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 gaping hole in her head. A few months later, Eliza Shelly, who cooked for the family of a former state legislator, was discovered by her young children on the floor of the room where they’d been sleeping, her head nearly cleaved in two by an ax.

Three weeks after Shelly’s death, a third black servant, Irene Cross, was sliced up with a knife. A reporter who spoke with the dying woman said she looked as if she had been scalped. That September, a servant named Rebecca Ramey was knocked unconscious while she slept, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary, was dragged to a backyard washhouse, stabbed through the ear with an iron rod, and raped. Then came the murders of Gracie Vance and her boyfriend, Orange Washington, who were sleeping in a shanty behind the house where Gracie’s boss lived. The attacker hit Washington on the skull with an ax, then carried Vance to a stable on the property, where she was later found, “her head almost beaten into a jelly,” according to a story in the Austin Daily Statesman.

If there was one consolation for white Austin, it was that the killer seemed interested only in black women. But on Christmas Eve, 1885—after students at the State Institute for the Blind had given their concert, after the famous Presbyterian minister R. K. Smoot had completed his sermon—all hell broke loose. The body of Sue Hancock, a white woman described by one reporter as “one of the most refined ladies in Austin,” was discovered by her husband in their back yard, almost exactly where the Four Seasons Hotel is today. Her head had been split open by an ax, and a sharp, thin object was lodged in her brain.

About an hour later, Eula Phillips was found dead in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, near where the Austin Public Library stands today. Her nude body was in an unlit alley behind her father-in-law’s home, where she had been living with her husband, Jimmy Phillips, Jr., and their young son. Jimmy was in bed, nearly unconscious, a severe gash in the back of his head. The little boy was next to him, unharmed, holding an apple. Eula was found by following the trail of blood from the bedroom. Her skull had been bashed in by an ax, and heavy pieces of timber had been placed across her arms, as if to keep her pinned down during the attack. And she had been raped. A writer for the Fort Worth Gazette, one of many Texas journalists who rushed to the scene, reported that Eula was on her back, her face “turned upward in the dim moonlight with an expression of agony that death itself had not erased from the features.”

It is a spellbinding narrative, A multilayered tale of

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