On the night of December 31, 1884, Mollie Smith, a resident of Austin, Texas, was awakened by an intruder, dragged into the backyard of her residence on West Pecan Street, and savagely murdered with an axe. The following day, the prominent Austin newspaper Austin Statesman ran the following headline: “A Fearful Midnight Murder.” The residents of Austin had no way of knowing that the brutal attack was the beginning of a year-long sadistic crime wave that would leave eight people murdered and another seven Austinites severely injured at the hands of the Axe Murderer of Austin. The short story writer William Porter, who wrote under the name O. Henry, would dub the psychopathic killer, the ‘Servant Girl Annihilator’, in a letter to a friend at the Statesman.
Smith, by most accurate accounts, was 25 years of age and the live-in servant of merchant William Hall. She resided in a small outbuilding behind the Hall home with her boyfriend Walter Spencer. Sometime after midnight on the morning of December 31, 1884, Hall was awakened by Spencer, who was bleeding profusely from several wounds to the head. He explained to Hall that he had been attacked while he slept, and Smith had been taken by the attacker. Hall entered the small room, where he found signs of a struggle and a blood-covered axe. He followed a trail of blood into the backyard, where he found Mollie Smith lying in the snow. She had died from injuries inflicted by the axe.
The Austin Statesman, in its January 1, 1885, edition, reported the murder on West Pecan Street as “one of the most horrible murders that ever a reporter was called on to chronicle—a deed almost unparalleled in the atrocity of its execution.”
A little over two months later, two Swedish servants, Clara Strand and Christine Martenson, were attacked by an unknown assailant while walking home on the night of March 19, 1885. Both girls were seriously injured in the attack but survived. Little is known about this attack for it did not appear to police, in 1885, or to modern-day researchers, to be associated with the December 31 attack on Mollie Smith.
On May 6, 1885, Eliza Shelley became the next victim of the Austin madman. Shelley lived in a small cabin with her three young children behind the home of Dr. Lucien B. Johnson, located on the corner of San Jacinto and Cypress Streets. Johnson, a former state legislator, discovered Shelley after hearing screams in the night. His investigation of the crime scene revealed that Shelley had been struck with an axe, “as to reveal her brain,” and received punctures on her head from some unknown sharp object. Eliza Shelley’s eight-year-old son was sleeping in the same bed as his mother and reported that he had awakened to find a man standing over him and his mother. The boy was thrown from the bed, covered with a blanket, and told to stay quiet. He provided little information to investigators, who had discovered a trail of bloody bare footprints leading away from the crime scene. Investigators also noted that Shelley had received injuries from two separate weapons, neither of which could be found at the scene.
The Axeman of Austin attacked again on May 23, 1885. Irene Cross, who was also a servant in Austin, was attacked late at night in the small cottage where she lived on Linden Street with her son, Washington Cross, and her nephew Douglas Brown. Brown was in the house the night of the attack and gave authorities the first shred of evidence of the killer’s identity. He described the assailant as a “big, chunky negro man, bare-footed and with his pants rolled up.”
Not long after the discovery of Cross, who lived for a time after the attack, reporters arrived to the cabin to discover that she had been stabbed about the head so many times that it appeared she had been scalped. Investigators also revealed that Irene Cross’s arm had been severed from her body. Although the attack was perpetrated with a knife, investigators came to believe that the attacks were connected and escalating in violence.
Police investigators were baffled. They had no evidence, no leads, no witnesses, and no suspects. The people of Austin became aware that a serial killer was roaming the streets of their city, and the police were powerless to catch the killer in a growing city of 23,000. The only plausible explanation that law enforcement could give to the wary public was that an influx of workers to the area, by train or wagon, had brought a sadistic maniac to their town. They released bloodhounds in the areas around the killings with no results. They arrested and questioned possible suspects, but all were released for lack of evidence. To investigators, the situation was bleak—then the killings stopped. Citizens fell back into a sense of security, convinced, much like modern-day profilers, that the killer had been caught in the commission of another crime or he had moved out of the area for fear of being captured. That was the general mindset of the populace until the night of August 31, 1885, when the killer struck again.
Rebecca Ramey, and her 11-year-old daughter, Mary Ramey, would be the fourth and fifth victims of the axe wielding axe murderer. On the night of August 31, Ramey reported that she was struck in the head with an unidentified object while she slept. She awoke to discover that her daughter was missing from the quarters in which they lived behind the home of livery stable owner Valentine Weed. Mary Ramey’s body was discovered in a nearby alleyway. She had been raped and both of her ears punctured by a sharp object. Once again, bloodhounds were dispatched from the location with little or no sound results.
The sixth and seventh victims of the vicious killer who terrorized the Texas capital in 1885 were killed on the night of September 28. Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washington lived in a small shack on the property of William Dunham. On the night of the attack, the couple had two houseguests, Lucinda Boddy and Patsy Gibson, sleeping on the floor of the cabin. Dunham was awakened in the early morning hours by the sounds of screams and breaking glass. A quick search found Lucinda Boddy in the front yard of the San Marco Street house, scuffling with a man in the darkness. Dunham’s presence scared the attacker off. A search of the property revealed that Vance had been raped and killed with a rock, and Washington had been struck with an axe that did not belong to the Dunham property. Orange Washington would live for a brief time before succumbing to his wounds.
Nine days after the Vance-Washington murders, Austin city marshal Grooms Lee recommended that police increase patrols and place additional officers on the streets of the terrorized city. During the month of October and through the early days of November, nearly a dozen arrests were made in connection with the murders; however, all of the arrests ended in release or acquittal for the suspects. A local newspaper printed a discouraging statement to the citizens of Austin:
"The crimes still remain a mystery, and their guilty authors retain the secret . . . This seems to be a year unprecedented in the character of crimes."
The perpetrator of the Austin attacks, by all outward appearances, was decisive in picking his victims. Nearly all of the victims that the killer had chosen were black servants who lived on, or near, their employer’s property. This fact perpetuated a false sense of security among the white residents of Austin until the night of December 24, 1885, when Moses Hancock was awakened in the night with a feeling of dread. He searched his house and property to find his wife, Susan Hancock, lying in the backyard bleeding and clinging to life. She had been hit with an axe, carried to the backyard, and raped. Hancock alerted neighbors and carried his wife into the parlor of the family home, where she died a short time later.
While police investigators were surveying the bloody and scattered crime scene at the Hancock house, word was delivered to detectives that another woman, Eula Phillips, wife of architect James Phillips, was missing and the scene saturated in blood. When they arrived, investigators discovered the lifeless, nude body of Eula Phillips in the backyard of the Phillips’s home. She had been bludgeoned with a piece of wood.
Then, the killing stopped—again.
As time passed, suspects in the murders of 1884 and 1885 were questioned, arrested, tried, and convicted; however, all of the convictions were thrown out or overturned on lack of evidence, and Austin police were left without any reliable answers. The next step for Austinites was to sweep the events under the rug. Within a few months of the last murder, the citizens of Austin, convinced that the killer had left the area, stopped talking about the year of murder and mayhem. The Austin Statesman stopped writing about the murders and the event faded into Texas history.
Many theories regarding the perpetrator of the murders have been proposed by researchers, profilers, and criminologists in 130 years since the Servant Girl Annihilator rampaged through the streets of Austin. One theory contends that the murders were committed by a killing pair and it took two people to move the victims so quickly and quietly. Another theory proposes that a random drifter, not a citizen of the capital city, had to have murdered the innocent victims. Several researchers have put forward their own perpetrators, but the most interesting of all of the theories began to emerge 100 years later. It has been suggested, based on compelling circumstantial evidence, that Jack the Ripper, of the famed 1888 London murders, used Austin, Texas, as a proving ground for murder. The Austin axe murderer case remains a mystery, and in spite of vast amounts of evidence, the events of 1884–1885 will forever remain so.