The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killerby Skip Hollandsworth
A sweeping narrative history of a terrifying serial killer--America's first--who stalked Austin, Texas in 1885
In the late 1800s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the cusp of emerging from an isolated western outpost into a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. But beginning in December 1884, Austin was terrorized by someone equally as vicious and, in some ways,/b>
A sweeping narrative history of a terrifying serial killer--America's first--who stalked Austin, Texas in 1885
In the late 1800s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the cusp of emerging from an isolated western outpost into a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. But beginning in December 1884, Austin was terrorized by someone equally as vicious and, in some ways, far more diabolical than London's infamous Jack the Ripper. For almost exactly one year, the Midnight Assassin crisscrossed the entire city, striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class. At the time the concept of a serial killer was unthinkable, but the murders continued, the killer became more brazen, and the citizens' panic reached a fever pitch.
Before it was all over, at least a dozen men would be arrested in connection with the murders, and the crimes would expose what a newspaper described as "the most extensive and profound scandal ever known in Austin." And yes, when Jack the Ripper began his attacks in 1888, London police investigators did wonder if the killer from Austin had crossed the ocean to terrorize their own city.
With vivid historical detail and novelistic flair, Texas Monthly journalist Skip Hollandsworth brings this terrifying saga to life.
Fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City will relish this gripping and atmospheric account of a horrific series of murders in late 19th-century Texas that are largely obscure today, despite their fantastical elements and similarities to the Jack the Ripper butcheries. Texas Monthly editor Hollandsworth provides the definitive account of the killings that began on New Year’s Eve 1884, when someone attacked African-American cook Mollie Smith, stabbing her repeatedly and nearly splitting her head in two. With a novelist’s eye for detail, the author brings the reader inside the reign of terror that gripped Austin, Tex., as the killer “crisscrossed the entire city, striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class.” Hollandsworth successfully conveys the horror of the crimes, the baffling lack of an obvious motive, the so-called Midnight Assassin’s almost supernatural ability to strike twice in less than an hour, and the ineffective official responses to the murders. This true crime page-turner is a balanced and insightful examination of one of the most stirring serial killing sprees in American history, and certainly one of the least well-known. Agent: David Hale Smith, Inkwell Management. (Apr.)
Austin, TX, was evolving from a town to a city in 1885, with money flowing in and a bright future in sight. But that future was damaged by a series of brutal attacks that killed ten people—eight women (including two who were assaulted in nearby Gainesville), a child, and a man; the victims spanned race and social class. The police assumed it was the work of "bad blacks" and tried unsuccessfully to coerce confessions out of several men. Two of the victims' husbands fell under suspicion, but that went nowhere, and as the case dragged on without result many prominent Austin politicians saw their careers destroyed. The murderer (or murderers) terrorized the area for two-and-a-half years before disappearing without a trace, just months before similar crimes were committed in the Whitechapel district of London. Hollandsworth (executive editor, Texas Monthly) became fascinated by this nearly forgotten Austin story and searched through primary sources for clues that might have surfaced over the years, but the truth remains elusive. VERDICT The lively social history of a town on the brink combines with a riveting true crime story that will make this a favorite in regional history collections as well as true crime collections.—Deirdre Bray Root, MidPointe Lib. Syst., OH
Before Jack the Ripper mutilated prostitutes in the dark corners of London in the late 19th-century, Austin, TX, was besieged by a vicious killer whose victims were African American servants. He cut up women with an axe to the head and left them bloody in their beds. Husbands of the first three victims were arrested in succession, even though they had alibis and swore their innocence. Racism delayed justice for a year. Black men became so terrified of the police that they rubbed their feet and legs with asafoetida, a natural paste slaves had used when running away from their masters to throw off bloodhounds. Nicknamed "the midnight assassin," the murderer left an eyewitness, a nine-year-old boy who thought the man who killed his mother—the first victim—was white, but no one listened. Then on New Year's Eve, in 1885, two prominent white women were hacked to death within an hour of each other, and a wider search was undertaken. This is a painstakingly researched book written by a Texas native that examines prejudices, which still keep justice at bay. VERDICT This work introduces students to a grisly piece of American history and models footnote and bibliographic research. A must-have.—Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY
The true story of a serial killer in 1880s Austin, Texas. The tension is high throughout Texas Monthly executive editor Hollandsworth's first book. It's clear from the narrative polish that true crime is one of the author's fortes; he provides just the right amount of subtle hinting at a suspect and the accumulation of details left out until the perfect moment. The story may not be new, but it does seem to be forgotten. In 1885, before Jack the Ripper—whom Hollandsworth discusses throughout the book—ever wreaked havoc in London, a man (presumed) was attacking women in Austin. "For the first time on record," writes the author, "an American city was forced to confront a brilliant, brutal monster who for some unknown reason was driven to murder, in almost ritualistic fashion, one woman after another." Sometimes terrorizing without resorting to violence and sometimes brutally murdering the women with an ax, the culprit was never found. Plenty of black men were accused and even tried, but all were able to prove their innocence. The attacks stopped as suddenly as they started, and the city eventually moved on. First, though, they debated whether their killer had moved across the Atlantic and taken up residence in London, murdering prostitutes. With the ready-made comparison already echoing through the contemporary accounts, Hollandsworth uses it as well, a little too often. It doesn't quite pan out for readers who are familiar with the well-trod history of Jack the Ripper. Hollandsworth's theory about the killings is intriguing, and he subtly introduces it in such a way that it seems almost obvious that the killer has been pinpointed, but ultimately, there is no real resolution. Investigative techniques of the era couldn't compete with the killer, and there is no evidence left to double-check. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this is a mystery that remains such. Not entirely satisfying but an engaging true-crime tale nonetheless.
“Skip Hollandsworth knows his way around a crime scene…Fans of Erik Larson’s 2003 hit, The Devil in the White City…will find similar pleasures here. This is true crime of high quality. . . Mr. Hollandsworth handles gruesome details with a smart, restrained touch…Chilling."The New York Times
"Gripping and atmospheric...This true crime page-turner is a balanced and insightful examination of one of the most stirring serial killing sprees in American history, and certainly one of the least well-known."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“Readers who loved The Devil in the White City now have the pleasure of reading The Midnight Assassin. It paints a compelling portrait of a culture at a turning point – that is, the capitol of Texas at the end of the 19th Century, when the barbarism of the frontier was giving way to the savagery of urban life.”Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author The Looming Towerand Thirteen Days in September
“As a magazine journalist, Skip Hollandsworth has forged a reputation as one of the best storytellers in the country. The Midnight Assassin takes his singular narrative skills to a thrilling new level. Reading this book is like cracking open a time capsule and breathing the air of a vanished era. In Hollandsworth's hands, one of the ghastliest and most inscrutable crimes in American history becomes hair-raisingly immediate, and the mystery at its center grows ever more mysterious with every page.”Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln
"Skip Hollandsworth has achieved a literary miracle with The Midnight Assassin. With haunting granularity, Hollandsworth breathes vivid life into a forgotten, century-old tale of the hunt for America's first diabolical serial murdererset in, of all places, the quaint but upwardly mobile town of Austin, Texas. To read The Midnight Assassin is to experience the lost innocence of a 19th-century capital city set on edge by the unseen monster in its midst."Robert Draper, The New York Times Magazine and author of Dead Certain
"Skip Hollandsworth, one of the great true-crime writers of our era, has brought his remarkable talent to bear on one of the most fascinating untold criminal stories in American history. The Midnight Assassin captures a time, a place, and a feelingbooming Texas in the latter 19th centuryin a way no nonfiction account I have read has done. A jewel of a book."S.C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell
“Skip Hollandsworth has a bloodhound's nose for a great tale. With The Midnight Assassin, he's found the perfect subject for his many talents. Through scrupulous research and a finely tuned sense of the gothic, Hollandsworth has brought this Texas-sized true-crime story, more than a century old, to vivid, chilling life on the page.”Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound On His Trail and In the Kingdom of Ice
"As the state of Texas's best-known magazine writer, Skip Hollandsworth is not just a Lone Star treasure, but a national treasure. In this, his first book, he uncovers the amazing untold story of America's first serial killer, a phantom who stalked the streets of Austin in 1885, three years before Jack the Ripper. Whether you love true crime, history or Texana, The Midnight Assassin is bursting at the seams with everything you want in a great book; a spellbinding mix of mystery, horror and historical detective work. It's the book Hollandsworth was born to write.''Bryan Burrough, Vanity Fair special correspondent and author of Barbarians at the Gate, Days of Rage and The Big Rich
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Skip Hollandsworth is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter, and executive editor of Texas Monthlymagazine. His work was included in the 2006 edition of Best American Crime Writing and he has won a National Magazine Award for feature writing. Hollandsworth co-wrote the acclaimed screenplay "Bernie" with director Richard Linklater. He lives in Texas with his wife.Bottom of Form
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