Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Tidings of Mayhem

by Diane Fanning
Austin, Texas, (left) woke to an unusual sprinkling of snow on Christmas morning, 1885. Instead of tidings of great joy, residents picked up their copies of the Austin Daily Statesman to find a Halloween-style nightmare.

A front-page headline mocked sentiments of peace on earth and goodwill to men: "Blood! Blood! Blood! The Demons Have Transferred Their Thirst for Blood to White People."

The crime spree began nearly a year earlier with the murders  of African Americans who lived in servants' quarters across an alley from their wealthy employers' homes. First to die was Mollie Smith, on Dec. 30th, 1884, at Ninth and West Pecan Street(now the famed Sixth Street.) The killer beat, stabbed and slashed her to death with an ax and a knife before dragging her body outside. Her death was reported under the headline: "BLOODY WORK! A Fearful Midnight Murder ... A Colored Woman Killed Outright and Her Lover Mostly Done For."

On May 6, 1885, the town was rocked again: "THE FOUL FIENDS Keep up Their Work, Another Woman Cruelly Murdered. Another Deed of Deviltry in the Crimson Catalogue of Crime." The Statesman reported that the body of Eliza Shelley found with "the night dress displaced in such a manner as to suggest she may have been outraged after death."

Over nine months, five black maids -- including a girl just 11 years old -- were murdered and possibly raped postmortem. The killer also bludgeoned to death the lover sharing the fifth victim's bed.  The paper named the attacker "The Servant Girl Annihilator."

The crimes baffled authorities. Homicides were rare in Austin, usually the result of a bar fight or domestic violence. The idea of a serial killers had yet to be developed. When prosecutor E.T. Moore said he believed the murders were committed by one man who hated women, Moore was treated with scorn. The police pursued their rejected-lover theory, arresting three men. Only one went to trial, and he was acquitted.

In his State of the City address, on Nov. 10, 1885, Mayor John Robertson proclaimed, "I have faith the author of these crimes will be uncovered. No human heart is strong enough to hold such secrets." The mayor had no idea how many secrets a psychopath can hide.

Then the attacker changed his victimology on Christmas Eve 1885. Susan Hancock (her grave site on left) died in her home on the spot where the Four Seasons Hotel now stands. The killer dragged her brutalized body outside and dumped it in the snow.

His next stop was a few blocks away, at the home of Jimmy and Eula Phillips, now the site of the John Henry Faulk Central Library. The murderer treated Eula (below right) as he had Susan and left Jimmy for dead in his bed. 

These victims were not servants and they were not black--but the methodologies of the crime pointed to the same predator.  Fear oozed under the door sills of every home in town.
The police charged Eula's husband with her murder, accusing him of committing a copycat crime even though he was seriously injured in the incident.  The jury convicted Jimmy Phillips but he was cleared on appeal with the discovery that his fingerprints were smaller than those the murderer left in Eula's blood at the crime scene.

The murders ended after Eula's death.  Historians researching the Servant Girl Annihilator estimate his victims numbered anywhere from eight to twenty.  But where did this seemingly insatiable killer go?

Does he lie buried in the Oakwood Cemetery (below) near his victims? No one knows.
Did he cross the Atlantic, as some theorize, and resume his killing spree in London as Jack the Ripper? Evidence of that possibility is tenuous at best.

Curiosity about the unsolved crimes continues to this day. Author Steven Saylor hoped to solve the mystery when he began his research. He didn't find the name of the killer. Instead he wrote a fictional account, A TWIST AT THE END: A NOVEL OF O. HENRY. Saylor focused on the rumor that O. Henry, the famous writer was once a lover of Eula Phillips.

Other experienced and amateur sleuths -- including Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly, former waitress Nicole Krizak and Rondina Phillips Mercer, a contemporary relative of Eula Phillips -- have sought answers, at times with a passion verging on obsession. 

In 1884, before Jack the Ripper, before Sigmund Freud, before anyone could envision the long list of serial killers who'd become household names, the Servant Girl Annihilator stalked the streets of downtown Austin leaving a string of victims, disturbing the quiet of a Silent Night, and leaving a mystery unsolved for 125 years.

Sending my heartfelt gratitude for the research assistance I received from Danny Camacho of Save Austin's Cemeteries -- an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic cemeteries and the timeless glimpse at our past that they contain.

1 comment:

Glenn Adams said...

Backtracking a Serial Killer: Gary Michael Hilton/Stealth Predator: slideshow..