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When Serial Killers Strike: The Austin Servant Girl Murders

NEED TO KNOW
  • 8 unsolved murders committed in Austin, TX between Dec. 30, 1884 and Dec. 25, 1885; most victims were servants
  • Victims were attacked in their homes in the middle of the night; most were killed with sharp instruments
  • Criminologist doubts all 8 murders are connected
Map of Austin, Texas in 1885, the year of the servant girl murders

James Phillips stood barefoot in a Texas courtroom holding his 175-pound attorney in his arms, trying to convince a jury that his footprints were too small to match those left by his wife's killer.

Eula Phillips had been dragged from their Austin home on Christmas Eve 1885 and brutally murdered, court records show. It appeared at the time that her attacker had also severely wounded James Phillips with an ax, and yet there he was several months later, on trial for Eula's murder.

They had been married for three years and were living with James’ parents. His mother entered their bedroom around 12:30 a.m. on Christmas and found him lying in the middle of the bed bleeding from the head, their son crying and Eula gone, according to court records. An ax sat on the bed next to him.

A trail of blood led out into the yard, where Eula’s partially naked body was eventually found. She had suffered a fatal wound to her forehead, which a doctor determined may have been inflicted by an ax, according to court documents. Bloody footprints were found on the floor of their room and on the ground outside.

Records show several witnesses testified at James Phillips’ trial that it would have been nearly impossible for his wound to have been self-inflicted. One doctor testified for the defense that Phillips was likely struck from behind with great force.

The courtroom demonstration with Phillips carrying his attorney was suggested by a juror. It was apparently intended to show that, even if he had the weight of his wife in his arms, he could not have been the one who made the footprints found by investigators at the scene, according to Texas Monthly.

Prosecution witnesses testified that the couple recently had marital problems and that James had said he would kill Eula and himself if he found out she was cheating on him, court records show. The keeper of an assignation house in town told the jury that Eula had visited there with other men on multiple occasions, and that she had even come knocking on the door hours before she was killed.

Phillips was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to seven years in prison, but an appellate court later overturned the verdict. They ruled that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present testimony regarding Eula Phillips' affairs without proving that James Phillips knew of her infidelity.

Eula Phillips' real killer was never found, but her murder came at the end of a year-long spree of crimes against the women of Austin. She was the last of eight victims linked together by news reports and city officials at the time as possible victims of the same killer or killers.

The first six victims were African American, and most of them were servants. Sue Hancock, also killed on Christmas Eve, and Eula Phillips were the only white victims. Their murders sent shockwaves of fear and outrage through the citizens of Austin.

'"Eight victims are counted of the heartless fiends who prowl around at night, filled only with thoughts of murder and other crimes. The blood of these butchered and mangled women cries to heaven for vengeance," an article in the December 30, 1885 Austin Daily Statesman declared.

Or, as a less-subtle headline in the December 25 Statesman put it: "BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD! LAST NIGHT'S HORRIBLE BUTCHERY. THE DEMONS HAVE TRANSFERRED THEIR THIRST FOR BLOOD TO WHITE PEOPLE."

The first death commonly attributed to this killer or killers was that of Mollie Smith, an African American cook. Statesman articles reprinted in James R. Galloway’s book, The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885, indicated she was murdered sometime between the late evening of December 30 and the early morning of December 31, 1884.

Around 3:00 a.m., Smith’s boyfriend, Walter Spencer, who was bleeding from several wounds to his head, woke her employer and told him, “Somebody has nearly killed me,” according to the Statesman.

Spencer could not say who had attacked him or how, but Mollie had been taken. Hours later, her nearly-naked body was found behind an outhouse about 50 feet from her bedroom with a fatal head wound that was determined by a coroner’s inquest to have been caused by an ax.

According to the Statesman, the bedroom showed obvious signs of “a desperate struggle,” including broken glass, bloody fingerprints and blood-stained bedding. The reporter also noted a bloody ax at the foot of the bed.

Later in the year, Spencer was arrested for Smith’s murder, but he was acquitted by a jury, according to newspaper reports.

The January 1, 1885 Statesman described Smith's death as "one of the most horrible murders that ever a reporter was called on to chronicle—a deed almost unparalleled in the atrocity of its execution.”

Its atrocity would be matched several more times before 1885 was over.

On May 7, 1885, cook Eliza Shelley was attacked in the cabin behind her employer’s home while she and her three children were sleeping. She was found dead on the bedroom floor with a large wound over her right eye.

An inquest concluded that Shelley had been killed with “a sharp instrument,” but there was disagreement over the specific weapon likely used, the Statesman reported.

Weeks later, on May 23, another servant, Irene Cross, was attacked in her apartment on her employer’s property by an intruder with a knife. She suffered deep wounds to her arm and head and later died from her injuries.

In the months between Mollie Smith and Eliza Shelley’s murders, the Austin newspaper recorded numerous instances of nocturnal attacks on female servants in their quarters.

“Midnight marauders,” “ruffians on the rampage,” “a gang of demons incarnate”—the paper had many colorful phrases to describe the attackers. In addition to black women, their alleged victims included German and Swedish servants.

Descriptions of the suspects varied. Some witnesses and victims reported seeing only one assailant, while others claimed they saw a band of criminals. On one night in March alone, four attacks were reported, according to the Statesman.

In a May 10, 1885 letter to a friend—reprinted in the collection Rolling Stones—author and Austin resident O. Henry referred to the perpetrators of these assaults as “the Servant Girl Annihilators.”

After the death of Irene Cross, the next murder did not come until August 30, when an intruder attacked Rebecca Ramey and her 11-year-old daughter Mary in the kitchen where they slept.

Rebecca was knocked unconscious but survived. According to the Statesman, Mary was dragged out of the kitchen into an adjoining washhouse, where she was raped and stabbed through the ears with an iron pin.

On September 27, another attack claimed two more victims, Gracie Vance and Orange Washington. Two other women were injured in that assault.

Washington was found on the bed in their cabin, nearly dead from head wounds. A trail of blood led from their window to the spot about 75 yards away where Vance’s body was discovered. News reports differ on the weapon used, but she had been beaten to death, apparently with either a brick or a rock.

Then came Christmas Eve.

Around 11 p.m., Moses Hancock woke in his bedroom, suspecting that his house had been robbed, the Statesman reported. He walked into his wife Sue’s room and saw spots of blood on her empty bed. He went out the back door of the house and found her lying in a pool of blood.

About an hour later, in another part of town, James Phillips’ mother heard him crying for help from his bedroom. Eula Phillips’ body was found soon afterward.

Each attack throughout the year brought with it new questions and, in many cases, new suspects. Newspaper accounts indicate that men, often African Americans, were arrested soon after most of the murders, only to be released later due to lack of evidence.

Like James Phillips, Moses Hancock would eventually be charged with his wife’s murder, but his trial ended with a hung jury.

One of the oddest things about the servant girl murders to those who have researched them is their apparent obscurity in American history and true crime literature.

James Galloway, an Austin librarian, first learned of the murders when he was in graduate school in 1996.

"I was curious as to why there wasn't more information about the murders, and I decided to see why," Galloway told HLN. "Short answer: lack of extant primary sources and difficulty in accessing them."

In an effort to remedy that situation, Galloway transcribed from microfilm and compiled hundreds of pages of newspaper articles from the Daily Statesman and other publications that dealt with the murders. He published the collection of articles in his 2010 book, along with an essay, “Year of Outrage—1885 Austin, Texas,” that offered his observations about the case.

In a July 2000 Texas Monthly article, writer Skip Hollandsworth attempted to flesh out the limited information available regarding the murders. He uncovered a small community of amateur sleuths and local historians who devoted their spare time to digging deeper into the case.

"When I began researching this story more than a year ago," Hollandsworth wrote, "my first impulse was to quit my job and do nothing else. It wasn't just the suspense that gripped me; on a more intellectual level, the killings were a gruesome foretaste of the kind of violence that was to come in America.”

Filmmaker Martin Wagner has taken an interest in the murders for similar reasons.

"This was a late 19th century town experiencing what you might call the emergence of 20th century crime," Wagner told HLN.

Wagner believes the killer's crimes have been overshadowed in the public's memory by the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in London just three years later and by H.H. Holmes in Chicago a few years after that. Within Austin, Wagner suggested, once the killings ceased they quickly became "that unpleasantness that we don't want to talk about anymore."

Wagner has turned to Kickstarter to fund his planned documentary, "Bloody Work: The Unsolved Mystery of the Servant Girl Annihilator."

"It's fascinating to see the effect on Austin and the citizens of Austin and how the city saw itself as a result of these crimes," Wagner said.

From New Year’s Eve 1884 to Christmas Eve 1885, “it was literally bookended by a year,” Wagner said, adding that the killing spree “left a real shaken and tattered city in its wake.”

Galloway observed that the population of Austin had grown rather quickly in the preceding years and the murders showed that the city itself had not kept up with that pace.

“There was a general recognition that certain aspects of the city’s infrastructure, including the police, simple weren’t adequate to serve the city’s growing population,” he said.

“There was a sense that the capital of Texas needed to be more civilized and modernized,” Galloway said. “Austin was still comparatively a backwater at the time.”

According to Wagner, the “collateral damage” of the murders included the destruction of many people’s personal lives and reputations, but more importantly, “confidence in the direction of the city was lost.”

1885 came in the midst of the city’s transformation from a frontier town into “a cosmopolitan American city,” Wagner said, and this crime wave upset that shift.

Austin’s justice system seemed to handle most of the killings better than Wagner would have expected, given the lingering racism that still pervaded society. Many innocent black men were arrested during the year, but there were no midnight lynchings.

“There was at least some semblance of trying to conduct a real and fair investigation and actually get the guilty party,” Wagner said.

In the end, the ones treated most unfairly by the system may have been the husbands of the two white victims.

“[Prosecutors] got this idea in their heads that these two men independently of each other both decided that, hello, I‘ll kill my wife and make it look like one of those servant girl killings,” he said.

Pointing to the “legal shenanigans” that typified James Phillips’ trial, Wagner said, “The whole thing was descending from tragedy into comedy at this point.”

There are many apparent similarities between most of the murders—the late night intruder creeping into the victim’s bedroom, dragging a woman out away from the house to kill them with a knife or an ax—but there are also inconsistencies, and the relative lack of information available makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the perpetrators.

Dr. Scott Bonn, a criminologist and professor at Drew University, is hesitant to declare all eight murders the work of one serial killer.

“I believe these crimes are not all related,” Bonn told HLN. “It is important to understand that individual serial killers, particularly disorganized serial killers, typically do not crisscross a city and kill victims who vary by race and social class.”

The last two murders, in particular, seem to break with the established pattern of the earlier ones.

Bonn noted, however, that it may never be possible to say for sure whether the murders were connected because there is no reliable forensic evidence to study. Based on what is known, he said it is likely the crimes were the work of a “disorganized” killer due to the brutality of the killings and the apparent lack of effort to conceal them.

“The murders of the black servants may have been racially motivated,” he suggested. “These murders reflect rage, retribution and overkill.”

If the first six murders were connected, Bonn said, it is likely a team of at least two killers was involved.

Wagner also has his doubts about the link between the eight murders, and he wants his film to explore different theories about how many of these crimes were related and how many assailants were involved.

“Can we really say that we have enough to say each of these individuals was targeted and killed by the same assailant?” Wagner asked. “This is still very much an open question.”

"There's always the mythology that's built up around any unsolved mystery," he said, adding that it is important to approach his research without any preconceived notions about what he will find.

For example, some have come at the case with the intent to prove that the Austin killer and Jack the Ripper were the same person. An October 7, 1888 article in the New York Times even suggested it, based on some perceived similarities between the killing sprees.

“There is not a speck of credible evidence” to support that connection, according to Wagner.

Whoever was responsible for the Austin servant girl murders, it seems the most important thing to the community at the time was that they came to an end as 1886 began.

“People just breathed sigh of relief and said, please let this just go away,” Wagner said. Once the dust settled and the blood dried, the citizens of Austin were more than happy to move on and “forget all about this horrible year of 1885.”

[All direct quotes from the Austin Daily Statesman in this article were obtained from James R. Galloway's book, The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885.]

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