July Is Crime Month: 'Texas Servant Girl Murders'
PBS's 'History Detectives' tackle Austin's biggest mystery: the unsolved string of killings in 1885
So was Austin terrorized by its own Jack the Ripper in 1885?
That's long been the local legend regarding what are called the Servant Girl Murders, a series of grisly killings that took place in our city from New Year's Eve, 1884, to Christmas Eve, 1885 – so named because of the eight people who lost their lives, all but one were female, with most of those African-Americans working as domestics. Because so many of the crimes share horrific details – six of the victims were attacked with an axe, six were dragged from their beds into yards behind their living quarters, four were raped – they look like they could be the work of a single butcher. But though these similarities were widely noted in the press at the time, the cases were treated independently by the authorities, who focused their attention on the victims' husbands, boyfriends, and exes. The tack resulted in some sensational trials – especially in the cases of the last two victims, both white and murdered within an hour of each other – but no wholly successful resolutions to any of the murders. Thus, the killings have remained unsolved, and in passing into the modern era of the serial killer – Jack the Ripper's London rampage followed just three years later, and H.H. Holmes opened his Chicago "murder castle" five years after that – the temptation to view the Servant Girl Murders as the work of a solitary madman has grown.
Enter the History Detectives, the team of scholars, appraisers, and historians whose sleuthing into the provenance of objects from America's past have been entertaining PBS viewers for a decade. In the current season, their series has been reconceived to tackle full-blown mysteries of history in hopes of uncovering some heretofore unknown answer. In addition to the 1865 sinking of the steamboat Sultana and the disappearances of Glenn Miller and Jimmy Hoffa, the first round of History Detectives Special Investigations covers the Servant Girl Murders. Series veterans Wes Cowan and Tukufu Zuberi are joined by a new gumshoe, Barnard College French professor Kaiama Glover, and their inquiry into our town's biggest mystery airs Tuesday, July 15.
Having previewed the episode, I can attest that it's worth your time, not just for what it has to say about these crimes but what it has to say about Austin in 1885. The town was starting to shed its frontier trappings and take on the air of a city – a shift best symbolized by the laying of the cornerstone for the new State Capitol in March. Almost one-third of Austin's 15,000 residents were African-American, and since many worked as live-in domestics, blacks and whites lived in close proximity throughout the city. Preserving order was left to a police force of just 15 men, of whom only five were on duty at once, and they spent much of their time riding herd on Guy Town, the cluster of 24-hour saloons, brothels, and other dens of iniquity in what is the Warehouse District today. It's a lively, tangled, complicated, contradictory city, and the episode gets that across even as it seeks an answer to the riddle of these killings.
To their credit, the detectives consult with several locals who have been working this cold case for years: filmmaker Martin Wagner, who's developing a documentary around the murders; author Steven Saylor, who used the case as the basis for A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry in 2000: and University of Texas librarian J.R. Galloway, whose 2010 book The Servant Girl Murders (Booklocker.com, Inc., 346pp., $17.95 paper/$9.99 e-book) provides an exhaustive compendium of newspaper reports surrounding the killings and subsequent trials. In that book and on his website ServantGirlMurders.com, Galloway argues for the murders being the work of a single man, and he gets some deserving time in the spotlight as the show's sleuths conclude their review.
In an interview, Glover was asked for the most interesting place she's traveled as a History Detective. Her reply? "Austin, Texas, circa 1885." I'm hard-pressed to disagree.
History Detectives Special Investigations: Texas Servant Girl Murders airs Tuesday, July 15, 8pm, on KLRU. For more information, visit www.klru.org.