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The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth

October 29, 2018

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My friend Jonathan gave this book to me after I moved back to Austin. It’s an interesting portrait of Austin in the 1880s, as it was attempting to shed its reputation as a simple frontier cattle town and step up as a city to be taken seriously. Much attention was given by politicians to how the rest of the country perceived Texas and Austin (this was in the time when the state capital building was being constructed to intentionally surpass the height of the nation’s capital by a few feet). And then out of nowhere, someone started killing people with an ax.

Straight out of the horror books, he—presumably a man—began by hacking up African American servant girls. The crimes seemed random, though the town exploded with rumors and conspiracy theories. Trying to preserve its reputation, many (mostly black) men were rounded up and tortured to extract a confession. But none of them did, and the murders persisted. Eventually, the killer moved to the white district of town where, in the most heinous crime of them all, he killed two women by ax on Christmas Eve.

This book is full of interesting characters, including an ample supply of bumbling cops and corrupt politicians. It captures the excitement of the times as well as the entrenched racism. At the remove of over a century, we might find some humor or even quaintness in the story, but for the people of Austin, it was utterly terrifying. There had never been a serial killer anywhere—the phrase hadn’t even been coined yet. This was before Jack the Ripper. That more famous killer would appear some years later, and many investigators would try to link him back to the Austin killer, theorizing that he’d gotten his start by “practicing” with an ax in small-town Austin before graduating to mutilation by knife in the more cosmopolitan London.

Fans of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City will likely enjoy this book, though Hollandsworth has less to work with. The Austin killer was never identified. And as interesting as the history of Austin is, it pales to the story of Chicago during the 1893 World’s Expo. Still, a gripping and well-written true crime story. Worth the read, especially if you happen to live in Austin.

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