The Servant Girl Annihilator

Late one night in February 1886 a saloon in Masontown in east Austin was the scene of a violent and disturbing incident.(1)

bluntrvariationA deep anger had been unleashed upon a young girl by a man in a drunken rage.  His verbal and physical abuse bit down on her and she cried for help but the man’s temperament was deadly and no one dared intervene.

The man forced the struggling girl from the saloon and dragged her to a nearby house where her continued screams could be heard from the street.  The commotion roused the neighborhood and the police were fetched. (2)

John Bracken holding a rifle. Detail from undated photograph. Galveston Daily News, 1921.

John Bracken holding a rifle. Detail from undated photograph. Galveston Daily News, 1921.

Police officer John Bracken arrived on the scene and accompanied by the saloon keeper, Dick Rogers and a neighbor, Claibe Hawkins, he went to stop the man from killing the helpless girl.  Bracken waited outside while Rogers and Hawkins went into the house and tried to pull the man off the girl.  The man turned on them and brandished a knife.  As Rogers and Hawkins grappled with the man, Officer Bracken got out the handcuffs.  The man would not be subdued – he threw off Rogers and Hawkins and knocked Bracken off his feet.  As Bracken tried to recover a shot rang out.  Bracken drew his pistol and fired back.  Bracken’s shot brought down the raging man.

The man’s name was Nathan Elgin.  There was no explanation for Elgin’s rage at the girl, named Julia.

Bracken’s shot did not kill Elgin but it did leave him paralyzed and mortally wounded; he died the following day.  Elgin expired without accounting for his actions.  A subsequent autopsy revealed that Bracken’s bullet had lodged in Elgin’s spine which accounted for the paralysis.  The doctors had also noticed another detail – Elgin had a toe missing from his right foot.

***

During the course of 1885 a series of eight murders had occurred in Austin, Texas, all carried out in a similar manner.  The victims were attacked in their beds as they slept; they were struck in the head with an axe and then carried into the yard where they were raped and mutilated.  Often the axe used by the perpetrator was left behind at the scene of the crime.  Also left behind were the bare footprints of the perpetrator who forfeited his boots to enable his stealthy entrances and exits.

During the investigations of the crimes the authorities had carefully noted the footprints which were often bloodstained and had made distinct impressions in the soil as the perpetrator carried the weight of his victim.

Apart from general measurements of size and shape, footprints in most instances are not especially distinctive and they would not have been much use to the authorities had they not possessed some unusual feature.  But the footprints left behind in the servant girl murders did share a very distinct feature – one of the footprints, the right one, only had four toes.

The authorities never shared this fact with the public or the press during the course of 1885.  The press frequently complained about the secrecy surrounding the murder inquests and argued that making all the details of the crimes public would facilitate the capture of the responsible parties more quickly.  The authorities disagreed and kept certain details of the cases to themselves – details that they hoped would eventually identify the perpetrator and directly link him to the crime scenes.

***

After Nathan Elgin’s death the authorities unexpectedly had the direct physical evidence they had been waiting for – a foot that matched the distinctive footprints.  But the foot belonged to a dead man.  What were they to do with that information?  What could they do with it?

To imagine the state of mind of the authorities at that time one has to understand the heightened state of fear and paranoia that was present in Austin at the beginning of 1886.  In the month since the last murder in 1885, the city’s police force had been tripled in size.  A curfew had been enacted and private citizens had organized into patrols to guard the neighborhoods after dark.  Strangers were forced to positively identify themselves or be evicted from the city.  Saloons and other raucous downtown establishments, usually opened twenty-four hours a day, were forced to close at midnight.  A whole new era of law and order had begun.  Would there have been any advantage in revealing that perhaps the midnight assassin was dead?  And what if Elgin was not the mysterious murderer of servant girls?  It was in the authorities’ best interest to wait and see if the murders continued.  Maybe the authorities believed they had gotten lucky – they couldn’t arrest, prosecute or convict Elgin, but perhaps the problem had been solved.  But in February 1886 it was still too early to be sure.  It is important to remember that at the beginning of 1886, the Christmas Eve murders were not the last murders, simply the latest, and the investigations into the murders continued, notably with detectives still shadowing other suspects.

While the authorities were not able to make use of the evidence against Elgin, the defense attorneys for James Phillips and Moses Hancock certainly were.  Eula Phillips, wife of James Phillips, and Susan Hancock, wife of Moses Hancock, had both been murdered on December 24, 1885 and both husbands were subsequently charged with murdering their wives.

In May 1886, during the trial of James Phillips, defense attorneys introduced into evidence floorboards marked with bloody footprints that had been removed from the Phillips house after the murder.  They were compared to the footprints of the defendant, who removed his shoes and had his feet inked and printed in an elaborate demonstration in the courtroom.  Even though Phillip’s footprints were substantially different in size than the bloody footprints on the floorboards, the jury was unconvinced.  The motives of jealousy and drunkenness as argued by the prosecution convinced the jury and they found Phillips guilty of second degree murder.

When the case against Moses Hancock was finally brought to trial, the comparatively destitute Hancock received some substantial legal help in the form of pro bono representation by John Hancock (no relation) a former U.S. Congressman, one of the state’s most prominent political figures and one of Austin’s most astute legal practitioners.

Sheriff Malcolm M. Hornsby

Sheriff Malcolm M. Hornsby
Courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, Ag2008.0005.

Also testifying for the defense rather than the prosecution, was Sheriff Malcolm Hornsby, who during his testimony, described making a cast of Elgin’s foot after his death, the significance of the missing toe, the similarities between Elgin’s footprint and the footprints left at the Phillips and Ramey murders, and his belief that Elgin was responsible for the murders since no servant girl murders had been committed since Elgin’s death.  Even so, the jury was not completely persuaded and after two days of deliberation, a hung jury was declared and the case was discharged without a verdict.(3)

***

The verdicts in the Phillips and Hancock trials illustrated the contemporary consensus on the servant girl murders and the motives behind them – that the murders had been committed by different persons with conventional motives.

More perplexing to the general public was the cause of the ongoing crime spree.  Why had there been, as it was described, “an epidemic of murder” in the capital city?

Some believed that the “epidemic” originated and belonged with the lower classes of citizens, specifically “bad blacks” had been corrupted by drink and vice.

In 1885, serial murder was a phenomenon so unusual that the available explanations at that time fell short.  In searching for comparisons one striking editorial stated it was “as if a band of Comanche Indians were encamped near the city.” 

While the servant girl murders were unusual at the time, over the next few years stories of similar crimes around the country and around the globe would frequently find their way into newspapers and occasionally the Austin murders would be mentioned in comparison.  After the Whitechapel murders the public’s imagination would never again be without a vivid characterization of a serial killer in the form of Jack the Ripper, who would serve as the archetype in the popular imagination from then on.

***

In 1885, Nathan Elgin was approximately 19 years of age.  He was African-American.  He worked as a cook in a downtown restaurant where he also roomed.  He was married and had two children.  His wife worked as a servant and lived separately at the residence where she was employed.  The domestic situation of the Elgin family was similar to many other African-American families in Austin at that time; both parents working, husbands and wives frequently living apart if working conditions necessitated it.

Originally from Arkansas, Nathan Elgin was one of five children of Richard and Susan Elgin.  The Elgins were among a group of freedmen families that had moved to Austin from Arkansas in 1867 and had settled in Austin in Wheatville, the first freedmen’s settlement in Austin, named for James Wheat, an former slave from Arkansas who had purchased the tract of land on the northwest side of the city.

The 1880 Travis County census shows that 14-year-old Nathan was still living with his parents in Wheatville, and ironically, Nathan’s occupation is listed as “servant.”  In 1882 Nathan married, Sallie Wheat, daughter of James Wheat.

There are no records of Elgin having been arrested during 1885 for any offense, however a few years earlier there were some notable incidents.  In 1881 he was arrested for carrying a pistol and getting into a loud altercation and an exchange of gunfire near the governor’s mansion.  Elgin was evidently not without enemies and not afraid of a fight or of the authorities.  In 1882 he demonstrated an imaginative, premeditated disposition to violence when he sent a threatening letter to a deputy sheriff promising to “whip destroy and kill” the deputy the next time they met. The author and his prose were described as “reckless and bloodthirsty” in the newspaper; a description that would later be more fittingly applied to the events of 1885.

Was Nathan Elgin the Servant Girl Annihilator?  In my opinion he most likely was based on 1) direct physical evidence linking Elgin to the crimes, 2) testimony of Sheriff Malcolm Hornsby as to Elgin’s ostensible guilt, and 3) the fact that there were no further servant girl murders after his death.

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Scoot Inn 1980

Scoot Inn. 1980. Photo from East Austin: An Architectural Survey (1980). Freeman & Doty Associates. Photo from the Texas Historical Commission Atlas.

(1)  The saloon was located at 1402 East Cedar street and was run by Roger Blunt, who was colloquially  known as Dick Rogers.  Rogers was once described by the Statesman as one of Austin’s “old sports”  He had a quite a reputation as gambler, and his saloon was the scene of a number of lively incidents over the years.  The building across the street from Roger’s saloon, at the time a grocery, eventually became the Scoot Inn in the mid 1950s and a refurbished version of the building is still there. The photograph from 1980 gives a hint of what Roger’s Saloon would have looked like in the 1880s.

(2) Nathan Elgin took the girl from the saloon to his house of his brother, Bess Elgin which was just a block east on Cedar street.  Elgin was probably shot by John Bracken near the southeast corner of Cedar (4th St.) and Onion street.

(3)  The significance of John Hancock’s defense (in association with Bethel Coopwood) of Moses Hancock is worth considering in more detail, but at this point I would also note that Hancock and Coopwood defended James Phillips as well.  John Hancock was well respected, his family was among the most prominent in Travis County and the Hancock family owned substantial amounts of property in the area.  He had nothing material to gain from representing Moses Hancock and if Moses had been represented by anyone else he would have most likely been sent to prison for a long time.