We thought we were pretty well-versed in Jack the Ripper theories. Then we found about the "Servant Girl Annihilator" and pretty much had a meltdown. Three years before Jack the Ripper made his 1888 debut in London, a serial killer—or possibly multiple killers—terrorized Austin, Texas. As you've probably guessed, most of the victims were servant girls. The crimes remain unsolved. Ready for the mind-bending part? Some people think that Jack the Ripper and the "Servant Girl Annihilator" were the same person. Here's what you need to know.
When did the murders start?
"The Servant Girl Annihilator" was active in Austin from 1884 to 1885. The killer's first victim was a mulatto cook named Mollie Smith. The 25-year-old domestic servant lived with her boyfriend in a small apartment behind the home of William K. Hall, an insurance salesman. On New Year's Eve 1884, Mrs. Hall’s brother, Thomas Chalmers, was awakened in the middle of the night by Mollie's boyfriend, Walter Spencer. He was bleeding profusely from five deep head wounds. Spencer was unable to describe his assailant:
He cried out to Chalmers, “Mr. Tom, for God’s sake do something to help me! Somebody has nearly killed me.” Spencer was unable to say who had struck him, but he had apparently been hit by an ax. Mollie was missing.
The following morning, the Halls' neighbor's servant found Mollie lying in the backyard. She had been brutally attacked in her bedroom and then dragged behind the outhouse. Smith's nightgown had been ripped to shreds and it was clear that she had been "outraged" (the 19th-century term for raped). The police found the murder weapon lying at the foot of her bed: a bloody axe.
What happened next?
The murders didn't stop. On May 6 1885, another African-American servant girl, Eliza Shelley, was brutally slaughtered in the exact same fashion. The newspapers immediately connected the two murders. The Austin Daily Statesman's headline read: "The Foul Fiends Keep Up Their Wicked Work." Between 1884 and 1885, eight people were murdered in their beds.
Were the crimes racially motivated?
Although six of the eight victims were African-American, it's hard to definitively say whether the crimes were racially motivated. On Christmas Eve 1885, the "Servant Girl Annihilator" raped and murdered two white women within an hour of each other. One of the women, Eula Phillips, was a society beauty widely considered to be "the loveliest women in Austin." Press coverage, predictably, reached a fever pitch once prominent white citizens started being hacked to death in their beds.
On Dec 26, 1885, the New York Times reported:
"Two brutal murders were committed in the heart of the city last night, almost within sight of the great Capitol. It is just a year ago since a series of most mysterious outages and assassinations was begun against the servant women of Austin. Within this year 13 colored women are known to have been outraged, seven of whom were afterward brutally murdered. Eight white women were attacked on the streets or in there rooms, four outraged and three murdered."
What does any of this have to do with Jack the Ripper?
The "Jack-the-Ripper-is-the-Serial-Girl-Annhilator" theory dates back to the 19th-century. In his book The Complete History of Jack the Ripper author Philip Sugden traces the conjecture back to October 1888. On September 30th, the-as-yet unidentified serial killer claimed his third and fourth victims, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. In the wake of the murders, there was widespread speculation that the killer couldn't possibly be an Englishman:
"First an American newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, suggested a link between the Whitechapel slayings and a series of brutal and unsolved murders of negro women in Texas about three years earlier. The Texas killings had abruptly ceased. So had their perpetrator taken refuge in England? The theory was wired to the Daily News by its New York correspondent and was soon all over London."
Were there any other suspects?
Tons. Over 400 people were arrested for questioning in Texas. Key suspects included a Malay cook named Maurice and several cowboys. The case was never solved. Here's one more terrifying fact: After 1888, similar serial murders of women started happening in port towns along major trade routes, like Nicaragua, Tunis, and Jamaica. Did Jack the Ripper take an extended vacation before settling down in London?