The Servant Girl Annihilator

A serial killer, popularly dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator, preyed upon the city of Austin, Texas during the years 1884 and 1885. The series of murders was referred to by contemporary sources as “The Servant Girl Murders.” The December 26, 1885 issue of The New York Times reported that the “murders were committed by some cunning madman, who is insane on the subject of killing women.”

According to Texas Monthly, seven females (five black, two white), and one black male were murdered during the spree. Additionally, six women and two men were seriously injured. All of the victims were attacked indoors while asleep in their beds. Five of the female victims were then dragged, unconscious but still alive, and killed outdoors. Three of the female victims were severely mutilated while outdoors. Only the murdered male victim was mutilated indoors.

All of the victims were posed in a similar manner. Six of the murdered female victims had a “sharp object” inserted into their ears. The series of murders ended with the killing of two white women, Eula Phillips, age 17, and Susan Hancock who was murdered on the night of December 24, 1885.

According to a page one article in the New York Times of December 26, 1885, four hundred men were arrested during the course of the year. Texas Monthly reported that powerful elected officials refused to believe that one man, or one group of men, was responsible for all of the murders.

These murders represent an early example of a serial killer operating in the United States, three years before the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel.

In her book, Jack the Ripper: The American Connection author Shirley Harrison asserted that the Texas killer and Jack the Ripper were one and the same man, namely, James Maybrick. According to author Phillip Sugden in The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the conjecture that the murders were committed by the same hand originated in October, 1888, when an editor with the Atlanta Constitution proposed the conjecture following the murders of two women by Jack the Ripper.

London authorities questioned several American cowboys, one of whom, according to the authors of Jack the Ripper, A to Z, was possibly Buck Taylor, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, who was born in Fredricksburg, Texas, about seventy miles west of the city of Austin, Texas.

According to the Atchison Daily Globe of November 19, 1888, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a Malay cook “running on ocean vessels” was a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. The newspaper reported that “a Malay cook had been employed at a small hotel in Austin in 1885. Furthermore, the newspaper reported that the Austin reporter:

“…investigated the matter, calling on Mrs. Schmidt, who kept the Pearl House, near the foot of Congress Avenue opposite the Union depot, 3 years ago. 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.”

▪ Mollie Smith, 25, was murdered the night of 30 December 1884. Walter Spencer was seriously injured.
▪ Clara Strand and Christine Martenson, two Swedish servant girls, were seriously wounded the night of 19 March 1885.
▪ Eliza Shelly was murdered the night of 6 May 1885.
▪ Irene Cross bled to death after being attacked by a man with a knife on the night of 22 May 1885.
▪ Clara Dick was seriously injured in August, 1885.
▪ Mary Ramey, 11, was murdered the night of 30 August 1885. Her mother, Rebecca Ramey was seriously injured.
▪ Gracie Vance, was murdered on the night of 28 September 1885. Orange Washington was also killed during the attack upon Vance. Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were seriously injured.
▪ Susan Hancock was murdered the night of 24 December 1885.
▪ Eula Phillips was murdered the night of 24 December 1885. Her husband, James Phillips, was seriously injured.

According to a June 2000 article appearing in the Texas Monthly about the murders, there was an eyewitness who claimed to have seen the murderer(s) but reported contradictory information to police and detectives. The killer(s) was reported to be white, or “dark” complexioned; to be a “yellow man” wearing lampblack to conceal his skin color; a man wearing a Mother Hubbard style dress; a man wearing a slouch hat; or a man wearing a hat and also a white rag that covered the lower portion of his face. There were also reports that the killer worked with an accomplice, or was part of a “gang” of murderers.

The African-American community and some practitioners of voodoo believed the killer was a white man who had magic powers that enabled him to appear invisible, as no dogs outside or in fenced-yards adjacent to locations where murders occurred were heard to bark or raise any alarm.

The series of murders stopped when additional police officers were hired, rewards were offered and citizens formed a vigilance committee to patrol the streets at night. Contemporary newspapers reported that the murderer(s) had apparently fled the area, as no more murders were officially attributed to the killer by the authorities. The still existing Austin Moon Towers were installed for safety ten years after the murder spree.

William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry, was living in Austin at the time of the murders. Porter coined the term “Servant Girl Annihilators” in a May 10, 1885, letter addressed to his friend Dave Hall and later included in his anthology Rolling Stones: “Town is fearfully dull”, wrote Porter, “except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night….” However, no contemporary newspaper or published source referred to the murderer(s) as “The Servant Girl Annihilator.”

In 2000, Steven Saylor published the novel A Twist at the End, which closely reconstructs the murders and the ensuing trials, with young William Sydney Porter playing a fictional role. The novel was published in the U.K. (as Honour the Dead) and has been translated into Portuguese and Hungarian.

On July 15, 2014 History Detectives profiled the murders and came up with a probable suspect: Nathan Elgin a 19 year old african American cook who had died of wounds in February 1886 after being shot by police while trying to assault a girl with a knife and resisting arrest. He worked in an part of Austin consistent with having easy access to the crime scenes, and was known to have assaulted other women prior to being killed in the act. Maybe most damning of all is the fact that at least two of the murder scenes of the Servant Girl Annihilator spree there were bare foot prints indicating someone with the right little toe missing. It was reported in Elgin’s autopsy that he was missing the little toe on his right foot.

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