Wednesday, May 04, 2016
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Monday, May 02, 2016
Book Reviews: ‘The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer,’ by Skip Hollandsworth
April 8, 2016
Skip Hollandsworth has long entertained and enlightened — and perhaps appalled — readers of Texas Monthly with his compellingly lurid dispatches from the rich underworld of Lone Star crime. We fans of his have wondered when he would expand his range and deliver a book.
He has now done so, and it was worth waiting for.
The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer traces the bloody path of a murderer — or murderers — who stalked Austin more than 130 years ago. Hollandsworth spent more than decade pulling this tale together and shows himself to be a master storyteller working at the top of his form.
The first victims were black, and the savagery of their slayings alarmed many citizens. But then the killer turned to butchering white women, which is when widespread panic took hold.
“For almost exactly one year, the Austin killer crisscrossed the entire city, striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class,” Hollandsworth writes. “On Christmas Eve of 1885 … he brought Austin to the brink of chaos when, in the space of an hour, he slaughtered two prominent women in separate neighborhoods, cutting up their bodies in their backyards before vanishing in the briefest imaginable time.”
The spate of murders became national, and sensational, news. A reporter with a gift for the sobriquet gave the killer his moniker: the Midnight Assassin, who “strides at will over Austin’s sacred soil.” The Austin Daily Statesman’s headline for the Christmas Eve murders was, “BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!”
Police eventually arrested at least a dozen men, but the charges didn’t stick. Detectives and “alienists” — as specialists in criminal perversion and insanity were then known — could offer little more than abstract theories. “They are abnormal and unnatural, as compared with ordinary crimes among men,” said John Robertson, the mayor of Austin during the killing spree. “No one, not even the expert, skilled in the detection of crime, can find a plausible motive.”
Some of the putative experts suspected the Austin madman had jumped the Atlantic; they posited that London’s notorious Jack the Ripper learned his killing craft in Texas. This seemed far-fetched, if not delusional. “If he was obsessed with ripping apart women,” Hollandsworth says, “wouldn’t he have stopped somewhere in between Texas and England to do a few killings?”
Though a tale of serial murder, this also unfolds as a story of the city itself. Austin is steeped in lore, but — like some other Texas metropolises, especially one on the banks of the Trinity — often seems too busy creating itself to pay much attention to the past.
Today’s Austin, that traffic-clogged mecca for conniving politicians, striving techies and annoying hipsters, began its life as little more than a cow town on the Colorado. In those days, Hollandsworth writes, “There was practically no industry at all except for a sawmill. About the only businesses that prospered were the saloons, the gambling dens — the city directory listed twenty ‘professional gamblers’ — and the brothels.”
Soon, however, the railroad connected the town to the rest of the world, and the promoters, real estate speculators and boosters seized their moment. Drawing heavily on newspaper accounts of the day, Hollandsworth brings to life Austin’s Gilded Age formative years, when the splendid Driskill Hotel went up, and a new state Capitol was being built at the top of Congress Avenue. Needless to say, a roaming, unstoppable serial killer was bad for business.
Those readers whose tastes run to true crime know well that the genre peaked a couple of decades ago. Mystery fiction has stayed fairly strong, but mystery nonfiction has gasped for life. The cause of this near-death was believed to be an overdose of schlock.
But we now seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Serial was a 2014 podcast sensation, and the documentary Making a Murderer led last year to a national epidemic of Netflix bingeing. Perhaps the book industry will now jump on the trend. If so, maybe The Midnight Assassin will, by virtue of its deep research and readability, help lead the revival.
As with every such story, this book turns on a central question — who did it? — and its corollaries: Did the police catch him? Does Hollandsworth? Did anyone?
The answer to that will cost you a few hours of reading. It will be time well spent.
Doug J. Swanson is the author of “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.” He is working on a history of the Texas Rangers.
Plan your life: Skip Hollandsworth will discuss The Midnight Assassin at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. as part of Arts & Letters Live. Tickets $35; discounts for DMA members and students. DMA.org/Tickets or 214-922-1818.
The Midnight Assassin
Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt
for America’s First Serial Killer
(Henry Holt, $30)
‘Midnight Assassin’: A lively tale about 1880s Austin serial killings
By Charles Ealy - American-Statesman Staff
April 9, 2016
Skip Hollandsworth has a terrific new book about how Austin was home to America’s first serial killer, and it’s a must-read for fans of local history.
“The Midnight Assassin” looks at the brutal killings in Austin that began in December 1884 and lasted for a year, culminating in two slayings on Christmas Eve in 1885. That’s when the unknown assassin “slaughtered two prominent women in separate neighborhoods, cutting up their bodies in their backyards before vanishing in the briefest imaginable time.”
Up until then, only black servant women had been attacked, but Hollandsworth points out that it was “something else entirely when the victims were proper white ladies.” So reporters “let loose with lip-smackingly lurid prose. … They described the way the two women had been found in their backyards — ‘weltering in blood,’ ‘bleeding and mangled,’ and their limbs contorted ‘as if in a dance of death.’ ”
Their murders were assuredly the work by the same person who started the killing spree in 1884 with Mollie Smith, a servant who was apparently dragged from her bed to the backyard after the assailant landed several blows to the head of her lover, Walter Spencer. “Her head had been nearly split in two and she had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and abdomen. Some of the gashes were deep enough to expose her organs,” writes Hollandsworth, who’s executive editor of Texas Monthly. “Her legs and arms were also slashed. Blood was everywhere — bright red lung blood and nearly black gut blood.”
The Daily Statesman, a forerunner of the American-Statesman, described Mollie’s body as “a ghastly object to behold,” with “a horrible hole on the side of her head” being the cause of death. The headline read: “Bloody Work! A Fearful Midnight Murder on West Pecan — Mystery and Crime. A Colored Woman Killed Outright, and Her Lover Almost Done For!”
At first, Austin police and residents were stumped, not knowing what to make of Mollie’s murder. But several aborted attacks on black women in the next couple of months caused many in town to be fearful of the night. Some white Austinites thought the crimes were being committed by “Bad blacks!,” as the Daily Statesman called them.
And then in early May, another fatal attack was made on a 31-year-old servant, Eliza Shelley, who was found wrapped in a bloody bedspread on the floor of her cabin, with her three young boys screaming in a corner. “Parts of her brain were oozing out of a gaping wound in her right temple,” Hollandsworth writes.
Again, the Daily Statesman responded with a “ghoulishly alliterative” headline: “The Foul Fiends Keep Up Their Wicked Work — Another Woman Cruelly Murdered at Dead of Night by Some Unknown Assassin, Bent on Plunder. Another Deed of Deviltry in the Crimson Catalogue of Crime.”
And later that same month, a shoemaker named Robert Weyermann heard a scream and ran outside his home to find his 33-year-old black cook, Irene Cross, lying on the ground, her right arm severed into, “with a long horizontal gash extended halfway around her head, from her right eye past her right ear. It looked as if someone had tried to scalp her.”
Then in late August, a man entered the room where the servant Rebecca Ramey was sleeping with her 11-year-old daughter, Mary. The man had a club, Hollandsworth writes, and he hit Rebecca so hard that she was knocked unconscious. When she came to, Mary was gone.
Two men later found Mary in a shed, and doctors concluded that the killer “had jammed some sort of long iron rod into the cavity of one of Mary’s ears, piercing one side of the brain. Then he had pulled out the rod and jammed it again into her other ear, piercing the other side of the brain — essentially lobotomizing her — before he ran out to the back alley and vanished.”
On Sept. 27, multiple attacks occurred in the servants’ quarters of W.B. Dunham, publisher of the Texas Court Reporter.
As Hollandsworth points out, in late 19th century America, the term “serial killer” did not yet exist. “It wasn’t that people were unfamiliar with the concept of one person committing multiple murders,” he says. “What no one in that era had ever heard about was an anonymous killer who set out to mutilate women, one after another, in almost ritualistic fashion in order to satisfy some depraved libidinous craving or a pathological hatred.”
All sorts of black men were arrested during these months, but the cases didn’t stand up. And by Christmas Day 1885, the town was in a panic after the murders of Eula Phillips and Susan Hancock. The Daily Statesman proclaimed that “The Demons Have Transferred Their Thirst for Blood to White People!”
Before it was all over, Hollandsworth says, “there would be three murder trials of three different suspects, all of whom would vehemently proclaim their innocence.” And the ensuing scandal would ruin “the careers of several prominent Austin men and set off sensational allegations that one of the state’s most well-known politicians was himself the Midnight Assassin.” What’s more, when the killings finally stopped in Austin, similar attacks began in London in 1888, with Jack the Ripper.
Had the Austin killer simply moved on to London? It’s not as fantastic as you might think, and many newspapers made the connection, but you’ll have to read Hollandsworth’s lively and lurid tale to find out his best guess about the truth.
The Midnight Assassin
Henry Holt, $30
Skip Hollandsworth will speak and sign copies of his new book at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series.
Target is just the latest business to yield to political correctness
By Tammy Bruce
May 2, 2016
This Monday, Aug. 11, 2015, file photo, shows a Target store in Miami. Target is making a stand on the debate around what type of bathrooms transgender people can use. In a statement posted on its company website Tuesday, April 19, 2016, the discounter, based in Minneapolis, said transgender employees and customers can use the restroom or fitting room facility that "corresponds with their gender identity." (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Thursday, April 28, 2016
April 26, 2016
Arguably the most important literary influence on The Lord of the Rings, the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, helps us understand the way in which Tolkien both conceals and reveals the deepest meaning in his own work.
Probably dating from the early eighth century, making it contemporaneous with the lives of Saints Boniface and Bede, Beowulf is a wonderful and wonder-filled narrative animated by the rich Christian spirit of the culture from which it sprang, brimming over with allegorical potency and evangelical zeal. It also conveys a deep awareness of classical antiquity, drawing deep inspirational draughts from Virgil’s Aeneid, highlighting the Saxon poet’s awareness of his place within an unbroken cultural continuum.
Tolkien translated Beowulf in its entirety, though his translation would not finally be published until 2014, and he wrote a scholarly essay on the epic, “The Monsters and the Critics,” which is considered by many to be the most masterful critique of the poem ever written. Clearly, Tolkien knew Beowulf well, perhaps better than anyone else of his generation, and there is no denying its seminal and definitive influence on his own work. Most obviously are the inescapable parallels between the dragon episode in Beowulf and the similar episode in The Hobbit. It is, however, in a more subtle way that the Anglo-Saxon epic can be seen to have left its inspirational fingerprints on The Lord of the Rings.
Beowulf is divided into three sections in which the eponymous hero fights three different monsters. In the first two episodes, as Beowulf confronts and ultimately defeats Grendel and then Grendel’s mother, the work is primarily a narrative in which the theological dimension is subsumed parabolically, especially in the recurring motif that human will and strength is insufficient, in the absence of divine assistance, to defeat the power of evil. This is presumably an orthodox riposte to the heresy of Pelagianism, which plagued Saxon England and which is a major preoccupation of Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, probably written at around the same time as Beowulf. The Lord of the Rings adopts a very similar approach in the way that it subsumes the presence of grace within the fabric of the story, unobtrusively and yet inescapably, something which is beyond the scope of our present discussion. It is, however, the allegorical technique that the Beowulf poet employs in the final section of the epic which most illumines the technique that Tolkien will himself employ in his own epic, emulating the anonymous poet who had taught him more than anyone else about the art of storytelling.
The dragon section of Beowulf commences with the theft of “a gem-studded goblet” from the dragon’s hoard, an act which gained the thief nothing but which provoked the destructive wrath of the dragon. Beowulf takes eleven comrades with him as he goes to meet the dragon in combat, plus the thief, “the one who had started all this strife” and who “was now added as a thirteenth to their number.” Unlike the eleven who had accompanied their lord willingly, the thief was “press-ganged and compelled” to go with them, acting as their unwilling guide to the dragon’s den. Clearly the poet of Beowulf is employing numerical signification to draw parallels between Beowulf’s fight to the death with the dragon (an iconic signification of the Devil) and Christ’s own fight to the death with the power of evil in His Passion. Equally clearly, Beowulf is not a formal or crude allegory because no character in the epic is merely a personified abstraction. Beowulf is not literally Christ, though he could be called a figure of Christ, one who is meant to remind us of Christ; the dragon is not literally Satan, though he or it is clearly intended to remind us of the Devil himself. Similarly, the thief is not Judas (nor Adam) but is intended to remind us of the disciple whose act of treachery brought about his lord’s death, and the other eleven are, of course, reminiscent of the other eleven apostles. The numerical coincidence exhibits the poet’s intention of drawing parallels between his own story and its biblical parallel without ever succumbing to the level of formal or crude allegory. Beowulf is always Beowulf, even though he is meant to remind us of Christ.
Continuing the allusive parallels, this time with Christ’s agony in the Garden, we are told that, on the eve of battle, Beowulf is “sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” Later, as battle is about to commence, Beowulf’s appointed followers, “that hand-picked troop,” “broke ranks and ran for their lives,” all except Wiglaf, who emerges as the signifier of St. John, the only one of Christ’s apostles who remained at his side during the Crucifixion. Wiglaf reprimands his comrades for their cowardice in deserting their lord, reminding them that Beowulf had “picked us out from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fit for this action.”
Prior to his death, Beowulf instructs Wiglaf to order his men to build a burial mound in remembrance of him. After his death, ten shamefaced warriors emerge from the woods, indicating that the thief was not among them. At the epic’s conclusion, there are, once again, twelve warriors riding ceremoniously around the burial mound, which had been duly constructed in accordance with Beowulf’s command, indicating that the traitor had been replaced by a new member, reminiscent of the appointment of St. Matthias to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle.
Although nobody would suggest that Beowulf is an allegory in the formal or crude sense, it is clear that the poet intends his audience to see suggestive parallels between Beowulf’s sacrifice of himself in the battle against evil and that of the archetypal sacrifice of God Himself on Calvary. For the Christian, the Beowulf poet was indubitably Christian, all acts of genuine love involve the laying down of our lives for another. Furthermore, all those who genuinely love in this way are ipso facto figures of Christ, from whom all genuine love flows and towards whom all genuine love points. In true life as in true literature, all those who live and love like Christ are Christ-like and, as such, can be said to be figures of Christ. Christ is the archetype of which all virtuous men, in fact and in fiction, are types. The Beowulf poet shows this through the use of numerical clues. Tolkien does something very similar in his own work, emulating the work of his Anglo-Saxon mentor.
Tolkien signifies the deepest meaning of The Lord of the Rings in the clue he supplies with regard to the specific date of the destruction of the Ring. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, the most significant and important date on the Christian calendar. This is the feast of the Annunciation, the date on which the Word is made flesh, when God becomes man. It is also the historic date of the Crucifixion, a fact which is all too often forgotten by modern Christians because of the fact that Good Friday is celebrated as a moveable feast which falls on a different date each year. This is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about the significance of March 25:
All Christian antiquity…recognized the 25th of March as the actual day of Our Lord’s death. The opinion that the Incarnation also took place on that date is found in the pseudo-Cyprianic work De Pascha Computus, c. 240. It argues that the coming of Our Lord and His death must have coincided with the creation and fall of Adam. And since the world was created in spring, the Saviour was also conceived and died shortly after the equinox of spring. Similar fanciful calculations are found in the early and later Middle Ages…. Consequently the ancient martyrologies assign to the 25th of March the creation of Adam and the crucifixion of Our Lord; also, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.
Let’s recall at this juncture that Tolkien is both a Catholic and a very scholarly mediaevalist. He would have known of the symbolic significance of this date and his ascribing of this particular date as that on which the Ring is destroyed has palpable and indeed seismic consequences with regard to the deepest moral and theological meaning of The Lord of the Rings.
.A great mediaeval work of literature that employs the same allegorical use of significant dates that Tolkien employs to convey deep moral and theological meaning is Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” In this parable about the Fall of Man and his subsequent redemption by Christ on the Cross (masquerading as a fable about a rooster), we are told that the story takes place thirty-two days after the beginning of March, “the month in which the world began…when God first made man”. Apart from Chaucer’s reference to the theological significance of March, he signals that Chauntecleer’s “Fall” (Adam’s) and the Fox’s (Satan’s) happens on April 1, i.e. April Fool’s Day!
In following his mediaeval mentors in their employment and deployment of allegorical clues to deepen the theological dimension of their stories, Tolkien was infusing the genius of Christendom and its literary giants into his own timeless epic. In doing so, he was thereby situating his own work firmly within that tradition. He was also deploying those same clues to signify that The Lord of the Rings was working its magic most profoundly on the level of theology. Since Original Sin and the One Ring are both destroyed on the same theologically-charged date, they become inextricably interwoven so that the Ring is synonymous with Sin itself. With his Ring, Tolkien weds his own work morally and theologically to the deepest truths of Christianity, forging it in the flames of his lifelong faith.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A version of this essay originally appeared in Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Fall 2014) and is republished here with gracious permission.
 The Pelagians believed that men could forge their own eternal destiny, earning themselves a place in heaven by obeying the teachings of Christ through a triumph of the human will over temptation. Such a belief denied the need for grace and therefore denied the need for the Church and her sacraments.
 There is much disagreement about the exact dating of Beowulf, its composition being shrouded in mystery. The present author agrees with those, including Tolkien, who believe it was written sometime between the mid-seventh and mid-eighth century.
 All quotes from Beowulf are from Seamus Heaney’s translation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002)
 For the sake of clarity, Chaucer’s original English has been modified. The purist, I hope, will forgive me.