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Anyone dressing as Austin’s first serial killer-the ‘Servant Girl Annihilator’-for Halloween?

2010 October 27

When you Google “Austin Safest Cities” you get bucket loads of articles listing Austin somewhere  near the top of the totem pole. Now, I know these things are relative, and of course we still have crime here. But I also know that, coming from the rust belt, I have seen homeless vagabonds in Detroit attempting to get into boxing matches with the side of a building, perhaps thinking this building had stolen his coat. In other words, Austin usually *does* give you that sense of being able to walk most places without feeling suddenly and horribly threatened. And that is a feeling I don’t get in many other cities.

But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, there’ve been some times when Austinites were out-and-out terrified to exist in this city. So, in the spirit of Halloween, which horrifyingly celebrates our capacity as Americans to throw back countless Jaeger Bombs while dressed up as some cast member from friggin’ Glee, let’s tell a scary Austin story!


JG Bennett, a 1885 Austin Journalist who covered this story, just as I have. Likely with the very same jokes.

Back on New Year’s Eve 1884, when men were men and women were subservient human machinery, one man in Austin thought to himself: “I’m going to kill me some women, for this somehow brings me joy.” And so it was.

It began with a “negro servant” named Mollie Smith. 25-years-old, her face was badly traumatized from blunt force, and a split in her skull suggested the use of an ax. Her common-law husband, Walter Spencer, awoke in bed having been attacked, somehow having survived. Over the course of the next 12 months in Austin, several attacks occurred including multiple murders, all ranging from “negro servant” girls to the  wives of wealthy white townsmen.

The transformation from potentially racially driven killings to random acts of madness began with 11-year-old Mary Ramey, who was dragged from her home, raped and killed in a particularly gruesome fashion: Iron rods were jammed into both of her ears. Despite this torturous method of killing, Mary Ramey did not die instantly, but was unable to communicate any clues as to who her killer was before she passed.

Eula Phillips was one of the last victims of the killer. Around Christmas time in 1885, she was dragged from her bed, raped, and killed. Her arms with then spread open and placed under heavy lumber, the likes of which generally would have taken the strength of two men to maneuver.


Drawing of Mollie Smith, the first victim


Eula Phillips, one of the last victims

In 1885, Austin public safety officials were totally unprepared for such a ruthless killing spree to occur in their city. In fact, virtually every city was unprepared for such a thing. Named “The Servant Girl Annihilator” for his early tendency to attack black servants and their families, the illusive, mysterious killer pre-dated Jack the Ripper by three years, and is considered among the first Serial Killers in the world. Some evidence even suggests that The Servant Girl Annihilator and Jack the Ripper might have been the same person. A book by Shirley Harrison, released in 2003, details such a possibility.

Well before Harrison’s 2003 study, newspapers during the Jack the Ripper killings began to suspect a possible connection between the killings committed in England and those in Texas. Shortly after the halt of the Austin killings, a curious man named Maurice, for instance, a kitchen worker who we might think of today as being schizophrenic, left Austin, Texas, for England in January 1886, and proclaimed several times to his English employers that he “desired to murder prostitutes.”

So enjoy your Halloween parties this week, but also remember that somewhere in between this breath and the next rests the unsettled souls of the Servant Girl Annihilator victims. There they sit, waiting for Halloween night to come so they can steal your soul and eat it like a candy apple.

Happy Halloween!!!

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