Sunday, August 14, 2011


AUSTIN, TEXAS - As I walked down the incandescently radiated streets of downtown Austin near the Texas State Capitol building in 1985, little did I know that only one hundred years earlier, the city hadn't been as calm and peaceful as it was on that winter morning. The year of blood-lust that began at the end of 1884 and ran through Christmas Eve 1885 has become merely a footnote to Austin's history. Seven women and one man were brutally murdered, the women dragged outside and sexually assaulted in the moonlight. The identity of their assailant has remained an unsolved mystery in the Austin Police Department homicide files to this day. Could this be the work of America's first serial killer? Some say it was the early work of the Whitechapel murderer in London, England, known as "Jack the Ripper."
In order to understand the Austin of 1884-1885, we need to rediscover what was happening on the streets of the city sometimes called "The Athens of the West." Still recovering from years of reconstruction after the Civil War, Austin was emerging as a more modern metropolitan community. The city started attracting people looking for work. William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) arrived in Austin in 1884 looking for employment. According to records, Austin's population had grown to 23,000 people at that time. Mayor John Robertson proclaimed, "No city in the state has a promise of a more healthful prosperity."
Vintage Photo Courtesy Texas State Library And Archives


 John "Ox Cart John" Ireland was the governor of Texas in 1884 and was tasked to rebuild the State Capitol after the old limestone capitol was destroyed by fire during a rainstorm on November 9, 1881. The original plans called for construction with Texas limestone, but following lying of the cornerstone on March 2, 1885, doubt arose concerning the quality of the limestone from a quarry in south Austin; it discolored easily. So, the owners of Granite Mountain at Marble Falls in Burnet County offered building stone to the state free of charge. To save money, convicts were employed to quarry the granite and build the needed rail line from Burnet to Austin. Was one of the convicts the killer?


The city had become a place of prosperity, and crime was unheard of besides the usual fights at the brothels in "Guy Town." People felt safe walking the dark streets of Austin without fear of robbery or murder; they left doors and windows open and unlocked throughout the city to allow the night air to cool their homes. However, the last day of December 1884 brought an end to peaceful nights for the citizens of Austin.

"BLOODY WORK!" was the headline in the Austin Daily Statesman newspaper when the body of Victim No. 1, maid Mollie Smith, was discovered in the snow next to the outhouse behind 901 W. Pecan St. (now Sixth Street). She had a large gaping hole in her head.

"ANOTHER SERVANT GIRL FOUND SLAIN" was the headline for Eliza Shelley's murder on May 6. Eliza was the cook for Dr. L. B. Johnson. According to the Statesman report, she was found with "her night dress displaced in such a manner as to suggest she may have been outraged (sexually assaulted) after death." Her body was found at the corner of San Jacinto and Cypress Streets.

The City of Austin (1901) only 16 years after the unsolved murders.

Only three weeks later, Irene Cross was brutally murdered with a knife. An eyewitness who spoke to her before she died stated that she looked as if she had been scalped.

That August, a servant named Rebecca Ramey was knocked unconscious while she slept in her bed. Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary, was dragged to a backyard washhouse, stabbed through the ear with an iron rod, and raped. Mary's death sent shock waves throughout the city. Demands grew stronger for the police department to capture the killer.

Still more death came to those who slept in their homes. In the early morning hours of September 27th, Mr. W. B. Dunham heard a noise coming from the servants' cabin in the back of his residence on Guadalupe Street, as if someone had jumped through a window, followed by a woman screaming. Dunham grabbed his gun and swung open the door to see a woman fighting with a man at his gate. He leveled his gun at them and yelled at them to stop making all that noise. The woman ran to him, saying that everyone in the cabin had been murdered and the man she was fighting was the killer. The man, seeing the woman run to Mr. Dunham, fled into a big thicket a few blocks behind the houses. Mr. Dunham called his neighbors to assist him in catching the murderer, but the man had gotten away. The woman was Lucinda Boddy, and she occupied the cabin with a man named Orange Washington, his wife Gracie Vance, and another woman named Patsie Gibson. Three days later, an article in the Austin Daily Statesman described the crime: from the testimony and surrounding circumstances, it appeared that the killer had entered the room through a window, and before any of the sleeping occupants awoke, struck each of them on the head with an axe. Seizing Gracie Vance, he dragged her through a window, threw her over a fence, and then pulled her through weeds across a vacant lot to a rear stable. At this point it appears that Gracie recovered consciousness, as evidence of a death struggle was abundant. She was, however, overpowered, and her head battered with a brick that was found nearby, smeared with her blood. While she struggled between life and death, her murderer brutally raped her. A watch was found on her person with the chain tied around her arm; a horse was also found saddled and tied to a tree near the scene of the tragedy.

While the assassin was killing Gracie, Lucinda Boddy had regained sufficient strength to get up and light a lamp in the cabin. Seeing the light in the cabin, the assailant returned; he stuck his head in the window, cursed her, and ordered her to put out the light. Seeing him, she screamed and ran from the building. He leaped through the window, put the light out, and followed the fleeing woman. This was the commotion that awakened Mr. Dunham.
Gracie Vance was dead when they found her. Orange Washington died at an early hour the following Monday morning. Lucinda was taken to the hospital. All the victims suffered horrifying gashes to the head and face.

Map of Austin, TX 1885-1886
These murders created "intense excitement among both whites and blacks at the repeated occurrences of this nature in the capital city," read the article in the Austin Daily Statesman dated September 30th. Yet the greatest horror was still to come.
The killer seemed interested only in black women;. all the previous victims had been black. But on Christmas Eve, that would change. Sue Hancock, a white woman described by one reporter as "one of the most refined ladies in Austin," was discovered by her husband lying in their backyard; her head had been split open by an ax, and a sharp, thin object in her brain, inserted through her ear as had been done to Mary Ramey. Today, the location is near 98 San Jacinto Boulevard along Town Lake. The Four Seasons Hotel occupies the property.
About an hour later, Eula Phillips was found dead in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, near where the Austin Public Library stands today. Lying in an unlit alley behind her father-in-law's home where she lived with her husband and son, her bare body was discovered with the skull bashed in by an ax and heavy pieces of timber placed across her arms, as if to keep her pinned down during the attack. She had also been raped. Jimmy, her husband, was found lying in their bed in his father's home, nearly unconscious, a severe gash in the back of his head. Their son was next to him, unharmed, holding an apple. Eula's body was discovered when they followed the trail of blood from the bedroom to the alley. A writer for the Fort Worth Gazette, one of many Texas journalists who rushed to the scene, reported that Eula was on her back, her face "turned upward in the dim moonlight with an expression of agony that death itself had not erased from her features."

Governor Ireland posted a reward of three hundred dollars for the capture of the killer or killers. Citizens questioned the authorities and wanted to know why the Austin Police Department only had four officers on duty at one time. Others blamed the City Council for not hiring more men as sworn-in emergency police officers to patrol the streets at night. Anger raged as men stayed home at night in fear of losing their wives to the killer. People started locking their doors and windows and refusing to leave their homes after sundown.
 To this day, the murders have remained unsolved, and their impact forever changed Austin. The city erected the now-famous "Moonlight Towers" in 1895 in order to light up the neighborhoods so people would feel safe walking around after sundown. The victims rest in some measure of peace in Oakwood Cemetery, but their killer has never been brought to justice!

No comments:

Post a Comment