Mystery Train to Austin

One-time Austinite Steven Saylor tells the story of the Servant Girl Murders through the eyes of one-time Austinite O. Henry in the novel A Twist At The End.

You think you know people, but you don’t.  A Twist at The End is an old-fashioned mystery novel of people not being who they seem, thwarted expectations and unexpected resolutions.

The novel begins in 1906 in New York, with O. Henry spending his last remaining years writing, drinking too much, struggling with deadlines and hoping to get paid.  There are a couple of shadows in O. Henry’s life – one in the form a blackmailing femme fatale; the other, a mysterious stranger haunting his favorite bar. Not unexpectedly both of these shadows are cast from his previous life in Austin, Texas, where he was then known as Will Porter.  To come out from their shadows, O. Henry must take a journey into his past and settle some old accounts.

The mysterious stranger turns out to be a certain Doctor Kringel, who has delivered unexpected news from an old acquaintance in Austin – that he has solved the mystery of the 1885 murders, but he will only reveal the details to O.Henry in person.  Intrigued, O. Henry agrees to accompany Kringel on a train journey to Austin and during trip he recalls his life, loves and misfortunes as a young man in Texas.

Originally from North Carolina, William Porter moved to Texas in 1882 and settled in Austin in 1884. In 1885 the 23-year-old Porter worked as a shop clerk and in his spare time sang in a men’s chorus group.

In the novel, during one of the group’s performances serenading a group of young women, Porter is smitten by the sight of a beautiful girl in attendance.  It is love at first sight, but she is a mystery, he has no idea who she is or how to find her.  Eventually he discovers her name, Eula, but she remains elusive until he meets her sister-in-law Delia, who begrudgingly parcels out details about her. Eventually Porter finds out more than he bargained for – that Eula is married and has a child – but he is not dissuaded from pursuing her and his efforts to woo her become increasingly careless.

(The relationship between Will Porter and Eula is fictional – they might have known each other, it was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there is no historical evidence that they did.)

As Will recklessly pursues Eula, something diabolical is lurking in the background – women being mysteriously murdered in the dead of night.

The murders themselves are in the narrative background of the novel — it’s more a complex of mysteries rather than a bloody crime thriller or horror story. Will Porter isn’t directly involved with the murders, nor seemingly are any of the other main characters apart from Will’s friend Dave Shoemaker, a crime reporter whose stories about the murders horrify and alarm the local daily newspaper readers.

The novel is virtually non-fiction regarding the details of the crimes. Saylor does not deviate from the historical accounts of the murders and he is meticulous in his descriptions of the local establishments, people, places and scenery of Austin as it existed in the 1880s.

A number of real historical persons play important parts in the novel including Marshal Grooms Lee as a stereotypical stubborn lawman and bully; William Gaines as a stereotypical gruff newspaper editor; Elisibet Ney as an eccentric sculptress; William H. Holland as an African-American teacher, community leader and voice of reason; just to name a few.

There were many wonderful narrative ornaments in the story, such as the ghost dog at Shoal Creek (I think I’ve come across that dog myself) and a lot of little history lessons that give the reader a sense of the social mores and idiosyncrasies of the times.  I especially enjoyed the last sections of the novel, the aftermath of the murders and the conclusion where Saylor frees the story from historical constraints and gives it a big finish on top of Mount Bonnell.

Saylor has genuine affection for the characters and I enjoyed seeing them imagined in ways that got them unstuck from their historical fates (to some extent) and brought to life and afforded a literary memorial of sorts.


The Austin Axe Man — Chloroform

Once there was a killer in nearby Austin who was still at large.  He had chloroformed his victim (rather humanely, I thought) before chopping her head off with an axe.  Fear that ‘dat debblish axe-man’ might strike again, in only the Lord knew whose house, resulted in some extraordinary precautions.  From the morning Pinkie heard about the axe-man’s method of operation until the day that he was finally trapped — a period of three weeks — she and Annie (her mother) kept full tubs of water inside their front and back doors and in front of the fireplace.  The water, Pinkie explained, would absorb the chloroform in the event the axe-man shot it squirt-gun fashion through the keyholes or down the chimney.  Just to be on the safe side, though, Pinkie confided, ‘Annie, she sets up half de night, and me, I sets up tother.’ (1)

This account of the servant girl murders was told to Edna Turley Carpenter (1872-1965) by her friend Pinkie Sorrel Bonner (1881-1940), probably before 1900, and re-told by Mrs. Carpenter in her memoirs some 60 years later.

The Austin Axe Man made strong impression on young Pinkie even though she was only a small child in 1885.  Although her childhood memories of the events might have been hazy, the account is remarkable for a couple of reasons:  the description of the elaborate safeguards taken against a perpetrator believed to be using chloroform; and the belief that the killer had eventually been caught.

If in Pinkie’s memory — the memory of a young black woman from the end of the 19th century — the Austin Axe Man had been caught, it is likely that it was a memory shared among the African-American community at the time.  Austin’s black population — which had been significantly impacted by the servant girl murders — more so than the white population — might have been more keenly attuned to the possible identity of the perpetrator, whereas in the white community and in the Austin press, the murders were still described as a mystery years afterwards.

Chloroform had been mentioned as possibly being used in the Vance/Washington murders but was never confirmed by the authorities.  I had previously thought the use of chloroform was a far-fetched idea, but I have subsequently come across a number of accounts of its use in crimes, especially robberies, during the 19th century.  It was frequently used to disable victims and allow the perpetrator to escape without being detected, or that was the intent, sometimes it didn’t work as planned.  Chloroform was hard to administer correctly — it was easy to knock someone out but they often regained consciousness if the dose was not sufficient.

Gainesville Chloroform Robbery

Austin Daily Statesman. December 6, 1888.

The following account from 1888 took place in Gainesville, Texas (2) where two men entered a house in an attempted robbery and tried to use chloroform to subdue a sleeping woman whose residence they had cased earlier in the day.  The woman, “felt a cold hand applied to her face and realized, though partially stupefied, that she was being chloroformed. With an effort she struck out with her hand and hit a man.”(3)  This story is typical, the victims were frequently female, the perpetrators were usually seeking an easy target and an easy escape rather than a violent confrontation.  In this instance they were chased off and later apprehended.


(1)  Carpenter, Edna.  Tales from the Manchaca Hills.  New Orleans : Hauser Press, 1960.  p.186

(2)  A double axe-murder was committed in Gainesville, Texas in July 1887 that was so similar to the Austin murders many were convinced it was the work of the same perpetrator.

(3)  6 December 1888.  Austin Daily Statesman.


H.B. Barnhart Gets the Credit


Austin native Henry B. Barnhart, was a successful attorney in 1885.  He was appointed Travis County Attorney in 1886.  An 1887 description of Barnhart’s career included the following passage:

H. B. Barnhart

With uncompromising firmness, he has made successful war upon evil and wrong-doing wherever and whenever found, and by vigilance and courage brought evil-doers and lawbreakers to justice…Not more than sixteen months ago, Austin had a national reputation for midnight murder, with criminals undiscovered and unwhipped by justice.  Crimes, the most nefarious and diabolical, were committed with impunity.  Then every citizen locked and barred his doors and windows, and slept with arms near at hand to defend his wife and children from the deadly ax of the midnight assassin.  Mr. Barnhart has been county attorney for fifteen or sixteen months.  Every citizen now feels secure; the law is enforced; the officers are vigilant, and Austin has become an unhealthy place for criminals, and they avoid its neighborhood. (1)

This is perhaps the only instance I have come across of someone being personally credited for Austin’s return to law and order after the crime spree of 1885.  This dubious honor was bestowed upon him by Lewis E. Daniell, a writer and publisher in Austin who in the late 19th century produced several “Successful Men” biographical compilations; these volumes featured prominent or would-be prominent Texans who had paid for their inclusion in the volumes and received flattering, if not fawning, biographical sketches.  Daniell immodestly described Barnhart as:

Great in all of his achievements, and as good as he is great, with a pure, noble and exalted character, he stands before us to-day as one who commands the affection and perfect confidence of the people; for, unwilling to pause on the first round of the ladder of fame in his profession, he has shaken off all trammels, and now stands a glittering star among the brilliant galaxy of Austin’s talented young lawyers. (2)

Barnhart had a successful law practice for the rest of his life. He died in Austin in 1901.


(1) Daniell, L.E.  Personnel of the State Government with Sketches of Distinguished Texans. Austin: Press of the City Printing Company, 1887.
(2) Ibid.