The Servant Girl Murders were a series of crimes, including eight murders, carried out by an elusive killer who subjected the city of Austin, Texas to an unprecedented reign of terror during the course of the year 1885.
The victims of the crimes were “servant girls” – usually young, African-American women who at that time were commonly employed as domestic servants in many Austin households. The epithet “servant girl murders” is perhaps something of a misnomer – one of the victims was male, the boyfriend of one of the slain women; one victim was a child, the daughter of a servant who was herself attacked but not killed; and the last two victims were married white women, neither of them servants.
In the first months of 1885, a pattern of crimes began which centered specifically on domestic servants. Their private quarters were broken into, rocks were thrown through windows, threats were shouted and people were frightened by the disturbances. Physical assaults, including attempted rape, became common, and as the year progressed the attacks became more violent and in some cases deadly.
By May, 1885, disturbances and attacks occurred almost nightly. There was a general belief that an organized gang was responsible for the attacks since such a rampage seemed beyond the capabilities of a solitary culprit. Many theories were put forward and as the crimes continued without resolution, speculations about the perpetrators and their elusive abilities grew more fantastic. The crime scenes were consistent – a bloody axe or other implement was often left behind, sometimes footprints were found and bloodhounds were used to track suspects. Victims made earnest accusations, profiteers contrived to gain rewards, police arrested several suspects, but responsibility for the crimes could not be proven conclusively.
Over time, public outrage grew and the police force was frequently declared ineffectual and incompetent. The city hired Pinkerton detectives but they too failed to solve the mystery. In December, 1885, City Marshal H. Grooms Lee was replaced by James E. Lucy, an ex-Texas Ranger, and the city police force was expanded in size. New ordinances were enacted by the city council, including a midnight curfew. Late-night sales of liquor were curtailed and vagrants were run out of town.
After the murder of two white women on Christmas Eve, the city was on the verge of chaos. The public demanded action regardless of the consequences and mob violence was a real possibility. Vigilantism was narrowly averted when those with calmer dispositions persuaded others that the rule of law had to be followed or the innocent would suffer.
All the efforts to stop the crimes had failed and a confounded city awaited the next outrage, but after December there were no further mysterious murders. Officially the crimes remained unsolved.