Before Jack the Ripper, there was The Midnight Assassin. He was a serial killer in Austin, Texas, and maybe the first serial killer. He sometimes simply scared women by standing in front of a window, sometimes beat women and went through their clothes, and sometimes killed them. His weapons of choice were iron rods inserted in the ears, an axe swung at the face, and a brick. In the mid-1880s he killed at least five women in Austin, totally changing the mood and even the landscape of Texas’ little capitol city. People won and lost their livelihoods and their freedom because of The Midnight Assassin. Newspapers and “alienists” (psychologists) even speculated that Jack the Ripper (he came later) was either The Midnight Assassin, or a copycat.
As a Texan, I was shocked when I first read about the killings this year. I had lived in Texas since the 1980s and in Austin since 1992 – how did I not know about these gruesome events? That’s the same question Skip Hollandsworth had at least a decade ago. As a crime writer, Hollandsworth has been successful and has had pieces appear in national publications often. He’s also been the editor of Texas Monthly, which is a big magazine if you live in Texas. He’s not a crackpot, and he did his homework. It took him a decade’s worth of research to cobble together the timeline of events and major players.
If you live in Austin in particular, Hollandsworth’s narrative is fascinating. The book is about the development of the city as much as it is about a serial killer. There are plenty of photographs in the book, and it’s fun to see what the city looked like in the 1880s and the 1890s, to hear about the building of the famous Driskill Hotel, or the statute on top of the Capitol dome. It’s sad to read about troubled race relations, which remain an issue in Austin.
If you are interested in Austin or serial killers, I highly recommend this book. Even though it’s nearly 300 pages, it’s a quick read. I don’t read a lot of true crime non-fiction because it can feel exploitative and I don’t like that. However, I made an exception in this case because I trusted Hollandsworth to handle the material appropriately. The book is entertaining and also respectful to the victims. It made me think about my city in a whole new way. That’s a sign of good writing.