Three years before London’s most famous serial killer terrorized the prostitutes, a serial killer had the women of Austin, Texas in a constant state of dread. Given the moniker Servant Girl Annihilator by American author O. Henry, this killer was said to be responsible for eight axe murders during the years 1884 and 1885. All the attacks were at night and began in the victim’s bed where they were either killed on the spot or dragged outside and murdered.
The first was Mollie Smith on December 30, 1884, a 25-year-old cook for a prominent Austin family. She was found outside her employer’s home, likely dragged from her bed in the middle of the night while she slept. She was left next to the outhouse, her body laid out in the snow with a large axe wound in her head. Five months later on May 7, 1885, Eliza Shelly, a cook for the family of a state legislator, was found on the floor of her bedroom. Her head had been split in two by an axe. Then on May 22, 1885, Irene Cross was found brutally stabbed to death and nearly scalped. In all three cases, the victims had been attacked in bed, raped, murdered, and then mutilated.
The killer struck again in August of 1885 when Clara Dick was seriously wounded, but survived the attack. Then on August 30, 1885, the killer committed his most heinous crime. Rebecca Ramey, who was employed as a cook at the home of Mr. V.O. Weed, was found on her bedroom floor hurt and bleeding, but not dead. Across the yard on the floor of a wash-house was her daughter Mary who barely clung to life as she gasped for breath. The attacker stabbed her in the ears with a sharp metal object believed to be a file or screwdriver. Mary died shortly after being found.
Then on Sunday September 28, 1885, Orange Washington, his wife Gertie Vance, Patsy Gibson and Lucinda Body, all in the employ of COURT REPORTER editor W.B. Dunham, were attacked in their sleep. All four were sleeping in their shanty just outside the Dunham residence when a man entered with an axe and began striking them. The man then grabbed Gertie and took her to a vacant lot seventy-five yards from the shanty. Once there Gertie regained consciousness, and a struggle ensued. However, her attacker quickly overpowered her, beating her to death with a brick. At that point Lucinda Body, recovering slightly from her attack, lit a lantern. The attacker, seeing the light coming from the shanty, returned and ordered her to put out the light. Frightened, Lucinda ran from the shanty only to be chased down and tackled by her assailant. The two struggled briefly, but were halted by Mr. Dunham who had been awoken by the commotion. Upon seeing her employer, Lucinda ran to him screaming. Her attacker quickly fled into the night. A group of Dunham’s neighbors attempted to search for him, but he was nowhere to be found that night. Gertie Vance was found dead at the scene; Orange Washington died the next day. Lucinda and Patsy both recovered from their wounds.
Although the police worked diligently to catch the killer, public outrage began to surface when Eula Phillips and Susan Hancock were murdered. Seventeen-year-old Eula Phillips was known to be a beautiful young woman, and one paper described her as “beautiful, frail.” She came from Austin aristocracy, her grandfather being a member of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony. So where did this new-found rage come from? Eula Phillips and a Susan Hancock shared one trait that none of the other dead victims shared. They were white, and it was the late 1800s when racism was still blatantly rampant. Because of this racial difference, the citizenry was in an uproar as the GALVESTON DAILY NEWS stated:
“Heretofore the fiends have been satisfied with murdering and raping colored servant girls, but last night, as though to start afresh, after twelve months of bloody work they murder and rape white women without apparent fear of detection.”
The black community of Austin had been up in arms for quite some time. After the rape and murder of young Mary Ramey, the police dispatched bloodhounds in pursuit of the killer. The trail ended at a stable two blocks from murder. There they found an African American watercart driver named Henry Taylor, more commonly known as River Bottom Tom to locals. Taylor was taken into custody and his feet were compared to the footprint next to the body. According to police, Taylor’s foot matched the print left by the killer, right down an oddly shaped big toe. Sergeant Chennevile even told the Texas paper, The Graham Leader, that he was positive that Taylor was the guilty party. The news of an arrest quickly reached Austin’s black community who were ready to storm the jail and kill the suspect the police had in custody.
But the news of the arrest also brought up a several things about the case that were only known to the police. Since the first murder, the police worked to keep certain aspects of the case out of public knowledge. One of those items was the fact that the killer had left a foot print at every crime scene, and that that footprint revealed that the killer only had four toes on his right foot.
However, Henry Taylor wasn’t the only person arrested for what was believed to be the work of just one killer. Not long after the murders of Orange Washington and Gracie Vance, an African American man by the name “Doc” Wood was arrested in a field eight miles from Austin with blood on his shirt tail and sleeves. The jury returned a guilty verdict almost overnight. According to one New York Times article, by December 26, 1885, four hundred men had been arrested over the course of a year in connection with the Servant Girl Annihilator murders. Disagreeing with the Austin police, both state and Austin politicians refused to believe these murders were the work of one man. Even Susan Hancock’s husband, Moses Hancock, and Eula Phillips husband, James, were brought up on charges of murdering their wives. James Phillips was found guilty, but the verdict was later overturned.
With each arrest failing to end the killing spree, wild theories began to circulate. In Austin’s African American community, it was believed by some that the killer was a white man who practiced voodoo. They believed he possessed magic powers which made him invisible. Wild theories continued to grow when London’s Jack the Ripper started a killing spree of his own in London. Certain similarities in both cases led some investigators to believe that these may have been the same two men.
One theory centered around a Malay cook, Malay being a term used during the period to distinguish individuals from Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. During the investigation into Jack the Rippers’ murders, it was reported that a Malay cook was being held as a suspect. A reporter looking into the case discovered that a Malay cook by the name of Maurice had been employed by an Austin family in 1885. The cook left town in January of 1886 not long after the murders of Susan Hancock and Eula Philips.
Another theory centered around a cowboy by the name of Buck Taylor who was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Investigating the connection between Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Annihilator, the police began questioning several of the cowboys who were part of the show. Buck Taylor drew the most attention because he was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, a town seventy-miles from Austin.
However, the event that most people believe solved the case happened on February 9, 1886. That’s when police in Masontown, Texas, just east of Austin, were called in to settle a disturbance at a local saloon. A drunk man had adducted a woman from the establishment and taken her to a house nearby. Once inside, the woman scream so loud that the she could be heard up and down the street. When officer John Bracken arrived at the saloon, he and saloon owner Dick Rogers and a neighbor went over to the house to rescue the young woman.
Inside they found a nineteen-year-old black man by the name Nathan Elgin struggling with a young woman. Bracken and Rogers attempted to pull Elgin off the young woman, but Elgin fought back slashing at them with a knife. Fearing for everyone’s safety, Bracken drew his gun and fired. The shot did not kill Elgin right away, but it was enough to stop him. He would die from his wound the next day. After an autopsy and an inspection of the body, the medical examiner noted that Elgin was missing a toe on his right foot. Austin police compared his foot to the prints left at the scene and found them to be an exact match. Police were confident they had found their killer. The murders of Phillips and Hancock on December 24, 1885 were the last murders attributed to the Servant Girl Annihilator.
Up until the murders of Phillips and Hancock, the killings were viewed as just a problem for the black community or a problem within the poor working class-community, as two of the victims, only wounded by the killer, were two poor servant girls from Sweden. A month after their deaths, the Austin police force tripled its size, a civilian watch/ vigilante squad began patrolling the streets at night, and a curfew was declared. Overall, this fear actually made Austin safer. The police never told the public their belief that Elgin was the Servant Girl Annihilator and in some instances even continued pursuing other suspects. After sometime had passed since the last murders, it was believed that the killer had left town. When news of the Jack the Ripper murders reached Austin, it was even widely accepted that he had left the USA and continued his spree overseas.