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

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

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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.

The introduction and epilogue are read by the author.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781427261779
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.08(w) x 5.89(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Skip Hollandsworth is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter, and executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. 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.

Read an Excerpt

The Midnight Assassin

Panic, Scandal, And The Hunt for America's First Serial Killer

By Skip Hollandsworth

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Walter Ned Hollandsworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9768-9


A few days before the first murder, the telegraph lines began buzzing with news about a storm making its way south from the Canadian Rockies. A Western Union operator in Sioux City, Iowa, punched out the words "13 degrees at 2 p.m. ... ice ... trains slowing."

It was a blue norther, people were saying, the oncoming clouds low and dark blue along the horizon. The storm swooped through the Great Plains, where the cattle turned their rumps against the wind, and then it rushed into Texas, moving so quickly that a cowboy, traveling on horseback across a treeless stretch of land near the town of Archer City, froze to death before he could find shelter. According to a newspaper account, when the cowboy was finally found, he was slumped on the ground, a rim of ice covering his mustache, his eyelids, and the edges of his hat.

When the norther reached the city of Austin, the capital of Texas, in the early morning hours of December 31, 1884 — New Year's Eve — it was still cold enough to drop thermometers there by another thirty degrees. The wind knifed through the cracks in the houses, rattling coffee cups laid out on kitchen tables. Ice bounced off the roofs like dried peas. A young man named Tom Chalmers, who was lying in bed at the home of his brother-in-law on the western edge of the city, heard a knocking sound at the front door. Chalmers then heard the voice of a man.

"Help me."

Chalmers and his wife, who lived outside Austin on a small ranch, had come to the city earlier that week to celebrate the holidays. They were the only ones at the home that evening. Chalmers's brother-in-law William Hall, an insurance agent, was with his wife in the coastal city of Galveston, where they had once lived, visiting friends.

The knocking at the door persisted. "Help me," the man shouted again.

Chalmers was not an easy man to intimidate. A former member of the Texas Rangers, the state's police force, he had once been featured in the Austin Daily Statesman after he had been thrown by his horse, face-first, onto the ground, breaking all of his front teeth. The article had congratulated Chalmers on his fortitude, noting that he had spit out his broken teeth, returned to his horse, and kept riding.

On this frigid evening, however, he was not all that eager to leave his warm bed. Then he heard the front door open.

The home of Chalmers's brother-in-law was one of Austin's nicer residences, more than 2,000 square feet in size, with two chimneys and ten-foot ceilings. The master bedroom was toward the back of the house. Chalmers rose, crept to the bedroom doorway, and peered down the hall. He had no weapon: his gun was sitting in another part of the house. In the deep gloom of the foyer, he saw a man move past the draperies and stagger over the wooden floors. Based on what Chalmers later told police and newspaper reporters, the man said, "Mr. Tom, Mr. Tom, for God's sakes, do something to help me! Somebody has nearly killed me!"

Chalmers lit a match and held it before him. The light flickered across the face of Walter Spencer, a twenty-nine-year-old black man who worked as a laborer at Butler's Brick Yard. Spencer was also the boyfriend of Mollie Smith, who worked as a cook and maid at the Halls' home. Mollie was a pretty young woman, about twenty-three years of age. She was known as a "yellow girl," a phrase used by white people in those years to describe a light-skinned black person. She worked six days a week in return for a monthly salary of ten to twelve dollars and a free place to live, which consisted of a tiny one-room servants' quarters — a shack, really, that was in the backyard.

Spencer was barefoot, clad only in a nightshirt. Blood was oozing from several gashes in his head. He was wobbling, as if he was having trouble keeping his balance. He told Chalmers that someone must have attacked him while he had been asleep in bed next to Mollie, hitting him over the head and knocking him unconscious. And the person who attacked him, he said, must have done something with Mollie. She was nowhere to be found.

Spencer seemed terrified, his breaths coming in gasps. He said he had looked for Mollie in the back and front yard, and that he had searched for her up and down the street. Without a lantern, however, he could see nothing: the sky was as black as a skillet. The blood from Spencer's head wound was still flowing down his face and pouring into his mouth, making it difficult to breathe. He had trouble keeping his head up.

"Mr. Tom, please ...," Spencer pleaded.

But Chalmers had no intention of walking outside in such weather and looking for a black man's missing girlfriend. That was a matter, of course, that could wait until daylight. What Spencer needed to do, Chalmers said, was wrap a bandage around his head before he bled to death. Chalmers escorted Spencer out of the house, shut the front door, cleaned the blood off the floor, and returned to bed.


By the time the sun rose at 7:28 that morning, the norther had passed on to the south, but there was still a stinging cold. Only a handful of Austin's 17,000 citizens dared to step outside. It was the kind of morning, a newspaper reporter would later write, "when the average Austin man prefers to lie still ... and let his wife get up and make the fires."

A little after nine o'clock, the telephone began ringing in the Austin Police Department. The department was located in a large room on the second floor of city hall. It contained a few chairs and tables, a potbellied stove, and a couple of tarnished brass cuspidors for the officers to use whenever they needed to spit out their chewing tobacco. On a wall was the telephone: a walnut box with a hole in the middle, a trumpet-like receiver on one side, and a crank on the other. The department's day clerk, Bart Delong, picked up the receiver, turned the crank, and shouted "Police!" into the hole.

There was static over the phone — after a storm, the telephone wires hanging above the streets would usually get tangled, causing heavier static than usual — and then came the voice of a Hello Girl from the downtown telephone exchange. She told Delong that she was patching through a call from the phone box at Ravy's Grocery in the western part of the city.

After some more static, Delong heard the voice of Dr. Ralph Steiner, a surgeon who had been working in Austin for more than twenty years. Steiner kept his remarks brief. All that Delong wrote on the daily police log was the following:

Doctor Steiner reports a woman lying near Ravy's store and wishes an officer sent out to take charge.

The Austin Police Department consisted of twelve men. Only a few of them were in the office that morning. Grooms Lee, the city's young marshal (chief of police), was home in bed, suffering from dengue fever, a virulent form of the flu. The number two man in the department, Sergeant John Chenneville, was taking the morning off; he would be working the streets later that evening, keeping watch over the New Year's Eve revelers. Delong pointed to William Howe, a young officer who was in his midtwenties, and ordered him to Ravy's to find out what had happened.

Howe mostly did patrol work, spending his shifts on the downtown streets, handing out tickets to citizens who left horses unhitched in front of businesses or who drove their carriages faster than a "slow trot." He arrested vagrants, gun toters, sneak thieves (shoplifters), and moll buzzers (pickpockets who specialized in robbing women). He collared drunks who urinated in the alleys behind the saloons and prostitutes who wandered outside the boundaries of Guy Town, the city's vice district in the southwest corner of downtown.

One thing Howe did not do was investigate the four or five murders that occurred in Austin every year. Those were left to Sergeant Chenneville, who handled all the major criminal investigations. Nevertheless, because Dr. Steiner had said nothing in his phone call about foul play, there was no reason to think the woman's death was due to anything but an accident. Perhaps she had slipped on some ice during the previous night's storm and succumbed to exposure — the kind of death that would require a minor police investigation, if that. Surely, if the woman had been murdered, Steiner would have mentioned that fact to the police.

Howe put on his department-issued Stetson hat and double-breasted gray overcoat with two vertical rows of buttons and a tin police badge pinned to the lapel. He walked down the iron stairs leading to the first floor and headed for the police department's stable behind the city hall building. He mounted a horse and rode toward Ravy's, which was a half mile from downtown. When he arrived, he was directed across the street to the home of the young insurance man William Hall.

Tom Chalmers and Dr. Steiner, who lived a couple of houses away, were waiting for him. A few other men from the neighborhood were also standing around. Chalmers told Howe about Walter Spencer coming to the house, looking for his girlfriend, Mollie Smith, and begging for help. Steiner mentioned that Spencer had come to his home after leaving the Hall residence, where Steiner bandaged his head and sent him on his way. Chalmers then said that just after daylight, a black man who worked for one of the Halls' neighbors had stepped into the back alley to collect some firewood. The man had looked down the alley and seen a "strange-looking object" lying on the ground behind the Halls' outhouse. At first, he thought it was a dead animal. But after taking a closer look, he had seen the scrap of a nightdress. He realized there were legs coming out of that dress: human legs, grotesquely bent. Then he had started screaming.

Chalmers told Howe that he, Steiner, and others had come out of their homes, hurried over to the outhouse, and looked at what the black man had found. Steiner had volunteered to walk over to Ravy's to call the police. Perhaps because he didn't want to offend the sensibilities of the Hello Girl, whom he suspected would be listening in on the phone call, he had decided to say very little to Delong, the police clerk, about what he'd seen.

Howe walked into the servants' quarters. He noticed that two or three pieces of furniture in the small room had been upended and a mirror knocked to the floor and broken. On the bed, the sheets and pillows were saturated in blood. Blood had dripped off one side of the bed and formed a puddle on the floor. At the foot of the bed was a bloodstained ax. On the wall by the door leading into the backyard was a bloody handprint showing what the police in those years called "finger marks."

Howe opened the door and followed a trail of blood for more than fifty feet, got to the outhouse, and stopped.

Mollie Smith was on her back. Her head had been nearly split in two and she had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and abdomen. Some of the gashes were deep enough to expose her organs. Her legs and arms were also slashed. Blood was everywhere — bright red lung blood and nearly black gut blood. So much blood was around her, filling up the ruts in the alley, that she seemed to be floating in a pool of it.

There is no police record indicating what exactly happened next, but the most probable scenario is that young Howe headed back to Ravy's, called Delong at the police department, and, trying to keep his voice calm, told him he needed help. Soon, other officers arrived at the Halls'. Sergeant Chenneville eventually showed up on his big bay horse. Trotting behind the horse were his bloodhounds, two slobbering dogs of unknown origin that lived in Chenneville's backyard when they weren't tracking criminals on the run.

Chenneville was in his late thirties. He was built like an upright piano through the shoulders, and had a thick mustache that drooped over his upper lip. Whenever he walked into city hall, the employees didn't have to look up from their desks to know he had arrived because of the heavy thud his boots made across the floor. Some of those employees, especially the less muscular men who worked in accounting, had no particular desire to make eye contact with him, perhaps fearing that he might walk over, thrust forward his gun hand, and say hello. According to local gossip, Chenneville's handshake was strong enough to crack corn.

Most citizens fondly called Chenneville "Ronnie O Johnnie." Raised in New Orleans, where he spent his teenage years working as a cabin boy on a Confederate ship that traversed the Mississippi River during the Civil War, Chenneville had come to Austin in the mid-1870s, joined the police department, and quickly became known, in the words of the Daily Statesman, as Austin's "most industrious officer." He was often seen barrel-assing down the dirt streets, chasing after troublemakers, his holstered gun slapping against his thigh, and at night he didn't hesitate to push his way into the saloons to break up the brawls among the cowboys who had ridden into town to "hell around," as the police officers wrote in their reports. Because his voice was so loud and commanding, he even had agreed in those years to be the auctioneer at the city market held on Saturday mornings in front of city hall, selling off everything from dry goods to sides of beef.

Now, a decade later, there was very little about Ronnie O Johnnie that had changed. To let the city's rogues and riffraff know that he was still in charge, he continued to work the dirt streets, riding through downtown at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon, always keeping his back perfectly straight —"straight as a bull's dick" was the phrase some men used in those days to describe horsemen with good posture. He also maintained a network of "pals" throughout Austin: informers who, in return for a handful of coins, kept him abreast of the activities of the city's more disreputable characters.

Chenneville was so devoted to his job that he had traveled to San Antonio in November, less than two months earlier, just to get a look at all the thieves working the horse races there. He said he had wanted to memorize their faces in case they decided to come up to Austin's annual fair in December. When the fair passed without a single crime taking place, the Daily Statesman had praised Chenneville for his "untiring vigilance" at watching over "the visiting crooks."

Chenneville walked into the Halls' backyard and headed to the outhouse to take a look at Mollie Smith. Unlike young Officer Howe, he had seen his share of dead bodies. He had seen men who had been shot or stabbed. He had watched murderers and horse thieves, black hoods over their heads, hanged from scaffolding behind the county courthouse, their feet continuing to kick even after the rope had snapped their necks. He had come across a lonely prostitute known as Buzzard Liz, named for the smallpox scars across her face, who had "suicided" from a morphine overdose in an alley.

But he had never seen anything like this. Mollie Smith had been ripped open like a calf at a slaughterhouse.

Despite all the years Chenneville had spent chasing criminals, the truth was that he was not exactly an experienced homicide detective. Almost all the murders he had investigated had taken place in Austin's saloons and poorer neighborhoods, where small, drunken insults had escalated into deadly brawls and personal scores had been settled with knives or guns. None of the killings had been carefully planned out, and more often than not they were carried out in front of at least one eyewitness. Rarely did a killer even try to flee. All Chenneville had to do was ride up on his horse, remove the smoking gun or bloody knife from the killer's hand, and drag him to the calaboose — the local jail, which was just down the hall from the police department.

But on this morning, Chenneville had no killer waiting to be arrested. Nor did he have any eyewitnesses or "pals" to tell him who the killer was. What's more, he had no forensic tools to help him study the murder scene. In 1884, the science of criminology had not yet been invented. Police officers had no idea that the way blood dripped across the floor or spattered against the wall could help them decipher how a murder took place. They didn't know that hairs or fibers found on a victim could possibly help identify a killer. Through a microscope, they could distinguish the blood of human beings from that of other animals, but so far, no system of blood typing had been created to distinguish one human being's blood from another's. Although a scientist, Dr. Henry Faulds, had published a paper in 1880 suggesting that finger marks were so unique to a person that they could be used for identification, no procedure had been devised so that police could accurately record or store those prints.

As part of their standard murder investigations, police officers did look for footprints or shoeprints around a body. Sometimes they would have those prints measured and replicated on a sheet of paper or a piece of wood, or even dug out of the earth and preserved with plaster of Paris, hoping they could later be matched with the prints of a murder suspect. But if there were any prints close to Mollie's body, they had already been obliterated by the boots of Chalmers, Steiner, and other men from the neighborhood who had come into the backyard to look at her.

The only real investigative tools Chenneville had at his disposal this New Year's Eve morning were his two bloodhounds. Baying at the top of their lungs, their strange harmonic chorus as complex as part singing, they were led to Mollie's body and then to Mollie's room, where they dropped their heads, their nostrils flaring as they smelled the floor, the bed covers, the wall with the finger marks, and the ax.

Like their owner, however, the dogs had never before encountered such a scene. All that they seemed to be able to smell was Mollie's blood. They didn't pick up any other scent, nor did they take a single trail.


Excerpted from The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth. Copyright © 2015 Walter Ned Hollandsworth. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

“A killer who gives to history a new story of crime.”


December 1884–April 1885

“Doctor Steiner reports a woman lying near Ravy’s.”


April 1885–August 1885

“Who was it? Who did this to you?”


September 1885–Christmas Day 1885

“A woman has been chopped to pieces! It’s Mrs. Hancock! On Water Street!”


December 26, 1885–January 1886

“The whole city is arming. If this thing is not stopped soon, several corpses will be swinging from the tree limbs.”


February 1886–May 1888

“A prominent State officer and an active candidate for the Governorship of Texas . . . knows something about Eula Phillips’ murder.”


September 1888–August 1996

“I would suggest that the same hand that committed the Whitechapel murders committed the Texas murders.”


“If no one could catch the killer back when he was alive, what makes you think you can catch him now?”

Notes and Sources 271

Bibliography 297

Acknowledgments 309

Illustration Credits 311

Index 313

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