The tale of the Midnight Assassin is a Texas crime story that history had almost forgotten.
Three years before Jack the Ripper struck fear in the city of London, Austin was traumatized by an ax-wielding serial killer who was every bit cunning, every bit as ruthless, every bit as elusive.
Jack achieved lasting notoriety for his butchery of five Whitechapel prostitutes in 1888. But his Austin predecessor, who took the lives of seven women in 1884 and 1885, somehow managed to disappear from the pages of history books.
Skip Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine, is about to change that. His engrossing history-mystery story, The Midnight Assassin, hits bookstores Tuesday.
Hollandsworth, a Texas Christian University graduate (Class of ’79), has been obsessed with solving the mystery for many years.
The Austin killer’s first victim, claimed during the morning hours of Dec. 31, 1884, was Mollie Smith, a black servant girl. Her head was nearly split in two by an ax and she had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and stomach.
During the year that followed, four more black servant women were murdered. Then, on Christmas Eve 1885, two prominent white women were slain in separate parts of town.
While panic gripped the people of Austin, local law enforcement bungled their way through an investigation and government officials tried mightily to suppress the story.
We chatted with Hollandsworth, who has yet to identify the Midnight Assassin — although he’s still trying, about the book.
Why do you think everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is, more than a century after his killing spree, while Austin’s ax murderer slipped quietly into obscurity?
A big part of it had to do with geography. London was the center of the Western World, the ultimate cosmopolitan capital, and the idea that a place of such sophistication could produce such terror just didn’t make sense.
On top of that, the English penny press was going full scale and the newspapers were constantly trying to outdo each other with their Jack the Ripper stories, which then got disseminated through the early wire services all around the world.
The idea that there was this one man taking away organs from women he had eviscerated, then writing joyfully about it to the newspapers, that narrative stuck.
Austin, on the other hand, was just a small city, population 17,000, in a remote state that few people had been to and that most people knew nothing about.
You cite additional reasons in the book. Among them, you suggest that many people in that day considered the black victims of Austin to be less worthy of everyone’s concern.
Remember, the Civil War had ended just 20 years earlier. There had been some changes in race relations, but Austin was still as much a Southern city as it was a Western city.
So the prevailing theory for almost entire year, one that would seem utterly preposterous to us today, was that a gang of renegade black men, for reasons of their own, were out wreaking havoc, killing one woman after another. And that theory apparently made sense to everyone. No one questioned it.
What amazed me was that the reporters covering the case never wrote stories until the very end suggesting that this could be the work of one man and potentially one white man and that he was as intelligent as he was diabolical.
Isn’t it true that, in the 1880s, the concept of a serial killer was as outlandish as the idea of space travel?
The term serial killer was not invented until the 1970s. One could argue that the outlaws in Texas during the Old West period, guys like John Wesley Hardin, were indiscriminate serial killers.
But no one had ever seen this kind of serial killer. Someone who, for his own disturbing reasons, felt the need to ritualistically kill one woman after another, leave their bodies exposed like works of art and then disappear.
There probably was someone earlier in history who did these kinds of killings, but no one put them together and they were never publicized. So someone deliberately targeting a small city, stalking black servant women and then prominent white women, just was beyond the scope of anyone’s comprehension.
The Midnight Assassin and Jack the Ripper were the precursors for an array of serial killers to come.
How did you find out about this story?
For years, there have been amateur historians who have been captivated by the story.
I call them Austinologists. They’re the equivalent of Ripperologists. They’re still trying to figure out who was responsible for these murders. One of these researchers generously shared her research with me.
Before long, I was hooked. There is nothing like scrolling through old microfilm and coming across an article with a headline that reads, “Blood! Blood! Blood!”
You find yourself stepping back into an era when the city was on the verge of panic.
In the process of doing your own research, you morphed into a full-fledged Midnight Assassin conspiracy theorist, didn’t you?
I became convinced that, even though everyone before me had failed, I could figure out who the killer was. I kept thinking there had to be some piece of evidence out there — a letter in someone’s attic or something locked away in an old Austin Police filing cabinet.
How is it possible that in a town of 17,000 people, not one person had any idea who the killer was? After all these years, I still have no clue.
I have switched leading suspects more times than socialites switch dresses. But I’m still convinced the answer is still out there.
The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer
- By Skip Hollandsworth
- Henry Holt and Co., $30