Ax murderer preyed on city of Austin in 1880s

An ax-swinging fiend that had terrorized the Texas capital for weeks struck again on the night of May 5, 1885 leaving a mother’s dead body for her young children to find.

The rampage started with a slaying in Austin’s most affluent neighborhood on the day before New Year’s Eve 1884. The victim was Mollie Smith, a 25-year-old cook, who lived in the fine home of her wealthy employer.

Mollie and her companion Walter Spencer, who was staying the night, were sound asleep when someone knocked them both unconscious without waking anybody else in the house. Leaving the boyfriend in the ground floor room, the intruder dragged the woman into the snow-covered backyard and finished her off with a couple of blows from a sharp and heavy ax that opened a huge hole in her head.

Since the victims were black, the police may not have even bothered with an investigation if not for the high perch in the local pecking order the homeowner occupied. But Spencer drew a complete blank when he finally came to, and with no clues to go on the cops chalked the killing off to a jealous lover.

Two Swedish servant girls that shared living quarters in the same upscale part of town were the subjects of the second attack on Mar. 19, 1885. Despite serious wounds that maimed them for life, Christine Martenson and Clara Strand lived to tell about it though neither had very much to say and could not describe their assailant.

This vicious crime captured the full attention of the authorities and the press because the victims were young, pretty and white. Newspapers with the full support of frightened readers demanded that the police do something
for a change and bring the perpetrator to justice.

Many Austinites wished old Ben Thompson could come back from the dead and rid them of the murderous menace. But the legendary gunfighter turned popular city marshal had gotten himself killed the previous March
by walking into a San Antonio ambush.

Now terrified townspeople had only a corrupt and incompetent police force to protect them. In the year since his politically powerful papa arranged for his appointment as chief, Grooms Lee had let the department go to the dogs. When his officers were not in the saloons and brothels, they were adding to the crime rate with felonies of their own.

The lazy chief made a show of a modest increase in foot patrols while doing little else to deter much less apprehend the ax murderer. He took credit for what turned out to be nothing more than a lull in the killing spree.

The May 5, 1885 murder of Eliza Shelly, a cook for a former state legislator, and the gruesome discovery of her ravaged remains by her little children shook Austin to its core. Taking the law into their own hands, bands of armed men began roaming the streets after dark taking their fear and frustration out on anyone who crossed their path.

More often than not, those unlucky wretches were emancipated slaves and their sons. During the same period, policemen rounded up hundreds of black suspects and tried to beat the incriminating truth out of many.

The mutilation of Irene Cross three weeks after the Shelly murder intensified the mass hysteria. Austinites shuddered at a newspaper reporter’s account of the killer’s handiwork with a knife that left the live-in domestic
looking like she had been scalped.

The mayor decided that the police chief was not only getting nowhere fast but doing more harm than good. The tolerance and opportunities afforded blacks, which set Austin apart from other Texas towns, had been replaced
by a lynch-mob atmosphere that caused an increasing number to lock themselves in their homes and not venture out even for work.

Desperate to turn the tide and for a return to normal, the mayor brought in professional investigators from Houston. But the private detectives wound up making a bad situation even worse by following the heavy-handed
example of the local police.

During those dark days in the summer of 1885, a bank teller, who would be sent to prison for embezzlement, coined the phrase “Servant Girl Annihilators” to describe Austin’s most wanted. Like elected officials, law
enforcement and the press, it never occurred to O. Henry that a lone predator might be responsible.

A three-month respite suddenly ended with a horrifying homicide on of Aug. 30, 1885. This time the victim was a child, 11-year-old Mary Ramey, torn from the arms of her sleeping mother and carried to a backyard washhouse, where she was raped and stabbed in the ear with an iron rod. Rebecca Ramey survived the attack but through her tears told authorities she did not get so much as a glimpse of her daughter’s killer.

The people of Austin were still reeling from the unthinkable slaughter of a child, when the ax killer reenacted his first murder on Sep. 28. He knocked Orange Washington senseless as he dozed beside Gracie Vance in a shack behind her place of employment before unleashing his full fury on the female in a stable on the property. According to the next day’s edition of The Daily Statesman, “her head (was) almost beaten into a jelly.”

No longer willing to wait patiently for the madness to stop, those Austinites that could took their families and left on the next train out of town.

Continued next week.

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