In my heart it’s always October. The night is full of terrors and we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. October is Harvest Moon, Ray Bradbury and unsolicited confessions. Here you go: When I’m running and hear footsteps from behind, I almost always suspect it’s someone running with a sword and I’m about to lose my head. Yet I never duck.
September’s good, too. September will forever be my month to shake off summeritus with deep thoughts about what to be for Halloween even though I never follow through. My little pumpkin already liquefied. It’s a sign. Of what who knows, but it’s a sign. Maybe death to my pumpkin was the universe’s way of saying Read more horror or else.
Let’s begin our dive into the darkness with nonfiction. The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth tells the true story of how an anonymous murderer terrorized Austin, Texas in the late 19th century just as it began to grow into a city. Whether he then moved on to forever haunt the Whitechapel district of London remains a mystery, which means yes it’s him Jack the Ripper was a Texan. Or maybe not. Regardless, an extensive amount of research went into this seamless narrative history.
From 1884 to 1885, a brutal murderer unleashed a mad storm of violence and corruption on the burgeoning city of Austin, Texas. The author grounds us in time and place through introductions to major players in both the city’s growth and the murder cases’ mishandling as both exploded concurrently. We don’t get to know much about the first victims. Where the sheriff and deputies, mayor and other political climbers were often prominent white men with paper trails the author was able to reference, the first victims were black female servants. We learn their names, who they lived with in the shacks behind the nice houses they worked in and where they were buried.
Hollandsworth reconstructs the murders in some detail, which is solid, based on the substantial bibliography. Can’t lie here, it feels wrong to know so much about the deaths of these women and next to nothing of their lives, but the same can be said for the victims of the most notorious serial killers.
I’m not generally a reader of true crime. While I love horror, reading about real murders doesn’t appeal. The exception is true crime that occurred prior to forensic science, before fingerprinting and, you know, protecting crime scenes and preserving evidence. Mistakes were plentiful. This insanely intelligent killer knew exactly how to exploit the utter lack of methodology in crime solving of the time. The police should have done better, but what seems like basic common sense now was unheard of then. They were in the dark. Before forensic science, police had no idea how much they didn’t know.
As the author explains, murders weren’t really crimes that required much in terms of solving. Murders were public shootouts. Shooters often bragged. Outlaws wrote books of their crimes. Let’s call them Idunnits.
Enter into this world an anonymous someone who kills for pleasure, moving silently through the night, striking quick and bloody then disappearing without a trace. This was the beginning of a new nightmare and Austin police responded nightmarishly. When they believed the killer was a black man, suddenly all black men were guilty until beaten and tortured.
People in town were disturbed by the servant murders, but it wasn’t until two white women were murdered in the same night that panic hit home for everyone. The next victim could be anyone. The author focuses on Austin, the murders, the accused and the many many mistakes made along the way. And then there’s the big maybe – maybe the next victims were London women.
This isn’t Jack The Ripper, the early days. Near the end Hollandsworth briefly goes into the speculation. At the time, some London police believed the murders in Whitechapel and Austin may have been committed by the same hand.
The possibility that Jack the Ripper was an American is so strange it almost must be true. Then again, every theory sounds plausible to me. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a Pinkerton. Even more surprising is that, as far as I know, this was an untold story until Hollandsworth poured himself into the task. He handles the subject with integrity. Crimes and bodies are described not gratuitously, but in graphic detail. Squeamish readers may want to read from a distance.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s hard to believe this dark slice of our country’s history is so little known.