Capital Murder

Who murdered seven women and one man in Austin in a brutal year-long spree that began in late 1884? I’m haunted by the details of his crimes—and I’m not alone.

You would not have been able to turn away if you had seen her. Her name was Eula Phillips—Luly, her best friends called her—and in 1885 she was one of the loveliest young women in Austin. Her skin was pale, her eyes soft and contemplative, her dark, curling hair swept back from her temples. She wore billowy white dresses. One enchanted newspaper reporter described her as “beautiful, frail.”

Although she was descended from two of Texas’ most prominent pioneer families—one of her grandfathers was a member of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony—Eula was the perfect symbol of the new Texas that was finally emerging after the long, painful years of Reconstruction. Only two decades before, Austin had been a rustic cowtown with a population below 5,000. Cattle and hogs ran wild in the streets. But in 1885 the city was on the verge of modernity, its 23,000 residents riding on mule-drawn streetcars, talking on party-line telephones, dining on quail at Dick Bulion’s restaurant, taking in performances at the newly refurbished Millet’s Opera House, just off Congress Avenue, and then visiting the ice-cream parlor run by Mr. J. Prade, an enterprising young man who not only built a steam engine to run cooling equipment for making his dessert treats but diverted some of the air to cool his establishment during the summer.

Austin had all the makings of an urban paradise—the Athens of the West, some called it. Young scholars had their pick of three colleges; besides the two-year-old University of Texas, which could barely accommodate its 250 students, there was the newly chartered St. Edward’s College, which catered to Irish-Catholic immigrants, and the Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, for black students. The downtown bookstore, Gammel’s, had more than 10,000 volumes for sale. Nearby on Congress Avenue was Miss Barber’s art studio, which offered classes in oil painting. More than nine hundred workers were constructing a new state capitol, a towering monument of pink granite, and the cattle baron Jesse Driskill announced that he would build the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi: the four-story, $400,000 Driskill Hotel, at the corner of Pecan (now Sixth Street) and Brazos. On July 4, 1885, an estimated six thousand Austinites gathered to celebrate the laying of the Driskill’s cornerstone. Electric lights were strung across the streets. A brass band played. Mumm’s extra-dry champagne was served to the crowd, and Mayor John Robertson proclaimed in his speech, “No city in the state has a promise of a more healthful prosperity.”

At that moment, as the crowd cheered and raised their glasses to toast a gilded age, it was hard to imagine that anything could go wrong. Yet something already was—something rarely seen in American life, and never before in Texas. A cold, calculating killer, his identity unknown, was stalking the women of Austin. The attacks had begun nearly a year earlier, targeting the black servants of the city’s wealthiest white families. Some victims were only injured, having been able to make their escape or scream in time to scare off the attacker. Others weren’t so fortunate. In late 1884 a black cook named Mollie Smith was found laid out in the snow next to the outhouse behind her employer’s home, a

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