The Austin Axe Man — Chloroform

June 8, 2013 ·

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.

 

Next Post

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…
Read
Previous Post

The Great Bat Slaughter of 1885

Austin, Texas is the seasonal home to a large population of Mexican free-tailed bats who spend their summers under the Congress Avenue bridge on the edge of downtown.  According to Wikipedia it is the largest urban colony in North America,…
Read
Random Post

Discovering History at the Travis County Archives

Materials in Travis County Archives Collection. The mission of the Travis County Archives is to serve the government and the community of Travis County by documenting, preserving, and making available its records and history. The Travis County Archives documents the…
Read
Random Post

History Detectives Special Investigations

Last year I had the pleasure of working with the staff from PBS's History Detectives for the upcoming History Detectives Special Investigations: Texas Servant Girl Murders.  The cast and crew came to Austin last summer; they did a number of…
Read
Random Post

Saving Austin's History

Saving Austin's History A short film by Alpheus Media.   ______________________________
Read
Random Post

The Hancock Inquest - Graphic Details - Suspicions - Nightmares

The Hancock Inquest is a fascinating document filled with peculiar details, opinions and suspicions about the murder of Susan Hancock that were never published.  I thought it would be worthwhile to transcribe the handwritten document in full in order to…
Read