[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
[Sidenote: This cover above is a much different cover than what was originally published. I have the original cover which has an image of one of the murder victims on the cover. I’m assuming it was too gruesome to keep using publicly and they went with this instead. If you want to see it, look up the book title/author in google images to see the alternate cover]
“The Servant Girl Murders documents the true story of a series of mysterious murders that occurred in Austin, Texas during the year 1885.”
[Sweet and to the point. Also, maybe also Captain Obvious wrote that caption.]
As a first note, I’m going to warn you that this review is going to be a bit different. It’s going to be a long review because I’m gonna be putting on my detective hat. Let me woo you with my knowledge of serial killers. [-flutters eyelashes-]
So to actually start off, this book is one of the first books to cover a subject that I’m very familiar with. This subject is of the lesser-known serial killer known as the “Servant Maid/Girl Annihilator.” I say ‘lesser known,’ because this serial killer came years before Jack the Ripper, and was just as brutal but not nearly as many people know him, especially that he’s one of the first reported in America – especially Texas. His reign was in Austin, TX and between 1884-1885. [It’s thought that he’s a male, but he was never caught. Sticking with believing he’s a male for this review, though] While an awesome name [named in a personal letter from a reporter due to how brutally the victims were killed] it’s also slightly inaccurate.
At first, all of the victims were African/African-American servant maids [all female at the time] but he also killed a man, two women who weren’t at all maids, and a child. There were also many who were seriously injured [they think that there may be as many as two to three dozen survivors in early 1884 that weren’t catalogued], but survived their wounds.
To loosely sum up the Annihilator, he was a very violent and sexually aggressive axe murderer.
The book isn’t so much a story or a retelling of a who/what/when/where/why, it’s actually the retyped/translated news articles that were happening in Austin and surrounding cities at the time. These articles include some interviews of witnesses, police/media at the time – but mostly it’s all just articles that were printed with information of the murders themselves. Reading through these gives both a pretty clear view of what was happening, but also skewed at the same time, since not all of the information was accurate, or was so constantly changing that details were lost or ignored, or had to constantly correct different facts.
One of the first [and hardest] things to deal with in this book was remembering/being reminded of exactly how racist things were at those times. Only a few sentences in, and the article that was printed explained a suspect by calling them a ‘darky.’ [cringes forever]
That was probably the least-offensive slur that showed up in the slew of other racist terms that showed up in the articles. I was able to swallow back my disgust and read it, but every time a suspect was called or described by a slur instead a general physical description, I died a little inside [which is saying a lot – as I’m already pretty dead inside]. You can assume I was on the verge of physical death by the end of the book. Needless to say I had to take a lot of breaks to watch cute kitten videos.
What I am about to explain may be taken as sort of ‘spoiler alert’ ish, but not really since you can literally just look up the facts online, being that it’s a historical event and all. But, if you wanted to learn all about the Annihilator just by this book, then you may want to go ahead and skip reading until I give the ratings. [when you see the second set of —‘s [it will also be in a different color font], that’s when you can keep reading if you wanted it to be decently spoiler free] If not, read on!
Over 400 people were suspected and arrested to be the Servant Girl Annihilator, but not a single person was proven to be the actual perpetrator. There was a man convicted for one of the murders, but it was overturned due to the lack of evidence against him, and actually more evidence proving that it wasn’t him. There was one man who had a mounting amount of evidence to be the killer, but more on that later.
In addition to the mentioned racism above that made it worse, is that how poorly the victims themselves were treated, and how little the Austin Police cared at the time. There’s one article that describes that when one of the murders was called in, the police didn’t show up until nearly seven hours later, but they showed up immediately to a simple domestic disturbance that was reported by white individuals. This happens repeatedly throughout the murders. I guess some things never change.
It’s no wonder the Annihilator got away for it so long. He probably knew that he could get away with going after African/African-American individuals because no one cared at the time. It wasn’t until he killed his first white victim that Austin citizens and Austin police lost their fucking minds. That’s when they called in more police support, and that’s when they started offering rewards. [And, to add insult to injury, there was a total of a $3,000 reward offered. $1,000 each for the white women killed, and a lumped $1,000 for all the other victims combined. Not kidding.] Just… awful.
What these articles showed me almost immediately, is that it seems that the suspicion that the Annihilator wasn’t working alone is pretty accurate. They may not even have been working ‘together’ so it speak, but more even of some kind of just general ‘murder gang’ as the police suspected. Even maybe just two dudes wanting to murder their own separate ways, but doing it the same nights as to cause massive confusion and delays.
There’s very distinct differences in the M.O’s [Modus Operandi] that went on with the victims. While most of the female-victims were raped [including the 11-year-old girl that was killed – ugh], others were not, even when the Annihilator wasn’t interrupted in his deeds. Some women were shot [the ones that were shot also were attacked in other ways, none of the victims were solely shot to death], others had either a railroad spike or other sharp object driven through their ears/temples [thought to be the sharp end of a fireman’s axe, possibly?], while others had their heads bashed in by blunt objects or beaten/crushed by sandbags. Also, only some of them had the more ‘creative’ deaths [though it’s thought that it was done post-mortem] of being nearly scalped, or cut open and their organs strewed about as far as they could stretch. Almost all the victims however, even with mixed wounds, were all definitely attacked with an axe.
Other than the fact that many bloody bare foot prints were found then, I really think with this confusion of different styles, it would be hard to even solve in modern times, maybe? However, in these days, we also wouldn’t ignore a serial killer, no matter what their victim’s ethnicities were. Also, we obviously have a lot more force in our police departments [which isn’t always a good thing either]. One of the articles in the book explained that there were days in the APD in the Annihilator’s reign that there were a total of seven police officers working at once at max. That is including sending ONE officer each to the outer areas of Austin, such as Waco or Temple.
Now, you may be thinking: ‘Well, Sab just laid out the general story for me, so why should I read the book?’ That’s because even though I’m laying out the general description of these crimes, I’m not going into detail like the articles do. It’s interesting, almost fascinating seeing how the police force at the time reacted [or didn’t react], how detectives worked, and the little/now completely outdated forensics were done at the time. Also, it’s an interesting read to see what was said in interviews, how different city officials and citizens reacted, etc. Additionally, the articles lay out where the areas happened and the lack of care that was taken to find the Annihilator at first. AND, if any of you reading this are actually Austinites, you really should read this book. It’s eerie having specific streets and buildings pointed out, so you know exactly where it happened.
Now, in the beginning, the book points out that many people think that the Servant Girl Annihilator and Jack the Ripper are one and the same. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for the Annihilator to have jumped ship across to the UK – except that his MO would have vastly differed between the two sprees, and had little to no medical expertise [that he showed on his victims] in comparison to Jack. The book ends [hints at, really] of one person who had a large sum of evidence pointing to them that the newspaper articles and the APD seemed to ignore. Also, when the suspect was killed later in a violent crime against a woman, the murders halted. Was this coincidence? Or was the Annihilator just long gone at that point? Or was it actually him? I’d say read and find out if you’re actually interested.
If anything, it’s a good book that points out a massive issue: Austin reeeeeeeallllly dropped the ball between 1884 – 1885.
Also some things I learned:
-The word ‘outraged’ was also used as a word meaning rape back in the day. As in: “After a medical inspection, doctors learned that the woman had been outraged by her assailant.” Which, I understand why that word was used, but being that I’ve never heard it used in these days in that manner, it was a bit difficult to get used to.
-For some reason I had no idea that the word ‘ferret’ didn’t just mean the cute little fuzzy tube-snakes that people have as pets. It’s used frequently in the book to mean to ‘search or discover’ or even to worry about something. I understood what it meant after reading it in it’s sentence/context clues, but the first time I read it, I imagined the animal and it took away the entire seriousness of the sentence.
Now, onto a little more about the book itself. I actually realized about 80% into the book that after the pages and pages of newspaper articles, the author sums up the entire thing at the end of the book, with minor but detailed descriptions of all events and victims/suspects. That actually annoyed me to quite a bit because while I enjoyed reading through the newspaper articles, there were quite a few times my eyes glazed over because it was repeated information, or stretched on and on longer than it should have.
Really, you could just read the end part and have a pretty detailed summary of the entire book and save yourself about 200 pages. Not that I suggest that by any means, but I kind of wish that the overview came first? Other than that, there’s really not much that can be critiqued on this book since it’s all just articles printed from 1884-1885. Informative, and an interesting read if you’re even minutely interested in these murders.
As a true-crime/non-fiction book, I was generally entertained, but I feel like those who aren’t 1. An Austinite 2. Into serial killers or 3. Not interested at all in this story – would be pretty bored. But like me, there are tons of us weirdos who find the subject interesting.
I give The Servant Girl Murders 3/5 Blows to the Head
“Blood! Blood! Blood! Last night’s horrible butchery. The demons have transferred their thirst for blood to white people!”
[Yes, this was an actual newspaper headline of the time. No, I shouldn’t have laughed hysterically, but yes, I totally did.]