It’s a balmy early October evening in downtown Austin, and tour guide Jim Miles is warming to his theme. “There’s simply no way to describe the fear and psychological horror that Austinites experienced from December 30, 1884 to December 26, 1885,” he says to the group participating in one of his weekly Murder Walks. “The racial, political, and economic ramifications of the murders also had a devastating impact on the city.”
Miles is a former high school history teacher and the owner of Walking Tours of Austin, which specializes in local history. Miles launched his Murder Walk in April 2019, using his considerable storytelling abilities to relay the gruesome story of America’s first serial killer.
Known in the press as the “Midnight Assassin” or “Servant Girl Annihilator” (the latter a nickname coined by the author O. Henry, who lived in Austin at the time), the killer took the lives of four Black servant women, one of the servant’s daughters, a Black man, and two white socialites, using axes and knives to hack and stab his victims before lobotomizing most of them with a steel rod.
Miles first heard about the murders in 2013, as a new arrival to Austin; he’d just moved from Charleston, South Carolina, where he earned a master’s degree in Southern History. When Miles took a tour offered by the Austin Visitor Center, the guide cryptically referenced the murders, and it piqued his interest. A Georgia native, Miles attributes his penchant for storytelling and fascination with the macabre to his grandmother, who used to entertain her young charges with ghost stories.
Seeking more information about the murders, Miles read journalist Skip Hollandsworth’s 2017 book, The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer, which is considered the definitive work on the subject. “One chapter in, and I was convinced this was a story that needed to be told on-site,” Miles says. “Standing on the locations where victims were found really helps people grasp the visceral impact this had on the city.” He notes most of his tour participants are older Austinites, many of whom “grew up only hearing whispers of the story.”
The 105-minute Murder Walk covers approximately 2 miles in downtown Austin, and features some of the city’s best-preserved historic buildings and a drink stop at the notoriously haunted Driskill Hotel. While none of the victims’ original residences still exist, Miles is a master at recreating the circumstances and carnage that occurred at each crime scene.
A mystery unsolved
Hollandsworth spent a decade researching the Midnight Assassin, even talking to surviving family members of some of the victims, but hard evidence is scant and limited primarily to newspaper clippings and police records. He was intrigued by the story because it remains unsolved—not surprising when you consider the study of forensics was in its infancy and only available in major cities. “Little old Austin, Texas, had no idea such a thing even existed,” he says of the 12-man police force tasked with finding the killer.
Still, the slayings made headlines worldwide and attracted renowned “alienists” (an old term for psychiatrists). Publisher Joseph Pulitzer even commissioned a 7,000-word article for his paper, New York World. While mass killings weren’t unheard of, this was the first recorded case of a cunning murderer who appeared to stalk his victims and ritualistically kill them. The Midnight Assassin’s victims included 11-year-old Mary Ramey, and Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips, who were killed just 40 minutes apart.
For the better part of a year, the police and city officials attributed the murders to a Black suspect and formed vigilante parties to raid Black neighborhoods. “Austin’s Black leaders were so anxious about the murders that they made an extraordinary decision to gather at the county courthouse, to ask that the city’s Black residents be given better police protection,” Hollandsworth says.
Eventually, suspects of other races entered the picture, from the white husbands of the two final victims to patients at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. One the strongest suspects to date is James Givens, son-in-law of the institution’s superintendent at the time, Ashley Benton.
Another key suspect is a Malaysian cook known as “Maurice,” who worked at the Pearl Hotel, which is where Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que is now located on Congress Avenue. He left Austin immediately following the last murder, telling a co-worker he was taking a steamer to London. The Austin slayings have a link to another unsolved crime of the 19th century: the identity of Jack the Ripper. There are some who believe Maurice was also the infamous slayer of London prostitutes; even Scotland Yard was on his trail. In December 1888, renowned American alienist Charles Edward Spitzka said, “I would suggest that the same hand that committed the Whitechapel murders committed the Texas murders.”
While the legacy of the Midnight Assassin has largely been forgotten—intentionally or not—there remains a permanent reminder of that terrible year: “moonlight towers” or moontowners. There were originally 31 tall steel and iron street lamps erected in 1895 and placed across the city. Today, 17 towers remain and are designated as National Historic Markers.
As Miles leads his group north on Guadalupe Street, he points to a moontower and explains how transformative their installation was for residents from a psychological perspective. Indeed, after a year of being terrorized by what lurked in the dark, Austin was finally emerging into the light.
Looking for a different way to learn about the history of your city? The following companies offer historic tours at some of the spookiest destinations in Texas.
Sisters Grimm Haunted History Ghost Walk, San Antonio: Of course, the Alamo has ghosts! You’ll visit some of the city’s oldest, most famous buildings, including the Menger Hotel and the Spanish Governor’s Mansion, and learn the stories of their incorporeal inhabitants.
Ghosts 915 Haunted Brothel Tour, El Paso: Offered by the Paso Del Norte Paranormal Society, this exploration of downtown El Paso delves into the dark histories of some the Southwest’s most notorious 19th-century brothels.
The Historic Jefferson Texas Ghost Walk, Jefferson: Dubbed the “most haunted small town in Texas” by various paranormal societies and television shows, Jefferson boasts all the trappings you’d hope for in a ghost tour: antebellum homes, haunted hotels, plantation houses, and bayous.
RJA Ghost Tours, Corpus Christi: Led by guides who are also trained paranormal investigators, these tours (also offered in San Antonio) focus on local folklore and historic sites, combined with intel on professional “ghost hunting.”
Haunted Rooms America Ghost Hunts, (locations throughout Texas): From Goatman’s Bridge in Denton and Beach Army Hospital in Mineral Wells to the Yorktown Memorial Hospital, these tours allow guests to spend the night at haunted historic properties and participate in ghost hunts.