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 facilitate its examination and consideration.

The testimony of witnesses including Dr. William Burt, Dr. R. S. Graves, William Scaggs, Theodore Clark, Moses Hancock, Hester Campbell, David Hagy, A. M. Persinger, Jack Williams, Belle Williams and Caroline Mason, was taken on December 29th and 30th, following Susan Hancock’s death on December 28, 1885.

William Burt in his capacity as a medical doctor provided a graphic description of Susan Hancock’s injuries, including how he thought they had been inflicted.  He also gave a detailed account of his interview with Moses Hancock and his examination of the crime scene.

David Hagy, who was a boarder with the Hancock family, provided a brief account of his activities that evening and drew a map of the premises which detailed the layout of the house and where the body was found.

The Hancock’s white neighbors expressed suspicion toward the black residents of the neighborhood who lived only one block further to the east.  Theodore Clark testified that he believed that one of those neighbors, Hester Campbell, knew “a great deal about it” and that “there were certain parties down there…who knew more about all these murders than they would like to tell.”

Hester Campbell, who evidently had a reputation for clairvoyance, recounted a dream about the murders, “I saw it in my slumbers two or three weeks ago…”  It is interesting to note that in her dream it was “…the white folks… coming here to murder you all.”  Hester had also previously fired a pistol on more than one occasion at a man lurking around her house, and Clark and another neighbor, Jack Williams, both testified that a “tall black man wearing dark black new looking clothes” had been seen in their yards that night.

Clark and Scaggs both directed suspicion toward hack drivers.  Clark noted that hack drivers frequented Water Street and Scaggs recounted an incident in which Susan had called out to a passing hack driver – the implication being that Mrs. Hancock was inappropriately familiar with a black hack driver, possibly Jack Williams, who lived a block away.


Moses Hancock’s testimony is particularly poignant.  He recounted the little details of how he spent the evening with his wife – reading by the fireplace, eating cake, smoking a pipe.  He stated that Susan sometimes had nightmares and would cry out in her sleep, which was what he thought he had heard that night.  He got up to check on her but found she was gone.  His testimony of what happened next was straightforward but there were several eerie details – the doors that he thought had been locked were wide open, the killer had been in his bedroom first and took some of his clothing which was later found in the yard.  The perpetrator fled the scene as soon as Hancock came into the backyard, jumping over a 6-foot high picket fence.  It is interesting to note that Hancock expected the perpetrator to flee toward the east and ran in that direction to cut him off, but instead the killer ran the opposite direction, toward the northwest, and escaped.  Hancock did not go in pursuit, but went back to his injured wife and called for help.

Note:  I have transcribed the handwritten documents to the best of my abilities, although there are still few words I can’t make out.  I have not corrected any spellings.  I have added punctuation and paragraphs in some instances.

Thanks again to Christy Moilanen and the Travis County Archives for making these historic documents available.  See the originals here: Hancock Inquest 1885 [PDF]

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Testimony taken before Wm Von Rosenberg Jr. J.P. Travis Co. Tex. and the jury of inquest over the body of Susan Hancock, deceased, taken this the 29th day of Dec. 1885.

Dr. W. J. Burt being sworn states:

I am a physician and surgeon.  On the night of the 24th 25th of Dec. 1885 I was called to Mrs. Hancock’s bedside on E. Water St. in the city of Austin about 12 o’clock at night.  On my arrival I found Mrs. Hancock lying on a quilt in the floor in the front or main room very bloody – bleeding freely from the wounds in the left side of the head & from the right ear and a occasionally vomiting as much as a cup of blood at a time – She seemed to suffer – [?] & eventually moving her




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body.  I found the wounds described in my report of the autopsy.  There was no evidence of an outrage to the person.  I saw Mr. Persinger, Mr. Hancock.  (He being the only neighbor of the family present.)  I do not now remember who the others there were.  The bed pointed out to me as upon which she was lying when injured was bloody.  The sheet was bloody (about a foot square) near the head of the bed.  I only now remember the one blood spot.  A trunk in the room was open & clothing confused and & scattered, so also with clothing in the corner of the room.  I noticed in the back of yard near the S. E. corner of the kitchen a pool of blood.  Say from ½ to 1 pint of blood.  A young man, (a barber at the Raymond House) came for me.  The wounds of the head appeared as if made with a heavy instrument such as the pole of




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an ax or another instrument as described in my work of autopsy. – [?]

From the blood in the bed it is my opinion that it came from the wound in the right ear and that the wounds on the side of the head were inflicted after the body was taken out of the house.  The wound on the head would have produced more blood than I found in the bed unless the body was moved instantly.  Hancock told me that he [?].

After we had cared for the woman as physicians – I took Mr. Hancock into another room of the house & sat down on the bed & talked with him about the occurrence.  He said substantially:  That he and his wife were at home alone and had been smoking by the fire place between 10 and 11 o’clock.  His two daughters being out at a party.  They pushed to the front door &





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left the lamp burning on the piano and he & his wife each went to bed.  She to the N. E. room and he to the S. E. room of the house.  He said he was awaked up with a noise which he took to be his wife with the night mare to which she was subject.  He went to her room.  He found her gone & the bed bloody.  He went out through the other room where a table is and ran over a chair [?] [?].  About that time heard a noise as if a falling body & heard groaning.  He ran out there & found the woman lying on the ground & saw a man running toward the back fence who jumped over the fence & ran away.  He threw a piece of brick bat at the man as he ran.  He then picked up his wife and brought her to the platform calling to Mr. Persinger to come & help him that his wife was killed.  When I got there he (Hancock)




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had on his clothes – that is his pants – he had no coat on – one pair of his pants were found in the back yard while I was there as I was told.  I found a match box out in the yard which I was told the pants were found.  This box he said was in his pants pocket that night.

When Hancock and I went into his room and sat down on the bed there was blood on the bed.  I had been in that room before and saw a blood spot or stain as large as the palm of my hand on the sheet.  It appeared as though a bloody garment had been rubbed over it.  This was the bed occupied by Hancock as he said.

W. J. Burt, M. D.

Sworn to and subscribed before me this 29th day of December A. D. 1885. William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.

Dr. R. S. Graves being present and knowing Dr. Burt’s testimony say that his testimony would be practically the same except he did not [?]




page 6W. T. Scaggs being sworn testified:

The deceased Susan Clementine Hancock was my sister and was the wife of M. H. Hancock.  They have been married about 20 years.  They came to Austin last March.  They have lived where she was killed all the time since the came here except the first month.  They lived in what was called the Brown Row of Houses.  I live near the A. N. W. Depot.  For the post two months I have known but little of my sister.  At one time when my sister & Mrs. Persinger were at my house when a hack driver passed & my sister called to him & said hallow where are you going.  The Hackman did not stop & I said to my sister why do you speak that way to the hack driver & she said she knew him and if he had known her he would have stopped.  From the manner of my sister in calling to the Hack driver she seemed to be familiar with him.




page 7Mrs. M. J. Folwell who lives at Waco told me that she thought the Brown Row was frequented by Hacks.

W. T. Scaggs

Sworn to and subscribed before me this the 29th day of December A. D. 1885 William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.

T. M. Clark being sworn testified:

I live at 305 E. Water St. City of Austin.  About 5 houses in the middle of the next block from the Hancock’s place.  I drive the Capitol Ice wagon.  I have lived there 15 mos.  Hancock has lived there several months, something like 5 or 6 months.  I was slightly acquainted with Mrs. Hancock & the young ladies & I knew Mr. Hancock quite well.  Our families did not visit.  I am generally at home at night.  I have been watching at and about my place at from about 9 o’clock to 12 or 1 o’clock at night ever since these murders was been being committed.  I have frequently seen hacks passing that street




page8and have been in the habit of noting any one passing in the alleys whom I saw.

On last night on Mr. Hancock’s gallery I told him that I thought there were certain parties down there in that neighborhood who knew more about all these murders than they would like to tell & that by watching that neighborhood they could find out something that I did not believe that they would have to go far to find the parties who did the work.

I believe the negro woman Hester who is out in the hall now knows a great deal about it.  My reasons for that belief are about 1 month ago there were 4 pistol shots fired in the rapid succession.  I ran with pistol to see where the shots were fired from & as I ran around the corner I had two men coming towards me.  I haled them & found that they were Mr. Wedell and Leonard one a policeman.  We could not find where the shots were fired from.




page9We finally found that this woman Hester had fired the shots.  She said she shot at a man who was coming toward her house & she did not know that she could get protection.  As I have heard from my wife she told Caroline Mason that she had once since then fired on the same man on Dec. [?] 85

About ½ past 8 or 9 o’clock while at my stable I heard some one [?] my stable […?…] After he passed I saw that it was a tall black man wearing dark black new looking clothes.  At about ¼ before 12 o’clock the night of Dec. [?] Jack Williams a colored man came & called me to come quick that there was a man in the [?] yard.  I got a light & went over there & Caroline Mason said that he is at Sti[?] corner.  I could not find.  Jack described the same man who I saw in the alley that night early (Caroline Mason claims that Hester said to her yesterday that she knew a good deal & that she knew the Hancock murder was going to be committed & that she knew of the things are yet to happen).





page10Caroline lives at 307 E. Water St.  & Hester lives at 309 E. Water St.

T. M. Clarke

Sworn and subscribed before me the 29th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.


M. H. Hancock witness testified as follows:

Susan C. Hancock deceased was my wife.

I reside on East Water Street No. 203 in City of Austin, Travis County, Texas.  I have been residing at this place with my family ever since March last.

My family consisted of myself, wife now deceased, Lena Hancock, Ida Hancock my children, a young man has been boarding at my house by the name of Dave Hagy.  He has been living there for about two months.





page11I am well satisfied that no one took supper at my house on the 24th of December 1885 but myself, my wife, my two daughters & Mr. Hagy.

We ate supper about seven o’clock that evening, may have been before seven I do not recollect.

Mr. Hagy and my wife left the house after supper.  Mr. Hagy went to the barber shop to get shaved so he said and my wife went over to Mr. Persinger’s and from there she went with Mrs. Persinger to the shoe store.  I think that my wife said that she went to Mr. Peacock’s shoe store.  My understanding was that my wife went with Mrs. Persinger to Mr. Peacock’s shoe store to either have the buttons on Mrs. Persinger’s shoes changed or had gone there to get Mrs. Persinger’s shoes that she had left there to have the buttons changed.  It was about one half hour or three quarters of an hour before my wife got back home.  Mr. Hagy got home a little afterwards.





page13From supper up to the time Mr. Hagy came home I never left the place.  Mr. Hagy and my two daughters went away to a party after Mr. Hagy returned from the barber shop.

I and my wife never left the house after Mr. Hagy and my two daughters went off to the party.

I think that it was a little after eight o’clock when Mr. Hagy & my two daughters left the house for the party.  The city town clock either struck eight a little before or after they left the house.

I do not know of anyone having come to my house during the time that Mr. Hagy & my two daughters had gone to the party and before I and my wife retired for the night.

On the night of 24 the day of December 1885 my wife retired in the room in the North East corner of my house and I retired in the room joining her room on the south – kind of a back room.





page13Mr. Hagy occupied the South West room joining my room.

The room in the North West corner of the house being the largest room in the house was used for a sitting room, it has a fire place in it.

There is a door opening left in the wall between my room and the one my wife occupied but it is closed up by the back part of a wardrobe standing against it in my wife’s room.  During the time that Mr. Hagy & my two daughters were gone and before I & my wife retired I think that I and my wife were reading for a while, while reading we were in the large room by a table near the fire place.  When my wife had gone to the shoe store I did not know that she had gone until she came back.  I never asked her where she had been, but she just told me.  I did not tell her that I objected to her going out, never told her any such thing.





page14I think that it was about nine o’clock when I and my wife retired – on the night of the 24th Dec 1885.

When we retired one lamp was left in Mr. Hagy’s room burning and one in large room on the piano which lamp was also burning.  The two out side doors were both shut and I think locked.  The windows were all down and fastened with a latch – the curtains were all left down.  The two blinds on the two front windows were open they were not shut – the other windows to the house have no blinds to them.

The first noise I heard was that my wife came into my room after we had retired for the night and went up to the table in my room and cut off a piece of cake and handed it into the bed to me before I got up and she took a piece also and we went into the




page15large room and sat at the fire place and ate it and I smoked my pipe.  I do not know how long we sat there, I sat there long enough to smoke up a pipe full of tobacco and a little longer, we may have sat there one half hour or longer I do not know.  We then went back to bed.  None of the other folks had come home then yet – it must have been 10 or 11 o’clock, I heard the clock strike but do not know if it was 10 or 11 o’clock.  I awakened a second time that night, I heard some noise it reminded me of the noise of night mare.  I got up and went to the room where my wife went to bed – the light was still burning and all the doors were wide open and propped upon, when I went into my wife’s room I found that she was not there.  I only noticed that my wife was not there and the quilts in




page16her bed were rolled over to one side.  I then ran back through the room where I slept in hearing some noise as some one was groaning or strangling.  I did not go to my bed but went on through my room and as I went out of my room at the door I struck a chair and I made some noise and I then heard some noise as if something dropped.  I did not know where it was but after I heard the noise as if something dropped the groaning sounded louder.  I was still running and came up to where she was lying on the ground, she was still groaning and as I stooped down and caught hold of her and saw that it was her, I then saw some person about twenty or twenty-five feet from me running.  I ran after him and in running I picked up a brick and threw at him as he went over the fence.




page17When I made the throw I was near the privy.  I then ran around the stable and went to the gate on the east side of the stable thinking that the man would run down the alley – but instead of coming down the alley he ran around the northwest corner of Mr. Burnett’s place and ran down towards the river.  The man that I saw must to have been a pretty good sized man he was about my height.  I am a good sized man, my height is about five feet and eleven & ½ inches.

I then ran back to where my wife was lying.  I took her and carried her to the platform south of the house leading to the kitchen from my room.  Mr. Persinger then came to where I was and helped me to carry my wife into the house.  Before Mr. Persinger came Mr. Hanel who lives in




page18the next yard came to the partition fence in his night clothes having heard me hollow, asked me what was the matter, I told him that some one had murdered my wife – at the time Mr. Hanel came to the fence I was just picking my wife up to carry her to the platform between my room and the kitchen then it was when Mr. Persinger came Mr. Hanel while at the fence said her would dress and get his horse and go for a doctor.

Mr. Persinger helped me to carry my wife into the large room, I then went into my wife’s room to get some quilts to lay her on and when I went in to get them I noticed blood on the pillow & sheet on my wife’s bed.  I got a quilt off my wife’s bed and put it under my wife’s head.





page19Mr. Hanel brought the ax around the house to where I and Mr. Persinger were at the platform where I had carried my wife.  Mr. Hanel said, “here is the ax”.

After this it was when I and Mr. Persinger carried my wife into the house.

Mr. Brunet came to my house at about the time I put the quilt under her head.

The quilting or pallet that was placed under my wife was gotten out of her room not from my room.  I do think that it was over a quarter of an hour after we put down the pallet before Dr. Burt came.  I left my pants in my room at the head of my bed on a chair and my coats were hanging up on the wall at the head of the bed.  After I took my wife into the house I went




page20into my room and looked for my pants.  Up to the time I found my pants I am not able to say whether or not I was at or on my bed.  After I got up & found my wife I hardly know what I did do.  A policeman came & got the ax.  It was my ax.  The ax Hanel brought around there was my ax.  It was bloody on the pole of the ax.  The blood was about like the wound on my wife’s head.  I saw no nail or painted instrument about the place.  I am not acquainted with the Phillips family – I never heard of James Phillips that I know of.  I do not know of my daughters visiting the Phillips family.  I did not receive any injuries there that night.  Haggy came home with my daughters from the party ½ hour after my wife was found.  They left to go there together near 8 o’clock that night for the party & I saw none of them that night any more until ½ to ¾ hour after my wife was found.  I know




page21of no one who had ill will against me or my wife.  My wife visited but [?] [?] had a good deal of company.  For the past 4 or 5 years she has been sick with Rheumatism.  She was 43 years of age.  We have been married since 1866.

M. H. Hancock

Sworn to and subscribed before me this the 29th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.

Hester Campbell col. Being duly sworn testified:

I live on Water St. in this City.  Have lived there since June last.  Come from San Antonio.  I have been married but my husband has been gone 8 years.  I was acquainted with the Hancock family.  Had known them in San Antonio but did not do any thing for them there.  I come here before they did.  I saw it in my slumbers 2 or 3 weeks ago and again Friday before Christmas that something was going to happen down there.





page22I was working at Townsend’s wagon yard and I dreamt that I went out into the country & that Julia McCullough come running over saying Hester you all had better get away, the white folks is coming over here to murder you all.  I thought that first as she got there they all ran & left me & that some one shot me & I then woke up & was with my children.  And then last Friday night a week ago I had another dream.  I dreamt of great distress at first I thought it was fire and a great crowd all colored people, but instead of being fire it turned out to be murder.  In my dream I saw a colored woman who I knew but I could not call her name.

Hester Campbell X her mark

Sworn to and subscribed before me this the 29th day of Dec. 1885.  Wiliam Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.




page23D. C. Hagy, being sworn testified:

I am boarding at Hancock’s for near two months.  My house is in San Antonio.  I have been working at the carpenter’s trade.  I am a single man.  I took supper at Hancock’s on the evening of the Dec. 24 / 85.  We ate supper about 7 o’clock.  The entire family & myself took supper there.  I was acquainted with the family in San Antonio.  Had known the old man for 3 years or more.  Before going to the party on the night of Dec. 24 / 85 I came up town after supper & was gone from ½ to ¾ of an hour.  No other person left the house that I know of after super & before we went to the party.  Hancock did not go off before we went to the party.  I do not know of Mrs. Hancock’s leaving the house that night.  She was at the house when I left & when I came back after supper & before going to the party.

In the Hancock house the following





page24is a diagram of the same –














page25Mr. Hancock & his youngest daughter usually slept together in the S. E. Room of the house.  Mrs. Hancock & the oldest daughter usually slept together in the N. E. room of the house & I slept in the S. W. room of the house.  We left to go to the party about 8 o’clock.  Lena & Ida Hancock & myself went we stayed there until about near 12 o’clock.  The party was a Mr. Ivey’s, South of [?] brick store.  I think the relations of the family were peaceful.  He drank once in a while & a little made him feel funny.  I did not stay at the party all the time it was going on.

D. C. Hagy

Sworn to and subscribed before me this the 29th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.




page26A. M. Persinger being sworn states:

I live on the corner of E. Water & Brazos St in the city of Austin.  I have lived in Austin since 1873 and at my present house since Feby. Last.  On the night of Dec. 24th 1885 I was at home.  I went home about half past 6 o’clock & went to bed about 8 o’clock.  I was not out of my house after.  I went home until after Mrs. Hancock was [?]  I live about 20 to 25 feet from the Hancock house.  I got home before dark on that night I did not see or hear of Mrs. Hancock being at my house that night.  I do not think she was at my house after I got home.  I knew her.  My wife was at home or came home after the time I got [?] she said.  She had her up to Peacock’s store to get some shoes fixed.  She said Mrs. Hancock had been




page27with her.  My wife did not leave the house after I got home that night.  I was in bed asleep with my wife when the disturbance occurred at Hancock’s.  My wife woke me up.  My wife spoke of the disturbance & went with lamp to back door.  I then heard Hancock call my name.  I got up & put on my pants & shoes on & went out the front way.  Hancock then said “somebody has murdered my wife and dragged her off”.  I went over to the premises & found Hancock with his wife on the platform at the back door of the house.  The first thing I did was to call to Mrs. Hancock to know if she knew any thing.  She made no response.  When I first ran out of my house I looked all around the premises it being a moon light night but I saw no one except Hancock.  He was in his drawers & underclothes and […?…] said he could




page28not find his clothes.  I saw no one get over the fence & no one at any time saw any body about there or running away from there that was suspicious.  I saw no rocks thrown at any one.  I asked Hancock if he knew any thing about it & he said he saw a tall man with dark clothes run away but could not tell whether he was white or black, but said he threw a brick bat at him.  I went to bed about 8 o’clock and before going to bed ½ hour I shot off my pistol 3 times.  My wife sat up until about 10 o’clock.  I suppose it was 4 or 5 minutes after my wife woke me up before I went out & when I got there Hancock had his wife on the platform.  The back fence was a picket fence 6 feet high.  Hancock’s pants & clothing were found in the yard.

I did not see Hancock go into his room until the Dr. came.  I did not go to the bed in which Hancock slept & I did not see him go into that room at any time




page29after the woman was found and before Dr. Burt got there.  The lamp was burning light in Hancock’s house & the doors front and rear were wide open.  There was no light in Hagy’s room.

A. M. Persinger

Sworn to before me this 30th day of December – 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J. P.

Jack Williams being sworn testified:

I live on E. Water Street city of Austin – I was at home on the night of Dec. 24, 1885 – I went home before work and remained there without leaving until the next morning.  I live 1 block distant from Hancock’s place.  I know nothing of the trouble there until the next morning.  I know nothing about it.

Jack Williams

Sworn to before me this 30th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J.P.




page30Belle Williams being sworn states:

I am the wife of Jack Williams.  I was at home all night on Dec. 24th 1885.  Jack was there also.  We slept together and neither one of us left the house that night.  About 2 o’clock by our clock, which was not correct, I heard of Mrs. Hancock being killed.  We did not get up Jack was awake & heard it also.

Belle Williams X her mark

Sworn to before me this 30th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J.P.

Caroline Mason being sworn testified:

I was at home asleep on the night of Dec. 24, 1885.  I was at home all night.  I got home before dark.  The next morning after the murder Hester Campbell told me that she had a dream & saw the things in her dream.  I never heard her speak of it until after the murder.  I did not hear of the trouble until after it was all over




page31when some officers came to my house with a colored man for me to identify & they spoke of Mrs. Hancock having been killed.

C. Mason

Sworn to before me this 30th day of December A. D. 1885.  William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J.P.














page32Austin, Texas, December 30th 1885

We the Jury of inquest over the remains of Susan C. Hancock find that the deceased came to her death at about half after six o’clock p.m. on the 28th day of December A. D. 1885 at her residence No. 203 East Water Street, in City of Austin Travis County Texas from the effects of fracture of skull and a sharp pointed instrument being driven into her right ear said injuries were inflicted by the hands of a person or persons unknown to the Jury between the hours of Eleven and Twelve o’clock p.m. on the 24th day of December AD 1885 in the premises occupied by the family of the deceased at No. 203 East Water Street in the city of Austin Travis County, Texas.

J. H. Maxey

M. M. Long

F. K. Wright

W. M. Robertson

J. M. Davidson

Ed Junck

Attest William Von Rosenberg, Jr. J.P.



Discovering History at the Travis County Archives

Materials at Travis County Archives Collection.

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 functions and activities of the Travis County government, supports the conduct of the government by preserving and providing access to essential county records, and maintains the history of the county and its community through the preservation of records with historical value.

Earlier this summer I had a chance to talk with Travis County Archivist Christy Moilanen about an exciting discover she recently made – the original handwritten trial transcripts and inquest reports of the Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips murder cases.  I was invited to take a look at the original documents, take some photographs and talk with Christy about how she found them, and get a tour of their facilities and see some of the materials they have in their collection.

J. R. Galloway:  Many years ago, back in the 90s, when I first became interested in the murders, I had asked at the Travis County Courthouse and the Austin History Center whether any original trial transcripts or inquest records from the 1885 murders still existed and was told that they did not, so I was surprised to hear you had found them.  How did you come across them?

Christy Moilanen:  I was fortunate to have a few University of Texas iSchool students volunteering in the archives over the spring and early summer, reboxing a large amount of material that had been stored in a warehouse since the 1980s. The particular box in which these documents were found was unmarked; my attention was initially drawn to it because of the District Court civil case papers it contained, many of which dated all the way back to the 1840s. At the bottom of the box were several larger documents folded up. I carefully unfolded them and was surprised to realize they related to the so-called Servant Girl murders. The records included a transcript of the case against James Phillips, a transcript of the case against Moses Hancock, and an inquest and autopsy relating to the death of Susan Hancock.

IMG_0663 - Copy

Workroom at Travis County Archives

J. R. Galloway: How would you describe their condition when you found them?

Christy Moilanen:  The documents were in fairly decent condition, all things considered, but I wouldn’t say they were in good condition. They had been stored in the bottom of a box that had been in a non-climate controlled space for at least several decades. The documents were folded up, so they needed to be carefully flattened in order to be read, and many of the pages, all of which are loose, had damaged edges and pieces flaking off.

The transcripts of the cases against James Phillips and Moses Hancock are in the worst condition. The Phillips transcript is written in pencil on plain brown paper, much of which has damage along the edges, and at least one page is completely in pieces. The Hancock case is written in iron gall ink, which has contributed to the brittleness and fragility of the paper. Fortunately, however, the transcripts are mostly legible, even though the script takes some deciphering.

State of Texas v. Moses Hancock.  Original Transcript.

State of Texas v. Moses Hancock. 1886. Original Transcript.

The Susan Hancock inquest and autopsy are in rather good condition, perhaps partially due to the smaller size of these records. While the transcripts are around 100 pages each, the inquest is 34 pages and the autopsy is just 4 pages. The inquest was written in ink on pages that appear to be torn from a pad or notebook, and the autopsy is penned on paper from the Texas State Medical Association.

Susan Hancock Autopsy

Susan Hancock Autopsy, 1885.

J. R. Galloway: I was surprised by the comparatively good condition of the documents considering how old they are and that they just loose pages, and you mentioned a couple of pages were lost?

Christy Moilanen:  The transcript for the case against Moses Hancock is missing the first four pages. It’s hard to say how and when they were separated from the rest of the document.

J. R. Galloway: It’s interesting that the brown paper has perforations and it sort of resembles wrapping paper from a dispenser.

Christy Moilanen:  Based on other records the Archives has of the Justices of the Peace from that time period, it seems that they often wrote their documents on whatever paper was at hand, so the inquest seems pretty typical. It is more surprising to me that the court transcripts were written on such nondescript paper, and one in pencil, no less.

transcript of James Phillips trial

State of Texas v.  James O.  Phillips, 1886.  Original Transcript.

J. R. Galloway: What steps are you taking to preserve them?  What are your procedures in dealing with these kinds of materials?

Christy Moilanen: All of the documents have been carefully unfolded and flattened, and they have been placed into acid-free folders. Pages that are in more advanced states of deterioration or at risk of falling apart have been placed into mylar sleeves, to prevent any direct handling that could cause further damage. Because our conservation resources are limited, our preservation efforts focus on stabilization and prevention of further damage.

Susan Hancock Inquest 1885

Susan Hancock Inquest, 1885.

J. R. Galloway: Have you had a chance to read the transcripts yourself?  Did you come across anything interesting?

Christy Moilanen: I have read through the inquest and the autopsy. It was very interesting to read the accounts recorded by the Justice of the Peace in the inquest record, of the neighbors and of Moses Hancock himself. Their descriptions of the event are rather detailed, and it makes one want to look for clues as to the identity of the killer. One of the more curious accounts was given by neighbor Hester Campbell, who claimed to have had dreams about the murders prior to their occurrence.

Hester Campbell testimony, 1885.

“I seen it in my slumbers 2 or 3 weeks ago and again last Friday night before Christmas that something was going to happen down there.” — testimony of Hester Campbell.  Susan Hancock Inquest, 1885.

J. R. Galloway: Have you come across any other documents relating to any of the other 1885 murder cases?

Christy Moilanen: Unfortunately I haven’t. Papers from the cases against James Phillips and Moses Hancock are on microfilm at the District Clerk’s office, but these four documents — the inquest, the autopsy, and the two transcripts — are the only original records I’ve seen. Interestingly, the Phillips and Hancock transcripts are not part of the microfilmed record, so this is the first time they have been viewed in quite a long time.

State of Texas v.  James O.  Phillips, 1886.  Original Transcript.

State of Texas v. James O. Phillips, 1886. Original Transcript.

J. R. Galloway: The archives are currently housed at the Travis County Sheriff’s office, how did that collaboration come about?  There seems to be a lot of interest in local history at the Sheriff’s Department, I noticed several historical photographs and maps in the lobby.

Christy Moilanen: We’ve been in our current space in the Sheriff’s Office building since 2010. The archives program is relatively new, and when we started looking for space, there weren’t many options available to us. Fortunately, there was a large empty space, approximately 5,000 square feet, at the back of the Sheriff’s building. Both the Sheriff’s Office and the County Commissioners were agreeable to us moving into that space, and we have gradually been filling it out since then. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, and in particular, Chief Deputy Jim Sylvester, who has a great interest in history.

Travis County Archives

Travis County Archives

J. R. Galloway: You maintain the Travis County Archives webpage and blog which details the Travis County Archives’ history, mission, current work and projects — what’s coming up for the archives?

Christy Moilanen: I try to keep the website and blog up-to-date with current happenings. One of our biggest projects is the upcoming annual event called Travis County History Day. In the six since its inception, History Day has proven to be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and to educate others about the rich history of Travis County. This year, we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which provided funding for extension services throughout the country. Extension services have touched and improved the lives of countless Travis County residents throughout the years, and we want to commemorate the tireless work extension agents and staff have done for our community. History Day will be held on October 24, from 10am to noon, in the Hall of Government at 700 Lavaca Street in downtown Austin. The event will feature special speakers, historical exhibits, and refreshments, and we welcome the public to join us!

The Travis County Archives will also be a participant in the 1st annual Austin Archives Bazaar, a fun and interactive gathering of 22 local archives. This is a great opportunity to come out and learn about what our many Austin-area archives have to offer. The Bazaar will be held on October 19, 2014, from 2 to 6pm, at the Spider House Ballroom.

 J. R. Galloway: Christy, thank you so much for your time and sharing this interesting find!
Scans of the original documents are available in PDF form on the Travis County Archives Blog:
Materials in Travis County Archives Collection.

Materials in Travis County Archives Collection.


Notes on Research

I am not the first to delve into this mystery.  The first time I opened the drawer of the microfilm cabinet and saw all the small cardboard boxes of microfilm packed snuggly inside, I noticed that the boxes labeled 1885 were noticeably more worn than any of the others, undoubtedly having been pulled out, opened and put back many times before I got to them.  I wondered who had looked at them and what they had found.

What was I looking for?  The details of a murder mystery that drew comparisons to Jack the Ripper – someone stalking through the night with an axe, committing horrifying crimes and disappearing without a trace.  I was surprised such a sensational story did not have more notoriety; I myself had read only the briefest mentions of it.  A lot of Old West history is long on story but short on facts, filled with colorful characters and events and I wondered if this was just another Texas Tall Tale, an exaggeration from the imaginations of old-timers to scare the kids around the campfire.  Why had these murders remained a mystery?  And could a close examination of the facts shed any light on the subject?

When I first asked at the Austin History Center in 1996, I was told there had been a clipping file about the murders but that it had been missing for some time.  I suppose if those newspaper clippings had been available I might not have pursued this as thoroughly as I did.  Over the course of about a year, I gradually assembled my own files on the murders, taking lots of notes and making lots of photocopies and with a lot of patience and persistence I was able to somewhat satisfy my curiosity about the crimes, and discover the who what when and where.  But even now there are many questions about the murders that may never be answered.  My intention in sharing what I’ve found, collected and published is to hopefully present it with some clarity so that others who are interested can perhaps make some heads or tails of it and maybe offer new insights and ideas.

The main problems I encountered with this murder-mystery-as-research project were the lack of extant sources, a lack of indexing for the sources that were available, and the difficulty of deciphering old newspaper microfilm, all of which I believe would have been major impediments to any casual reader or would-be researcher.

The lack of extant sources is probably due in part to the 1880s being something of a lull in Texas history.  Materials from prior historical eras of Texas including, The Republic, The Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Old West have been vigorously collected and archived and there is much accompanying scholarship.  Materials from the 1880s and 1890s are scarce by comparison and interest and enthusiasm for Texas history does not pick up again until the Oil Boom at the turn of the century.

Thankfully the Austin History Center’s collections and their cataloging and indexing are superb, and if their resources had not been put in place long ago and maintained by dedicated and conscientious professionals and volunteers this project would have been much more difficult.  And with increasing efforts to digitize collections I expect there will be many new and interesting discoveries made.

With that in mind I want to briefly describe some of what was involved in my research, some of the sources I used, and I also want to give thought to the way the murders of 1885 have been remembered.

William Sydney Porter famously mentions the servant girl annihilators in an 1885 letter, later included in the O.Henry short story compilation, Rolling Stones, published 1912.  Had that letter not been reprinted the crimes might have been completely forgotten.

In Mary Starr Barkley’s History of Travis County and Austin, published 1963, she briefly mentions the murders as part of local folklore:

..the axe murderer who made citizens nervous in 1884-1885.  His victims were women, always killed while sleeping.  No one knows, even today, who murdered the thirteen people, with the last murder being on Christmas, 1885.

Even though the details as remembered by Barkley are incorrect, it is remarkable to see how the memory of the crimes, as a story retold over the years, eventually took on the aura of a local legend, not unlike the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which continued to fascinate Londoners in subsequent decades.

In 1983 the murders were mentioned by David C. Humphrey, LBJ Library archivist, in an article in Southwestern Historical Quarterly.  He gets the details substantially correct and cites specific Austin Daily Statesman sources:

…six black Austinites, five of them females, were viciously attacked at night, in all but one case with axes and knives.  More than one victim was raped.  None of the murders was solved, despite efforts of specially hired detectives.  Then on Christmas eve two white women who live a dozen blocks apart were dragged from their beds into their backyards, at least one of them raped, and both butchered to death with axes.  There were no suspects.

Those three brief mentions by Porter, Barkley and Humphrey were the only descriptions of the murders that found their way into print in the 100 years since the murders had been committed.  (Although Humphrey’s account was subsequently re-tooled for inclusion in various Austin city guidebooks.)

I had started my search for information about the murders by searching the index of the Austin American-Statesman, which at the time was available on an old-fashioned terminal station in the Austin History Center.  The Statesman index did not include the late 19th century  and no entries about the murders were to be found from the 20th century.  Searches of various academic indexes for any mention of the murders turned up nothing.  A complete lack of secondary sources meant going directly to primary sources, in this case, 19th century newspapers.  Since Austin newspapers from that time period were not indexed there would be no easy way to find what I was looking for.  I simply had to start reading without knowing where to start.

There were several daily and weekly newspapers published in Austin during the 1880s but only the Austin Daily Statesman has survived in completeness in archived microfilm to the present day.  Microfilm is not the most user-friendly format to work with but at least it is easily stored and preserved and in many cases it is the only format available when brittle print originals have long since turned to dust.

Austin Statesman

The Austin Daily Statesman provided its readers with typical coverage of politics, business, and sports in central Texas as well as national and international news and I would assume its readership was well-informed.  But the 1880s Statesman packed as much information as possible into the smallest number of column inches and its layout was an amalgamation of news, advertisements and local gossip, with no clear delineation between them, all set in a tiny font face.  I have read plenty of microfilm but reading the often poorly photographed 19th century newsprint proved to be difficult on the eyes and I doubt my now middle-aged eyes would be up to the task.

Austin Daily Statesman Microfilm

Austin Daily Statesman Microfilm. Not all of it was this bad, but this is an example of some of the worst.

Most of my microfilm reading was done at the Briscoe Center for American History (formerly the Barker Texas History Center) because their extensive collection of Texas newspapers in one convenient location made it possible to easily compare the way the murders were reported (if they were reported at all) in other cities.  The San Antonio Express, the major newspaper of the closest large city, often provided important coverage of the murders.

Eventually I did find the beginning of the story. I carefully read every issue of the Statesman, not wanting to miss any detail as the crime spree unfolded throughout 1885; I read about the continued confusion after the last murders and the wild accusations and prosecutions in 1886, and when I thought I wouldn’t find anything else I found the surprising conclusion in the summer of 1887.

Although the story of the murders did not tie up into a neat narrative package, I had an outline, a timeline and a cast of characters that I was anxious to find out more about.

None of the persons directly involved in the murders were well-known, influential or historically prominent.  Most of the victims, the servants and their families, were from the lower strata of society; the last two victims, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were at best middle-class, their names were not among those family names which normally appeared in the daily happenings of Austin’s who’s who.  By comparison, some of those frequently suspected and accused in the murders were sometimes infamous for their criminal records and accounts of their misdeeds were often described in very memorable and colorful language.

Contemporary (1880s) biographical information (and by that I mean personal detail beyond name and occupation) about city officials, police officers and others who worked in an official capacity at the time was scarce excepting those most prominent.

Common sources of biographical information for ordinary citizens in the late 19th century are census records, family papers and letters, church records, city directories, birth indexes, death indexes, all of which I used with varying degrees of success to find any personal details I could.

The Austin History Center has extensive collections of historic papers from some of Travis County’s earliest settlers and most prominent families.  I examined several family papers collections including the Hornsby and Von Rosenberg papers hoping to find any offhand mention of the crimes, as with the Porter letter, but unfortunately I did not find any documents or ephemera directly related to the 1885 murders in any of the family papers collections I examined.

I made frequent visits to the Texas States Library and Archives to use their extensive United States census archives (now conveniently online, but when I was doing my research it was still microfilm only). The State Archives is especially popular with genealogists and it was always busy.  Genealogists are a helpful bunch, very collaborative, and I gratefully remember their assistance deciphering handwritten census entries, teaching me some of the tricks and showing me how patient you have to be if you’re going to find what you’re looking for.

It was fascinating to browse through the 1880 Travis county census and come across names that were familiar from the 1885 newspaper stories; to see where they had lived and with whom; although by 1885 many were already in different locations and in different occupations.

One of the most striking things I discovered was that everyone was much younger than I expected; the victims, the suspects, even the police and city officials were frequently in their 20s.  When I read the newspaper accounts I had envisioned hard, old, grizzled law men, but the relentless Justice William Von Rosenberg was only 25 years of age; ex-Texas Ranger James Lucy was 31; the undauntable Police Sergeant John Chenneville was the elder at 44.

I was also surprised to discover how communal Austin households were in the 1880s.  The census records revealed it was common for households to have extended families with several generations living together under one roof, often with servants, sometimes renting a room to a boarder as well.  The employment of domestic servants was common among Austin households and was not something that would denote their employers being wealthy or upper-class as it generally would these days.


In the late 19th century, investigations and prosecutions of serious crimes were not without flaws but they were methodical.  In the servant girl murder cases there were arrests, evidence was gathered, and trials were held.  I was surprised to find that there were legal artifacts from that time period still intact including some police and court records.

The most fascinating items I came across were the original Police Calls and Arrests ledgers from the 1880s.  These volumes are a treasure trove of demographic information with details for minor crimes such as swearing and spitting to the much more serious. The ledgers themselves are wonderful, physical artifacts in amazingly good condition and I remember worrying the frail, ancient woman at the Austin History Center who retrieved the volumes for me was going to be crushed by the substantial leather-bound tomes.  The Police Calls ledger contains entries recorded by the police clerk at the time the crimes were reported.

Police Calls 1885

page from 1885 Police Calls Volume, AR.P.01, Laws Collection, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Turning the pages and reading those hand-written entries describing the murders is close as one can get to those mysterious events so long ago.

I was disappointed by the lack of photographic materials, but there was no mention of anything like crime scene photos having been taken at the time.  One thing I hoped to find was a photograph of a bullet specifically mentioned as having been photographed in 1886 in connection to the murders.  I tried to imagine where it might have ended up but I was unable to find it; it is probably long gone, or if it still exists it is perhaps in a medical archive somewhere.

One of the most valuable resources I came across, not only for this project but for anyone wanting to utilize local history resources was the Inventory of County Records, Travis County Courthouse, Austin, Texas (now available online).  The Inventory provides collection-level catalog descriptions of historical materials and confirms their physical location, which is very important in instances where the records are so old and so infrequently accessed that their caretakers may not even know they exist.

According to the Inventory, criminal court minutes from 1885 were located at the office of the Travis County District Clerk.  With photocopies of that documentation I went to the Travis Country Courthouse and found myself once again sitting in front of a microfilm reader. The staff of the District Clerk office, who had never had the occasion to dig out that particular reel of microfilm, were surprised by the request, but it was there waiting in the back of a filing cabinet.  The Criminal Minutes microfilm contains photographs of ledger entries containing rudimentary information about court cases and their disposition, but there is nothing resembling trial transcripts.  The only thing that resembles a trial transcript is the case of James O. Phillips vs. The State, published in Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Court of Appeals of Texas.  The published report goes into great detail regarding the Phillips case, especially the testimonies regarding the turbulent relationship between Eula Phillips and her husband and immediate family, and it reads like a lurid novel.


After The Servant Girl Murders was published I had the pleasure of meeting Eula’s great-grand-niece, who shared some of her family history with me, including the fact that her great-grandmother, Alma, who lived into the 1950s, had never mentioned the murders to her while she was alive.  Obviously the murders were not something one forgets, or forgets to mention, but I imagine the topic was kept in the closet so to speak, as inappropriate subject matter for a child.  But I also imagine serial rape and murder were not the subjects of polite conversion in general, and especially not during the first half of the 20th century.

Most of the early local histories of Austin that I’ve read (there are many unpublished manuscripts and pamphlets in the AHC collections) have been written by amateur local historians such as Barkley, and they place a strong emphasis on progress, look how far we’ve come, and the inherent goodness in all things Texan, Southern and Austin.  The darker aspects of 19th and early 20th century history are diminished in these histories and usually not mentioned at all.  The most violent periods of Texas history – including most of the 19th century, the Frontier, Civil War, Reconstruction — are all replete with deprivation, depravity and unpredictability, but those histories are in sense redeemed by recording demonstrated examples of heroism, patriotism, sacrifice and progress.  The servant girl murders were a barbarism from that violent and still near past but without any accompanying narrative of justice, heroism, or even rational explanation, and they were still fresh in the minds of many who had lived through them and they were anxious to leave them behind.  And so the murders did not see mention in print until almost a century later.


As time passed the memories of the murders were left behind.  Those who were literally left behind, the women, the girls, the mothers who did not survive that fateful year were laid to rest in the Austin City Cemetery (later renamed Oakwood), located on the northeastern outskirts of 19th century Austin.

I visited Oakwood Cemetery several times to look for the names I had read so much about.  I had become engrossed with a brief, violent sliver of their lives, but I did not know much more about them.  For most, their names found their way into the news due to tragic circumstances and then they receded into obscurity with the passage of time.  I wondered about those who left Austin, what fortunes they had found; and those who stayed, were they able to put the past behind them and prosper?

Only one victim’s grave is marked.  None of the graves of the African-American victims are marked; they are only listed as having been buried in “colored grounds”, an unmarked expanse of grass near the western gate.

Eula’s name is listed in the cemetery index as Luly, her last resting place in the “old grounds” is not specified.  I wondered if she had been somewhat disowned in death by her family; there is no evidence of a marker for her grave ever having been put in place.

Many of the women who were killed that year were frequently subjected to unfair characterizations after their death by those who were ready to cast blame upon the victims as having been unvirtuous and having brought misfortune upon themselves, a sense that these women were different and it’s a shame but what do you expect.

Even in the aftermath of the last two murders, more critical opinions were voiced (though the victims were married, white women) as to how the victims and their families conducted their affairs, and their personal lives were subjected to intense scrutiny in the press.

Susan Hancock is the only victim whose grave has a headstone.  The stone has fallen over; the inscription side is facing upwards.  It is carved with the memorial “Tho’ lost to sight to memory dear,” and the word “MOTHER” is at the head of the stone, which leads me to believe that it was commissioned and placed there by her surviving daughter many years afterwards, as she would have been too young and without means to do so earlier.  The inscribed year of her death, 1884, is inaccurate, which leads me to believe that some time had passed before the stone was placed there.

Susan Hancock Headstone

Susan Hancock Headstone Oakwood Cemetery. © 2012, J.R.Galloway.