The year was 1885. The University of Texas was just closing its second year of classes, the Texas State Capitol was in the midst of construction, and a man who may have been the United States’ first serial killer was on the loose in Austin.
A man colloquially known as the Servant Girl Annihilator — whose real identity is still unknown — is believed to have murdered seven women and one man Downtown and in East Austin.
The victims were killed at their own residences between December 1884 and December 1885 — the last two murders occurred on Christmas Eve that year.
The first five women murdered were Black women, which may have contributed to mismanagement from city law enforcement and a sense of distance from white residents. Austin resident and writer O. Henry wrote in a letter that year, “Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead of night.”
The culprit of these murders was never tracked down, in part due to policing failures and racist treatment toward the murder victims and their partners. About 400 men were rounded up and questioned in relation to the killings, but all suspects were eventually released.
A quick note — the first serial killer in America is widely considered to be Dr. H. H. Holmes, who is believed to have killed several people in Chicago between 1886 and 1894. However, if the Servant Girl Annihilator is in fact responsible for all of these attacks, it would make Austin the first US city to have a serial killer.
Learn more: Watch a documentary about the Texas Servant Girl Murders on Austin PBS or read “The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer.”