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

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

10 Shocking Facts About The Black Dahlia, Hollywood’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder

In TNT’s new mystery series I Am the Night, a teen (India Eisley) and a disgraced journalist (Chris Pine) get caught up in the case of the Black Dahlia—the most notorious unsolved murder in Hollywood history.

The case has been a matter of public fascination since 1947, when aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead and dismembered in southern Los Angeles. To this day, no one knows who killed the 22-year-old who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from speculating. Here are 10 things we know about the cold case, based on accounts from local newspapers, the FBI, and the son of a primary suspect.

1. A mother and her toddler found Elizabeth Short's body.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve).

2. There was no blood found at the scene.

The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short's mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body.

3. The FBI identified Short with fingerprints and a proto fax machine.

In order to identify the body, the Los Angeles Police Department pulled fingerprints off the corpse, which it then sent to the FBI through a device called a Soundphoto (a forerunner to the fax machine). About an hour later, the FBI got a hit and was able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints had been entered into the system twice before: once when she applied to work in the commissary of a U.S. Army base and once when she was arrested in Santa Barbara, California on September 23, 1943 for underage drinking.

4. The Black Dahlia nickname has murky origins.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department, accessed on the official website for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
City of Los Angeles Police Department // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her "Black Dahlia." But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.

5. Some linked the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders.

When Short’s death became national news, police officers in Cleveland felt an awful sense of déjà vu. Between 1934 and 1938, a serial killer had terrorized their city, claiming 12 victims—all of whom were grotesquely dismembered. Some theorized that the Ohio serial killer and Short's murderer could be the same person, especially since—like Short's killer—the perpetrator of what came to be known as the Cleveland Torso Murders was never caught.

6. It was also connected to a “Lipstick Murder.”

One month after Short's murder, another woman's body was discovered in Los Angeles—and the circumstances mimicked the Black Dahlia's case in a few ways. It all began with a stranger (in this case, a construction worker) stumbling upon the naked body of a dead woman in the grass. Jeanne French had dark hair like Short’s, and her face was also badly beaten. But this time, there was an unusual message scrawled on her stomach in bright red lipstick: “F**k You B.D.” Just below that were the letters “TEX.” People were quick to link the "B.D." in the gruesome murder to the Black Dahlia, but the police were wary of officially connecting the two. Like Short, French’s murder was never solved.

7. Many people confessed to the crime.

The LAPD had to rule out many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, including several people who turned themselves in. Though some sources quote a lower number, the Los Angeles Times puts the tally of false confessions in Short's case at more than 500. The phony claims came from housewives, clergymen, soldiers, drunk ramblers, and, much later, pranksters who weren’t even alive when Short's life was brutally taken.

8. No charges were ever filed.

Copy of Elizabeth Short's death certificate, Los Angeles County
FBI, Los Angeles County // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The FBI files on the Black Dahlia case indicate that many men were held for questioning—and some even took polygraph tests—but ultimately, no one was ever charged with Short’s murder. Still, a few names stand out ...

9. George Hodel is one of the most notorious suspects.

One of those names is George Hodel, a physician who ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles in the 1940s. According to The Guardian, Hodel was on a list of six primary suspects in the Black Dahlia case, and the LAPD even bugged his home during the investigation. But Hodel—who died in 1999—gained more recent notoriety when his son, Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short in the 2003 bestselling book Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

Steve claims his father’s handwriting matches strange letters the police received, supposedly from the killer. He also uncovered photos of a woman who resembles Short in his father’s personal photo album, and believes Hodel’s medical background would explain the precise, clinical cuts on the body. But some have discounted Steve’s claims since he started linking his father to other infamous unsolved murders, including the Zodiac killings.

I Am the Night, the new TNT miniseries, centers around Hodel as a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

10. Others think it was a bellhop.

Another name that's popular among Black Dahlia theorists is Leslie Dillon. He appears in the FBI case files, but gained renewed attention in 2017 when author Piu Eatwell argued his guilt in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Dillon was a bellhop, writer, and mortician’s assistant who seemed to know a surprising amount of details about Short’s murder when the LAPD hauled him in for questioning. He was eventually let go—thanks to a dirty cop, according to Eatwell—but some of the detectives investigating the case never forgot him.

In 2018, Buz Williams—a retired officer with California's Long Beach Police Department and the son of Richard F. Williams, part of the LAPD’s Gangster Squad—told Rolling Stone that “My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer," and that other cops suspected that Dillon was, at the very least, an accomplice.

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