The true story of a serial killer in 1880s Austin, Texas.
The tension is high throughout Texas Monthly executive editor Hollandsworth’s first book. It’s clear from the narrative polish that true crime is one of the author’s fortes; he provides just the right amount of subtle hinting at a suspect and the accumulation of details left out until the perfect moment. The story may not be new, but it does seem to be forgotten. In 1885, before Jack the Ripper—whom Hollandsworth discusses throughout the book—ever wreaked havoc in London, a man (presumed) was attacking women in Austin. “For the first time on record,” writes the author, “an American city was forced to confront a brilliant, brutal monster who for some unknown reason was driven to murder, in almost ritualistic fashion, one woman after another.” Sometimes terrorizing without resorting to violence and sometimes brutally murdering the women with an ax, the culprit was never found. Plenty of black men were accused and even tried, but all were able to prove their innocence. The attacks stopped as suddenly as they started, and the city eventually moved on. First, though, they debated whether their killer had moved across the Atlantic and taken up residence in London, murdering prostitutes. With the ready-made comparison already echoing through the contemporary accounts, Hollandsworth uses it as well, a little too often. It doesn’t quite pan out for readers who are familiar with the well-trod history of Jack the Ripper. Hollandsworth’s theory about the killings is intriguing, and he subtly introduces it in such a way that it seems almost obvious that the killer has been pinpointed, but ultimately, there is no real resolution. Investigative techniques of the era couldn't compete with the killer, and there is no evidence left to double-check. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this is a mystery that remains such.
Not entirely satisfying but an engaging true-crime tale nonetheless.