The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth (2015) a rare (for us) brand new hardcover selection.
But how could we resist? This well-researched look into the series of brutal murders of Austin women in the 1880s was both sad, local, and involved historical research -- as a group of archivists / librarians / information professionals in the Austin area, we were in!
The murderer, who killed women in Austin between 1884 and 1885, has been alternately known as The Midnight Assassin and the Servant Girl Annihilator. He (or they?) killed seven women (five black and two white) and injured six other women and two men. The crimes were brutal, bloody, and violent, often committed with an axe or by sticking a sharp narrow object into the ear. Women were attacked in their homes late at night, often in the small cottages where servants lived in the backyards of their employers. As the murders continued and eventually affected white women in the town, Austin became increasingly frantic, with people buying guns and early home alarm systems to protect their families. The police were hampered by ineffective forensic techniques and the pretty intense racism that led them to haul in any black man who looked like trouble and then try to beat a confession out of him (sound familiar?). When two white women were killed on the same night, a political scandal opened up and shined a light on the dark side of upper-class Austin life. Newspapers around the country focused in on the wild happenings in this small Texas town, and the mayor and city boosters tried to deflect attention away from the crimes and towards the growth and business opportunities the city afforded. Eventually the murders just stopped. Some contemporary journalists drew a connection to the string of violent murders of prostitutes in London by Jack the Ripper, and detectives there even spent some time tracking down Americans in the area (including some Native Americans who were left behind during a wild west show) in case they might be a link between the two cases. The city of Austin installed the Moonlight Towers (many of which are still in use today) as a way to light up the night and, potentially, prevent this kind of crime from happening again.
Hollandsworth gives us a nicely researched and journalistic look into the time of the murders, pulling out details from the history of Austin that give depth and context to the reactions of the town at the time. His descriptions of the murders themselves, supported by his research in newspapers and police files, are brutal and effective, and bring the terror the town must have felt back then to life for the reader. While there is a general consensus on who the murderer was (hint: not Jack the Ripper), Hollandsworth doesn't come to any conclusions on that front, and just presents the theories and evidence as they were collected and presented to the public.
I really enjoyed this book, and if you have lived in Austin, like true crime, are interested in history, or just enjoy a good read, I think you will like it too. And now on to the next sad selection!
[A great source for pictures and more detail on the people and places involved in the murders, check out this site.]