How the 'Servant Girl Annihilator' Terrorized 1880s Austin

Public Domain
Public Domain

Before Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of London, another midnight murderer was prowling halfway across the world. In Austin, Texas, an individual who became known as the “Servant Girl Annihilator” was responsible for the deaths of eight people between late 1884 and Christmas Eve 1885. Attacking victims in their beds and then dragging them outside to mutilate their bodies, the killer eluded police, private investigators, and mobs of civilians who took to the unpaved streets of newly settled Austin in anger and panic. He—eyewitnesses claimed it was a man—has been called America’s first serial killer, and his crimes remain unsolved to this day.

Just two decades prior to the murders, Austin was a “rustic cowtown with a population below 5000,” writes Skip Hollandsworth, a journalist at Texas Monthly and author of The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer. By 1885, the time of the murders, the city had reached the “verge of modernity,” boasting 14,500 residents, numerous restaurants and hotels, and an under-construction capitol building. According to Hollandsworth, “Austin had all the makings of an urban paradise.” Instead, it became an urban hell.

THE MURDERS

The killer's first victim was Mollie Smith, a young black cook discovered in the snow near her employer's home on December 30, 1884 with a gaping ax wound in her head. Smith had also been stabbed in the chest, abdomen, legs, and arms, creating such a large pool of blood she appeared to almost be floating in it.

After that was another black cook—Eliza Shelly, found on May 7, 1885. Shelly’s head was nearly split in two with an ax; the Annihilator’s choice of target, and his modus operandi, were becoming apparent. Irene Cross, a servant and the third black woman targeted by the Annihilator, was attacked on May 23; she was stabbed multiple times with a knife and practically scalped.

It was around this time that short story author O. Henry gave the killer his nickname. “Town is fearfully dull,” Henry wrote in a May 1885 letter to his friend Dave Hall, “except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead hours of the night.”

The spine-tingling moniker was perhaps a bit of a stretch, however: Only the first few to die were servant girls. The next victim, 11-year-old Mary Ramey, was dragged outside and into a washhouse, raped, and stabbed through the ear on August 30. The following two victims were a pair, sweethearts Gracie Vance and Orange Washington. On September 28, 1885, they were found with their heads bludgeoned—according to a report in the Austin Daily Statesman, Gracie was “almost beaten into a jelly.”

The Annihilator was escalating. On Christmas Eve 1885, he committed two separate crimes in entirely different locations—and unlike all of the previous victims, they were white: Susan Hancock, “described by one reporter as ‘one of the most refined ladies in Austin,’” and 17-year-old Eula Phillips, both murdered in their homes. Susan’s head was cleaved in two just before midnight on Christmas Eve, and her wounds showed that something sharp and thin had been stuck through her right ear into her brain. Eula’s life ended around an hour after Susan was discovered in the early morning of Christmas Day. Once again, her head had been crushed by an ax. A writer for the Fort Worth Gazette reported that she lay on her back, her face “turned upward in the dim moonlight with an expression of agony that death itself had not erased from the features.” She had been raped, and her arms were pinned down by timber.

Absent in every other killing, the wood pieces brought up a terrifying possibility. True, the lumber could be attributed to an opportunist Annihilator operating in a booming city filled with construction sites. Still, people wondered … What if another killer was at work? Did Austin perhaps have multiple serial killers on the loose? Until that point, no one had considered there could be more than one maniac involved.

“Of course, at that time the phrase ‘serial killer’ had not even been coined,” Hollandsworth writes. “No one had thought of studying crime scenes to help create a psychological profile of a killer. Fingerprinting and blood-typing hadn’t been invented yet.” Police relied on dogs to track suspects, and a team of bloodhounds ran the lengths of Austin’s unpaved streets nightly, sniffing and howling. The Annihilator “boldly crisscrossed his city, hunting down women regardless of race or class, striking quickly on moonlit nights and then vanishing just as quickly,” Hollandsworth writes. Private investigators were brought in by police, who hoped they’d be able to catch something their officers couldn’t, but their presence only whipped Austin into more of a panic.

And then the murders stopped.

Altogether, the Annihilator’s body count totaled eight: six women, an 11-year-old girl, and a man. Though around 400 men were arrested in 1885 under suspicion of being the Annihilator, none were ever successfully tried. The list included Walter Spencer (the boyfriend of the first victim—acquitted after a two-day trial), “two suspicious-looking white brothers found with blood on their clothes,” Eula’s husband Jimmy Phillips, and Susan’s husband Moses Hancock. Phillips, the prosecutors claimed, was a copycat killer before the term existed, using the murders of Austin’s black working class as an excuse to kill his unfaithful and beautiful wife. Initially sentenced to seven years, Phillips’s conviction was overturned within six months; Hancock’s trial resulted in a hung jury. The Annihilator was still out there, but what was he—or they—doing?

THE SUSPECTS

James and Florence Maybrick. Some have suspected James of being both the Servant Girl Annihilator and Jack the Ripper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Several theories exist about the real identity of the murderer, and the abrupt end to his killing spree. One possibility is that he was a Malaysian cook named Maurice, working at the Pearl House hotel in Austin. Maurice told acquaintances that he planned to travel by ship to London and left town in January 1886—several weeks after the Servant Girl murders ended. “A strong presumption that the Malay was the murderer of the Austin women was created by the fact that all of them except two or three resided in the immediate neighborhood of the Pearl House,” the Austin-American Statesman reported in November 1888, around the time another famous serial killer—Jack the Ripper—was terrorizing the women of London. Is it possible that Maurice, responsible for the eight deaths in Austin, had traveled across the world to avoid captivity and continue his depraved midnight escapades? The newspaper thought there was a chance, but there's a lack of solid evidence, and a hundred years later, it’s unlikely we’ll ever learn the truth.

Author Shirley Harrison also believes that the Annihilator and the Ripper are one and the same, though she names Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick instead of Malaysian chef Maurice. It’s an interesting hypothesis, described by Harrison in her book Jack the Ripper: The American Connection. According to Maybrick’s own purported journals, which included confessions of killing prostitutes as well as a page signed “Jack the Ripper,” Maybrick was in Austin on the dates the Annihilator murders occurred. Another detail that could point to an English Annihilator? Maybrick died, likely of arsenic and strychnine poisoning possibly administered by his wife, in May 1889—after both series of murders ended (or perhaps why they ended).

Yet another theory, laid out in a 2014 episode of History Detectives, accuses a young black man working in downtown Austin. Nathan Elgin, a cook and only 19 years old at the time of the Annihilator killings, was shot by police when he dragged a girl out of the saloon where he was drinking in February 1886. He died from his wounds, right around the time the murders—coincidentally or not—stopped.

It’s hardly a closed case, especially as strangers continually flooded the city, looking for jobs at Austin’s many construction sites. It’s possible that the Annihilator moved on after the capitol building was finished in 1888, taking his bloodthirsty impulses with him. Devotees of the case like to tie the Servant Girl murders to subsequent crimes along the Eastern Seaboard and then in Galveston, or to the reportedly similar murders of women in port cities the world over. It’s a way of connecting the dots among horrific crimes, but it raises a difficult question: What's scarier? That a man escaped over and over, continuing to maim and kill in multiple cities? Or that the modern era has given birth to countless such monsters, each uniquely capable of depraved crimes?

Additional Sources: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer; The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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