[From December 1884 to September 1885, an ax-wielding killer took the lives of five women in an unprecedented spree that terrified the citizens of Austin and left police at a loss for clues and suspects. Worst of all, the monster O. Henry called “The Servant Girl Annihilator” was not done yet.]
As the trickle of departing inhabitants turned into a torrent and visitors cancelled trips to the capital, local officialdom, especially the mayor, and business leaders feared the unsolved slayings would wreck their grand plans for the city’s glorious future.
The University of Texas, which Austin had stolen from Tyler, the rightful winner of a statewide plebiscite, had been open for two years and boasted an enrollment of 250 students. Cornerstones were laid for the new capitol in March 1885 and for the magnificent Driskill Hotel four months later. Everything was coming along quite nicely until the anonymous assassin began chopping up innocent women and children.
Nine months into his sham investigation, Police Chief Grooms Lee had nothing whatsoever to show for his woeful effort. Even his influential father, who had ramrodded his appointment, conceded the time had come to replace him.
With elections mere weeks away, that was music to the embattled mayor’s ears. His first choice agreed to take the job – former Texas Ranger James Lucy, whose claim to fame was his part in the 1878 shooting of train and
bank robber Sam Bass.
The dwindling number of Austinites still in town were at first overjoyed and relieved at the news of Lucy’s
hiring. His recruitment of a score of old Rangers just as hard-nosed gave people even more confidence
that the ax killer’s days were numbered.
But the stricken city was not prepared for the gettough tactics Chief Lucy employed. This is how Skip
Hollandsworth described it in a 2000 article in Texas Monthly: Lucy ordered his troops “to stop strangers and
to ask them what their business was in town. If the answers were not satisfactory, the strangers were given 24 hours to leave town. Spurred on by a $3,000 reward offered by a citizens’ committee … as well as a $300 reward by the Texas governor, private detectives and police officers from other cities arrived in Austin in droves ….. The city was turning into a police state.”
Not to be outdone, the district attorney, the mayor’s younger brother, took a flimsy case to trial. He prosecuted Walter Spence, the black companion of the maniac’s first victim, for the murder of Mollie Smith even though the defendant had been sustained serious wounds in the attack. An all-white jury wasted no time in finding Spence not guilty as charged.
As if to prove there was nothing that could be done to stop him, the a killer murdered two white women an hour apart on Christmas Eve 1885. The body of Sue Hancock, “one of the most refined ladies in Austin,” according to a published report, was found by her husband behind their house. Her skull had been split wide open and a sharp metal object driven into her brain. The second victim, Eula Phillips, was also discovered by her spouse in
the alley in the rear of her father-in-law’s place.
“Blood! Blood! Blood! Last Night’s Horrible Butchery!” was the eye-catching banner headline in the Christmas morning edition of The Statesman. That holiday afternoon 500 men from all walks came together in a mass meeting to discuss what could be done to bring an end to the ax murderer’s reign of terror.
Everything from giant lamps to illuminate every street at night to setting off the fire alarms to alert the populace to an attack, the latter the governor’s idea, were debated. No consensus was reached, and the attendees left the meeting feeling just as angry and even more frustrated.
In a transparent attempt to salvage his tarnished reputation, the DA charged the husbands of the two latest victims with the Christmas Eve slayings of their wives. While he did not try to pin the preceding murders on the accused, the prosecutor hoped to calm the public and save his job.
Skip Hollandsworth compared the trial of Jimmy Phillips to the O.J. Simpson spectacle a century later for sheer
sensationalism. Titillating testimony portrayed his beautiful beloved as a habitually unfaithful wife often seen at a hotel known as a scandalous love nest. The DA argued that Jimmy finally snapped and tried to make his vengeful outburst look like the work of the notorious ax killer.
The jury bought enough of that story to find Jimmy Phillips guilty but went easy on the punishment giving him only seven years. Six months later, the conviction was overturned on appeal and he was as free as a bird. Moses Hancock, the defendant in the next trial, was exonerated in the first round and did not have to wait on a higher court.
The murders mysteriously stopped, and life in Austin slowly returned to normal. Two years later, a string of virtually identical crimes in the Whitechapel section of London caused some to wonder if the ax killer, who vanished from Austin, had resurfaced a Jack The Ripper. There are researchers and writers that believe they are one and the same.
Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393