Jack the Ripper. The name alone sends shivers down one’s spine, conjuring visions of a knife-wielding killer prowling through London. The case remains one of the most chilling in recent memory. Yet Jack’s brutal attacks in 1888 were preceded some three years earlier by a series of murders in Austin, Texas, perpetrated by a shadowy soul who came to be known as the Servant Girl Annihilator.
History rarely discusses these cases in the same breath. But could the culprit behind the serial killings be one and the same?
Local papers of the era dubbed the Texas killings “The Servant Girl Murders”—the Annihilator nickname wouldn’t appear until Austin writer O. Henry coined the phrase in mid-1885. As for the servant girl descriptor, it alluded to the occupation of many of the victims. The vast majority were young, African American women employed as domestic help in the homes of Austin, Texas.
Nevertheless, the phrase failed to capture the scope of the killer’s crimes. As J.R. Galloway of notes, victims included a boyfriend of one of the women; the child of a servant who was attacked but survived her assault; and a pair of “married white women, neither of them servants.”
The first killing occurred on December 30, 1884, when Mollie Smith was assaulted in her home. She was attacked with an axe while she slept and then dragged from her bed to the backyard, where she was raped and murdered. Walter Spencer was also attacked that night, left wounded but alive.
Over the course of the next year, the sinister force prowled the streets of Austin, claiming the lives of six more women and one man, while seriously injuring seven more people.
How could a killer leave behind so many living victims and still evade capture? That’s one of the many mysteries surrounding the strange case of the Servant Girl Annihilator.
All of the attacks occurred while the victims were asleep in their beds. Five of the women, including Mollie Smith, were dragged from their houses and killed outside. Sexual assault was a recurring theme, as was the murder weapon. Many of the victims were attacked with an axe, and the bloody blade was left behind at more than one of the crime scenes, leading some to dub the killer the Axeman of Austin.
Many of the murdered women were severely mutilated, with some accounts claiming that the bodies were posed in a signature fashion. According to sources, six of the victims had a “sharp object” inserted into their ears. Despite these similarities, not everyone was convinced that the killings were the actions of one individual, or even of one group acting in concert.
It certainly didn’t help that eyewitnesses offered bafflingly divergent accounts. The killer’s complexion was described as being both light and dark, while others called him a “yellow man.” Some said that he wore a slouch hat, while others described him as a man in a dress. Reports also indicated that there may have been more than one killer working together, or even a “gang” of murderers. An editorial in a local paper compared the violence to “a band of Comanche Indians.”
The Servant Girl Annihilator was even credited with magic powers, as some people believed that he could turn himself invisible to evade the dogs outside the houses of his victims.
Newspapers struggled to make sense of this “epidemic of murder.” According to an article in the New York Times from 1885, more than four hundred men were arrested in connection with the case, though there was only ever one conviction.
James Phillips, the husband of one of the last victims, Eula Phillips, was convicted of killing his wife on Christmas Eve, 1885. Attorneys acting in Phillips’ defense asserted that the murder was the work of the Servant Girl Annihilator, and the conviction was later overturned.
So who was this phantom? Like the identity of Jack the Ripper, we may never know for sure. Some believe that it was Nathan Elgin, a 19-year-old cook with a missing toe on his right foot that matched bloody footprints left at one of the crime scenes—a fact that the police had kept from the public at the time. In February of 1886, Elgin dragged a girl from a saloon to a nearby house, where he assaulted her with a knife. The saloon keeper and a neighbor accompanied a police officer to the house, where they shot and killed Elgin.
Others, however, maintain that the similarities between the case of the Servant Girl Annihilator and Jack the Ripper—a fixation on female targets, sexual assault, mutilation and corpse posing—point to the same culprit. Exactly who that person may be is up for some debate. The first theory linking the two sets of killings is thought to have originated in 1888. It has been a source of speculation ever since.
In her 2003 book , author Shirley Harrison contends that Jack the Ripper and the Servant Girl Annihilator were both Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick, who often traveled to the southern United States for business. Maybrick’s wife ended up poisoning him in 1889, after a tumultuous marriage. In her book, Harrison contends that Maybrick was in Austin when the servant murders took place. She reproduces Maybrick’s own journal entries as proof.
The possible connection has inspired fiction writers, as well. In Ross E. Lockhart’s anthology , author Ed Kurtz used the supposed link between the two sets of killings—and a headline from the 1885 Fort Worth Gazette—as the jumping-off point for a fictional retelling of the Servant Girl Murders in his story “Hell Broke Loose.”
Currently, the relationship between these murders is merely an intriguing possibility, haunting the imaginations of writers, historians, and true crime aficionados. It’s likely that we’ll never know the answer. Just like Jack the Ripper, the case of Austin’s Servant Girl Annihilator remains unsolved.