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How the 'Servant Girl Annihilator' Terrorized 1880s Austin

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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

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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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