the day Austin lost its collective innocence and entered the history books for infamous reasons. However, it was a series of horrifying events in the late 1880s — better known as the Servant Girl Annihilator or Servant Girl Murders — that first left local citizens paralyzed with fear.

The brutal killings in Austin occurred three years before Jack the Ripper terrorized London's East End (and there are some who believe the Servant Girl Annihilator and Jack the Ripper were the same person). And although these murders happened 75 years before the term serial killer was coined, it still sealed Austin's reputation as the first city in America to have a serial killer — and the person responsible known as the first serial murderer in the country.

The victims
The first victim was Mollie Smith, a 25-year-old cook working for the Walter Hall residence on Sixth Street (then named Pecan Street). She was killed on December 30, 1884, in a grisly murder filled with copious amounts of blood due to axe wounds to her head, abdomen, chest, legs, and arms. Her body was found outside and placed in the snow next to the family outhouse.

The second victim was Eliza Shelly, a young woman who worked as a cook for the family of Dr. Lucian Johnson. Killed a few months after Mollie Smith, Shelly had been brutally murdered on Cypress Stress on May 7, 1885, and her head left almost completely split from the blows of an axe.

Because of the killer's apparent weapon of choice — an axe — the murders were first known as the Austin Axe Murders until well-known resident William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) wrote in a letter to a friend: "Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead of night." After this letter became public, locals and reporters began referring to the murderer as the Servant Girl Annihilator.

On May 23, 1885, a third woman, also a young servant, became the next victim. Her name was Irene Cross and she lived on East Linden Street, just across from Scholz Garten. A reporter on the scene after her vicious attack stated that she looked as if she had been scalped.

Summer passed, and with August's arrival came a ghastly attack on Clara Dick. Later that month, a servant named Rebecca Ramey was wounded and her 11-year-old daughter Mary was killed.

At this time, Austin citizens were seized with fear and began protecting their homes with extra safeguards. Other cautions, such as increased patrols in neighborhoods, going home before sunset, and 24-hour saloons closing at midnight, we all also taken. (It's worth noting that despite the legend, Austin's famous moontowers were not constructed during this time. They came later in the 1890s.)

Next victims were Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washington. They were sleeping in a shack behind the home of Vance's boss when the couple was brutally attacked with an axe. According to the local paper, Vance's "head almost beaten into a jelly."

Despite the name, up to this point all the victims were African-American, but they were not all servant girls. And many noted that white Austinites had not been attacked — yet.

The final two murders occurred on Christmas Eve, 1885. First, Sue Hancock, described as "one of the most refined ladies in Austin," was found in her backyard (now the Four Seasons Austin) by her husband.

Hours later, Eula Phillips, "one of the prettiest women in Austin," was found dead in her in-laws backyard (where the Austin Central Library is now located). Her husband, Jimmy Phillips, sustained severe wounds in the attack. Ultimately, both spouses of Sue Hancock and Eula Phillips were accused, but found not guilty of the murders.

After the Christmas Eve murders in 1885, the killings stopped, but the fear was still palpable. At the time of the murders, Austin had been changing from a small frontier town to a cosmopolitan city, but the reputation it acquired because of the crimes put a halt to the city's growth.

The suspects
Although approximately 400 men were eventually rounded up by authorities and questioned in the killings, all suspects were released and the murders remain unsolved. However, there are a few names from history that stand out as possible murder suspects.

Nathan Elgin was native Austinite and young African-American domestic servant who knew the streets of his hometown. Elgin, the chief suspect in the crimes, was shot by authorities when he grabbed a woman from a local saloon, and then dragged her away.

He died of his wounds the day after being shot, and the murders immediately ceased. Another vital clue were footprints found at crime scenes. Presumably the killer removed his boots for quick entrances and exits, and one distinctive print matched Elgin, who had only four toes on his right foot. 

The next suspect was Maurice (no last name given), a Malaysian cook who worked at the Pearl House in downtown Austin. The Pearl House had connections to a majority of the victims of the Annihilator, therefore this theory gained momentum.

It is said that once Maurice left Austin bound for New Orleans and ultimately London, the murders ended. And although the killings by Jack the Ripper were more brutal in nature, many believe the Austin and London killers were actually the same person — a person who happened to add horrifying methods to his assassinations.

Eventually, Jack the Ripper's crimes gained international attention while Austin's axe murder mystery was eclipsed by the infamous murders in London. However, interest in the Servant Girl Annihilator murders has recently become the subject of a comprehensive book: The Midnight Assassin by Texas Monthly journalist Skip Hollandsworth. Published in 2015, Hollandsworth's book became a New York Times bestselling title.

The newfound interest in the Servant Girl Annihilator murders isn't necessarily surprising. Like the Austin of the 1880s, the city today is experiencing tremendous growth, bringing with it an uncertain future. And after all, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.