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the midnight assassin

6 december 2016

I've said this before: the 19th century in America was a pretty lethal time and place. If the cholera, sepsis, and consumption didn't get you, you would certainly be blithely murdered by one of the many merciless killers that stalked the pleasant tree-lined streets of our growing cities.

One of the newer and better true-crime books about ghastly goings-on in Victorian America is Skip Hollandsworth's Midnight Assassin. The story is the eerier because the Assassin was never caught; there were never even any plausible suspects. He terrorized Austin, Texas for the entire calendar year 1885, and then disappeared as abruptly as he'd come on the scene. One theory that Hollandsworth discusses has the Assassin crossing the Atlantic and reappearing in Whitechapel in 1888 as Jack the Ripper. Their MOs weren't really the same, and the Austin-Ripper connection must remain fanciful. But there's a non-zero chance …

Austin's Assassin began by attacking, and eventually killing, black servant women. Occasionally he would kill a man who resisted him, but bizarrely, he would usually kill only one victim per household, leaving others alive but injured – survivors who were uniformly unable to describe him. He'd often pose the victims in unsettling ways. One of his murder weapons was a slender metal rod that he'd poke into the ear, and through the brain, of a victim. This is not a guy you want to meet even in a well-lighted alley.

The Assassin left political chaos in his wake. State and city leaders fell from power because of their inability to track him down. The racial animus behind the crimes deepened distrust between black and white Austinites, and helped aggravate the trend toward apartheid. When two white women were killed on Christmas Eve, 1885, the panic became all the greater, and even more ugly in its racial ramifications. For segregationists, uncontrolled mayhem among the black population was bad enough; for the killer to move on to target white women confirmed their worst fears.

Yet the lack of any actual black suspect hampered even lynch-law-minded Texans. One theory that gained some traction was that the husbands of the two women murdered on Christmas Eve were the real killers. Implausible as the single-attacker theory was to start with, the husbands-did-it proposal was truly out there. It required folks to believe that two men with uncertain motives would both flip out on the same night and carry out copy-cat murders using the same methods as a serial killer of servants. Attempts to convict the husbands eventually fizzled out for want of evidence.

Speaking of well-lighted alleys, the city of Austin's ultimate solution to the Assassin was to install "moonlight" arc lamps on towering standards throughout the city. Amazingly, many of these towers still stand today, though their arc lamps have been replaced by modern elements. They are now landmarked, and persist as tangible remnants of a panic that subsided 130 years ago.

Hollandsworth, Skip. The Midnight Assassin: Panic, scandal, and the hunt for America's first serial killer. New York: Holt, 2016. HV 6534 .A8H65