Once sleepy Austin, Texas, was beginning to boom in the late 19th-century when a series of brutal murders rocked the town. The crimes were so vicious that when Jack the Ripper started his notorious murder spree in London, some in Austin wondered whether the Texas killer had moved abroad.
Skip Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly and an award-winning crime writer, became fascinated by the still-unsolved Austin case and reveals the details of his research in The Midnight Assassin. We contacted the author at his home in Texas to find out more about this intriguing true-crime narrative.
This story is not widely known. How did you come across it?
Actually, there have been a handful of amateur historians who have been researching the case, hoping to find the killer. Eighteen years ago, one of those researchers, an Austin schoolteacher hoping to write a novel about the killings, generously shared with me a couple of newspaper articles she had come across, and it wasn’t long before I was on the hunt, too.
Austin was in full flower when these killings began. How big a part did the desire to avoid bad publicity play in slowing the investigations?
A lot. Austin’s mayor prided himself on its “booming”—exuberant civic promotion in order to draw in more residents. And Austin at the time was changing, in the words of one newspaper reporter, “as quickly as the turn of a a kaleidoscope.” It was transforming itself from a frontier town into a modern, Gilded-Age city, complete with telephone and electric lights. The last thing Austin civic leaders wanted were headlines about mysterious murders.
What surprised you most in your research?
What didn’t surprise me? Let’s start with the diabolical way the murders were carried out, the ingenuity of the killer in escaping detection time after time, and the fact that for nearly a year, none of the authorities could wrap their arms around the idea that one man was behind it all. The killings also set off a huge political scandal that probably changed the outcome of the governor’s race. There was one criminal trial of a suspect—the prominent husband of one of the white victims—that became the O.J. Simpson trial of its day, complete with a dream team of Austin defense attorneys.
Did writing this book leave you with any impressions about what inspires serial killers?
I think the reason the Midnight Assassin is so fascinating is because we have no idea what inspired him, just as we usually have no idea what inspires serial killers today. Why did the Midnight Assassin want to attack women in a ritualistic way, leaving their mutilated bodies on display like works of art, and then disappearing into the night? It’s a haunting question.
It’s unusual to find humor in a book about a serial killer, but the “detectives” trading on the Pinkerton name were funny. Were you concerned about including levity in the story?
Not at all—and talk about surprises. At the height of the citywide panic, the great Pinkerton detectives arrive from Chicago to solve the murders, and it turns out they are frauds. It was such an unexpected twist in the story that I couldn’t help but laugh.
The press was breathless in its coverage of the crimes but seemed to support the view that a gang of black men (or Frankenstein) were committing the murders. Does the media do any better today in its coverage of sensational crimes?
I’m not sure. I do know that if this happened today, the media would be all over this story after the second murder had taken place. Reporters would be coming into Austin from around the country. And their reports would probably be more breathless, setting off public fear by proclaiming that a serial killer was running amok.
Can you point out some of the differences in how these crimes were investigated versus today’s procedures?
In 1885, there was no such thing as a CSI unit. The science of criminology did not exist. Fingerprinting had not been invented. Neither had blood typing. Of course, there was no such thing as DNA evidence. And cops did not yet understand that hairs found on a victim might provide clues to the identity of the killer. Outside of an eyewitness, the best tool the cops had was bloodhounds. They were brought to a murder scene, where they sniffed around, hoping to find a scent to follow. But in the Austin killings, the bloodhounds found nothing.
Did you ever feel close to a viable suspect while writing? Do you think the book might bring the case to a conclusion?
Throughout the writing of the book, I would wonder, Could it be this man? Or that man? Is the killer a barefoot chicken thief? Or is he a famous politician? Is he a Malaysian cook who disappeared suddenly just after the last set of killings? Or is he well-known young doctor who worked at the state lunatic asylum? The answer has got to be out there somewhere—in an old musty record in a police department filing cabinet, or in a letter hidden away in someone’s attic. Maybe this book will lead to the answer. But then again, maybe not. After all, this killer was unlike anyone ever before seen—a brilliant, cunning monster who set off a citywide panic, and then disappeared forever.
Author photo by Laura Wilson.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Midnight Assassin.