The Midnight Assassin
Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial KillerBook - 2016
From Library Staff
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 th... Read More »
In the late 19th century, Austin experienced a string of brutal murders that continued for almost a year. Skip Hollandsworth's novel takes a look at one of Austin's first serial killers and the frenzy it created in the city while law enforcement struggled to find the culprit.
From the critics
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Austin erected giant “moonlight towers,. ... some residents ... complained about the buzzing sound the lights made. They were bothered by the ash from the carbon that drifted down onto their heads, singeing their hair. The city’s gardeners were worried that the constant light would cause their corn and bean stalks to grow around the clock, which would require them to use saws to cut the plants down, and owners of chicken coops feared their chickens would ceaselessly lay eggs twenty-four hours a day until they dropped dead from exhaustion. The drunken cowboys who came to town on Saturday nights were not deterred at all by the tall towers. They circled them on their horses, firing their pistols at the lights, whooping with glee. Nevertheless, the members of the Board of Trade were so delighted with the lamps that they decided to change Austin’s official nickname from “City of the Violet Crown” (in honor of Austin’s stunning sunsets) to “The City of Eternal Moonlight.”
What most intrigued the World’s man was that the motive for the murders remained a complete mystery. Almost always in history, he wrote, violent murders of women “have love, passion, ambition or the supernatural for a background, as a somewhat relieving motive. But here in the city of Austin in the Nineteenth Century, these crimes seem to have nothing to palliate their naked brutality and gaping wounds. As yet, the ablest detectives can advance no satisfactory theory to account for their commission.” The reporter made it clear that he did not believe an “organized gang of vile Negroes” did the killings. Nor did he buy into the theories that the killers were hardened criminals with prison records or saloon drunks with violent streaks. He pointed out that “all the worst characters in town” had been “kept under watch” by the police since the murder of little Mary Ramey back in late August. If such men were guilty of the murders, he wrote, “they would have betrayed themselves long ago.”
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.
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.
It was now June 6, 1887. After nearly two and a half years of investigations and dozens of arrests, not one...
A few landmarks remain from 1885: the granite-pink state capitol, of course, as well as the governor’s mansion; the Driskill Hotel; the Corinthian-columned administrative building of the State Lunatic Asylum, which is now known as the Austin State Hospital; Millett’s Opera House, which has become a private dining club; a few other downtown buildings; and a handful of private homes that had been built for the city’s wealthiest residents. And scattered around the city are fifteen moonlight towers. .... In the 1970s, city officials were able to get the towers designated as state and national historical landmarks. In their written applications to obtain such designations, the officials never mentioned the murders. They didn’t explain that Austin residents in the late 1880s had wanted the towers erected because they were still very anxious about what lurked in the dark. The
A prominent white Austin family posing with their “servant girl” and her daughter. (Interesting to note the feature of the black child vs her mother in the photo)
Architects planned for the Texas state capitol, under construction in 1885, to be larger than the U.S. Capitol.
The University of Texas was then “overflowing” with 230 students.
The Travis County Courthouse, also known as “the Castle,” where all the murder trials were held.
In the 1890s Austin erected giant “moonlight towers,” which some residents hoped would keep the Midnight Assassin away for good.
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