Austin's Servant Girl Annihilator Left Victims In Truly Horrifying States

The following article includes graphic descriptions of murder.

A ruthless killer that stalks his prey by night, blood dripping from the blade of the ax he carries sounds like something right out of a low-budget slasher movie. But serial ax murderers are a part of history, as there are many documented cases of these monsters striking communities all over the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What might be even more terrifying is that many of these cases were never solved.

In one of the most notorious cases, an unknown assailant hid in the attic of a Villisca, Iowa home, only to emerge while its occupants slept. The entire family of Josiah B. Moore, which included his wife and their four young children, were hacked to pieces with an ax one summer night in 1912 (via Iowa Cold Cases). Along with the family, two young neighbor girls that were spending the night in the home were killed as they slept in the downstairs parlor. Down south, the city of New Orleans was terrorized by a serial ax murderer of its own. During a two-year stretch from 1917 to 1919, the unidentified slayer took six innocent lives (per Smithsonian).

Decades earlier, the people of Austin, Texas lived in fear of an ax-wielding maniac that stalked the night. The attacks were quite vicious — the violent carnage this unidentified killer left in his wake is horrific to describe.

The first attack

For an entire year, the city of Austin was plagued by a late-night killer who attacked unsuspecting members of the community as they slept. From December 1884 until December 1885, police investigated eight separate crime scenes, each one the perfect description of unrepentant brutality. The crimes predate London's Jack the Ripper by three years, and some have speculated that the murders committed in Texas and England were by the same hand. Culture Map reports that whoever the Austin slayer was, he put the Texas town on the map as hosting the first serial killer in American history.

The first known victim of the monster that would later be dubbed the "Servant Girl Annihilator" was 25-year-old Mollie Smith. Smith was employed by a man named William Hall and was tucked away in her bed with her boyfriend Walter Spencer on the night of December 30 when the killer struck. Smith resided in a small outbuilding behind the Hall home on Pecan Street, perhaps making it easier for her assailant to kill her undetected (via American Killers). The axman attacked Spencer, severely injuring him. He then turned his attention to Smith, whom he dragged out into the yard and began his handiwork. The Austin Statesman reported (via American Killers) that the crime scene was "one of the most horrible murders that ever a reporter was called on to chronicle."

Smith had ax wounds all over her body. They covered her head and trunk and all of her limbs (via Culture Map). There was a trail of blood from her bed into the yard, where her body was found.

The next two victims survived their attacks

As the holiday season in Austin ended and the city was getting well-acquainted with the new year, investigators still hadn't made an arrest for the murder of Mollie Smith. If her attack had caused any anxiety among the people of Austin, perhaps it had waned by mid-March. On the night of March 19, 1885, two young women were attacked while they walked home (per American Killers). Clara Strand and Christine Martenson had immigrated from Sweden and were employed as private servants to a homeowner in the city. The Hays Free Press tells that the two were heading back to the living quarters that they shared in an affluent neighborhood. 

Fortunately, both Strand and Martenson survived their encounter. Very little information is given about the crime, however. At the time, it wasn't believed to have been linked to the murder of Smith, and modern researchers have their doubts about them sharing a perpetrator as well. Multiple sources do cite Strand and Martenson as possible survivors of the Servant Girl Annihilator.

An attack in May left an 8-year-old witness

The next attack researchers agree was carried out by the Servant Girl Annihilator happened on May 6. That evening, Eliza Shelley went to bed with her 8-year-old son next to her (per American Killers). The mother of three lived in a small cottage behind the residence of her employer, Dr. Lucien B. Johnson. Dr. Johnson would later tell police that it was the sound of screaming that woke him in the middle of the night, driving him to investigate. 

He found his servant in her small home, dead from blows to her head that were consistent with ax wounds. He noted that the blows were so severe that part of her brain had been exposed. He concluded that she died from injuries from two different weapons, although no weapons were found at the scene of the crime. A set of bloody footprints led away from the bloody scene, left behind by a killer who attacked Shelley in his bare feet.

What made this murder even more shocking was the witness left behind. The young son that was bedded with Shelley on the last night of her life was left physically unharmed, though one can perhaps imagine the trauma he suffered from being there when she was killed. The boy revealed that his mother's attacker had tossed him from the bed that he was sharing with her. A blanket was thrown on top of him, and he was told to be silent. How much he saw has been lost to history, but it's known that he wasn't able to give police many details.

A second May attack

In a matter of weeks, there was another murder at the hands of the Servant Girl Annihilator. Mysterious Universe reports that on the night of May 22, Irene Cross became his next victim. Texas Monthly tells of how Irene Cross was attacked with a knife instead of an ax. The publication notes that the victim was "sliced up" and that a reporter at the time had written that it looked as though Cross had been scalped. The police believed that her killer and the man who killed Mollie Smith and Eliza Shelley were the same. American Killers also gives some more disturbing information about the condition Cross' killer left her in — he severed one of her arms from her body.

The summer of 1885 was quickly upon the people of Austin, and there were still no substantial clues in the murders for authorities to go off of. Though the new season would blossom and begin to die without any other attacks, it's probably easy to imagine the terror and frustration the people felt with an unidentified murderer on the loose. But the inactivity from the killer came to an end on August 31. Rebecca Ramey and her 11-year-old daughter Mary were asleep in the servant's quarters behind the home of their employer, Valentine Weed. After creeping into the bedroom, the killer struck Ramey in the head with an ax. She survived and woke up to find Mary missing. A search of the grounds revealed the body of Mary in an alley. She had been sexually assaulted and had an unidentified sharp object penetrating her ears.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The last known murders were a Christmas Eve slaughter

September 28 was the night of another double attack. Servant Gracie Vance and her boyfriend, Orange Washington, became the next victims. The couple had overnight guests that evening. Vance's employer, William Dunham, was jolted awake by screams coming from the yard. He went outside in time to see one of Vance's guests struggling with a man. He saw Dunham and ran off. Vance's lifeless body was found soon after. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death with a rock. As for Washington, he was hit with an ax and lived for a short time before he died from his injuries (per American Killers).

The end of the ax-murder spree was a holiday slaughter. In two separate attacks, Eula Phillips and Sue Hancock were killed by the Servant Girl Annihilator on Christmas Eve. The women were both killed by an ax, but there was one variation in the MO that day — Culture Map reports that the women were found by their husbands in their respective backyards. Up until the murders of Phillips and Hancock, all of the confirmed victims had been African American, whereas the final two were white. Neither Phillips nor Hancock were servants, making them the only two who were not attacked in servant's quarters.

More than 400 men were questioned as suspects in these horrific murders, but they remain unsolved nearly 150 years later. Modern researchers have their theories on who the responsible party(ies) were, but the cases remain officially cold.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).