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Kickstarting the search for a 19th century serial killer

NEED TO KNOW
  • Filmmaker trying to fund documentary on Austin servant girl murders through Kickstarter
  • Film would explore 8 unsolved murders in Austin, Texas in the 1880s that could be the work of a serial killer
Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Austin, Texas in 1885, the year of the servant girl murders

Martin Wagner thought it would never work.

When he first heard of the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, he did not think people would trust strangers on the internet enough to give them money with no guarantee that they would ever get anything in return.

“I remember thinking to myself, that’ll never fly,” Wagner told HLN. “People’s natural skepticism would never allow sites like that to succeed.”

But the site has been very successful, and now the Texas filmmaker is seeking funding for his own Kickstarter project that he hopes will appeal to fans of true crime stories.

“Bloody Work: The Unsolved Mystery of the Servant Girl Annihilator” is planned to be a documentary about a series of unsolved murders in Austin, Texas in the late 1800s. An unknown killer was blamed by authorities and the media at the time for eight murders committed between New Year’s Eve 1884 and Christmas Eve 1885.

The first six victims were African American; the last two, both killed on Christmas Eve, were white. Most of the victims were servants, dragged from their sleeping quarters in the middle of the night and stabbed to death with either an ax or a knife, according to reports in the Austin Daily Statesman.

With less than a week to go, Wagner is far short of his fundraising goal, but he remains optimistic. The project got a bit of a boost recently when authors Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi tweeted to their followers about it.

“Kickstarter has taken more seriously the idea that creators need to be more responsible and need to fulfill their goals,” Wagner said, explaining why people seem to have the confidence to support filmmakers on the site. “Five or six years ago, I never would have sent someone $20 to make a movie.”

He first heard about the servant girl murders in 2006, stumbling across information about them unintentionally. He then read Skip Hollandsworth’s 2000 Texas Monthly article that delved into the mystery behind the case.

Intrigued, he began spending time at the Austin History Center, taking notes.

“It’s both an easy and difficult series of events to research,” Wagner said. The original newspaper coverage is available on microfilm, but other primary sources are scarce. He plans to talk to professors and experts to get their opinions on the murders for the film, and he is currently following up on a lead regarding the Noble Detective Agency, which was brought in to assist with the investigation at the time.

“Digging more deeply, that’s the fun part…the archeological detective work,” he said.

One thing that strikes Wagner as particularly interesting is the progression of events in Austin throughout the year from the murder of Mollie Smith in December 1884 to the Christmas Eve killings of Sue Hancock and Eula Phillips. In the early months of 1885, “there was this crime wave of midnight assaults on homes,” he said.

Groups of men were attempting to barge in to servants’ quarters and assault women. In most cases, the victims would scream and the suspects fled, Wagner explained. It is unclear what connection, if any, these nocturnal attacks had to the servant girl murders, but they created an environment of fear that hung over the city throughout the year.

It is not even certain that the murders were all connected to each other.

“That is still very much an open question,” Wagner said, and it is one he plans to explore in the documentary.

Even if the Kickstarter funding effort fails, Wagner plans to continue developing the film on his own. He feels historical crime has an audience and he has put a lot of work into crafting trailers to promote the project. He will still try to make the best film he can with limited financial resources.

“The world doesn’t owe you anything,” he said. “As an emerging artist, you are the one who has the responsibility to prove yourself…I’m going to do the best that I can to get this out to the public and make it something really good.”

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