Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Wordcraft – The serial killer Texans wrote out of history

The Midnight Assassin
by Skip Hollandsworth
True crime is one of Skip Hollandsworth’s passions. He’s written about it numerous times – as a reporter, a screenwriter, and editor for Texas Monthly magazine. But a serial killer in Texas, before the term “serial killer” was even coined? A serial killer who terrorized the state’s capital of Austin for a single year in the 1880’s? A serial killer some considered to have been Jack the Ripper doing an apprenticeship in Texas before moving to London?

Skip Hollandsworth
Never heard of him, Hollandsworth told his audience during a recent reading of his volume, The Midnight Assassin, at Half Price Books’ flagship store on Dallas’ Northwest Highway. But fascinated both by the killer and the way in which Texans deliberately expunged from the history books, Hollandsworth began haunting libraries, police archives, and cemeteries, searching for clues to the identify of a murderer who specialized in staging macabre tableaus with the mutilated bodies of his victims.

Beginning on New Year’s Eve 1884 through Christmas Eve 1885, the killer known variously as the Midnight Assassin and Intangible Nemesis (when not being simply described as a devil) struck on moonlit nights in Austin, leaving a trail of dead, maimed and terrified victims – almost all of them women. Then he vanished, as mysteriously and completely as he had come.

More than a year passed, with a few scattered killings afterward in other Texas cities. But nothing else seemed to match the murder’s MO until a similarly gruesome string of slayings of women half a world away from Texas, beginning in September 1888 in London. This time, the killer, or someone purporting to be the killer, sent a taunting letter in which he named himself Jack the Ripper.

Maybe he thought the epithet had more cachet than the Texas monikers. Neither the Midnight Assassin nor Jack the Ripper – if indeed they were separate killers, as Hollandsworth believes -- has ever been identified.

The killer first announced himself in Texas in the early morning of December 31, 1884. One of the notorious blue norther storms had roared through the state and most of the citizens of Austin were huddled in their beds when a black laborer stumbled into the house of his girlfriend’s employer begging for help.

“Somebody has nearly killed me!” he said, through the blood from gashes in his head that poured into his mouth, nearly strangling him.

He was more worried, however, by the disappearance of his girlfriend, a young woman named Mollie Smith. However, only two of Austin’s main streets had streetlights at the time, and it was not until dawn the next morning that Mollie’s grotesquely mutilated body was found. Her discoverer at first thought the “strange-looking object” lying on the ground was a dead animal. Then he noticed the scrap of a nightgown, and legs under the gown. And then he started screaming.

It was a ghastly thing, of course. But in a few days, the furor died down. The white citizens of Austin told themselves Mollie had been killed by a jealous lover, and thought no more about it.

Then the bodies piled up. The story of the murders became front page news as far away as New York and San Francisco. And Austin’s leaders, its police, even private detective agencies, became first frustrated, then terrified.The killings finally culminated in the deaths of two white society women, and a murder trial destroyed the careers of several prominent politicians.

And then it was over. The Midnight Assassin stepped back into the shadows from which he had briefly appeared, and Texans only wanted to put the memory behind them. “At least a half-dozen histories of Texas were published in the decade between 1885 and 1895,” Hollandsworth writes, “and not one of the made any reference to the story. . . Needless to say, Mrs. Anna Pennybacker, the very proper schoolteacher who wrote a textbook in 1888 for the state’s public schools, A New History of Texas, did not think it was appropriate for the children of Texas to be reading about women being chopped to pieces. . . It was as if (the Midnight Assassin) had walked out of history altogether. It was as if he had never existed.”


  1. Skip is my favorite article writer. Have you read his piece on Larry McMurtry in the current issue of Texas Monthly?

    1. I did read the McMurtry article, Stephanie. At his Half Price reading, Skip mentioned that he found McMurtry hard to get to know, which may be because he values his privacy.