In 1885, Austin, Texas, was terrorized by a series of murders so seemingly random and brutal they’re considered the work of the first American serial killer. People were reluctant to pay attention when the victims were servant girls or young women of color, ascribing the crimes to a gang of “bad blacks,” in part because Austin was prosperous and growing; murders in the news were bad publicity. In The Midnight Assassin, Texas Monthly editor Skip Hollandsworth tells the little-known story in riveting fashion, presenting this historical page-turner in spellbinding detail.
The violence of the killer’s attacks is genuinely horrifying—bodies were slashed so brutally they couldn’t be properly collected for autopsy. When a similar series of crimes began in London, some speculated that Jack the Ripper had used Austin as a training ground, though there’s ample evidence to discount that theory.
Hollandsworth balances the grim realities—once the citizens of Austin were sufficiently motivated to act, they asked for the right to make “citizen’s arrests,” which in this case would amount to nothing more than lynching on the spot (the request was thankfully denied)—with unexpected humor. The press sensationalized the story, but as the murders continued, one reporter, spelling his name “Frank Einstein” in the rush to print, went so far as to speculate that a real-life equivalent of Mary Shelley’s monster was roaming the streets in a murderous rage. Detectives with highly tenuous relations to the famed Pinkerton agency lived high on the city’s dollar while accomplishing next to nothing.
The crimes of The Midnight Assassin were never solved, largely owing to the paucity of investigative tools available to law enforcement at the time. Hollandsworth hopes that new evidence may yet come to light and identify the killer, but even left unsolved, this is a case that will leave you freshly grateful for electric lights, fingerprinting and CSI.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Skip Hollandsworth about The Midnight Assassin.