The butchery began out of the blue and, fittingly, in a freezing rain storm called a Blue Norther, that swept across the Texas hill country on New Years Eve, 1884. That evening an African American laborer by the name of Walter Spencer staggered across the yard from his servant’s shack and pounded on the door of the main house. Seriously injured, bleeding profusely from deep gashes to the head, he pleaded to be let in. The occupant of the house reluctantly complied.
Once inside, Spencer frantically spilled out a nightmarish series of events: he and his girlfriend, the cook and maid of the main house, Mollie Smith, had been attacked while sleeping in their bed. When Spencer came to, Mollie was nowhere to be found. He had searched the yard and street to no avail.
The man of the house listened but was unmoved. He told Spencer he’d better bandage his head before he bled to death. Then he unceremoniously showed him the door.
Despite a compelling premise, The Midnight Assassin is an underwhelming investigation into a little known nineteenth century serial murder case and it’s marginalized victims. Texas Monthly executive editor, Skip Hollandsworth pushes the BS meter into the red right off the bat with the assertion that his subject is America’s first serial killer. Not true. Before the Midnight Assassin–or the Servant Girl Annihilator as he was also called–there were many other U.S. serial killers. A cluster of them, curiously, were from Massachusetts, e.g., Cambridge serial poisoner, Sarah Jane Robinson (1881); Boston child murderer and rapist, Thomas W. Piper (1871) and Chelsea child murderer, Jesse Pomeroy (1874). But American serial killers go back even further than that, yes, all the way back to infamous cousins, Micajah and Wiley Harpe (1798-1799) who killed at least twenty-five people in Kentucky and Tennessee.
None the less, The Midnight Assassin offers some compelling details of serial murder before the term was coined, just twenty years after the Civil War, when people commuted by horse and carriage, before DNA, criminal data bases and geographical profiling existed. Even then there were telephones, incandescent light bulbs and the precursor of the criminal profiler, called alienists. Hollandsworth introduces them to us and educates us sufficiently about the era.
The murders, spanning a year, are particularly gruesome and Hollandsworth is restrained with his account of the horrific facts. The killer used an ax or a hatchet, for the most part, cleaving heads in two. Even more chilling, he rammed sharpened steel rods through several of his victims ears. Those victims, with the exception of the last two–seven women and one man–were African American. Though there were blood trails and foot prints left behind, as well as eye witnesses (the killer brazenly attacked women while they slept with their boyfriends or children) the Midnight Assassin was never caught.
The locale of the crimes is Austin Texas of the late 1800s. Hollansworth describes it as a rambunctious boom town, stretching its cattle and cotton confines with mass construction, specifically that of the University of Texas and the huge, ornate Texas State Capital. The main streets bustle with opulent restaurants and a opera house. Even more cosmopolitan is the integration of Whites, Blacks and Latinos so soon after Reconstruction. But there is virulent racism that hinders the investigation and as Hollansworth points out, the killings become a tragic catalyst to the regression of race relations. He doesn’t probe these issues enough though. Nor does he make nineteenth century Austin–this burgeoning, ambitious little metropolis–a bonafide character in the saga. It’s an opportunity that is sorely missed.
The Midnight Assassin flirts with some intriguing ideas and themes but fails to flesh them out. I would have liked more exploration into the psychology of the killer per alienists and modern criminal profilers. Likewise it would have been interesting to have a more focused rundown of viable suspects, because there were some and a few are particularly intriguing, but Hollansworth brushes them off and goes in the direction of connecting the murders to Jack the Ripper. And though he ends up, wisely, discarding that theory, it is not soon enough for me.
Those who are looking to be captivated by a story–albeit a true one–are prone to be disappointed. The Midnight Assassin reads like a text book on Prozac which is especially perplexing since Hollandsworth co-wrote the terrific script to the deservedly highly acclaimed 2011 motion picture Bernie. My advice–skip The Midnight Assassin and watch Bernie instead. It’s true too. And it happened in Texas.