Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Servant Girl Annihilator


On this night, Mollie's common-law husband, Walter Spencer, had been attacked as well. He was in his bed asleep and had awakened in terrible pain with a deep gash across his face. The room was in disarray and Mollie was gone. Blood decorated their bedroom and bloody handprints were found on the doorsill. He went looking for help.

Mollie's employer followed a blood trail that led outside and found her by the outhouse. Back inside, he discovered a blood-covered ax, apparently brought there by the killer. The obvious suspect, Marshal Lee thought, was a man with whom Mollie had once been involved, William "Lem" Brooks. The blood spatters in the room seemed to support the degree of brutality that can arise from jealousy. So Brooks was arrested, protesting his innocence and offering an alibi. A crime reporter checked it, finding it more or less solid, although it seemed possible that Brooks could have been where he said at the estimated time of the attacks and still have had time to commit them.

Bloodhounds tracking
Bloodhounds tracking

Thus, an inquest was held to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a trial. In those days, no one was taking fingerprints in Texas, or offering a DNA analysis or blood spatter pattern report. Courts operated on logic, confessions, and eyewitness testimony, each of which in its own way was flawed. As one of Saylor's characters says, speaking years later: "And you must keep in mind... this was also a good two or three years before the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Retired Texas Rangers and Pinkerton snoops, those were our only models of detection. Rangers tracked down outlaws on the frontier; Pinkertons infiltrated labor unions and spied for the bosses. People didn't have the superhuman expectations of investigating detectives that they've since picked up from popular fiction. The closest thing we had to a Sherlock Holmes were the bloodhounds!"

The coroner's jury, comprised of six white male citizens, met on New Year's Day and continued to listen for several days to witnesses and theories about the crime. Despite what the alibi witnesses affirmed, Saylor writes, the jury came to the conclusion that Lem Brooks had the means and motive for the crime, so he probably did it. But it wasn't long before he was freed because of lack of evidence.

Then, when another woman was killed in a similar fashion to Mollie Smith, it looked like a different type of crime altogether — and a type for which no one in the city or country had analytical experience.

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