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

The Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

How to Keep Holiday Packages Safe from 'Porch Pirates'

iStock.com/txking
iStock.com/txking

Despite an increase in easy-to-install surveillance cameras and smart doorbells that monitor home activity, package thefts are on the rise. A 2017 survey from InsuranceQuotes.com found that 25.9 million Americans experienced at least one instance of a delivery going missing from their porch, up from 23.5 million in 2015. Frustrated homeowners have set traps and even left boxes full of dog poop in an effort to dissuade—or at least penalize—these brazen thieves, who have been labeled "porch pirates."

Unfortunately, these porch pirates aren't often caught. Security cameras won't do much good once the package has disappeared. And while giving them a box of feces might feel like vigilante justice, spending the holidays handling poop isn't exactly a win. Fortunately, there are some other ways to practice package theft prevention.

The Kansas City Star imparted some pertinent advice from officials at the United Parcel Service (UPS): Packages should be sent to where recipients are, not to where they are not. For most people, that means finding an alternative to getting packages at home when they're away during the day.

One option is to have deliveries sent to your place of business. If workplace policies prevent that, you might want to ask a neighbor if they can keep an eye out and either stash your item in their home or use a spare key to deposit it inside for you.

Don't trust or know your neighbors? Consider finding a UPS branch that's able to receive packages on your behalf. Items are stored securely at their affiliated locations until you come and pick them up in person. The service has 9000 locations across the country, both mailing centers and third-party channels like grocery stores. The service also has UPS Access Points, which are self-service lockers that remain locked until you arrive to pick up packages. You can search the UPS website to find an Access Point location near you.

If you're expecting packages from the United States Postal Service (USPS), you can open a post office box, though there's typically an annual fee for that service. USPS also offers Informed Delivery, a phone app that tracks your package and notifies you when it's arrived. Informed Delivery allows you to communicate with the carrier to offer directions on the best place to leave the package. They might, for example, be willing to deposit your items in an unlocked garage and then lock the door before leaving.

Amazon has a service with a similar premise. Their Key Smart Lock Kit allows you to control access to your door locks, including granting access to delivery drivers. The catch? The feature isn't available in all areas. Neither is Amazon Locker, which consists of storage lockers where packages can be left, though it's worth a look to see if any are available in your area.

If you've taken measures to protect your purchases but still come home to a missing stack of boxes, you should report the theft to authorities and to the U.S Postal Inspection Service. (UPS encourages you to contact the sender.) The odds of retrieving your items are probably going to be slim, but at least both entities will have data that may help them catch thieves in the future. If you report the item as stolen to Amazon, they may replace it at no cost to you. Another alternative is seeing if your homeowner's insurance covers theft of items around your home's exterior. Your deductible is probably too steep to make a claim of missing socks worthwhile, but a package worth hundreds or thousands of dollars is another story.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

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