After speaking with Skip Hollandsworth – award-winning journalist, screenwriter and executive editor of Texas Monthly – I'm picturing one of those quirky forensic savants holed up in a war room paneled with heavily scribbled dry erase boards and taped-up mug shots, ignoring his now cold dinner, while he pores through stacks of yellowed newspaper clippings.
In actuality, Hollandsworth – who lives in Dallas with his wife, daughter and three dogs – is far more normal than that, and it's his ability for in-depth research and the instinctive ferreting out of clues that have taken him this far. He's coming to Houston for a signing of his latest, The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer, a narrative history that started as a hobby and soon turned into a ten-year obsession.
It was around 1998 that Hollandsworth first began hearing about Austin's famed Midnight Assassin – a murderer so predatory that in the 1890s, the town erected 31 moonlight towers to beat back the darkness and keep Austin safe from this brutal, ax-wielding monster.
So, along with the help of other researchers, he started digging. “You can't find a search engine to look up murders in 19th-century Austin,” says Hollandsworth. “Writing history depends on whatever documents you can find, and so it was just a matter of looking for the right newspaper articles, government documents, police reports, diaries, journals. It was a needle-in-the-haystack hunt.”
Except he didn't stop there: One haystack soon became two, and each clue led him further down the rabbit hole. “I would lay awake at night haunted by what I didn't know.” He tried libraries in Houston, Galveston and New York City, train records, ship manifests and prison records. He hunted down and interviewed the descendants of those affected by the murders. Soon Hollandsworth became an Austinologist (“they're the Austin version of Ripperologists”) and he wasn't alone; others were also following the clues to see if there was any truth to the rumors that the man responsible for a year-long killing spree in Texas could be the same monster who surfaced three year's later as England's infamous Jack the Ripper.
As with all things Austin, it soon got weird. He uncovered evidence of bumbling cops, incompetent detectives, faked evidence, impersonators and horribly wrong theories. “Initially the killings were considered, as one man said at the time, 'a negro matter.' [The theory was] that depraved black men, for reasons of their own, were attacking black servant women. It never occurred to them that one man was responsible.” Later theories became so preposterous that, at one point, “a group of fake detectives who called themselves Pinkertons showed up and made a mess of things themselves. They came up with the idea that the Governor was the killer.”
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Was one man so cunning, intelligent and ruthless that he did his practice lap in Austin before moving on to the streets of London to become one of the most notorious serial killers in history? Could this sociopath so easily discard his Texas twang and adopt not just an English accent, but just the right dialect to pass in London society?
“I'm still haunted by what I don't know. I just think there's something out there,” says Hollandsworth. He's hoping that somebody will read the book, go up into his attic or down into the basement archives of a police station, and find a letter that will reveal one key bit of evidence. “It just seems impossible to believe that there is no way that we will never know who the Midnight Assassin was. Austin only had 17,000 people [at the time]; how did nobody know who he was?”
On the other hand, Hollandsworth admits that we might never have an answer. “Maybe he was unlike any other killer.” He says it's the perfect crime story, except there's no ending, and that's even more haunting.
Skip Hollandsworth will sign and discuss his book on Tuesday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m. at Murder By The Book, 2342 Bissonnet, 713-524-8597, murderbooks.com. Free.