Servant Girl Annihilator
Texas Axe Killer
“Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night.”
—William Sydney Porter (a/k/a, O. Henry), 1885
There are gradations among the murderous.
Mass murderers kill large numbers of people at one fell swoop, usually within a short span, such as Howard Unruh who shot down and murdered 13 people during a 12-minute walk through Camden, New Jersey, in late 1949.
Unruh, a decorated World War II veteran, had become restive and paranoid about his neighbors in the few months preceding his killing spree. Unemployed and living with his mother, neighborhood teens teased him about being a “mama’s boy” and the possibility of his being homosexual. [Unruh had engaged in homosexual acts in a Philadelphia movie theater which caused him to question his sexuality. Not wanting to be “outed” he was understandably distressed considering the tenor of the times in which he lived.] To quell whatever persecutions he felt were heaped upon him, on September 6, 1949, he took a stroll and randomly shot people in his path (some of whom were intended targets, others were collateral damage, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time). Credit: cnn.com
In the same category of “mass murderer” is 25-year-old Charles Whitman, a coldly calculating soul who climbed the clock tower of the University of Texas in Austin on Aug 1, 1966, after stabbing his mother and wife to death less than 12 hours earlier.
Whitman, a former US Marine and a marksman in the Corps, was armed to the teeth as he blockaded himself in the observation deck area (231 feet above ground), and settled in for a siege. In addition to high-powered rifles and other weapons he also had the forethought to supply himself with creature comforts: canned meat, peanuts, sandwiches, fruit cocktail, boxed raisins, cans of water and gasoline, toilet paper, a transistor radio, and (surprisingly) a container of spray deodorant. [The purpose of the last item may have been nothing more than a means of keeping his hands dry, ensuring a positive grip on his weapons. It was, after all, August in Texas.]
Whitman strategically placed his weapons around the observation deck at its corners. He took up an initial position under the “VI” of the south clock face and settled in. For the next 96 minutes Whitman shot at random people walking on campus and those near enough to the tower for his scoped rifle to reach. Anyone attempting to breach the tower via its stairwell or elevators were warned away or shot down (he had murdered the observation tower’s receptionist with a rifle butt to her skull as he made his way into what would be his “encampment”).
Finally, three police (along with a civilian helper) managed to storm the tower and shoot Whitman down at almost 1:30 PM. He had murdered 16 people (one was an eight-month-old unborn fetus—the mother survived after being shot in the abdomen, later giving birth to a stillborn whose skull was shattered by the slug she took) and wounded 32 others during his clock-tower sniper’s holiday.
There are also genocidal perpetrators as well, those inclined to eradicate a particular racial or ethnic group from the face of the planet. Such people are usually motivated by personal prejudices or politics; the best known genocidal maniac is, of course, Adolf Hitler.
Serial Killers are not Mass Murderers
But there is another category of murderer, the serial killer. This person, mostly male (though some women in America hold that dubious distinction: Belle Gunness and Aileen Wuornos are among the better known), has motives that are usually (but not always) sexual in nature, a need to control others, and to feel power over people. These murderers are mysterious in many ways, and as they ply their “craft” they usually get better at it, honing techniques to such a degree that police are often left baffled or at an impasse when investigating what these killers leave behind.
The term “serial killer” itself is relatively new and was coined by an FBI agent in the 1970s. Serial killers are typified by murders that occur seemingly leisurely and encompass a “cooling off” period in between murders (whether days, weeks, months or years elapse between outrages). Thus, the sequential nature of their killings, spaced out over time, make them a special breed among murderers. Mostly, the victims are strangers to their killers or have only, at best, a passing acquaintance. Many times a pattern is not clear until several people are left dead by the same brutal hand; the crime scenes or scenes of discovery (not always the place of the murder) often involve multiple police districts in more than one geographic area making the crimes that much harder to tie together.
The best known serial killers of the last few centuries are no doubt H. H. Holmes (who murdered many women in a hotel set up as a convenience for tourists visiting Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair and Exposition), John Reginald Halliday Christie, the Boston Strangler, John Wayne Gacy, Peter Sutcliffe (“The Yorkshire Ripper”), Ted Bundy, and—of course—“Jack the Ripper”.
The term “serial killer” is clearly a product of the latter 20th Century though the activity itself is clearly not. And as proof of the historicity of such killings four years before Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim and almost a decade before H. H. Holmes gassed his first female in his Chicago “murder castle” an unlikely rustic backwater saw what is, in all likelihood, the handiwork of America’s first known serial killer
This city, carved from blood and the scrublands of what was once the country of Mexico, was Austin, Texas, in 1884.Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2014
Austin City Limits
Despite reputations as lawless frontier towns, most of Texas’ major cities by the late 1800s tried their best to reflect an air of cultured gentility. Dallas, for example, was extremely well-moneyed almost from the start. Its city proper was later off-limits to the migrants that first trickled in starting around 1920 when cotton prices dropped and people lost farms; later waves of migrants, as a result of the Dust Bowl disaster in the lower Plains States, were similarly rejected from taking up residence in the city.
Founded in 1841, Dallas had grown in an orderly, controlled manner, and these migrants, regardless of origin, were not welcomed. They were, however, allowed to live apart from Dallas’ upscale denizens, barely tolerated in a swampy slum along the western bank of the Trinity River called West Dallas.Credit: public domain
It is here that the infamous Clyde Barrow (killer of a few—nowhere near the numbers assigned to him—bank robber, car thief, and ex-con) moved with his family as a child. [The senior Barrow, a middle-aged sharecropper had elected to move there, in the early 1920s, having lost his livelihood when cotton prices dropped.] The Barrows’ grinding poverty was nearly unimaginable in the earliest years of the 20th Century. Clyde’s father owned only a broken-down horse and an equally broken-down wagon. For a few years the family (of seven children and the parents) lived out of this wagon on the festering river lands, sleeping beneath it and taking their paltry meals around it, until the older Barrow managed to erect a tent. From there, a shack was built, but in the first years the Barrows were too poor for even the crummiest shanty (as could be seen anywhere else in the area).
Like Dallas, another Texas town had aspirations of sophistication. This jerkwater burg, almost dead center in the largest of all the lower 48 states, was founded in 1835 as a small village on the Colorado River. It was called Waterloo at inception. Four years later—most likely due to its roughly “in-between” distance from Dallas and San Antonio—it was designated as the capital of the newly formed Republic of Texas (the previous capital of the Republic was in Houston; Waterloo became the seventh, and final, capital of that “country”). At that time (1839) the hamlet was renamed Austin in honor of Sam Austin (a legislator and a participant in the Texas Revolution that wrested control of the vast Texas lands from Mexico). When Texas became a state in 1845 the town of Austin remained its capital.Credit: public domain
Austin was snubbed by many as a backwards upstart, and it also suffered from its relatively remote location. Regardless, civic leaders did their best (as Nashville, Tennessee, would decades later) to bring the town and its reputation up a few notches. The arts were cultivated. An opera house was built. And most of the well-heeled denizens relied heavily upon news from Dallas (a few hundred miles to the north) about what was trendy or fashionable.
All in all, it was a relatively quiet town. The new capitol building was under construction starting in 1882 (it would not be finished until 1888), and it was indeed grand, cut along classic architectural lines. Three colleges (one of which later built the clock tower that Charles Whitman would use as a sniper’s post) were rapidly established, too.
But just as Dallas had West Dallas to later segregate its “lower classes”, Austin, too, had segregated areas for people it may have considered “classless”. These were the freed blacks. Many were skilled craftsman or other kinds of artisans. Among the African-Americans, though, were those who plied their trades as domestics: the cooks, livery men, the butlers, the maids, and other members of the servant underclass. And though, initially, in post-Civil War Texas many lived among their white neighbors peaceably, increasingly blacks felt the push to be distanced from the white folks.
“You Need to Stay Over There!”
Austin in 1884 had several neighborhoods where blacks felt at home. Oddly, these same neighborhoods, “cities-within-a-city”, also held some of Austin’s higher-class entertainments (restaurants, theaters, etc.). However, these upscale businesses also rubbed shoulders with less savory ventures such as brothels and gambling houses.
Vice zones were normally segregated from the “upstanding” citizenry, not always by ordinance (as in New Orleans’ notorious “Storyville” of the late 19th-early 20th Century) but mostly by local custom and tolerance. Such areas were normally found within a few blocks—an easy walking distance—of a railroad depot and the downtown district, insuring a steady supply of business types and politicos as preferred customers.
The local prostitutes rarely plied their trade on the streets of Austin; most people had little to complain about their presence as they kept to certain parts of town and were not terribly visible. Pimps were not the norm. Prostitutes preferred to operate from the relative comforts of “bawdy houses” and shack-like “cribs”. They also worked in dance halls and the many variety theaters available. Dependent upon the class of prostitute (and what the john wanted) prices could be anywhere from a measly 25¢ (a bit over $6 today) up to the more high-end women costing in the neighborhood of $5 (nearly $130 now).
A particular section of Austin abutting Congress Avenue (Austin’s most prominent street) was known as “Guy Town” because it was where “gentlemen” of leisure might spend their money (and nights) on fine dining, gambling, and prostitutes. It covered a total of eight square blocks (with Congress Avenue to the east, the Colorado River to the south, Guadalupe Street to the west, and 4th Street to the north).
It wasn’t just the “sporting” types who had their own section of Austin they called home (or a home-away-from home). Austin had its “Blacks Only” communities, as well.
One of the better-established of these was called Wheatville. It rested between Shoal Creek to the west and Rio Grande Street to the east, present day 24th Street to the south, and 26th Street to the north. This community was founded by a former slave from Arkansas, James Wheat, in 1867, after he was freed and had brought his family to Texas. By purchasing a plot in “town” he became Wheatville’s first land owner. From that point, other freed blacks migrated and took up residence on the site (ironically, former plantation lands).Credit: public domain
While many of the good people of Wheatville worked at skilled trades (blacksmiths, carpenters, farming, and raising livestock) others went into the service industry as domestics. Among the latter group was one of James Wheat’s daughters, Sallie Wheat.
Another servant (who found work later as a cook) was a teenager named Nathan Elgin.
He was a native Arkansawyer (like James Wheat and his daughter, Sallie). Born circa 1865-1866, he had one sister. He lived with both parents in Wheatville starting in 1875 (around 9 or 10 years of age); thus, he was a fixture and known to the locals. The 1880 Travis County Census noted the 14-year-old boy, while living with his parents in Wheatville, was already employed as a servant.
The populace of Wheatville was not neo-local. They settled in with intentions of staying. The Elgin family moved into a place next-door to the community’s founder, James Wheat. Considering how few people lived in Wheatville (at its peak in the early 20th Century they would boast no more than 300 residents) Nathan Elgin, living next door, naturally and easily struck up a “romantic” relationship with his neighbor’s daughter.
Sallie Wheat reciprocated. Though James Wheat was most assuredly against what he considered his well-bred daughter (after all, as a freed black man in America he had founded a town) marrying such rabble as Nathan Elgin, the two wed in 1882 when Nathan was around 16 or 17 years old. Considering it would be noted later he and Sallie had two children by the time he was 19, it is more than likely she was pregnant thanks to their indiscretions and had to marry.
Nathan found work as a cook later in one of Austin’s finest restaurants, Simon’s, along Congress Avenue (the edge of “Guy Town”). He lived on-site in quarters provided by his employer. Sallie, meanwhile, was a domestic in a residence, and she lived there. It is unclear how often they saw each other or where their two children stayed (presumably with Sallie), but from the look of things Nathan did not enjoy Sallie’s conjugal company as often as he may have liked.Credit: public domain
Perhaps the only thing of note about Nathan Elgin was that he was missing the smallest toe of one foot (whether from birth or from an accident is unknown). And this bit of minutiae figured heavily into what happened over the next several months of Austin’s bloody nightmare.
Mollie Smith was a black woman born in Virginia in 1857. She had made her way across country and worked in Waco and Austin at various times. Though she was 27 years old, she would be reported later in the papers as “about 25”.
She had a 10-year-old son named George Smith. The father of this boy is not certain, though he may have been a white man named Robert Rogers, of Waco, Texas. She had worked in the Rogers’ household in the early 1870s; Robert was the son. About Mollie’s age at the time of her tenure he later became a lawyer. Female servants were easy sexual targets; it seems very plausible that the teenaged Robert had been “at” Mollie under threats of her losing her job if she did not submit. [The 1880 Census for the Rogers’ household in Waco lists all the Rogers, including Robert (now a lawyer, aged 24); Mollie (aged 23 at the time); and George Smith (black male, age 6). Thus George was born around 1874 when Mollie would have been about 17.]
Mollie was currently a housekeeper and cook, working at the residence of Walter K. Hall, an insurance man) on West Pecan Street. She had a room there, and around midnight, as December 30 turned into New Year’s Eve of 1884, she was asleep in her rough digs. Walter Spencer, her 30-year-old boyfriend (who had also known her when she lived in Waco, roughly 100 miles to the NNE of Austin), slept soundly beside her.Credit: public domain
An intruder turned their peaceful sleep into a permanent one for Mollie. Walter was bludgeoned, gashing his face in multiple places, and forcing a facial bone chip into one eye. [His doctor later claimed Walter’s wounds were more consistent with having been struck by a large rock or an iron rod though it is just as likely he could have been struck with the flat side of the axe later found on the scene.]
Mollie was hit with an axe, ensuring she stayed unconscious. The intruder then dragged her body from the bed. Hauling her out to the backyard, the killer raped her and then finished the job. She was left lying near the outhouse, her nightgown shredded, and a huge gash in her head.
Walter Spencer woke up in their bed, unclear what had happened. His face was a mess. Blood was on the sheets, and a bloody handprint was found on a door sill. No Mollie was to be seen. Walter entered the main house. He proceeded to find Tom Chalmers (W. K. Hall’s brother-in-law) in his room, and advised Chalmers of what had happened. Chalmers told Walter to go to the doctor’s office and get his wounds dressed; he would look for the missing Mollie on the property himself. He failed to find her, though.
Around 9 AM the same day passersby and a neighbor noted a strange object lying near a small outhouse. This “strange object” turned out to be the brutalized body of Mollie Smith with a bloody, gaping hole in her head. There was snow on the ground, and W.K. Hall easily followed the blood trail left behind (roughly fifty paces from her quarters), where she had been dragged from the servant’s room. He found a gore-covered axe inside, presuming the killer had brought it with him as Hall’s family would later claim they owned no axe nor were any on the property. [Walter Spencer himself had to borrow one temporarily to do some work around the Hall place. Homes used wood for firing kitchen stoves and for fireplace usage. Perhaps the Hall family merely purchased their wood by the cord, using only a small hatchet to draw off kindling, or expected their domestics to bring their own tools—such as an axe—to do their jobs properly. Or, maybe their home was fired by coal. Since wood was found everywhere for chopping in almost any yard, however, if the killer had not brought one with him at the outset he may very well have picked one up at random en route to Mollie Smith’s quarters, a weapon of opportunity. The fact he left such a valuable item behind suggests it was picked up elsewhere and was not his.]
The hapless Walter was able to shed little light on what happened. Almost no one in Austin locked their doors and he had neither heard nor seen anyone come in as he was asleep when the assault started. Police used bloodhounds to try and pick up a scent of the killer but to no avail.
Police work in those days tended toward the obvious. Most of what the 12-man Austin police force (handling Austin’s population of 23,000) saw in their normal line of work were domestic violence situations gone out of control, or drunken brawling and things of that nature. Properly investigating a murder was not within their ken; based on experience, they went with the obvious.
They knew Mollie had an ex-lover named William “Lem” Brooks. He was a bartender in a nearby saloon. Knowing the brutality heaped upon Mollie was of a more-or-less “personal” nature, Brooks was immediately considered a suspect. He was picked up and questioned; protesting his innocence he provided an alibi (he was at a “Colored” ball till nearly 4 AM over a mile and a half away). A newspaper reporter confirmed Brooks’ story, but a coroner’s jury was convened that found he had the means and motive to commit the crime (despite testimony from his alibi witnesses). He was later released for lack of evidence.
Most women had their children living with them in that era. George Smith, Mollie’s son, was never noted in any reports of the murder. This can only mean that he was either overlooked by the press and police in mentioning or he did not live with her (perhaps living with the Rogers’ family in Waco, it is unclear).
Some in the Austin PD guessed that maybe the same bunch that had been raiding homes in recent months may have done the deed, escalating from assault finally to murder. Meanwhile, no one knew who had committed this crime for sure; it was all guesswork, and though the papers dutifully reported it in the flowery journalistic language of the day (“Bloody Work!” was the headline the Austin Statesman used to lead off its story of the crime) nothing much in the way of action toward solving Mollie’s murder was done.
And peace was once more upon Austin, Texas.
Interlude for Random Violence
During the summer and through the autumn of 1884, many residents of Austin, mostly black servants, were victims of home-invasion style trespasses. Several female domestics were beaten in their homes or otherwise assaulted, with rape attempts recorded.
This activity renewed in the earliest months of 1885 as well, with rocks being thrown through the windows of servants’ quarters, break-ins, and continued assaults on the women found inside. In many cases, more than one perpetrator was involved, and descriptions of the invaders—with some transgressors being white and others black, sometimes a sole interloper, other times a pair—led police to put this work down to a roving gang of housebreakers. Not much was done about it, though the local papers reported every break-in and outrage.
Just after the murder of Mollie Smith (and during the later killing spree itself) a change in the pattern of attacking only black female domestics was broken.
Slightly over three months from the time Mollie was murdered, a German girl, working as a domestic, reported she was accosted in her quarters at about 3 AM on March 9, 1885. A white man hovered over her, awakening her and demanding, “Your money or your life!” She screamed, and the assailant struck her in the head repeatedly with a large stone, cutting her scalp.
He fled when a male member of the household roused, taking up a gun. The intruder got away but not before throwing the rock he carried at the side of the house. The victim’s wounds were not serious and she survived; the attack was written off in the newspaper as an “act of scoundrelism” while calling for severe punishment for the perpetrator.
A few days later after midnight on March 13, a “Colored” servant found her door being battered by “Colored” ruffians outside. Her husband, however, took up a pistol and fired twice. The gang retreated to the street, throwing rocks at the little apartment before running off.
Later, during the early morning hours of the same day, two other black females were terrorized by some man’s beating on their door demanding entry. They shouted out they would not open the door; he attempted to instead open a window and climb in, but the girls fled their room to the outdoors. The thug caught the straggler of the pair and wrestled her to the ground, obviously attempting a sexual assault. Her screams, however, alerted others and he got away without being recognized.
And the darkest morning hours of that day still held more violence to come. The room of another black woman working as a servant was invaded. She was later able to describe her attackers as two “Negroes” one of whom was “a yellow man painted black” (indicating a light-skinned black man who had attempted to disguise himself by tainting his face, likely with lampblack or shoe polish).
One paper’s report next day only delicately stated that “in this instance the scoundrels were more successful in the perpetration of their hellish designs . . . the occupant subjected to the most brutal treatment”. It is clear from this statement the woman was raped by one or both men. However, she recognized the “painted” man as a “mulatto” barber named Abe Pearson; he was almost immediately arrested for this attack. His partner got way.
And a final act of violence was thwarted on that night of terrors. Yet another black female was attacked in her servant’s room; her screaming, however, awakened neighbors. The would-be rapist absconded.
Less than a week later on March 19, another home was attacked by roughs. “Colored” men (seeking “not only to rob but also to outrage”) broke a window to the servants’ area of the home of a Col. J. H. Pope.
Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were two Swedish servant girls occupying the room; they panicked at the sound of the break-in and ran into the main part of the house. One of the interlopers took a shot at Clara—the bullet missed, but was close enough she sustained powder burns on her face and arms. She was caught by one of the intruders; the men dragged her by the hair and around her neck, leaving bruises and a cut on her throat. They were interrupted by the appearance of another man of the household and left.
The two girls were shaken. Christine, thinking the attackers had gone, went back to her room for some reason. The men were there and attempted to rape her. She managed to struggle enough and raise a ruckus; thwarted, one of the men shot her in the back and left her for dead as they fled (she survived).
Three more similar break-ins, with the intent to “outrage” the female servants, were reported on that same night. One of the intended victims pulled a gun on her attacker and drove him off. The other rape attempts were stymied by household members coming to the rescue.
In the wake of that night of violence the Swedish citizens of Austin managed to scrape together $200 (a bit over $5000 in today’s currency) and offered up as a reward to catch the men who had attacked Clara Strand and Christine Martenson.
As May 6, 1885, settled into the morning of May 7 (slightly over five months since Mollie Smith’s murder) the city experienced more killing.
Lucien B. Johnson was a former state legislator who lived on the corner of San Jacinto and Cypress Streets. His place was described as “a neat cottage . . . in the southern part of the city, the Central railroad track being immediately in front of the house”. He lived quietly with his wife and a niece; behind his “neat cottage” was a cabin. In this cabin lived 30-year-old Eliza Shelley and her three children; Eliza had been the Johnson’s cook for about a month.
In the overnight hours of May 6-May 7, Johnson’s wife heard screams coming from Eliza’s cabin. She sent her niece out to see what the ruckus was, and the report she brought back was horrifying. Eliza was splayed out on the cabin floor, obviously dead, with a head wound so deep it nearly split her skull in two (as if from an axe or hatchet). Furthermore, she had been punctured in the head with some other instrument.
Her bloody pillows showed the murderous attack started while she lay in her bed, and then had been dragged from the bedstead to the floor (though the killer first made a pile of blankets to place her on before removing her from bed). The disarray of her night gown and the fact her hips were elevated by the blanket pile suggested she had been raped as she lay dying. No weapon was found, and only some footprints (of largish, bare feet) were noted leading to and from Eliza’s cabin door.
Her children had been present for this outrage. Her 8-year-old son said a man, wearing a white rag over his face, had entered in the middle of the night. The boy was unsure if the man was white or a lighter-skinned black man. He grabbed the boy and asked where his mother kept her money.
The boy said he didn’t know but was then told by the man, after he threw a blanket over his head and shoved him into a corner, to stay covered up or he would be killed. The man also told the terrified child he was “going to St. Louis in the morning’. [This is an obvious dodge to leave the impression the killer would be long gone before anyone could catch him.] Curiously, this boy said after the blanket had been thrown over him he fell asleep! [Of interest is the fact that some chloroform had recently been stolen from a local dentist’s home—perhaps the killer had stolen it for use in future crimes and the blanket had been doused with it.] The youth’s two younger brothers (sleeping with their mother in the same bed where she was attacked) had been too traumatized and frightened, presumably hiding their faces; they could provide no information.
Bloodhounds were once again brought in to try and track the owner of the largish feet, prints of which were found at the scene. The dogs failed, but police nabbed a 19-year-old black man whom they found walking barefoot in the area. [Bare feet in that time and place were not uncommon—“store bought” shoes were expensive by the day’s standards and many servile, working blacks, as well as poorer white people, simply went without them in the warmer months of necessity.] This young black man was probably mildly retarded (he was described as “dull witted”) and was unable to explain his meanderings well enough to suit authorities. He was taken in, but it was clear, after comparing his feet to the largish prints found at the crime scene, he was not their man. He was subsequently released.
Eliza had a husband, but he was in prison and could therefore not be considered a suspect in her murder. A former live-in boyfriend named Ike Plummer (with whom she lived at another place before going into service at the Johnsons) was tapped for the crime as he and Eliza had been overheard arguing about money in the Johnson yard a few days prior. [He wanted her to give him some money, and she refused.] Though a flimsy circumstantial case was built (he’d been arguing about money with Eliza recently, etc.) Plummer was later absolved of responsibility in the murder as there was nothing tying him to the crime.
And because her employer testified about Eliza’s good temperament there were no other unsavory characters in her background to consider.
Like many of the victims in this case discrepancies in simple biographical data were rampant. In 1880, five years before her death, she was noted as living in McLennan County, Texas—county seat, Waco—and was the mother of two children, a girl (Georgia, aged 7), and an unnamed 6-month-old son. Thus, at the time of her death the “8-year-old boy” who had been forced into a corner with a blanket over his head may have been, in fact, an undernourished (small for her age) 11- or 12-year-old girl. Furthermore, the “younger” brothers could have been a now 5-year-old unnamed male and a newer male child born after the 1880 census. White people cared little for such details back then; all that was certain is that Eliza had three children at the time of her murder.
Her case was duly noted in the press with a luridly screaming headline: “The Foul Fiends Keep up Their Wicked Work.” The same paper sub-headed its piece on Eliza’s murder as a “Deed of Deviltry” in an ongoing “Crimson Catalog of Crime”.Credit: public domain
One news reporter in Austin at the time was William Sydney Porter, later better known as the writer of ironic short stories, O. Henry. In a letter to a friend dated May 10, 1885, Porter talked about how dull Austin generally was. But, he wrote, recent activities by what he termed “The Servant Girl Annihilators” (indicating he may have believed there was more than one killer, either a roving band of thugs or two men working in tandem) tended to make things more interesting. [The term he coined—whether penned originally as “Servant Girl Annihilators” or its variant, “Servant Girl Annihilator”—never really caught on with the press at the time.]
And then nothing more happened, at least for awhile.
Irene Cross, 33 years old, was a black female domestic (like Eliza and Mollie). She lived across the way from a beer garden (the Scholz Biergarten) on East Linden Street. Her place of residence was in a rear building on the property of her employer, Sophia Witman.
On May 23, just about two weeks after Eliza Shelley’s brutal assault, rape, and murder, Irene was attacked in the middle of the night while she lay abed in her cottage. In this case the assailant used a knife (whether one he brought with him or one he found in her home is unknown).
She was stabbed—viciously—about the head almost to the point of being scalped. The unfortunate thing about this attack is that she lived through it, long enough (no doubt in considerable agony) to be discovered. She was even spoken to by a journalist who had gotten wind of the crime and had hied his way (along with others) to her home. Dying, she was not able to tell anyone among those who responded to the alarm what had happened; like the other victims she had been soundly asleep when the attack started.
Her assailant, in addition to nearly scalping her (as if this might have been intended) also cut one of her arms so severely it was almost severed.
The widowed Irene’s adult son (Washington) as well as an 8-year-old nephew (Douglas) lived with her. Washington was not home when the attack occurred but Douglas was. The boy described Irene’s murderer as a “big, chunky Negro man, bare-footed and with his pants rolled up”.
At this time, no such thing as a serial killer was entertained by the Austin police, the concept not even known to American law enforcement. [London’s police force and investigators from Scotland Yard would have their hands full of a “serial killer” about three years later with the Jack the Ripper slayings. While they recognized the work of a single perpetrator almost immediately, they did not use the term itself.]
Austin’s naïve police, however, did not make any connections based upon the victims’ profiles (black female servants) or the method of murder (hacking and stabbing). It did not occur to them that these few murders might have been done by the same man. [And it was most assuredly a man—a relatively strong man—by himself, as indicated by the struggling drag marks found for the women who were discovered outside their homes. A pair of killers would have left no such marks; sharing the burden of carrying an unconscious woman together they would have left no tell-tale signs of removal to the outdoors.]
Word on the street, though, among Austin’s armchair detectives talking about the murders, was that they might have all been committed by the same person.
The sporadic violence against domestics still flared up. A woman named Clara Dick was seriously injured by a trespasser in August 1885.
Rebecca Ramey, 50 years old, was another domestic, in service to Valentine O. Weed (who owned a livery stable).
She resided on East Cedar Street, only a block north of where Eliza Shelley was murdered. Her 11-year-old daughter, Mary (born in Austin in 1875), lived with her. Rebecca also had a son, Edward (b: 1869) and another daughter, Minnie (b: 1870). Mary’s father had died several months before she was born.
On the night of August 30, 1885 (or sometime in the wee hours of August 31, possibly between 4 AM and 5 AM), someone entered the Weed kitchen area where Rebecca slept with her daughter, Mary. Rebecca was knocked unconscious where she lay (believed with a sandbag or sap of some kind).
Mary, her pre-pubescent daughter, was likewise conked on the head, knocked senseless, and then dragged out of Rebecca’s domicile into a nearby washhouse. She was raped and then punched through both of her ears with a sharp metal object. [This was thought to be an iron rod. It is a painful punishment, similar to what the Viet Cong would employ over a century later—using bamboo shoots—on prisoners of war to puncture their eardrums as a torture method.]
Rebecca Ramey survived her battering. Having most likely sustained a severe concussion in the attack she could give no one details about what had happened, though, only recalling the clock striking 10 PM, then 11 PM before her next memory of being awakened by a doctor. Interestingly enough, bloodhounds were brought in before any police authority arrived on the scene—these dogs later ran a black man to ground that night who had the misfortune of being in the area. He was arrested but released the following morning.
An inquest determined that the girl, Mary Ramey, was alive and perhaps even semi-conscious when she was raped and when a metal object was driven into her brain through her ears. It was the indignation of a child’s rape and murder that finally roused the citizenry of Austin to wonder just what, if anything, their police and administrative personnel were doing to stop this fiend. Some even believed the murderer was well-connected with the Austin apparatchik and was being protected by them.
People of the city were used to leaving their doors unlocked and, considering it was late summer, they left windows open night and day as well. The killer was making such laxity a thing of the past with the seeming ease by which this midnight marauder entered a home. Residents began securing their doors and shuttering and latching their windows. Panic took over as terror set in; suspicions of any stranger, any person loitering, reached paranoid levels.
The citizens simply wanted Austin to go back to being the “dull” town the future O. Henry thought it to be before these killings started. Unfortunately, the murders were making headlines in San Antonio and Dallas as well as gaining national notoriety in Chicago and New York thanks to wire service.
Something of keen interest was found at the Ramey crime scene—a bloody footprint. And this largish footprint was unique in that it had an obvious defect.
It was missing the little toe.
Fifth & Sixth Movements
Local African-Americans banded together in the wake of Mary Ramey’s murder. They met at the courthouse; the group selected a spokesman who asked the mayor (John W. Robertson), the city council, and the current governor (John Ireland) to offer a reward for Mary Ramey’s murderer. These elected officials—perhaps thinking it had only been a black child of no consequence who was raped and murdered, and, therefore, didn’t warrant any such action—declined to honor the reward request.
The local papers reported on this rebuff, first citing the government’s refusal to act on the request and then charging the populace with taking up the cause themselves. Subsequent contributions from the private sector were sufficient to secure a decent enough incentive for someone to bring forth information that would lead to the killer. No leads developed from this posting, however.
And instead of things quieting down in town they only grew worse.
Some had noted that the murders usually occurred on nights with a great enough lunar phase to see relatively well outside. And so it became important to watch out for when the moon was full, as those would be the nights most likely to attract whoever it was killing Austin’s servant girls.
Gracie Vance (20 years old) lived with her “common-law” husband, Orange Washington (age 25) in a small servant’s cabin behind the home of William Dunham. The Dunham residence was roughly 100 yards away from the University of Texas (to the southeast).
Lucinda Boddy was a cook in a home near the University. She was not feeling well earlier in the day of September 28, 1885 (one source records this date as September 26). Finding a need for some close care she had gone to stay with her friend, Gracie Vance, on the Dunham property. Also present that day was another visitor, 17-year-old Patsie Gibson, as well as Orange Washington.
Gracie and Orange got into a domestic dispute that evening over some alleged wrongdoing of Orange’s. The couple was sufficiently loud and violent that Gracie’s boss, Dunham, called police in to make them settle down. Police restored order, and the little servants’ cabin was quiet as everyone finally settled in for sleep.
Around midnight this quiet was brutally shattered. Gracie awakened when an intruder grabbed her as she slept. Her screaming roused Orange who sprang from bed only to have his skull crushed with an axe; he died within a few hours of his injuries.
Lucinda Boddy was likewise roused by Gracie’s shrieks, and she, too, was stunned with a hefty axe blow to the head. Her skull had been fractured so badly that a shard of bone split away and pierced her brain. The teen girl, Patsie Gibson, was subdued with axe blows to the face and head.
The killer began raping the groggy Lucinda Boddy. During the course of this she passed out.
The unconscious Gracie Vance was hauled out of the window of the structure, leaving a bloody mess on its sill. She was dragged over a fence and through an overgrown vacant lot to a neighbor’s stable. [Subsequent investigation concluded Gracie may have aroused by then as there were signs of struggling at the secondary scene.] The papers later said she had been “criminally assaulted” (a euphemism for rape, and it was evident this occurred while she was either dying or already dead). Her head was then bashed in with a brick.
Lucinda came to later and—surprisingly—had enough fortitude to stand upright and light a lantern. Holding it to see about the room she was startled to suddenly find a strange man there (who, having seen the light through her window had rushed in from the stable area); he shouted at her, “Don’t look at me!” He cursed at her and demanded she put out the light. Instead, she threw it at him and ran out of the place with whatever physical energy reserves she had. [Another version of this story has the man climbing in through her window as she rushed out the door. First putting out the lamp he then gave chase to the injured woman.] He caught up to her; the pair struggled. Lucinda screamed as loudly as she could, “We’re all murdered!”
The ruckus had raised W.D. Dunham, Gracie’s employer (an attorney and the man who had earlier called police to quell Gracie’s and Orange’s squabble). He emerged from his home with a gun and saw Lucinda in the clutches of a stranger. She shouted out that the man with whom she was struggling had killed everyone else—seeing Dunham, the killer ran off as Lucinda passed out again from her head injury.
Though not expected to survive, the teen Patsie Gibson lived.
Lucinda Boddy likewise recovered from her wounds. She insisted during questioning that she recognized the man who had told her to put out the light: he was a black man named “Doc” Woods. He was picked up by police quickly.
At the jail he denied involvement with the attack leading to Gracie Vance’s and Orange Washington’s deaths. He was found to have blood stains on his clothes, though. He said the blood was his, the result of a discharge from a sexually transmitted disease (most likely gonorrhea).
Lucinda Boddy, however, was adamant Woods was her attacker. And it was this insistence that kept him locked up while police checked out an alibi he provided. They finally determined the blood on his clothing upon his arrest was indeed his, and with his alibi confirmed he was cut loose after many weeks in jail.
In the meantime, the teen Nathan Elgin (he of the missing little toe on one foot) continued to work as a cook and live on the premises of one of Austin’s most swank restaurants; his wife, the former Sallie Wheat, lived away with their children at her employer’s home.
And the white people of Austin and those of more than average wealth did not overly concern themselves with fears for their own safety. To date, the known murder victims were black servants. As for the ongoing sexual assaults (successful or attempted) they had been on black women and lower-regarded white women, so who cared? The choice of target provided some comfort to the white middle and upper classes.
But the next two victims, killed on the same night, would cause white Austin, moneyed or otherwise, to demand aggressive action from its police.
Seventh Inning Stretch
The night of Christmas Eve 1885 started out quietly enough; a concert at the State Institution for the Blind had been held.
Moses H. Hancock, a 50-year-old carpenter, lived with his 45-year-old wife, Susan, and their two teenage daughters on East Water Street. Susan was described glowingly later in reports as “a beautiful woman of about 40 . . . born and educated in the Eastern states and had much literary ability”. [She had actually been born in Alabama in 1840, thus trimming her age by a few years and fancifully turning Alabama into an “Eastern” state.]Credit: public domain
The man of the house was given to bouts of heavy drinking. And while he wasn’t physically violent with Susan, he was verbally abusive when drunk. [Susan, after 18 years of marriage, had gone so far as to threaten to leave him if his drinking didn’t abate. She had written a letter, discovered later, that she hadn’t given him in which she detailed her complaints.] One of his daughters would say, though, that despite his binge drinking he took good care of the family and had never struck the daughters (either as a disciplinary measure or when intoxicated).
With his teen girls away at a Christmas party, Moses (perhaps having “celebrated” the season with a whiskey) dozed in a chair while his wife went off to sleep in one of their daughter’s beds. Sometime after midnight he was roused from his Christmas sleep by odd groans coming from outside. His daughters were not yet home. He rose and entered the room where Susan was supposed to be sleeping.
She was not within, and the bedding was in disarray as well as blood-spattered. Moses followed a blood trail through their house, out the front door, and around the side of the building into the couple’s back yard. Though he thought he caught a glimpse of a man jumping their back fence, he was more concerned with what lay on the ground before him to give chase.
Susan, lying in a pool of blood, was barely alive. Head wounds and blows to the face had been carried out by an axe her attacker had left behind. She had wounds above her left eye. Her cheekbone was gashed, and her skull was fractured in two places. One of the strikes had cut through her left ear. And, as other victims before her, she had been punched through the ear with a sharp object, penetrating two inches (about 5 cm) into her brain—the instrument was still in place when she was found. Her hair was matted with blood running from her ears.
And she had been raped (though doctors responding to queries by a reporter—who arrived on the scene—refused to divulge that detail to him).
Susan Hancock did not die immediately from her severe injuries. Nor did she regain consciousness. She malingered for three days before dying on December 28, 1885.
Eighth Time Out
That same Christmas Eve night saw another married woman meet her maker.
And while the murder of Susan Hancock (once it was made known to the public by the light of Christmas Day) clearly upset white Austin it was the next slaying within hours of Susan’s that set tongues wagging and led to calls for vengeance on anyone that could be found to blame.
Credit: public domainEula Burditt, born in 1868, was only 14 years old when she married a 21-year-old man, James Phillips. Her mother had been in the process of divorcing Eula’s father when she died suddenly of an illness—it was less than a month after her mother’s death that Eula became Mrs. James Phillips in January 1883. While there is speculation this may have been an arranged marriage—and with her mother dead the young teen girl needed a custodian of some kind—there is also the possibility that she was pregnant by Phillips and was forced into a “shotgun” marriage; this pregnancy may have been terminated by choice or by miscarriage. [The couple had a child born a year after their marriage, though, in January 1884; they named him Thomas.]
While Phillips came from a good family with a good reputation in Austin, he personally was its black sheep. He was a drunkard and lay-about and was abusive to his teen bride. Because he had not the means to set up housekeeping, he and Eula lived at his parents’ home after they married. Later, when that situation became stressful for the girl-wife they moved into the residence of a family friend, George McCutcheon in January 1885. [McCutcheon had been close friends with Eula’s father.] This man offered James steady work on his farm.
The 36-year-old McCutcheon’s wife died in March of the year the Phillips’ moved in. He and the teen Eula began an affair that resulted in her getting pregnant by him. The pregnancy was terminated; Eula and James left McCutcheon’s farm in October 1885 and moved back in with his parents. There, James remained unemployed, drunk, and hateful toward his wife, thinking for sure she was cheating on him.
In the wake of her blatant indiscretions with friend McCutcheon he had reason to be suspicious. Eula was a habitué of a locally well-known Austin brothel/assignation house run by a notorious madam named May Tobin. While she may not have been engaging in prostitution there Eula was using it as a rendezvous place for more than one extra-marital affair. She had recently started seeing the 27-year-old John Dickinson, a well-connected partisan of Austin. He held the post of Secretary of the Capitol Commission (this was the oversight group handling the construction of the new state building).
By November 1885, Eula had had enough of her husband, James Phillips. She took their son, Thomas, and moved into a residence owned by a friend named Fanny Whipple (whose house was also used for clandestine liaisons). She had John Dickinson over several times during her stay there, and their affair was no secret. She stayed for a week, then moved in with May Tobin for a week. Dickinson was a fixture there, as well. After that week she moved in with relatives in another community.
James Phillips, meanwhile, had been given a stern talking to by his mother. He stopped drinking and got a job as a carpenter. He even bought the couple some furniture of their own on credit. Once he found out where Eula was staying he rode up and convinced her to come home with him. She did. For about a month James was peaceful, working by day helping build the new Fireman’s Hall.
Eula, however, apparently had not completely settled into domesticity. On Christmas Eve night 1885 she slipped out of the house after James and her son were asleep and headed off to May Tobin’s. May Tobin later reported that Eula had arrived with a stranger and wanted a room. None were available, but the pair decided to wait around and see if one would open up soon. After only a very short time and with no room getting freed up, Eula and the strange man departed; she went home, apparently abandoning her no doubt disappointed lover in the streets of Austin.
Once back at the Phillips’ place, she crawled into bed. James was asleep and their toddler son lay in the middle of the bed next to him. Eula took her spot next to the boy and was soon asleep herself.
About an hour later (likely around 1:30 AM or so), an intruder came in. James, asleep, was struck with an axe and knocked senseless almost immediately. Eula was likewise clobbered. She was dragged, unconscious, from the couple’s bed and out into the backyard. There she was raped and killed.
Who’s to Blame?
Now the public was up in arms. Susan Hancock had been thought of as “respectable”. And Eula Phillips—while certainly no saint—was considered “pretty” and pretty white women should never be brutalized.
Per police procedure of the times Moses Hancock was picked up and charged with murdering his wife, and James Phillips was taken into custody for murdering Eula (despite the fact he, too, had been severely injured by the axe-wielding intruder).
One of the things that came up in the trial of James Phillips had to do with feet. Footprints (either bloody or impressed in mud) had been found at the Mary Ramey crime scene as well as other murder sites. Questions were put to witnesses about Eula’s “boyfriends”, asking if it were known if any of these men had any unusual features about one or both feet or if they were deformed in any way. James was made to stand in ink and have a footprint taken to compare against one cut from a flooring of one of the crime scenes. And despite the fact that his foot was much smaller than the unidentified print he was indicted anyway by a grand jury.
While Moses Hancock and James Phillips were both ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence, the key element dislodged in their trials had to do with feet. The prosecution was keenly interested in any kind of foot abnormality. Neither Moses nor James Phillips had anything wrong with their feet nor did any of Eula Phillips’ known “acquaintances”.
Police needed to find someone who went around barefoot, had biggish feet, and was missing the small toe on one foot. This last detail was kept from the public, and it was the one identifier they knew they could rely upon if they ever found a viable suspect.
Authorities never got a chance to bring in the real killer of seven women and one man, though. Late one night in February 1886 (while Moses Hancock and James Phillips were being put through a judicial grinder) Nathan Elgin, the young, black male cook at one of Austin’s ritziest restaurants, was at a dive saloon in Austin’s “Guy Town”.
He was drunk and enraged about something. For whatever reason he accosted a woman (named Julia) there. After verbally abusing her, he got physical—as he was in a fury and powerfully built no one there came to her aid. He dragged her from the saloon, out into the street, and over into a nearby house. At knife point he held her at bay with clear intention of sexually assaulting her.
Her screams, however, could be heard in the street, and neighbors raised the alarm. A police officer arrived. Accompanied by two civilians the cop confronted Nathan Elgin. He and the two men were unable to subdue Elgin who waved a knife at them—the officer shot him. Nathan Elgin was paralyzed by the bullet that entered his spine, and he died from his injury the next day. He never gave any reason for his attack on the woman, Julia, at the bar.Credit: public domain
Interestingly enough when his body was examined it was noted he was missing the small toe on his right foot. It was also learned he lived away from his wife in the immediate area of the Servant Girl Murders.
And, finally, and perhaps not coincidentally, there were no more murders of servant women after Nathan Elgin died.
Nathan Elgin never got his day in court, so no one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the murders of several of Austin’s citizens from December 1884 to December 1885.
But, a few things come to mind that tend to support him as America’s first known serial killer. Obviously, his foot deformity fits what is known about the assailant. He was also strong enough to drag unconscious women through windows and across yards and still have the energy to rape them and finish killing them. He lived in the immediate area where every murder occurred, meaning it would be only a few minutes’ walk in any direction to put him at any one of the murder scenes.
May Tobin’s house of assignation was part of the “Guy Town” landscape and was within a short distance of Susan Hancock’s house (victim # 7). Since Eula had been at May’s that night (and given the time Eula was murdered), it is almost certain her killer—having finished raping and murdering Susan Hancock—spotted her walking alone back home. He most likely followed her there as a victim of opportunity; he would have waited outside long enough to be assured she and the household were asleep before he slipped in and did his dirty work.
Motive can never be known. Nathan Elgin may have been mentally imbalanced. He lived apart from his wife, and some of the murdered women (except for the two white women) “lived in sin” with boyfriends or “common law” husbands. Perhaps he was projecting such behavior on his own wife (Sallie) quietly seething to himself that maybe she might be entertaining other men while he lived elsewhere; killing those other women helped him feel better, making them atone for their “sin”.
He was likely resentful of the white people who frequented Simon’s Restaurant where he worked. They probably talked down to him, looked through him, and otherwise showed little regard for his humanity. It can only be presumed, since his last two victims were white women, that—emboldened by having gotten away with the murders of the “amoral” black servant girls—he could, with impunity, claim a more “valuable” trophy: a white woman.
With Moses Hancock passed out in a chair, his daughters gone for the night, and his wife asleep, the barefoot Nathan Elgin could have quietly padded his way through the house, subdued Susan and dragged her outside to finally get a taste of something forbidden. Fresh from the headiness of that victory Eula Phillips, the tender teen morsel, caught his attention on the street, and he slavered for her.
The name this terror came to be known by—“The Servant Girl Murders”—is a bit inaccurate. One of the victims was a child of a servant (who was herself not killed but assaulted), another victim was the boyfriend of one target, and the last two were white women who were never in domestic service. But the name caught on early in the spree, and it stuck.
This case was a sensation at the time, though it is barely acknowledged or cited today. It is virtually unknown outside the purview of a few criminal researchers. J.R. Galloway, now a Texas librarian, was a college student who stumbled upon it and thought it worthy of further research; he used it for a class project in 1996. He wrote extensively about it and became a lay expert, even writing an exhaustively researched book about it. Credit: public domainIt is technically considered unsolved. But, a thinking person can certainly put the evidentiary pieces together and draw a reasonable conclusion: Nathan Elgin was likely America’s first serial killer, finally—albeit tentatively—identified many decades after the fact.
This PBS video is well worth the nearly one hour it tales to watch it.
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