Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Servant Girl Annihilator

A Fearful Midnight Murder

Austin, Texas in 1890
Austin, Texas in 1890

It was near the end of 1884. In three and a half years, London would be terrorized by the fiend known as Jack the Ripper. Seven years after that, H.H. Holmes would be tried in Philadelphia for a murder that blew the lid off his extensive series of killings and frauds. Both would be dubbed as unique in the annals of crime, the Ripper as the "World's First Serial Killer," and Holmes as America's first. Yet in both cases, that distinction would be incorrect. The world's first documented serial killer preceded Red Jack by centuries, and in America, Holmes took a back seat to several other predators. Among them was the mysterious person who operated for a brief but brutal year in Austin, Texas (also erroneously dubbed by some as "the first American serial killer").

On New Year's Eve, 1884, a bloody killing spree began that left the city breathless. It started with "negro servants," sometimes felling one and sometimes several in a single night. Mollie Smith, 25, was the first victim, killed behind the home where she was employed as a servant, left lying in the snow next to the outhouse. Her face was badly bludgeoned, her nightdress torn to shreds and her head gashed in a way that suggested that she'd been the victim of someone wielding an ax. It also seemed likely, from the way she was posed, that she had been "outraged," or raped. Marshal Grooms Lee employed a pack of bloodhounds to track the culprit, says Skip Hollandsworth in "Capital Murder," but the trail was quickly lost.

Drawing of Mollie Smith
Drawing of Mollie Smith

"Bloody Work!" was that day's headline for the Austin Statesman, according to Clayton Stapleton in "What Was Then." Steven Saylor describes the paper as an eight-page layout of small print and narrow columns, generally featuring market news, editorial opinions, fashions, and social announcements. There were also front-page stories about suicides. On this day, the story about the attack ran as "A Fearful Midnight Murder," with a reporter's first-person account of seeing the mangled corpse.

Mollie, 25, worked for William Hall on West Pecan Street. She kept house and cooked for the Halls, and lived with a male companion in the Halls' two-story home in a room in the back. Saylor indicates that she also suffered from migraine headaches. In "A Twist at the End," he sets this murder in a fictional context involving William Sydney Porter, the writer who penned stories under the name, O. Henry, and who actually resided in Austin at the time of the murders. Saylor, who did a fair amount of historical research to portray the events of 1885 accurately, utilizes newspaper articles and ideas from physicians at the time to illustrate what they believed about mental derangement.

Another 19th century phrenology image depicting a comparison between a
Another 19th century phrenology image
depicting a comparison between a "good
mother" and the "unmotherly."

With the rise of modern science during the middle of the 19th century and the emphasis on natural law, the appraisal of human character from external appearances was the fashion. Phrenology done by "skull readers" involved feeling the bumps or depressions on a person's skull to determine how individual areas of the brain were functioning. The seat of thought was considered to have thirty-five different organs, each associated with such traits as "cautiousness" and "adhesiveness," and the larger the organ, the more pronounced the trait. Hubert Lauvergne, the prison physician in Toulon penitentiary, observed that many convicts had unusual faces, which he believed must reflect their criminal instincts. For a time, prisoners would be classified according to their phrenological profiles — a listing of traits specific to their skull formations. Thus, brain damage supposedly caused insanity and other forms of derangement. That was the question posed about this killer: With the kind of vile assault he'd perpetrated, was he deranged?

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