Friday, April 29, 2016

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer

Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin.  The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper.  The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.

It all started when someone began slaughtering Austin’s black servant women.  Most of the victims lived in detached quarters adjacent to the homes of their white employers, and in each case, the killer escaped the area without leaving behind any clues that could identify him.  Early witnesses, some of them children of the murdered women, could not even agree on whether the killer was a white man or a black man. 

Austin’s 17,000 citizens were concerned about the murders, but because the victims were all African-American women, it was easy enough for them to write the crime spree off as being the work of a gang of “bad blacks.”  For a year, the rest of the city had little fear that the murders might spread into their own community and homes.  That all changed on Christmas Eve, 1885, when within the space of a few minutes two prominent white women were butchered in their homes.  From that moment, Austin’s politicians and policemen pulled out all the stops in their attempt to catch the murderer before he could kill again  - even hiring two sets of Pinkerton detectives from Chicago (one set being real, the other fake).

Skip Hollandsworth
The Midnight Assassin is as much a social history of the city of Austin as it is a true crime story.  Barely twenty years after the close of the American Civil War, the relationship between the state’s white and black populations was still eerily similar to what it was before the war was fought.  Slavery might have been a thing of the past, but most African-Americans still struggled to live on what little wages their white employers were willing to pay them.  It was no coincidence that from beginning to end almost single person considered to be a potential suspect was black.

Austin was a city on the make it the 1880s.  As state capital, the city had an image to live up to – even if it was one largely in the minds of politicians who saw the unsolved murders of white women as a personal threat to their own careers.  Upcoming elections, personal feuds, and business considerations made it imperative that the murderer be caught, but it never happened.  The first serial killer in American history was never identified  - and he probably never will be – but The Midnight Assassin is still one heck of a ride.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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