The Servant Girl Annihilator – Nathan Elgin – A Criminology
Late one night in February 1886 a saloon in Masontown in east Austin was the scene of a violent and disturbing incident.(1)
The surrounding neighborhood was in an uproar because a drunken, raging man had dragged a girl from the saloon to a nearby house where he could be heard beating and cursing her while she screamed for help. The entire neighborhood had come out in the streets and the commotion caught the attention of a nearby police officer. (2) Police officer John Bracken arrived on the scene and the saloon keeper, Dick Rogers and a neighbor, Claibe Hawkins, went with Bracken to stop the man from beating the girl to death.
Rogers and Hawkins went into the house and pulled the man away from the girl and into the front yard. 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. The man turned on them and brandished a knife. As Bracken tried to recover a shot rang out. Bracken drew his pistol and fired. The 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 instantly but it did leave him paralyzed and mortally wounded; he died the following day.
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 was missing a toe 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. The axe used by the perpetrator was left behind at the scene of the murder. 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 the 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 at the Servant Girl Murder crime scenes did share a very distinct feature – one of the footprints had only four toes.
The authorities never shared this fact with the press or the general public 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 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 of the killer. 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 suspicion that was present in Austin at the beginning of 1886. In the month since the last murders in December 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 identify themselves or be evicted from the city. Saloons and other raucous downtown establishments, usually open twenty-four hours a day, were forced to close at midnight. A 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 of 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 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.
Also providing assistance 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 that fact that there had been no further servant girl murders 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.
The verdicts in the Phillips and Hancock trials illustrated the consensus on the Servant Girl Murders and the motives behind them – that the murders had been committed by different persons with conventional motives.
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, 3) the fact that there were no further Servant Girl Murders after his death, and 4) Elgin fits the criminal profile of such a killer.
Nathan Elgin – A Criminology
The Servant Girl Murders were over 130 years ago and few official records pertaining to them have survived. Likewise, there is little surviving biographical information about Nathan Elgin, however the information that is available strongly correlates to traits associated with a Disorganized/Anger-Retaliatory (D/AR) serial killer profile, and the crime scenes of the Servant Girl Murders correspond exactly to that of anger-retaliatory crime scenes:
- In the anger-retaliatory rape-murder, the rape is planned and the initial murder involves overkill. It is an anger-venting act that expresses symbolic revenge on a female victim. Nettled by poor relationships with women, the aggressor distills his anguish and contempt into explosive revenge on the victim… the aggressive killer will either direct his anger at that woman or redirect his anger to a substitute woman. Because the latter type of scapegoating retaliation does not eliminate the direct source of hate, it is likely that it will be episodically repeated to relieve internal stresses. Dynamically, the rape-homicide is committed in a stylized violent burst attack for purposes of retaliation, getting even, and revenge on women.
- The perpetrator tends to choose victims from familiar areas… and may use weapons of opportunity in percussive assaults with fists, blunt objects or a knife.
- The subject tends to leave a disorganized crime scene, and the improvised murder weapon may be found within 15 feet of the body. (3)
The following traits are common to the D/AR serial killer profile and I would argue that they are present in the historical record specifically in connection to Nathan Elgin:
- childhood abuse or neglect
- early violent episodes
- violent fantasy
- resentment of authority
Additionally, Nathan Elgin would have possessed the locational expertise critical to successfully enacting the murders and eluding the authorities, culminating in a distinctive signature killing style – the attack on sleeping female victim using blunt force to the head, carrying the body away from the house into the yard where the victim was then raped.
Childhood Abuse Suspicions
- All of the murderers were subjected to serious emotional abuse during their childhoods. And all of them developed into what psychiatrists label as sexually dysfunctional adults.
- From birth to age six or seven, studies have shown, the most important adult figure in a child’s life is the mother, and it is in this time period that the child learns what love is. Relationships between our subjects and their mothers were uniformly cool, unloving and neglectful. (4)
- The disorganized offender grows up in a household where the father’s work is often unstable, where childhood discipline is harsh, and where the family is subject to serious strain brought on by alcohol, mental illness, and the like. (5)
One of the primary components in the creation of the D/AR serial killer profile is a dysfunctional, abusive relationship within the family and especially between the mother and the subject. The mothers often have psychological disorders or they have been victims of emotional and sexual abuse themselves and are then subsequently abusive with their own children. At best the mothers are emotionally distant and at worst they are physically and psychologically abusive.
Nathan Elgin was born in 1866, the fourth of five children in his family. The Elgin family had moved to Austin from Arkansas after the war, to the freedman’s community that came to be known as Wheatville. Nathan had three older siblings that had already married, started their own families and evidently lived normal lives while Nathan was still a child growing up in Austin. However the older siblings’ mother, Angeline, had been a different woman than Nathan’s mother, Susan. (6)
There is no record of what happened to Angeline, she presumably died or separated from her husband, Richard Elgin, but after she left, a woman named Susan Pearce appeared in her place to raise Nathan – whether she was his biological mother is unknown. I think this substitution in the maternal line is significant and I would speculate that Susan Pearce was an abusive catalyst in Nathan’s emotional development.
The 1880 census listed 14-year-old Nathan Elgin as still living with his parents; it noted his ability to read and write, and his occupation as “servant.” He was likely placed into service by his mother. For Nathan, being a domestic servant at that period in time would have entailed working in an environment with Victorian strictures and discipline, submitting to the authority of women, both black and white, carrying out whatever tasks were ordered without argument. Habitual abuse or humiliation of young Nathan could have been facilitated by such conditions and it is easy to imagine him having suffered abuse in such a position considering the rage directed at this particular class of women only a few years later.
Any abuse Nathan experienced as a child without having the physical ability to stop it, would in the meantime have fueled an inner world of revenge fantasy and anger waiting to be unleashed. Not until he was a teenager would he finally gain the physical ability to express that anger, except toward whomever was the source. The source or its memory, the humiliation and shame they had used to define him, would retain the ability to make him feel helpless and impotent. The result, once he had gained maturity, would be not just fantasies of rage, but their physical expression, enacted again and again upon victims who were substitute for its source.
Early Violent Episodes – Resentment of Authority – Violent Fantasy
- These adolescents overcompensated for the aggression in their early lives by repeating the abuse in fantasy – but, this time, with themselves as the aggressors. (7)
- He is seen as an explosive personality who is impulsive, quick-tempered, and self-centered. (8)
In the summer of 1881, Nathan Elgin was arrested for carrying a pistol and getting into a confrontation with another young man near the Governor’s mansion, “they cursed each other for some time and aroused the neighborhood.” Such incidents were not particularly remarkable for that time period and the newspaper frequently reported similar skirmishes between young “bloods,” however it does demonstrate that Elgin already had a violent disposition at a young age. (9)
More remarkable was an incident in 1882, when Elgin sent a threatening letter to a deputy sheriff promising to “whip destroy and kill” the deputy the next time they met. The written expression of violent threats and fantasies, especially toward the police or other authorities, is one of the classic serial killer tells. Nathan’s letter was described “reckless and bloodthirsty” in the newspaper, a description that would later be more fittingly applied to the murders of 1885. (10)
Apart from committing the murders in the middle of the night and using the cover of darkness for concealment, an intimate knowledge of the city would have been key to the killer’s ability to elude the authorities.
Nathan Elgin had locational expertise – he had grown up in Austin as it was being built. As a child in the 1870s he would have seen the wood-framed buildings that lined Congress Avenue and Pecan Street replaced by brick and mortar storefronts. He would have seen the streets graded and the wooded hills cleared for elegant neighborhoods, schools and churches.
By 1885 he would have been intimately familiar with how the city worked and moved. He would have known all the shortcuts, the hiding places, which yards had dogs, which doors were left unlocked. He would have known how to go unnoticed and he would have known what was around every corner.
- The disorganized killer has no idea of, or interest in, the personalities of the victims. He does not want to know who they are, and many times takes steps to obliterate their personalities by quickly knocking them unconscious or covering their faces or otherwise disfiguring them. (11)
- [The victim] will often have horrendous wounds. [The killer] does not move the body or conceal it. (12)
- The offender is usually somewhat younger than his victims. (13)
In July 1884, there were two instances of women, both African American, being stabbed in the face as they slept. The women survived; the authorities investigated them as separate incidents. In August 1884, an African American woman was struck in the head with a smoothing iron as she slept. These nocturnal attacks, though not fatal, were so idiosyncratic in style that they must have been a fledgling attempt by an anger-retaliatory killer who would later escalate with gruesome results. (14)
In November 1884, police reports mentioned a non-fatal nocturnal assault on a domestic servant as she slept in her bed. This incident never appeared in the newspaper. (15)
A little over a month later, an African American woman named Mollie Smith was struck in the head with an axe as she slept; she was dragged into the backyard and raped. Her body was hacked to pieces by the killer and left at the scene. (16)
Mollie Smith’s murder set the pattern for all that followed.
Locational Expertise and Escalation and Signature in the Vance/Washington and Hancock/Phillips Murders
- The disorganized killer doesn’t choose victims logically, and so often takes a victim at high risk to himself, one not selected because he or she can be easily controlled… (17)
- …the assault continues until the subject is emotionally satisfied (18)
- The killer’s personal expression takes the form of his unique signature, an imprint left by him at the scene, an imprint the killer is psychologically compelled to leave to satisfy himself sexually. (19)
After four murders the killer had become very adept and perhaps overly confident and by the time he entered the cabin of Gracie Vance he was confident enough to attack four persons simultaneously.
Gracie Vance was a domestic servant employed by William Dunham and she lived, along with Orange Washington, in a cabin in the rear of his property. When the killer entered Gracie’s cabin, instead of finding a solitary sleeping woman, he found three women and one man. Undeterred he proceeded to incapacitate all four as quickly as possible; however, one of the women was only briefly insensible and she went for help while the crime was still in progress.
Neighbors were awakened by the disturbance and the police were called. Dunham and the neighbors went to investigate and a man was seen fleeing the scene. They fired their pistols at him as he made his escape in the darkness. As with the other victims, Gracie Vance was found in the backyard; her face had been pulverized with a rock. The suspect had fled in the direction of Wheatville, just to the west — the neighborhood Nathan Elgin had grown up in. (20)
The Christmas Eve murders were in many ways the skeleton key to all the murders in that they demonstrated all the specific facets of the killer’s MO and signature — his locational expertise, his ability to improvise and adjust at the scene as well as his emotional escalation which demonstrated the extent to which he would go to enact a very specific sex murder scenario – an attack in the bedroom upon a sleeping victim, then rape and murder in the backyard – even when the completion of that scenario was problematic. (21)
Susan Hancock, unlike the other victims, was white, but other than that, the murder was carried out identically to the previous murders. It is unlikely the killer had the specific intent to select a white victim; rather something about the location, the house, and the fact that there was an axe in the backyard attuned to the killer’s preferences.
As with the other victims, Susan Hancock was struck in the head with an axe while she slept and then carried into the backyard. Susan’s husband was asleep in another room but was awakened by the disturbance. He went into the backyard, saw a figure standing over his wife and threw a brick at him. Even though the perpetrator was armed with an axe he didn’t retaliate against Hancock – instead he fled the scene by jumping over a fence into the alley. Hancock then ran to the east side of the house to cut him off but he wasn’t there. (22)
Instead of fleeing into the darkness, the perpetrator ran west, back toward Congress Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. This peculiar evasion demonstrated that the perpetrator was very confident about where he was going — that he expected he could hide in plain sight.
It is interesting to note that had Hancock gone west to cut off the fleeing perpetrator he might have been able to stop him, which could have brought a definitive resolution to the murderous events of that year. However, seeing the perpetrator had escaped he went back to his wife and called for help.
Heading toward Congress Avenue, the perpetrator cut through the yard of the residence of May Tobin where his sudden appearance out of the darkness startled a young woman and her male companion – in his haste he could have literally run into the young woman. A confrontation occurs – the man threatens and insults him in demeaning and racist terms, perhaps the woman does too. The perpetrator has to retreat again and this would have been too much. The urge to kill had not been satisfied and would only have intensified after a humiliating confrontation. He follows the couple’s cab across town to the residence of James Phillips. The cab arrives, the young woman, Eula Phillips, discreetly makes her way into the quiet house. Less than an hour later she is found in the backyard, raped and murdered.
The killer could have dispatched Mr. Hancock and completed the crime at the Hancock residence but he did not. Likewise, he could have attempted to kill Eula and her companion in the relative seclusion of May Tobin’s premises. Instead, the killer’s primary motivation was the realization of a very specific violent sexual murder scenario.
I believe a confrontation must have occurred at May Tobin’s residence between Eula Phillips, her imperious companion, John Dickinson, and a very volatile Nathan Elgin. The confrontation had to have made him angry enough to pursue her across town — even though he had no idea where they were going or what he would find when he got there. I believe he was so angry that he pursued her at his own peril, when other, easier opportunities for a kill were in closer proximity.
The bloody footprints left at the Phillips house would subsequently be affirmatively compared to the footprints of the deceased Elgin. (23)
- …by the very nature of their childhood, serial killers are most likely to lead lives full of stressful events. As children and adolescents they lack self-esteem, are isolated and maladjusted, and are therefore poorly prepared for coping with life as adults. (24)
- Historically, the retaliatory killer’s marriage will have been ill-fated and he will usually be in some phase of estrangement. …If he has a relationship, there will have generally been a history of long-term spousal abuse, which will not likely have been covered by criminal complaints. (25)
In the study of serial sexual homicides, a “stressor” is defined as an event, interaction or conflict in which the killer is reminded of past humiliations and abuses. To purge his feelings of shame, inadequacy or powerlessness the killer will endeavor to enact a murderous scene in which he is powerful and in total control.
In the case of Nathan Elgin, there is a remarkable example of a pre-crime stressor in the instance of his wife, Sallie, giving birth to a child the same night two women were being murdered on Christmas Eve. I believe that this was more than a coincidence and whatever stressors Elgin was susceptible to were triggered by this event. While the birth of a child would not normally seem to be cause for a murderous rampage, in the case of a D/AR profile it very well could.
Nathan had married Sallie Wheat in 1882. She was a year older than him. They did not live together. It is not unusual for serial killers to be married, however it is rare in the case of the D/AR killer profile because of their volatile temperament towards women. Sallie could have held the power in the relationship; conversely she could have been subjected to abuse herself. There is an indication that Sallie was aware, at least subsequently, of Nathan’s responsibility for the murders – as a means of disassociation she raised Nathan’s son under the surname Davis rather than Elgin. (26)
- We read a great deal of theorizing about the series of murders in Austin, that all the assassinations were the work of a cunning lunatic — a monomaniac on the subject of murder. From what I can learn, I don’t believe anything of the kind, and it is my deliberate opinion that these murders can not only be unearthed, but when probed to the bottom, it will be found that they were committed by different individuals and that in each case they were prompted by lust, jealousy, or hatred. (27)
A Monomaniac On the Subject of Murder would be an apt title for a 19th century dime novel. The quote above by Waco Marshal Luke Moore was closer to the truth than he realized but the ideas he articulated were not exclusive; Nathan Elgin was indeed a monomaniac on the subject of murder and he was motivated by lust, hatred and revenge.
In contemporary criminal investigations of serial sexual homicides, law enforcement will have decades of criminal profiles at their disposal which have been painstakingly created as a resource to match types of murders to specific types of offenders. In other words, they know who they’re looking for. And the more unusual the murders, the easier it is to focus the investigation toward a specific type of offender.
If the Servant Girl Murders were committed in this day and age and the perpetrator had left behind similar evidence, contemporary forensic resources and methods would create a criminal profile and evidence collected could confirm or eliminate potential suspects. The perpetrator would most likely be apprehended very quickly.
Serial killers who are apprehended and convicted are later questioned extensively by the authorities and they are usually quiet happy to talk about themselves because they frequently have an inherent superiority complex and are eager to expound upon their mastery and superiority even though they are behind bars.
It is interesting to note that the wounded Elgin was not interviewed by reporters, which was unusual – almost everyone involved in a shooting at that period in time had a reporter waiting for them after being attended to by a physician. Nor did the police make any statement regarding Elgin. The inquest of his death was held in secret. Elgin most likely spent his last hours delirious as doctors made a futile attempt at finding and removing the bullet that entered his side and lodged in his spine.
If Elgin’s murder spree had followed the trajectory of most disorganized serial killers, he would have continued to escalate until his confidence overcame his self-restraint and he would have eventually been caught or killed fleeing the scene.
Hypothetically, if he had been arrested for a murder, unless he specifically admitted to it, I doubt the authorities would have connected him to all the murders. Had he been arrested and interrogated I think Elgin would have baffled the police, but they wouldn’t have spent much time contemplating him; he would have undoubtedly been indicted, tried and hung in short order. The newspaper account of him would have been a typically villainous caricature from that time period, and people today would still wonder if he was responsible.
I don’t think it’s possible to commit eight brutal axe murders without leaving traces behind, even if the traces are more subtle than long lost physical evidence, e.g., dead bodies and bloody footprints. Other traces that unfold from the lives of those effected by the murders, or in close proximity to them, may be yet be discovered by careful research.
The saloon was located at 1402 East Cedar Street and was run by Roger Blunt, known colloquially as Dick Rogers. Rogers was once described by the Statesman as one of Austin’s “old sports.” He had a reputations as a 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, a grocery at the time, 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 19th century.
- Nathan Elgin took the girl from the saloon to the house of his brother, Sylvester Elgin, a block to the east on Cedar Street. Elgin was probably shot by John Bracken (or by another unknown individual) near the southeast corner of Cedar (4th St.) and Onion St.
- Keppel, Robert D., Richard Walter. “Profiling Killers: A Revised Classification Model for Understanding Sexual Murder.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. 43(4) 1999. 427-428.
- Ressler, Robert K., Tom Shachtman. Whoever Fights Monsters. New York : St. Martin’s Press. 1992. 74.
- Ibid. 121.
- 1870 U.S. Census Travis County, Texas; Roll: M593_1606; Page: 228A. 1880 U.S. Census. Travis County, Texas; Roll 1329; Page: 218B; Enumeration District: 133. Texas Department of State Health Services. Texas Death Certificates, 1903–1982. Austin, Texas, USA.
- Ressler, op. cit., 84.
- Keppel, op. cit., 429
- Austin Daily Statesman, 29 July 1881; 30 July 1881.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 16 June 1882.
- Ressler, op. cit., 11
- Ressler, op. cit., 119.
- Keppel, op. cit., 429.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 8 August 1884.
- Police Calls1884 Volume, AR.P.01, Laws Collection, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 1 January 1885.
- Ressler, op. cit., 116.
- Keppel op. cit., 428.
- Keppel, Robert D. Signature Killers. New York : Pocket Books. 1997. 5.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 29 September 1885.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 26 December 1885.
- Testimony taken before Wm. Von Rosenberg Jr. J.P. Travis Co., Tx. And the jury of inquest over the body of Susan Hancock, deceased, taken this the 29th day of Dec. 1885. Travis County Archives. State v. Jas. O. Phillips, No. 7856 1886, Travis County Archives.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 3 June 1887.
- Vronsky, Peter. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York : Berkley Books. 2004. 291.
- Keppel, op. cit., 98
- Nathan Elgin’s son’s surname and birth date were provided by his mother who served as informant on his death certificate. Texas Department of State Health Services. Texas Death Certificates, 1903–1982. Austin, Texas, USA. The February 12, 1886 San Antonio Express described Elgin as being the father of two children, however, I believe this was incorrect.
- Austin Daily Statesman, 30 January 1886.
John Bracken photo courtesy Pamela Kercheville.