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Rediscovering Austin's Jack the Ripper
By Michael Corcoran
American-Statesman Staff

As early as 1888, comparisons were made between the Ripper murders and similar serial killings in Texas, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Tunis, and elsewhere. This article details the ax-murders of Austin, Texas (1884/85) which some believed may have been the "early work" of Jack the Ripper.

Who preyed on the city's servant girls? A local author exhumes a century-old mystery -- and O. Henry.

From late 1884 to late 1885, a vicious serial killer haunted the streets of Austin. Below is a list of his victims.

Victim Date
Mollie Smith Dec. 30 1884
Eliza Shelley May 6, 1885
Irene Cross May 23, 1885
Mary Ramey Aug. 29, 1885
Gracie Vance Sept. 27, 1885
Orange Washington Sept. 27, 1885
Susan Hancock Dec. 24 1885
Eula Phillips Dec. 24 1885

It's a well-known fact of Austiniana that William Sydney Porter, later known as that master of the surprise ending O. Henry, lived in "the city with the violet crown" in the late 1800s. Another famous Austinite at the turn of the century was German sculptor Elisabet Ney, whose Hyde Park studio, Formosa, has been turned into a tribute to her eccentricity.

What has become merely a footnote to our town's history is the year of bloodlust that began at the end of 1884 and ran through Christmas Eve 1885. Seven women and one man were hacked to death in their bedrooms, the women dragged outside and sexually assaulted in the moonlight.

"BLOODY WORK!" screamed the Austin Statesman when the body of victim No. 1, maid Mollie Smith, was discovered behind 901 W. Pecan St. (now Sixth). "Another Servant Girl Found Slain" was the headline for Eliza Shelley's murder May 6. According to the Statesman report, Shelley was found with "her night dress displaced in such a manner as to suggest she may have been outraged after death."

When author Steven Saylor came across a brief mention of the serial killings while thumbing through "Austin: An Illustrated History" eight years ago, his first thought was "Why haven't I heard of this before?" Three years after the Austin murders, Jack the Ripper began his infamous spree in England, inspiring countless books and movies. Yet the butchering of eight in a Texas town with a population of 20,000 rated only a blurb in a local history book. It's been Austin's dark secret.

That changes with the release of Saylor's "A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry" (Simon & Schuster), a work that mixes history with invention to present a tantalizing portrait of 1880s Austin. "Every detail of the murders is absolutely correct in the book," says Saylor from his home in Berkeley, Calif. (He also owns a condo in Austin).

The first five victims were female black servants, attacked with an ax in the quarters behind the homes where they worked. (The boyfriend of victim No. 5, Gracie Vance, was bludgeoned to death as he lay beside her.) Then on Christmas Eve came a change of pattern: Two white women were hacked to death and violated. "THE DEMONS HAVE TRANSFERRED THEIR THIRST FOR BLOOD TO WHITE PEOPLE!" the headline screamed. Working the spurned lover angle, three arrests were made in the five servant slayings, but only one suspect went to trial, and he was acquitted. None of the murders was ever solved.

Saylor worked hard to get the facts straight. Will Porter's conviction for embezzlement, which sent him from Austin to an Ohio prison in 1898, is just as Saylor reports it. He's got the missing sum right down to the dollar ($5,654). But Porter's motive to steal comes from Saylor's imagination. And a visit to Austin in 1906, when the by-then-famous O. Henry is lured back with the promise of finding out who murdered his ex-lover Eula Phillips (hacking victim No. 8), never happened.

In reality, Porter and Phillips probably never met. Neither did Porter and Ney, though they have several deep and sometimes daffy conversations in "Twist." In fact, Porter's only known connection to the killings was a letter he wrote to a friend in which he credits "the Servant Girl Annihilators" with bringing some excitement to the local paper.

"I'm a novelist, not a historian," Saylor says. "When I started really digging in on the research in the summer of '97, I thought about writing the book as a nonfiction account of what happened. After all, I was doing primary research on the subject. I was finding things that no one had even looked for. But I also wanted to explore the theme of remembrance in a way that a novel can."

Though the book carries the standard disclaimer -- "Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental" -- the characters have the names of real people and roam the haunts of the time, including the Guy Town red light district (Fourth and Colorado), Salge's Chop House restaurant and Scholz's Garten.

Saylor, who grew up in Gold-thwaite, just north of Lampasas, calls his style of mixing fact and fancy "a sort of literary cubism. It's like a painting where you see both eyes in profile. I want to show two views of Austin's mythic past."

The key to accomplishing this twist is to be absolutely meticulous in your research, says Saylor, who received grand training in being scrupulous with details while writing seven historical crime novels set near the end of the Roman Empire. After writing "Roman Blood," the first in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, Saylor sent it to a Roman classicist for fact checking and the galleys came back marked full of mistakes. "I was freaking out, thinking that I'd really blown it, but it turned out to be the most picayune corrections." Saylor learned at the outset that Roman experts take their Cicero seriously and so he often spends more time at the library than at the writing table.

That search ethic worked in his favor while preparing "A Twist at the End." He looked at microfiche at the Austin History Center every day for two months and found all the details of the serial killings that had been made public at the time. But something was missing. "The story needed a motor," Saylor says, some kind of information that would take the plot beyond a sleuth novel.

One afternoon in '97, Saylor popped in at Uncommon Objects on South Congress and came upon an enormous bookshelf of old law books. The musty collection contained an 1887 volume called "Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Court of Appeals of Texas," and when he thumbed through it he came upon what he calls the "capstone" of his book. Sixty pages were devoted to the trial of Jimmy Phillips, accused of killing his wife Eula Phillips on Dec. 24, 1885. Even though the husband was severely beaten in the same attack, prosecutors sold the jury on a "copycat" killing, and a guilty verdict was returned. Phillips eventually won his release on appeal, however.

"It came out in the trial that Eula had been a prostitute behind her husband's back," Saylor says. Suddenly, Saylor had a possible link to Porter -- he could have been one of her gentleman callers at the house of ill repute run by May Tobin at 103 Congress Ave. After reading pieces of her testimony, Saylor turned Phillips' sister Delia Campbell into a major character. One rich detail from the transcript: An "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit" scenario presented itself when it was revealed that Phillips' footprints were slightly smaller than those left in blood by the killer. When the prosecution argued that Phillips was probably carrying his wife, thus flattening his feet at the time of the impression, new prints were made with Phillips carrying his attorney.

"You just can't make up details like that," Saylor says.

"I have faith that the authors of these crimes will yet be uncovered. No human heart is strong enough to hold such secrets."

-- Austin Mayor John Robertson, in his State of the City address, Nov. 10, 1885

At the beginning of the project, Saylor admits to fleeting thoughts that he might actually solve the case. His favorite character from literature is, after all, Sherlock Holmes. "I quickly realized that it just wasn't feasible to find the solution," Saylor says. "All the people involved have been dead for years. There's no one to talk to and criminal forensics were crude, at best, back then." Fingerprinting would not be considered a viable technique for 20 more years, so use of bloodhounds was as high-tech as investigations got.

The scent's been cold for more than a century, but that doesn't keep Saylor from playing full-court fiction and revealing the killers in the book. The big mystery today is why the case of the "Servant Girl Annihilators," perhaps America's first serial thrill-killings, is so obscure today.

"For starters, it was unsolved," Saylor says. Without the establishment of guilt, the ghastly crimes couldn't be positively linked. You also have to wonder if the race and class of most of those murdered made it a lesser story in the minds of some. It's worth noting, however, that the marshal in charge of the investigation, Grooms Lee, lost his job when witnesses saw him beat and torture a black male suspect.

"You have to consider the era. There was no concept of serial killers in 1885." When special prosecutor E.T. Moore went public with his suspicion that the murders were the work of a single fiend with a deep-seated hatred of women, his theory was met with derision. The "servant girl" savagings predated not only Jack the Ripper, but Sigmund Freud.

These days, the news of another mass murderer on the loose is almost as common as the change of seasons. We've been Speck-ulated, Dahmer-ized and Bundied-about to the point that no sort of aberrant human behavior is surprising anymore. Can you name the guy who killed 22 people at Luby's less than 10 years ago? In the numbed and jaded present, serial killers can't even get decent ink. ("Hello, this is Jasmine from PlatinumMedia PR. I'm just following up on a package I sent you on James Huberty. Remember, he's that maniac who killed all those people at McDonald's? Right. Right. You got the coffee mug -- good! Anyway, we're setting up phoners with Mr. Huberty and a 20-minute slot just opened up for tomorrow.")

In 1885, those sort of random, grisly slayings just didn't happen. Not in Austin. Not anywhere. But by digging deep and filling the hole with his own fantasia, Saylor has once again found the truth that defines his literary pursuit. "The past is richer and more complicated than you would think."

Reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

Related pages:
  Austin Axe Murders
       Dissertations: Dear Diary 
       Press Reports: Atchison Daily Globe - 19 November 1888 
       Press Reports: Atchison Daily Globe - 30 September 1885 
       Press Reports: Austin Statesman - 05 September 1888 
       Press Reports: Austin Statesman - 10 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Chester Times - 29 September 1885 
       Press Reports: Daily News - 2 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Evening News - 2 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Frederick News - 20 November 1888 
       Press Reports: North Eastern Daily Gazette - 3 October 1888 
       Press Reports: People - 7 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Star - 12 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Star - 2 October 1888 
       Press Reports: The News - 20 November 1888 
       Press Reports: Waukesha Freeman - 1 October 1885 
       Press Reports: Woodford Times - 12 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Austin Statesman