27 THE TEXAS ANNIHILATOR
Buck Taylor was a cowboy in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Buck rode bucking broncos. He may have been introduced to Queen Victoria. The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show toured the UK in 1885 and 1902, and Queen Victoria who heard about the fuss requested a private performance of the spectacle. The story is that Buck Taylor was interviewed by detectives in London and identified as someone who might be Jack the Ripper. The dates of the tours, though, suggest that the story is suspect. 1885 was three years before the Ripper slayed women in Whitechapel, and by 1902 interest in the Ripper murders had waned. But who knows what happened.
Buck Taylor toured around the world with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. When he was not chasing fake and some real Native Americans around European arenas, he lived 70 miles outside Austin. In 1885 in Austin Texas someone found an axe and hacked to death five Afro-American women, an eleven years old child and two white women. The murderer dragged his victims from their beds to whatever was outside, a yard or garden, and if they had enough life left in them he raped his victims. This included the eleven years old child Mary Ramey. The writer O’Henry christened the serial killer The Texas Annihilator.
It is unlikely that Taylor was suspected of being the Annihilator or that the Metropolitan Police were doing their Texan counterparts a favour. The five Afro-American women and child Mary Ramey were the first six victims. The two children of Eliza Shelley, the second victim, witnessed their mother being murdered but were too traumatised to provide a description of the killer. The local police arrested 400 suspects but were uninterested in white cowboys. All the interrogated were Afro-American men. Their interrogations included being beaten and threatened with hanging.
They All Love Jack is a fine book about the crimes of the Ripper but the author Bruce Robinson can be loose with his tongue. In a literary event in India he proposed to A N Wilson that his nominee for Jack the Ripper had also killed people in Texas. Robinson has argued that the Ripper was Michael Maybrick, a popular Victorian singer who also composed hit songs. Robinson ignores the Texas murders in the 800 pages of They All Love Jack. What happened in Texas and how and why it was connected to Jack the Ripper must have been an afterthought for the author. Maybrick did tour and perform in the USA but the Texas Annihilator managed to find eight victims in a twelve months period that began the day before New Year’s Eve in 1884 and ended on Christmas Eve in 1885. To accomplish these crimes Maybrick or the murderer would have needed a base in the Texan capital. This is unlikely for an Englishman appearing in musical theatres in the larger cities. Robinson has provided no analysis that relates the dates of the Maybrick tours to the murders.
The Texas Annihilator was never caught. The method used by the Annihilator was different from that of Jack the Ripper. Although he preferred an axe the Annihilator was willing to use alternative weapons. These were described by the police as blunt instruments. Left alone with his victim the Ripper liked to disembowel a lady. The Annihilator was more interested in sex although he did push a long spike through the ear of Mary Ramey, the child he murdered. There are some similarities with what happened in Whitechapel. These included violent non-murderous attacks on women before the murders began, the Texas police relying on witnesses rather than forensic enquiry, extra policemen recruited to patrol the streets of Austin, bloodhounds being used but failing to apprehend anyone, rewards being offered, locals forming a vigilante committee, killings that ended without the murderer being caught and local detectives who had a lot of facial hair.
The Ku Klux Klan was present in Austin in 1885 but there is little evidence of their role in the investigation. We can assume that they would have been curious and not lacking motivation in accusing Afro-American suspects. The attitude to the Afro-American community from a local press run by white people was mixed. There was sympathy for the female victims but also a belief that the crimes indicated the inferiority of Afro-Americans. One headline in the local papers referred to ‘BAD BLACKS’. The Ku Klux Klan would have said much worse and also withheld sympathy for the victims. Throughout their investigations the police assumed that all the murders were committed by different men. As far as they were concerned there was more than one murderer, more than one bad black. This is despite the similarity of the slayings. The New York Times, though, assumed it was all the work of a single monster.
When two white women, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips, were slain, the Texas coppers changed their approach and arrested the white husbands. The husband of Hancock was not charged but James Phillips, the husband of Eula Phillips the final victim, was convicted in court. Because there was no evidence against him and even evidence that discounted his involvement, he was later acquitted. Eula Phillips is interesting. Her husband was older, and Eula slept with other men, many of whom were successful and prominent in Austin. She also visited an Afro-American brothel in the City. Eula may have used the brothel for no other reason than it offered vacant beds to share with her lovers. She may, though, have been charging affluent customers. It appears that the attitude of the local police was that if James had not killed his wife then he should have done.
For a while now Austin has had a hip reputation, especially by the standards of Texas. The City has a lot of students, and young white people listen to blues more than country music. I once sat in a coffee house in Austin and earwigged a conversation at the next table. The four people sitting there were discussing the limits of capitalism and American conformism. This is not typical chat in Texas or anywhere else in the southern states. In 1885 the City had an opera house, three colleges, a capital building almost built, an expanding economy and a lot of cowboy hats, horses and handguns. In the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show there were plenty who wore cowboy hats, could ride a horse and shoot from the hip so maybe there is something in the stories about the Metropolitan Police detectives interviewing the visiting cowboys and wondering about Buck Taylor who lived a mere 70 miles from Austin Texas.
All serial killers have mythic baggage, and the Texas Annihilator was no different. The Servant Girl Murders, as they were known, have a connection with the Cinderella fairy tale. A footprint was left at the murders of the child Mary Ramey and the eighth and final victim Eula Phillips. One footprint was an imprint in soil, and the other was left on a plank. The police tried to match the footprint to James Phillips but when they discovered that the foot of Phillips was too short they did what all pragmatic policemen would have done in the circumstances. They ignored the evidence.
On You Tube there is available a PBS documentary on the Texas Annihilator. The programme was part of a series called History Detectives. Time has made the images grainy but the programme is worth watching. The three investigators are competent and combine diligent research with modern profiling of serial killers. The research discovered that the footprint belonged to a man whose small toe was missing. The profile expert decided that the killer was likely to be Afro-American, live in the area close to the scene of murders and not likely to have a position of power and authority. The profile expert stated that few serial killers pursued inter-racial victims. The Texas Annihilator did, though, add two white women to his list of victims. The experience of the profile expert in History Detectives is of interest. If he is right, it reduces the likelihood of Jack the Ripper being Jewish. None of the victims in the Whitechapel murders were Jewish.
Nathan Elgin was a cook who lived and worked close to where the murders in Austin occurred. He had a toe missing from his foot and was violent to women. When he was 19 years old, he was shot and killed by the police when he resisted arrest. The police had intervened when Elgin had attacked a girl in a store and attempted to harm her with the knife he was carrying. The violent nature of Elgin, his fit to the profile of the killer and the telling detail of the matching footprint appear to confirm his identity as the Texas Annihilator. After Elgin was killed the murders ceased. The girl in the store and two other women attacked by Elgin in 1885 survived and perhaps experienced old age. We even have a convincing suspect to whom guilt can be attributed. By the standards of Jack the Ripper it almost constitutes a happy ending.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.