Skip Hollandsworth never knew true crime was going to be a source of fascination for him until he happened to cover the trial of Charles Albright. His first story in that genre for Texas Monthly, entitled “See No Evil,” ran in 1993. It detailed the events of the Dallas man accused of murdering and gouging out the eyeballs of local prostitutes before dumping them in the city streets.
“I sat and talked with Albright. Here was a Renaissance man, well-read, a teacher, and someone who had very interesting hobbies,” Hollandsworth says. “I was flabbergasted to get into someone’s head like that.”
How a seemingly everyday guy like Albright could cross such a horrific line resulted in Hollandsworth’s obsession to uncover the stories behind others in the Lone Star State who did the same. He has found a home at Texas Monthly for many more Texas true crime shockers, like “Honor Thy Father,” starring a football team captain who murdered his father. Hollandsworth’s 1998 article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” was the genesis for the Bernie screenplay, co-written with director Richard Linklater. However, there was one killer whose head Hollandsworth could not climb inside—the phantom nicknamed the Midnight Assassin at the center of Hollandsworth’s new true crime book.
With his keen journalistic knack for placing the reader at the scene of the crime, Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer sheds light on Austin’s unsolved murders of 1884 to 1885, which struck women. What Hollandsworth uncovered about the killer, whose use of axes, knives, and long steel rods on his victims was eerily similar to another monster later terrorizing London, will nag Hollandsworth for a long time to come.
“I understand the Rippologists, who are still haunted by who Jack the Ripper was,” Hollandsworth says. “They cannot do much with the rest of their lives, because once you start investigating, it overtakes you.”
The Midnight Assassin apparently not only escaped capture by the law enforcement team at the time, but the notice of many historians throughout more than a century. Hollandsworth found dead end after dead end in many of the archived files.
“There were no long articles that I could find about where the mayor or the lead sargeant laid out their case. No article where anyone was quoted at length, so I was trying to interpret little bits of information,” he says. “Not sure if records were destroyed or if there was a conspiracy to cover up—but, today, there would be talk shows where people are sharing the why, how, and who of crimes like that.”
Austin was a small town of only 17,000 at the time. Hollandsworth kept asking himself, “How did the Austin killer never give himself away?” In addition to his intrigue about the investigations into the murders that suddenly came to a complete stop, Hollandsworth was as interested about what was happening to the capital city.
“When the murders began in 1884, Austin was still a frontier town, and here came telephones, the Driskill Hotel, the new state capitol. It was a glorious time in the city right at the moment these gruesome and unexplainable killings began.”
Hollandsworth, whose work was included in the The Best American Crime Writing 2006, delves in the book into scattered, and oftentimes missing, records to reveal Austin’s emerging cosmopolitan scene, the racial tensions, and a murderer’s trail that went cold. When the first round of slaughters occurred, taking the lives of black servant women and girls, the authorities targeted the presumed suspects.
“In the modern world, it’s hard for us to imagine that police would not know what was going on—we would have all those task forces, forensics,” Hollandsworth says. “But at that time, there was not one single person involved in the hunt that even thought about the concept of a serial killer—that one person was doing all this. They just rounded up black men,” says Hollandsworth.
But on Christmas Eve of 1885, the pattern changed when two white women were murdered in the same horrific fashion. “Eula Phillips was found dead in the wealthiest neighborhood, near the current Austin Public Library, and the second female lived where the Four Seasons now stands,” he says. “The story about the black man who was accused of the murders was so preposterous, they finally went after the women’s husbands.”
Many powerful aspects of the Austin of the late 1880s were brought alive for Hollandsworth through newspapers, like the “packed courtroom, with the dream team of attorneys, and testimonials about lovers." But one remains the most vivid in his mind.
“Reporters were flooding into Austin from across Texas and beyond to cover the 1885 murders. As I read their words, I could see the city become unglued and recognized that everyone was racing downtown to stand under the gaslight, because that’s where the light was. The culmination of those details was very thrilling and so completely true,” says Hollandsworth. “Hundreds, standing there, paralyzed. That kind of fear we just don’t see today.”
Hollandsworth dreams of the call he just might get after someone reads his book. “The caller will tell me, ‘Hey, there is a letter in my attic from my great, great grandmother that you might be interested in!’ Today, I still wonder where that scrap of paper is located to solve these murders.”
Terri Schexnayder lives in Austin and contributes articles to Texas Coop Power, Texas Highways, and other state magazines.