The Year of Outrage
August 4, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

"It is a spellbinding narrative, a multilayered tale of murder, insanity, and mystery replete with shocking twists and turns. It is a startling pastiche of late-nineteenth-century characters, from the most elite figures of Austin society to the poorest African Americans. Yet amazingly, it is almost entirely absent from the annals of history." Before London had its Ripper, before H.H. Holmes had his Murder Castle, Austin, Texas had its very own Servant Girl Annihilator...

Mollie Smith (12/30/1884); Eliza Shelley (5/6/1885); Irene Cross (5/23/1885); Mary Ramey (8/20/1885); Gracie Vance and Orange Washington (8/28/1885); Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips (12/24/1885).

Six of the eight victims were black servants living in rooms or shanties behind their employer's homes; Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were white society women killed within an hour of each other on Christmas Eve. Orange Washington was the common law husband of Gracie Vance; the husbands and boyfriends of other victims were wounded and knocked unconscious during the attacks, and sometimes their young children were witnesses (Eliza Shelley's young son may have been chloroformed). All of the women suffered terrible head wounds, some definitely from axes that were found at the scene. Some were also found with objects embedded in their brains, as was the case with Mary Ramey, the eleven year old girl found in an outbuilding behind the house where she had been attacked, with a sharp pole of some kind shoved through her ears. Most of the victims had been raped.

1. The Husbands - "When the footprint impression measurements from the Phillips' porch were presented, the DA insisted that Jimmy put his own foot into ink to make an impression that they could compare to the suspect's print. To the consternation of the prosecution, Jimmy's foot proved to be smaller than the impression. But then the DA decided that adding his wife's weight as he carried her outside would make his feet spread to a larger size. So there in court, Jimmy was forced to pick up his own attorney to prove the point."

The trial of Jimmy Phillips for the murder of his wife Eula became national news, shedding light on their unhappy marriage and her possible extramarital affairs with, among others, a candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial race. Said the Dallas Morning News: "The trial of Mr. Phillips has demonstrated three things: that Mrs. Phillips was not what she should have been, that several attachés of the government are not what they should be, and that no one can possibly know who committed that murder."

Phillips was eventually convicted, but released a year later for lack of evidence. Susan Hancock's husband was also brought to trial and acquitted.

2. Jack the Ripper (Warning: Pictures) - "One suspect...was a Malay cook calling himself Maurice who often worked aboard ships. The London Times described him in October as a man who had threatened to kill Whitechapel prostitutes but who had then disappeared. It turned out that in 1885 he had been employed at the Pearl House, a small hotel, in Austin, Texas. A letter to the editor of the Statesman drew the newspaper's attention to it and a reporter checked it out. The information was confirmed, and it was ascertained that the cook had left the premises in January 1886."

3. The Cook with the missing toe - " Often the axe used by the perpetrator was left behind at the scene of the crime. Also left behind were the bare footprints of the perpetrator who forfeited his boots to enable his stealthy entrances and exits.Apart from general measurements of size and shape, footprints in most instances are not especially distinctive and they would not have been much use to the authorities had they not possessed some unusual feature. But the footprints left behind in the servant girl murders did share a very distinct feature – one of the footprints, the right one, only had four toes."

PBS's History Detectives recently investigated the case and tended to side with Option #3. (WARNING - Pictures and bad reenactments)

Newspapers at the time referred to the killer or killers as "Bloody Fiends" or later "The Servant Girl Killers". The first use of the term "Servant Girl Annihilator" is found in a letter written by a young man named William Sydney Porter. ""Town is fearfully dull", wrote Porter to his friend, "except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night...."

Years later, after a stint in prison for embezzlement, Porter became better known as a writer of wry short stories under the pen name O. Henry. You won't find any reference to it in either of his museums, but novelist Steven Saylor has fictionalized Porter's involvement with the killings in his novel A Twist at the End.

Though whether or not there is any link between them and the killings, ten years after the murders Austin purchased 31 decommissioned carbon-arc towers from the City of Detroit, to illuminate the city streets at night. Known as "Moonlight Towers" because of their brightness, which requires them to be placed at high points in the city, fifteen of the towers remain in operation. You might even party at one...
posted by theweasel (13 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
This is fascinating. (Obviously it was tragic for a lot of people at the time; not making light.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:19 PM on August 4, 2014

This is a bit of Austin history I didn't know. Thanks for posting it!
posted by immlass at 1:37 PM on August 4, 2014

The Servant Girl Annihilator. That is a hell of a monicker.
posted by kafziel at 1:40 PM on August 4, 2014

I mean, seriously. Jack the Ripper rips, fine. The Boston Strangler strangles, sure, I'm with ya. But the Servant Girl Annihilator. Damn. That takes dedication.
posted by kafziel at 1:56 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

It seems like axes used to be the go-to weapon for murders - Lizzie Borden, the New Orleans Axeman, all the ones mentioned in this earlier post.
posted by dragoon at 2:00 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's also the story of the Bloody Benders, who ran an inn and general store in Kansas and were actually a family of serial killers, operating from 1871-1873. They preyed on at least a dozen unsuspecting travelers.

Edit: Discussed here previously.
posted by chambers at 2:05 PM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Servant Girl Annihilator" sounds more like a servant girl who is also a mighty warrior. Comic book idea!
posted by brundlefly at 2:48 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, and fascinating post. Thanks for this!
posted by brundlefly at 2:50 PM on August 4, 2014

First thing I thought of when I saw this post was that it sounded like a perfect subject for Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series. He's already done a volume on the Bloody Benders.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:53 PM on August 4, 2014

It's pathetically, tragically predictable that every time nature and/or nurture deals us one of these monsters, they will inevitably sate their bloodlust by preying on the weakest, most vulnerable members of society. Just once you think there'd be a Robber Baron Annhilator, or a Wall Street Strangler, or a Crooked Politician Pulverizer. But no—the victims are always servant girls or prostitutes or transients, etc.

Proving once again the universe doesn't give a shit.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:19 PM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Serial killers like John Haigh or Belle Gunness would absolutely choose people with some wealth.
posted by squinty at 6:33 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

The History Detectives episode was fascinating, but it seemed like, they discovered the book pointing to the cook, and then wrote the episode back from there.
posted by drezdn at 8:58 PM on August 4, 2014

When I saw this was a Texas Monthly link I thought "Oooh, I hope this is Skip Hollandsworth because he could make theft of a big gulp from 7-11 fascinating."
Thanks for the post!
posted by pointystick at 4:59 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

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