Austin: Home of the Nation’s First Serial Killer Over a Century Ago

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These days, Austin has the second lowest rate of violent crime among major cities in the nation. But few Austinites would have predicted such a thing in 1885.

“BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!” reads the headline of the Austin Weekly Statesman on New Year’s Eve of 1885.

The story goes on, as was typical of early newspapers, to describe in gory detail how 41-year-old Susan Hancock had been struck in the head with an ax while she lay in bed and was dragged to the backyard where she died.

It signaled a change of pattern in a series of murders that year.

Hancock was the sixth victim of a serial killer who terrorized Austin for a little more than a year and was never caught. Slavery in Texas had officially been abolished by 1865. But many white people employed African American servants.

The so-called Servant Girl Annihilator had previously only killed black women. Hancock’s Christmas Eve murder seemed to be a change in the pattern.

“THE DEMONS HAVE TRANSFERRED THEIR THIRST FOR BLOOD TO WHITE PEOPLE,” one of the Statesman headlines said. Newspapers tended to be more sensational back in the 1800s.

The same night, 17-year-old Eula Phillips was also murdered. Like Hancock, Phillips was among Austin’s white upperclass.

All of the murders happened around downtown Austin.

Fear and Mystery in Austin

Although dubbed the Servant Girl Annihilator, only half of the eight murders were servants. One was a boyfriend of a slain woman; one was the child of a servant; and two were married white women, J.R. Galloway, author of “The Servant Girl Murders Austin, Texas 1885” points out.

“After the murder of two white women on Christmas Eve, the city was on the verge of chaos,” Galloway wrote. “The public demanded action regardless of the consequences and mob violence was a real possibility. Vigilantism was narrowly averted when those with calmer dispositions persuaded others that the rule of law had to be followed or the innocent would suffer.”

Downtown had been a fairly dark place, with kerosene lamps illuminating only Congress Avenue. And the murders happened at night.

Downtown tour guide Elizabeth Garzone said that 10 years later the killings were part of the reason Austin installed moonlight towers throughout the city, 16 of which remain. (See our story about the moonlights here.)

“We were the site of the very first serial killer in the United States,” Garzone said. “This is before Jack the Ripper.”

“Mysteriously as the killings started, the stopped,” she said.

The murders remain unsolved, officially. But theories abound.

In 1885, many believed the murders had been the work of organized crime — or, at least, the work of more than one person. But history and investigation point to one killer.

The PBS show History Detectives dug into the case and suggest that a man killed by police after he attacked a woman at a saloon may have been the killer. Among the evidence were bloody footprints leading from prior killings showed the killer was missing a right baby toe — as did the man killed during the saloon shooting.

“We probably  will never know whether it was Nathan Elgin that committed these brutal murders in 1885 but we do know a few things,” Kaiama Glover, the History Detectives host said. “We know that he was arrested for attacking women. We know the killing stopped when he was killed. And we know the profile fits almost to a tee.”