Before we get started on this week’s mystery, Zach, I want to make sure we’re mature enough for it. There are multiple names for it but the main one is a little silly. If it’s too silly we can use something else. I’m going to say it and if you laugh we have to throw the whole episode out. Ready? This week we’re talking about the Servant Girl Annihilator. Alternative names include, The Austin Axe Murderer and the Servant Girl Murders.
This week we’re heading to your favorite state in these 48 contiguous United States of America, Texas. The Friendship State, home of the alamo, king of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, protector of the realm and first of her name. Now when I say, “let’s go to Texas.” you probably think, “No problems, we’ll just hope in our MysteriYES branded 1984 Ford Fiesta, hop on I-35 south, and be there by morning.” Well, bad news Zach. This week’s mystery actually happened mostly in 1885 so we’ll have to hop in our MysteriYES branded 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra/Time machine, make our way down I-35 south, and then hit the big red button that says “I would like to go back to the year 1885 please”. Now that we’re in Austin in 1885 we need to hop back just a couple more months so let’s stop by this old soothsayers hut and have him teleport us back to December 1884.
Austin in 1884 was a growing city. As years of debates of it’s legitimacy as Texas’s capital ended, it doubled in population in a handful of years from a small cow town to a burgeoning metropolis. But not everything was right in this city on the move. On New year’s eve 1884 a 25 year old black servant cook named Mollie Smith was found in the snow next to the outhouse behind her employer’s home. She had a gaping wound in the side of her head. The night before someone had broken into her home as she slept, attacked her with an axe while she slept, and dragged the body from her bed to the backyard where she was raped and murdered.
A few months later on May 6th 1885, the body of Eliza Shelly, a cook for a former member of the Texas state legislature was found on the floor of her bedroom. She too had been killed by an axe wound to the head.
Three weeks after Shelly was murdered, a third black servant named Irene Cross was attacked by a man with a knife. She initially survived but was unable to tell police or reporters who attacked her. She later succumbed to her wounds, which makes sense because one reporter who spoke with her said she looked as if she had been scalped.
There were two more attacks and one more murder three months later in August of 1885. The most gruesome of which was on a mother and daughter, 50 year old Rebecca Ramey and her 11 year old daughter Mary were both attacked. Rebecca survived after being knocked unconscious while she slept. Mary was dragged to a backyard washhouse, stabbed through the ear with an iron rod and raped.
Later in September Gracie Vance and her boyfriend Orange Washinton were attacked in the house they lived. The attacker struck Washington in the head with an axe. He then carried Vance to the property’s stable where her head, as the Austin Daily Statesman put it, was, “almost beaten into a jelly.”
Until this point the killer had only gone after black victims, mostly servants of the wealthy white people of Austin, but on Christmas Eve, 1885 the body of Sue Hancock, a white woman who was described as “one of the most refined ladies in Austin” was discovered in her own backyard. Her head had been split open by an ax and a sharp thin object was lodged in her brain.
About an hour later, Eula Phillips was found dead in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. She was found naked in an unlit alley behind her home. Initially her husband Jimmy was found in bed nearly unconscious, a large gash in the back of his head. Their young son was sitting next to him, unharmed, and eating an apple. Eula’s body was discovered by following the trail of blood from their bedroom. Her skull had been bashed in by an ax and heavy pieces of timber had been placed across her arms as if to keep her pinned down during the attack. She had also been raped. A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette wrote that her face was “turned upward in the dim moonlight with an expression of agony that death itself had not erased from her features”.
These murders cause a massive panic in the city of Austin. After the bodies were discovered on Christmas Eve men raced from their homes “bordering on frenzy” and gathered on Congress Ave in front of the capitol building. Gun shops ran out of weapons and citizens resorted to refurbishing the old guns used during the Texas revolution. Many black residents of the city reportedly believed that the killer had supernatural powers which explained why he could so stealthily break into people’s homes.
On Christmas Day 1885 more than 500 city leaders, clergymen, lawyers, and doctors met to figure out a way to stop the killings. Their proposal included, lighting the entire city at night with gigantic lamps and setting off fire alarms whenever an attack happened so that everyone could come out of their houses and hunt down the killer at once. It was even suggested that guards should be posted around Austin and everyone in the city limits should be interrogated about their whereabouts on the night of the murders.
Fortunately, none of the plans were necessary. Just as suddenly as they had begun, the attacks stopped.
The investigation into the murders was doomed to fail from the start. In 1883, Grooms Lee, the son of a powerful local politician was chosen to be Austin’s police chief. There were subsequent attempts to impeach him because many of the city’s 12 officers reportedly spent more time in saloons and brothels than preventing crime. In addition rumors emerged that city money had disappeared after which the chief clerk at the police station skipped town. There were even allegations that the police were robbing people themselves.
It also didn’t help that it was 1885 and it was basically the easiest thing ever to get away with murder. With no form of technology to help them police relied on a bloodhound named “Old George”. Old George may have been a perfectly fine dog but when it comes to finding murderers he’s pretty terrible, not doing much more than barking up and down the street.
Let’s also not forget that it’s 1885 and everyone is super duper racist all the time always. The consensus among the white people of Austin was that no white man would have any reason to mutilate a black servant woman. As a result the investigation was focused exclusively on black men. Because there were bare footprints found around the same area as the bodies some black men were even arrested for murder simply because they weren’t wearing shoes.
One evening Lee walked into Austin’s most popular black bar, the Black Elephant, asking for a man named Alex Mack. Mack had known one of the victims but there wasn’t any real reason to suspect him. Mack walked with Lee down the street where a group of detectives and officers threw him to the ground, kicked him, tied a rope around his neck, and demanded that he tell them what he knew about the murders. Fortunately a white man named Press Hopkins came out of his house and prevented a probable lynching. Mack was taken to jail where he was repeatedly beaten for the next week and a half.
After the Christmas Eve murders many of the same black suspects were rounded up again along with a mentally ill Mexican-American man and two suspicious looking white brothers who were found with blood on their clothes just north of Austin.
The police presence in Austin increased 5x . Officers were given the right to question random strangers on the street and if their answers weren’t good enough they were given 24 hours to leave town.
In January of 1886, Jimmy Phillips was arrested for the murder of his wife. A few weeks after that 50 year old Moses Hancock was arrested for the murder of his wife. So the police theory was that these two husbands happened to come up with the same plan on the same night.
The biggest piece of evidence that Hancock was the murderer was a letter written by his wife Sue to Moses months before she was murdered. In the letter she explained that she couldn’t live with his drinking any longer. With this letter, prosecutors believe that on the night of the crime, Moses visited a saloon, returned home, and attacked Sue in a drunken rage.
The case again Moses Hancock was pretty thin the the evidence against Jimmy Phillips was more compelling. Jimmy was a very attractive man. He was young, handsome and played the violin. He was also a supposed violent drunk who was abusive to his wife Eula. Various family member and friends testified in court that Jimmy had chased her with a knife. Eula’s sister Delia also testified that Jimmy once got so enraged at Eula that they had to run out of the house. She also had stayed at her older sister’s home for several days after another one of Jimmy’s drunken binges.
Adding additional motivation to this theory, apparently Eula had been slipping away to May Tobin’s house of assignation which was a hotel with a reputation for discretion. Many of Austin’s high end prostitutes would meet clients there as well as adulterers. She had reportedly been there nearly half a dozen times and she had been there briefly on Christmas Eve.
After a highly publicized trial Jimmy Phillips was convicted of uxoricide and was given the totally fair sentence of 7 years. Six months later the Texas court of appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.
The trial of Moses Hancock resulted in a hung jury after their teenage daughter testified that her mother never got the courage to show the letter to Moses.
Moses and Jimmy were released from custody and never tired again.
There were no more investigations after that. The murders had stopped and so much time and effort went into the trials that no one really started over. The city did do its best to ensure that no such crimes could ever happen again. Huge arc lights were installed over various neighborhoods, casting a glow over a radius of three thousand feet (Those moonlight towers are still in operation today and a scene from Dazed and Confused takes place on one of them). To keep criminals from congregating, saloons and gambling dens were ordered closed at midnight. To prevent other innocent women from traversing the same path that Eula did, a campaign was begun to shut down the city’s brothels.
Now Zach you may be thinking to yourself, “Gee whiz a 17th century serial killer who terrorized a city, gruesomely murdering “undesirable” victims before suddenly disappearing sound awfully familiar”. Because it does Zach. There are a number of theories that the Servant Girl Annihilator was also *pause for dramatic effect* Jack the Ripper. While there is absolutely no way to prove this conjecture, there are a couple theories that have developed.
One such theory is that both murderers were in fact a Polynesian cook named Maurice who was “running on ocean vessels”. The Austin American-Statesman reported in 1888 that “a Malay cook had been employed at a small hotel in Austin in 1885.” The paper reported that they “investigated the matter, calling on Mrs. Schmidt, who kept the Pearl House. It was ascertained that a Malay cook calling himself Maurice had been employed at the house in 1885 and that he left some time in January 1886. It will be remembered that the last of the series of Austin women murders was the killing of Mrs. Hancock and Mrs. Eula Phillips, the former occurring on Christmas Eve 1885, just before the Malay departed, and that the series then ended. A strong presumption that the Malay was the murderer of the Austin women was created by the fact that all of them except two or three resided in the immediate neighborhood of the Pearl House.” That’s pretty much all they came up with.
There is another theory that a Liverpool cotton merchant named James Maybrick. In her book “Jack the Ripper: The American Connection” Shirley Harrison claimed that Maybrick often travelled to the southern United States and his journal entries showed that he was in Austin during the murders. While a connection between Maybrick and Jack the Ripper has never been proven (and I won’t get into it because Jack the Ripper is a very complicated story) it is at least interesting that this man may have been present for two of the most infamous crimes of the century.
Do you have a favorite theory so far Zach?
Well let me tell you mine. I cheated by not even telling you about it yet. In February 1886 a 19 year old black man named Nathan Elgin got into a drunken rage. He reportedly dragged a young girl from the saloon they were in to his brother’s house down the street. There were plenty of witnesses by nobody intervened out of fear. Eventually the police arrived. The office waited outside while the saloon keeper and a neighbor went into the house and tried to pull Elgin out. Elgin pulled a knife on the two men and a fight ensued. As they fought the office tried to handcuff the man. Despite the fight being 3 on 1 they couldn’t subdue Elgin. He threw them off and as he tried to escape he was shot, directly in the spine, by the officer. Elgin died the following day without police having an opportunity to question him. There was no explanation for his rage from witnesses.
During Elgin’s autopsy (or whatever they did back then) doctors discovered Elign was missing a toe. According to a PBS documentary that aired in 2014, one detail that police never shared with the public was that the footprints left by the murderer only had 4 toes on the right foot. This fact was brought up by the defense during the trials of Hancock and Phillips but it wasn’t very convincing for the jury.