The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin

Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer

Book - 2016
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"In the late 1800s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the cusp of emerging from an isolated Western outpost into a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. But beginning in December 1884, Austin was terrorized by someone equally as vicious and, in some ways, far more diabolical than London's infamous Jack the Ripper. For almost exactly one year, the Midnight Assassin crisscrossed the entire city, striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class. At the time the concept of a serial killer was unthinkable, but the murders continued, the killer became more brazen, and the citizens' panic reached a fever pitch. Before it was all over, at least a dozen men would be arrested in connection with the murders. Along the way, the murders would expose what a newspaper described as "the most extensive and profound scandal ever known in Austin." And yes, when Jack the Ripper began his attacks in 1888, London police investigators did wonder if the killer from Austin had crossed the ocean to terrorize their own city. With vivid historical detail and novelistic flair, Texas Monthly journalist Skip Hollandsworth brings this terrifying saga to life"--
Publisher: New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ©2015
ISBN: 9780805097672
0805097678
9780805097689
Branch Call Number: 364.1523 HOLLANDSWORTH
Characteristics: xii, 321 pages : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 25 cm

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j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

Austin erected giant “moonlight towers,. ... some residents ... complained about the buzzing sound the lights made. They were bothered by the ash from the carbon that drifted down onto their heads, singeing their hair. The city’s gardeners were worried that the constant light would cause their corn and bean stalks to grow around the clock, which would require them to use saws to cut the plants down, and owners of chicken coops feared their chickens would ceaselessly lay eggs twenty-four hours a day until they dropped dead from exhaustion. The drunken cowboys who came to town on Saturday nights were not deterred at all by the tall towers. They circled them on their horses, firing their pistols at the lights, whooping with glee. Nevertheless, the members of the Board of Trade were so delighted with the lamps that they decided to change Austin’s official nickname from “City of the Violet Crown” (in honor of Austin’s stunning sunsets) to “The City of Eternal Moonlight.”

j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

What most intrigued the World’s man was that the motive for the murders remained a complete mystery. Almost always in history, he wrote, violent murders of women “have love, passion, ambition or the supernatural for a background, as a somewhat relieving motive. But here in the city of Austin in the Nineteenth Century, these crimes seem to have nothing to palliate their naked brutality and gaping wounds. As yet, the ablest detectives can advance no satisfactory theory to account for their commission.” The reporter made it clear that he did not believe an “organized gang of vile Negroes” did the killings. Nor did he buy into the theories that the killers were hardened criminals with prison records or saloon drunks with violent streaks. He pointed out that “all the worst characters in town” had been “kept under watch” by the police since the murder of little Mary Ramey back in late August. If such men were guilty of the murders, he wrote, “they would have betrayed themselves long ago.”

j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

Despite all the years Chenneville had spent chasing criminals, the truth was that he was not exactly an experienced homicide detective. Almost all the murders he had investigated had taken place in Austin’s saloons and poorer neighborhoods, where small, drunken insults had escalated into deadly brawls and personal scores had been settled with knives or guns. None of the killings had been carefully planned out, and more often than not they were carried out in front of at least one eyewitness. Rarely did a killer even try to flee. All Chenneville had to do was ride up on his horse, remove the smoking gun or bloody knife from the killer’s hand, and drag him to the calaboose—the local jail, which was just down the hall from the police department.

j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

Howe mostly did patrol work, spending his shifts on the downtown streets, handing out tickets to citizens who left horses unhitched in front of businesses or who drove their carriages faster than a “slow trot.” He arrested vagrants, gun toters, sneak thieves (shoplifters), and moll buzzers (pickpockets who specialized in robbing women). He collared drunks who urinated in the alleys behind the saloons and prostitutes who wandered outside the boundaries of Guy Town, the city’s vice district in the southwest corner of downtown. One thing Howe did not do was investigate the four or five murders that occurred in Austin every year.
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It was now June 6, 1887. After nearly two and a half years of investigations and dozens of arrests, not one...

j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

A few landmarks remain from 1885: the granite-pink state capitol, of course, as well as the governor’s mansion; the Driskill Hotel; the Corinthian-columned administrative building of the State Lunatic Asylum, which is now known as the Austin State Hospital; Millett’s Opera House, which has become a private dining club; a few other downtown buildings; and a handful of private homes that had been built for the city’s wealthiest residents. And scattered around the city are fifteen moonlight towers. .... In the 1970s, city officials were able to get the towers designated as state and national historical landmarks. In their written applications to obtain such designations, the officials never mentioned the murders. They didn’t explain that Austin residents in the late 1880s had wanted the towers erected because they were still very anxious about what lurked in the dark. The

j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

Interesting photos:

A prominent white Austin family posing with their “servant girl” and her daughter. (Interesting to note the feature of the black child vs her mother in the photo)
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Architects planned for the Texas state capitol, under construction in 1885, to be larger than the U.S. Capitol.
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The University of Texas was then “overflowing” with 230 students.
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The Travis County Courthouse, also known as “the Castle,” where all the murder trials were held.
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In the 1890s Austin erected giant “moonlight towers,” which some residents hoped would keep the Midnight Assassin away for good.

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j
jimg2000
May 06, 2017

Got sucked into reading the book with its blurbs: "Serial Killer," "Midnight Assassins," "the Hunt" etc. I almost nodded off ... may be I did ... with all those nice to know history of Austin which was just turning into the capitol of Texas with a Texas size state house and a new university etc. but a serial killer murder thriller is not. Rather, just some collated reports of a hacker or hackers of Austinites. Should be tagged under "History of Austin" instead. 4 Stars for the people and culture of Austin back in the days and those nice historic photos inside the book (see examples in quotes.) But a negative 1.5 stars for bait and switch as a crime thriller.

Written by Texas Monthly writer and editor Skip Hollandsworth, this book ahs been compered to "Devil in the White City" for its story of an early-day serial killer. The midnight assassin operated in Texas in the late 1800s, mostly around Austin, and was never identified. Hollandsworth offers several plausible possibilities, and give s the reader a vivid picture of crime detection and society at that time.

Hollandsworth also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie "Bernie" starring Jack Black, which was based on story he wrote for TM about a murder in east Texas.

l
ladybugg
Jan 17, 2017

very interesting, well written, excellent research. I enjoyed reading about the history of Texas in the 1800's and what life was like for the citizens

Timmeh4248 Nov 02, 2016

It just seems kind of icky to do reviews on true crime books. Despite that, my inner CSI detective forces me to read a couple every year. I must also admit that I like how it made my parents nervous when I started reading them as a teen and how people don't sit next to me on the bus when I read one now.

I have lived in south Texas most of my life and despite an interest in true crime stories, never knew about the information Hollandsworth reveals in this book. In the 1880s a man killed 5 women in the Austin area and no one heard a sound. There were few witnesses and fewer clues. No one has ever discovered his identity. The police could do little more than round up the known criminals (and yes there was a lot of racial profiling in the process) but these actions brought them no closer to the killer.

Hollandsworth is a little heavy on description at times, almost as if he was more concerned with word count than actual telling of the story. This fact however does not detract from the telling. It is well researched and includes numerous photos. The murders ruined political careers and spurred Austin to purchase giant arc lamps from Detroit so that no part of the city would be dark at night.

There are some who apparently try to connect these crimes to H. H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper, but aside from their victim selection the methods were very different.

I particularly enjoyed all of the history of south Texas that was entwined with the story itself. It taught me that there's still a lot for me to learn about the city I live in.

s
salgeogal
Jul 13, 2016

5 out of 10. I really wanted to like this book. Really. I wanted to explore the mystery of who did the killings. Instead, I got what felt like a half baked description of the killings and a big shoulder shrug at the end. No, I most definitely did not expect the author to name the killer(s), but at least give a list of likely suspects. Could have been so much better.

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