Austin, Texas. Christmas Eve, 1885.
The entire city is overcome with fear and tension. City-wide curfews have bars and saloons closing at almost reputable hours. People are forming neighborhood watch groups (or the 19th Century equivalent) to patrol their streets. Vigilantism is the newest fad (minus the utility belts and cowls, of course). Anyone who crosses the town line and isn’t instantly recognizable as a local is accosted for identification or gets escorted back out of town. Why all the hullabaloo, you ask? Because for the last year, crime has been running rampant in Austin, the worst of it being the brutal murders of six people by an unknown assailant. And guess what? That number is about to increase by two before the night’s over.
Over the course of 1885, eight people – 4 African-American women, 1 child, 1 man, and two white women – were struck while they slept, dragged from their homes, and murdered. Seven others were seriously injured in similar attacks. Some reports indicate the bodies were mutilated. There are conflicting reports about whether or not the victims were raped as well. An axe, typically left behind, seemed to be the weapon of choice. The majority of the victims were servants, hence the spree becoming known as “The Servant Girl Murders.” The single male and child were victims of consequence who happened to be in the exact wrong place at the wrong time.
(For the record: “Servant Girl Annihilator” was a term coined by the writer O.Henry and wasn’t ever how the contemporary papers referred to the case, so I won’t, either.)
Violence wasn’t unheard of in the Old West, of course, but this was different. So many murders, with such specific similarities, targeting a specific group? People in Austin at the time couldn’t even comprehend the possibility, even with all that, that one person could be behind all this chaos. This was still three years before Jack the Ripper would terrorize Whitechapel; Eight years from H.H. Holmes opening his Murder Hotel at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Humanity hadn’t yet been formally introduced to the concept of “multiple murderers” and wouldn’t hear about serial killers for decades. At best, the citizenry of Austin thought they were beset by a gang of murderers running amok in their streets.
Only two people ever stood trial in connection to the crimes – James Phillips and Moses Hancock, the husbands of the last two recorded victims. Of them, only Phillips was convicted (though it was overturned later)and that was despite evidence introduced of a possible alternate (though dead) suspect. Hancock, thanks to said alternate theory and a sheriff’s convincing testimony, got off. The man that spared Hancock but failed to save Phillips was 19-year-old Nathan Elgin, an African-American cook at a local restaurant who was shot (in the back) and killed after attacking a young saloon girl in early February, 1886. Elgin was linked to the crimes by circumstance, temperment, previous run-ins with the law (which amounted to things like carrying a pistol in town, public disturbance, shooting outside the governor’s house, and making written threats to the deputy sheriff), and a missing toe on his right foot that officials said matched bloody bare footprints left behind at the other crime scenes. At the time of his death, it had been a little over a month since the last attack. No others ever happened in Austin after. Some felt sure they got their man.
But not everyone agreed. Some people thought that maybe the reason the Servant Girl Murders ended is because the murderer left town and unleashed his impulses on a whole new city. Say, London, circa 1888.
Come on, you knew we were going there as soon as you saw the title.
Newspapers were making the connection between Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Murderer as early as 1888, and who could blame them? Both instances involved horrifying acts of violence, mostly upon women, and featured mutilation. Now, granted, the modus operandi of the two killers isn’t a perfect match. Austin’s victims were servants (and people who shared homes with them); Jack hunted prostitutes. Some accounts point to the probability the Servant Girl Murderer raped his victims; no such claims exist about Jack. Bloody axes were left behind in Austin; Jack was meticulous about his tools. But it’s close. Close enough to maybe point to an evolution in his method. Close enough people have spent over a century speculating on the possibility of a connection.
A frequent suspect floated by those who like this theory is a Malaysian cook named Maurice who worked at the Pearl House hotel during the time the Servant Girl Murders took place. The Pearl House was geographically significant, lying in the middle of the killing ground. Also working against Maurice is the fact he left Austin for London three weeks after the last murder and had, by some accounts, been a potential suspect. Which sounds like a good reason to get a job on a steamer and get the hell out of Dodge, for sure. But Maurice doesn’t quite fit the image people have in their minds of Jack the Ripper. People like to theorize that Jack was a surgeon, was upper class, was maybe even part of the nobility. Something to keep in mind, though: nothing definitely points to that having to be true.
Writer Shirley Harrison offered up another suspect in her book Jack the Ripper: The American Connection. The book is based in part on an anonymous diary reportedly attirbuted to James Maybrick that includes a confession that he was Jack the Ripper. Maybrick was a Liverpool cotton merchant who died from arsenic poisoning – either at the hand of his wife or from a malaria medication he became addicted to in his youth; Florence’s murder conviction was overturned in 1904, so there is some potential question there – in 1889. (Shirley Harrison also wrote The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Chilling Confessions of James Maybrick about the much-disputed diary, for the sake of transparency.) Leaving the issue of the diary’s authenticity aside, Harrison claims other, less-disputed journal entries prove that Maybrick was in Austin during the timeframe of the murders, as well as being in London during the atrocities in Whitechapel, and that makes him a valid suspect in Harrison’s wreckoning.
I do not claim to be an expert on Jack the Ripper. That is a case sufficiently disturbing enough that previous attempts at in-depth research have just left me kind of disturbed. It fascinates me in the same macabre way these sorts of things fascinate any of us, but I have to maintain a certain distance to sleep anywhere near soundly at night. I’m also only a casual reader of things about the Servant Girl Murders. It’s only been on my radar for a month or so and I only dipped my toe into the veritable ocean of information out there on the topic. So I don’t know if I can pass judgement on the possibility the two things are connected, or on either of the presented suspects. I’d like to think there weren’t multiple men running about brutalizing women in the most horrific ways possible then. But I also know, come 1893, a man was luring hotel guests to their doom just for the “fun” of watching them die. Yes, the world has the capability of giving us multiple monsters at any one time, which just means that anything’s possible in regards to the events in Austin and Whitechapel.
But it’s an interesting thing to think about.