Was Jack the Ripper American?
A Texas sized true crime story has become the great American murder mystery of the late nineteenth century. In The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer, Skip Hollandsworth pens a forgotten, century old tale of gothic proportions that draws parallels between Jack the Ripper and an Austin, Texas killer dubbed the “Midnight Assassin” by newspapers. The Austin predator plied his trade in 1885 (Jack the Ripper surfaced in London in 1888) killing women of all makes and models by ripping them apart with axes, knives and long steel rods.
For one whole year he savagely mutilated his victims. Leaving body parts strewn across posh sections of the growing metropolis. Perplexing and frustrating police who delved into the murders with no success as the killer seemingly disappeared into thin air. And then three years later Jack the Ripper shows up in London. Leading to more speculation at the time about the killer’s true identity and if in fact it could be the same man.
Drawing material from old newspapers and scrapbooks to crumbling diaries and letters in the back storage rooms of government officers and lunatic asylums, Skip Hollandsworth was able to recreate and piece the story together. The Texas native has made a career out of stories close to home. He started working for newspapers after college and wrote a piece for the Texas Monthly (he is editor now) about the long ago murders in Austin and the story always haunted him. He started working on the book to see if he could figure out who did the killing. I chatted with him by phone to find out if Jack the Ripper was an American.
When did you first hear about the Midnight Assassin and what drew your interest?
Skip Hollandsworth: There’s always been these old tales told about some killings that went on in the 1880s, just as Austin itself was transforming from a frontier era town to a city in gilded age America. There’d been some researchers who had done some stories on it. I hunted down some newspaper articles about the case, and like them I got fascinated with the story and just began to see if it could be a book.
Austin was a small city — six square miles in size with 17,000 people — then. I thought I’d be able to figure out who the killer was. The police were completely baffled. Their bloodhounds were unable to find the trail to follow the killer at every murder scene. I knew there had to be some scrap of evidence in some newspaper article, in some police report, in some government file locked away somewhere that would identify who this killer was.
What type of atrocities did he commit?
Skip Hollandsworth: He killed six women, one 12-year-old girl and he killed one of the women’s boyfriends in the middle of an attack, which he probably did accidentally. He almost always left other people who were at the crime scene alive. He usually murdered his victim and disappeared, but apparently that one boyfriend woke up and the killer hit him on the head so hard that it killed him.
The first five victims were black servant women. The police thought that this was a Negro problem as they put it. That it was a gang of black men preying on defenseless black woman. It never occurred to them that there was one single killer who was devising all these killings. Then on Christmas Eve of 1885, the killer changed tactics and went after two prominent white women who lived in separate parts of Austin.
He murdered and mutilated them in their backyards in the space of an hour, right at midnight on Christmas Eve. Most of the women were found with their heads nearly split open from the blow of an axe. Some also had deep knife wounds that penetrated their organs. A few had long iron rods like ice picks jammed into their ears essentially lobotomizing them. One woman was not only axed in the head, but had her entire face beaten in with a rock until it looked, in the words of one reporter, like jelly.
Why didn’t the Austin police catch him? Who was a suspect?
Skip Hollandsworth: On Christmas Eve when the two prominent women were murdered, much of the population of Austin put their families in wagons and on horseback and ran to the downtown streets to stand under the gas lamps. Towns were so dark back in that era before street lamps and so no one felt safe in their own home. They couldn’t handle the fact that whoever was doing these killings was some sort of superhuman monster that they were unable to stop. They gathered in numbers on the streets, everyone holding torches, guns, knives, shovels, anything to protect themselves and their families from this killer.
He was cunning and perhaps in modern times such a killer would be caught quickly due to forensic tools, but back then, if he wasn’t spotted by an eyewitness or hunted down by bloodhounds, then there was really no way to get him. There was no fingerprint evidence, no blood evidence, no CSI. He was able to drag these women out of the house without causing any alarm, mutilate them with axes, knives, ice picks and rocks in their backyards, and then flee with such speed, leaving no trail for the bloodhounds.
There were various suspects — from a Malaysian cook to a barefoot black chicken thief to a well-known politician who was running for governor to even the husbands of the murdered women. There was talk that the assistant superintendent of the state lunatic asylum was the killer. If I didn’t have the evidence to prove exactly who did it then I wasn’t going to make a guess. I’m going to let the reader make his or her own guess as to who is behind these killings.
How hard was it to research and do interviews for the book considering the fact that the murders happened in 1884?
Skip Hollandsworth: I kept holding off writing the book, thinking somewhere there’s going to be a piece of evidence that would prove who the killer was. I worked on it, read newspaper articles, tried to read government reports, but then I’d put it aside for a while. I stopped for a year or two in frustration, but went back to it, looking for a certain suspect to see if there was any evidence proving he did it. I would stop, go back to it, it became a pattern.
But over the years a few new pieces of evidence emerged. An archivist for the county found an old unopened box that contained trial transcripts of one of the men arrested. It provided lots of details. I was able to get some records from the state lunatic asylum. People thought the killer was a lunatic sneaking out every night doing the killings and then coming back into the asylum. It got even more interesting, because just like Jack the Ripper, no killer in Austin was ever found.
How do serial killers like Jack the Ripper and the Midnight Assassin get away with it?
Skip Hollandsworth: It’s the ultimate sort of super killer. A good serial killer can go for a long time, utterly bewildering the cops. Working on his own for his own reasons and doing the kinds of killings that can strike fear in a community. We’ve had dozen of these kinds of killings over the years, but the Austin killings were sort of the precursor for everything that was to come in modern American society.
Does you research and book conclude that the Midnight Assassin and Jack the Ripper were one and the same?
Skip Hollandsworth: The Austin killings took place in 1885 and Jack the Ripper showed up three years later in England in 1888. Since the Austin killing hadn’t been solved there was some speculation by Scotland Yard officials and in the newspapers that the Austin killer had moved to England to become Jack the Ripper. No one had ever seen these kinds of mutilations of women before. The systematic, ritualistic murders of one woman after another where her body was laid out in the backyard for everyone to see like a work of art. Then the killer disappeared. That kind of serial, ritualistic killing had never been identified before in America lives.
This was a great murder mystery not much different from the Jack the Ripper case. Jack the Ripper is the most written about murderer in all of history, an unknown killer who attacked a certain number of prostitutes in Whitechapel, London. And here was a killer who crisscrossed the city of Austin, first attacking black women, then attacking white women. Just as devious, and in many ways more diabolical, than Jack the Ripper.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com.