Some three years before Jack the Ripper terrorized Victorian era London with his nighttime murders, Austin was gripped with panic over its own killer, a person who entered homes and hacked and stabbed women to death with axes and knives before dragging their mutilated bodies outside for discovery.
Though his crimes have been discussed in detail for more than a century, Jack the Ripper was never found. Neither was Austin’s Midnight Assassin, and one reason why — the lack of forensic science at that time — will bring veteran Texas journalist and author Skip Hollandsworth to the Mayborn Museum on Thursday morning.
Hollandsworth, author of the 2015 book “The Midnight Assassin” and executive editor at Texas Monthly, will speak on the case as part of the Mayborn’s daylong Director’s Forum, “True Crime Exposed: Examining the Elements of Forensic Science.”
After Hollandsworth’s illustrated talk, a panel of forensic experts will talk about how scientific analysis of material evidence helps investigators solve crimes and prosecutors secure verdicts.
Ron Singer, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office’s technical and administrative director and a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, will moderate the panel discussion. Baylor senior lecturer in forensic science Jim Huggins, McLennan Community College associate professor in criminal justice Suzanne Baldon and Hollandsworth will be on the panel.
Forensic experts and museum staff will lead demonstrations of hair analysis, blood typing, DNA analysis, jelly skulls and bullets, blood splatter analysis and “inattentional blindness.” Mayborn Director Charlie Walter, who has assisted two national touring exhibits on forensic science, said the topic is always a hit with the public.
Hollandsworth, a National Magazine Award winner, spent more than a decade investigating the Austin murders, sparked by an 1888 pamphlet about the Ripper murders that said London police were looking into a similar case that happened three years earlier in “a small city in Texas.”
A little research verified there was a bigger story there: a series of a half dozen brutal murders of women, mostly black but some white and of various social levels, carried out largely on moonlit nights in Austin between New Year’s Eve 1884 and Christmas Eve 1885.
“For a year, a killer stalked that city, and no one was able to catch him,” Hollandsworth said. “Thus began the journey that would take 10 years of my life.”
The killings started with the slaughter of Mollie Smith, a black cook and servant, and ended, apparently, with two women axed to death within an hour of each other, all during a time of transition for the city of Austin.
“This is against the background of Austin moving from the old frontier to the Gilded Age of America,” Hollandsworth said. “Electric lights had just been invented as well as the telephone. Colonel Driscoll was building a hotel in the middle of town. There was a new state lunatic asylum. Congress Avenue was full of traffic and shops. It was this amazing time. (Austin) was a cowtown developing in to a true capital.”
And it harbored an apparent serial killer, long before that term would enter general conversation, nicknamed by newspaper reporters as the “Servant Girl Annihilator” and the “Midnight Assassin.” Law enforcement officials would arrest a dozen suspects in the course of the year with three murder trials that ended in not-guilty verdicts. Newspaper reporters from across the state and nation came to Austin as did “alienists,” a precursor of criminal psychologists. Texas Gov. Sul Ross offered a reward years later, but all in vain.
City fathers later would erect a series of “moonlight towers,” electric arc lights on tall scaffolds, across the city. At the time, city officials described the artificial moonlight as a plus for the city, but Hollandsworth said the scale of the project suggests concern over civic security, not aesthetics, was their motivation.
Forensics, a bread-and-butter of today’s police work, had yet to be invented.
“We are the CSI generation,” Hollandsworth said. “It’s hard to believe what this was like. … No fingerprints, blood splatter, hair analysis, DNA, no behavioral analysis unit, no FBI. Cops relied on their bloodhounds. They followed a scent and led them to a suspect. But how do you investigate without any knowledge of forensics?”
The mystery did not stop with the crime scenes, Hollandsworth found. Police records and some court documents mysteriously disappeared. There were whiffs of possible connections to city and state politicians and some accused Sul Ross’ Waco supporters of a whisper campaign against his opponent. Some saw a possible link between the Austin murders and Jack the Ripper in the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that toured London near the time of the Ripper murders.
“There are huge gaps in our knowledge, which makes the story all the more fascinating,” Hollandsworth said. “Austin was only a town of 17,000 people.”
The Texas journalist has not been the only one interested in the subject. Tours of murder sites and victims’ houses periodically pop up in Austin and a 2015 podcast, Radiolab’s “The Year That Broke Austin,” actually walked its listeners through the geography of the story.
After 10 years of investigation with no firm conclusion, Hollandsworth said he still hopes to come across a yet-undiscovered clue.
“I keep waiting for someone to call me and say, ‘Would you look at these papers I found in the attic?’ ” he said.