Jack the Ripper is an enduring monument to the powers of a good press agent. The anonymous fiend's lingering, and likely eternal, stature as history's most famous serial killer obscures the fact that he was hardly unique in his era. Just four years before Jack began his murderous spree in the East End, the women of Austin, Texas suffered through an equally brutal and mystifying reign of terror. And yet, this string of unsolved murders is relatively unknown.
On the night of December 30, 1884, a cook named Mollie Smith was lying asleep next to her common-law husband, Walter Spenser. Someone broke into their bedroom and knocked Spenser unconscious with an ax blow. When he finally, painfully came to, he saw that Mollie was gone. Her body was found lying in the snow behind the home of her employers. She had been raped, after which some heavy implement had been used to bash her head in. On May 6, Eliza Shelly, who was also a cook for a prominent Austin family, was found on the floor of her home. She had probably been raped, and an ax had nearly split her head in two.
On May 23, Irene Cross, another domestic servant, was attacked with a large knife which nearly scalped her. She briefly survived the attack, but was unable to give any information about her assailant.
In September 1885, another servant named Rebecca Ramey was sleeping quietly with her eleven-year-old daughter Mary. During that night, someone broke into her home, knocked her unconscious, and dragged Mary to a washhouse in the backyard, where the girl was raped and fatally stabbed in the head.
This crime was soon followed by a multiple attack, on Gracie Vance, her boyfriend Orange Washington, and Lucinda Boddy, a friend of Vance's who was unlucky enough to be a houseguest of the couple. As the trio were sleeping in a shanty on the property of Gracie's employer, someone came in and smashed Washington's head in with an ax. Boddy was then struck in the head and raped, but she survived the attack. The killer then forced Vance to her employer's stable, where she was raped and beaten on the head with a brick until she was dead.
Austin was naturally horrified by this series of baffling, gruesome killings, but as the victims had all been working-class African-Americans, the white elites felt little sense of personal peril. As if to mock this attitude, the killer soon shook them out of their complacency. On Christmas Eve 1885, Susan Hancock, a white woman who moved in Austin's most elegant society, was discovered by her husband in their backyard. As was the case with most of the earlier victims, she had been sexually assaulted, and then her skull had been crushed by an ax. Just one hour later, the naked body of a beautiful young socialite named Eula Phillips was found in the alley behind the home of her father-in-law, in Austin's most expensive neighborhood. Someone had dragged her from the house to this dark spot, raped her, and split open her head with an ax. Inside the home, her husband, Jimmy Phillips Jr., was found knocked unconscious. Their little boy, who had been in the bedroom with them at the time of the attack, was unharmed.
This slaughter of two of the city's most prominent citizens made all of Austin half unhinged. People gathered together in panic, scanning the headlines that screamed of this "horrible butchery." Men and women armed themselves to the teeth. Others, in the belief that such a savage and mysterious murderer must be some sort of demonic entity, spent their nights lighting candles and praying for divine protection.
The day after Hancock and Phillips were killed, over five hundred of Austin's leading citizens gathered together to find some way to fight back against their invisible tormentor. Many plans were suggested, from using large lamps to light the city at night, to putting all Austin under lockdown, but no one could really agree on what to do. It was many years before the phrase "serial killer" would even be invented. Such an unprecedented, almost supernatural series of motiveless killings was beyond their comprehension.
As it happened, any action would be irrelevant. After the killings of the two high society women, the butcher of Austin vanished. It seemed as if having made his point that no one in the city was safe from him, he felt his work was done. However, the climate of fear and anger that was his legacy took years to fully dissipate.
Investigators continued to do their utmost to find the murderer, but the Austin police force of the day was clearly out of their league in dealing with a murder spree of this magnitude. Unfortunately, they were fixated on the theory that a black man must have committed the killings, which led to a long persecution of the city's African-American males. Virtually every black man in Austin was treated like a suspect. Race relations in Austin, which had, before the murders, been relatively progressive, quickly deteriorated, as many whites convinced themselves the bloodbath was proof that blacks were hopelessly uncivilized.
In January 1886, the hunt for the killer took a startling turn. The husbands of the last two victims, Jimmy Phillips Jr. and Moses Hancock, were arrested for the murders of their wives. The theory was that the two men had--utterly coincidentally--chosen the same night to kill their spouses in a way that would look like they had been victims of the murderer of the black servants.
Although the victim's spouse is traditionally the first prime suspect, the case against the men was ridiculously weak. The closest thing to hard evidence brought against Moses Hancock was a letter Susan had written him months before her death. It said that she loved him, but could no longer tolerate his drinking. The DA argued--with absolutely nothing to back it up--that on Christmas Eve, Moses got drunk, and in a rage butchered his wife to prevent her from leaving him.
As for Jimmy Phillips, the 23-year-old was quite the local playboy, a dissipated sort who enjoyed drink, playing the violin, and the company of the ladies. On a far darker note, he was said to be a mean drunk who abused his wife when he was under the influence. Eula--who had married Phillips in 1883, when she was only fifteen--was so miserable with her husband that she reportedly tried to induce an abortion when she was pregnant with their second child.
Another detail emerged about the Phillips marriage that must have really made Austin society gasp and reach for the smelling salts: In the months before her death, Eula had taken to regularly visiting Austin's most high-class house of assignation. The home, operated by a May Tobin, was a meeting place for expensive prostitutes and their clients, as well as adulterous lovers. The last time Eula visited Tobin's was on the very night she had been killed. It is not clear whether Eula visited the house because she was carrying on illicit love affairs, or if she had turned to prostitution to make some money independent of her husband's allowance.
May Tobin--no doubt to the secret horror of many of Austin's upper-crust--was said to have told nearly all she knew to the authorities, including the names of Eula's visitors. Among those names was William J. Swain, who was no less than Texas' state comptroller and a favorite to become the state's next governor. According to Tobin, several other prominent Texas politicians were among Eula's lovers. Rumor had it that Tobin was blackmailing many other influential men in exchange for her silence about their visits to her house.
Despite the scandalous revelations, the evidence presented against Phillips at his trial was, to say the least, weak. The prosecution argued that Eula, realizing that her husband had learned of her many infidelities, had armed herself with an ax for self-protection. Phillips raped her, after which she struck him on the head with her weapon. He seized the ax and used it to kill her. He then hauled the body into the alley, in the hope that it would be seen as the work of the servant murderer. The defense countered this theory by demonstrating that a bloody footprint found on the Phillips back porch could not have been made by their client.
Despite the dubiousness of the case against Phillips, the combination of powerful motive and his history of brutal behavior was enough to cause the jury to find him guilty of Eula's murder. However, six months after his conviction, the state's Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, citing lack of evidence. They ordered a new trial, but the DA evidently decided it was fruitless to pursue the case against Phillips, and he was released.
The trial of Moses Hancock was no more successful. After his daughter testified that her mother had never even shown him the letter that was, according to the prosecution, his main motive for murder, the case against him collapsed. There was a hung jury, and he too was set free.
Although various other men--most notably William Swain--were suspected of involvement in the killings, no one else was ever charged with perpetrating these singularly ugly and incomprehensible deaths.
Swain's once-invincible political career, unsurprisingly, came to an abrupt end as a result of the Eula Phillips murder. Moses Hancock and Jimmy Phillips both moved out of Austin and started new lives for themselves. The investigation into the crimes, as well as public interest in the string of deaths, eventually came to an inconclusive end. To this day, there are many researchers in Austin who are as obsessed with trying to solve their city's ghastliest crime as "Ripperologists" are with the Whitechapel killings. (Some have even argued--unconvincingly, in my opinion--that the two sets of murders were committed by the same person.) The latest "solution" to the mystery came in 2014, when the television show "History Detectives" used modern forensic and psychological techniques to suggest the murders were committed by a young African-American cook named Nathan Elgin. In February 1886--shortly after the last of the murders--he was shot and killed by police while he was attempting to attack a woman with a knife. While Elgin is a plausible suspect, unfortunately, we will probably never know for certain if he was one of the 19th century most horrific killers.
We remain as baffled as our ancestors were in those grim days in the mid-1880s.
[Note: Contemporary news reports generally called the killings "The Servant Girl Murders." However, writer William Sidney Porter--aka "O. Henry"--who was living in Austin at the time of the crimes, referred to the "Servant Girl Annihilators" in an 1885 letter. In modern times, his more colorful name for the serial killer has stuck.]