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.