Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Servant Girl Annihilator

May Day

Six months had gone by, and no one suspected a predatory killer on the loose. Stapleton points out that the city, with a population of 23,000, was recovering from the Reconstruction Era and was attracting people from all over to work in the area. Numerous convicts were employed as well to help with public buildings. There were lots of strangers in town, and many of them frequented the public houses and taverns. A killer could move among them, undetected.

Drawing of Eliza Shelley
Drawing of Eliza Shelley

On Wednesday, May 6, he seemed to have struck again. The victim's name was Eliza Shelley (Hollandsworth spells it "Shelly"), and she, too, had been a black servant. Her battered body was found lying on the corner of Jacinto and Cypress Streets. The newspaper, aligned with other major papers of that era in seeking sensational and lurid events to report, mentioned what her murder and her occupation had in common with Mollie Smith's situation, and that reporter's observations would eventually earn the killer a nickname: "the Servant Girl Annihilator."

"The Foul Fiends," ran the Statesman's headlines that day, "Keep up Their Wicked Work." They had performed yet another "Deed of Deviltry" in the "Crimson Catalog of Crime."

The victim was found on the property of Dr. L.B. Johnson, a former state legislator who lived with his wife and niece near the railway track. Behind his house was a cabin in which Eliza Shelley had resided with her three children. For more than a month, she had been the Johnson family's cook. Mrs. Johnson had heard screams coming from Eliza's cabin, and had sent her niece to check on the children. She returned to report a ghastly sight, which Mrs. Johnson in turn told her husband.

He found 30-year-old Eliza Shelley on the floor, dead. She had been wounded in the head with the punctures of a sharp implement, as well as a gash that appeared to have been made by an ax. The killer had hit her so hard that the weapon had gone deep into her brain, and as Hollandsworth describes, had cleaved her skull nearly in two. Blood-covered pillows indicated that she had been attacked while asleep in bed and was then dragged to the floor, onto a pile of blankets. Because her nightdress was pulled up and her nude body oddly elevated, exposing her, it was surmised that she had been sexually assaulted as well. The weapon, whatever it was, had been taken. A set of large broad footprints coming to the cottage and leaving indicated that a shoeless male had done this deed. But Eliza's husband was in prison and she had never been known to entertain other men.

Eliza's eight-year-old son spoke to a reporter and described a man entering the cabin in the middle of the night. The boy woke up and the man shoved him into a corner, placed a blanket over him, and ordered him to be quiet. He apparently fell asleep (or was treated to chloroform that recently had been stolen from a dentist's home in Austin), because he had no idea what had happened to his mother until he saw her the following morning. His younger brothers, who slept in the same bed with their mother, were unable to add anything to the report.

Again, the bloodhounds were sent for, and again, the dogs came up short. Nevertheless, Marshal Lee quickly arrested a 19-year-old boy, who was walking around barefoot and was sufficiently dull-witted not to protest strongly. The tracks were measured to compare against his, but it soon became clear that he was not the person who made them. It wasn't long before he, too, was released because of lack of evidence. Then another black man who once had lived with the victim was arrested. He'd recently quarreled with her and had no alibi. But he, too, was innocent, and this became clear when another violent attack occurred in the area.

Categories
Advertisement