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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
Skip Hollandsworth is executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. His work was included in the 2006 edition of Best American Crime Writing, and he has won a National Magazine Award for feature writing. Hollandsworth co-wrote the acclaimed screenplay “Bernie” with director Richard Linklater. He lives in Texas with his wife.
Henry Holt, 978-0-8050-9762-2, hardback (also available as an ebook and on Audible), 336 pgs., $30.00
April 5, 2016
Austin, Texas, in December 1884 was a rapidly growing modern city with 230 students enrolled at a brand-new university, a new pink granite state capitol under construction, an opera house, and a roller coaster. Prosperous gentlemen wore frock coats and ladies wore bustles. Reporters wore their hats “at jaunty angles” and hung out at the Horseshoe Saloon which sold a new beer called Budweiser. The Austin Police Department had twelve policemen. As the mayor liked to say, “No city has the promise of a more healthful prosperity!” And then for the next year and change someone “crisscrossed the entire city … using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class.”
In a ridiculously entertaining, page-turning history, Skip Hollandsworth, award-winning journalist and executive editor of Texas Monthly, tells the story of these slayings in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer. Almost as mysterious as the still-unsolved crimes is how such a sensational story could be so little known, especially in Texas. Hollandsworth’s prodigious, dogged research provides an engaging history of Austin’s development. Details of life in Austin in the late nineteenth century add context and provide a particularly effective contrast with the extraordinary murders.
No one had any experience with this type of crime, and the science of criminology didn’t exist yet. Speculation ran wild and included Comanche Indian attack, escapees from the nearby Texas State Lunatic Asylum, and, eventually, leading politicians, and even Satan himself, before settling, inevitably, on the nearest available black man. As long as the victims were poor and black, the respectable white citizens of Austin assigned the assaults and mutilations “all the significance of a hangnail.” Then white women were targeted and lynch mobs gathered in the streets. The matter-of-fact racism is truly stunning to twenty-first-century sensibilities.
This story seems custom-ordered for Hollandsworth. In the unmistakable style he’s perfected at Texas Monthly, he has great fun, in a sort of disbelieving and sometimes righteously incensed manner, with this “story worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, a rip-roaring, multilayered gothic saga of madness and intrigue, panic and paranoia, beautiful women and baying bloodhounds, and flabbergasting plot twists and sensational courtroom drama.” He will make you listen more closely to strange sounds in the night.
The Midnight Assassin is filled with improbable facts, such as London Metropolitan Police speculating that the Austin madman had shown up in Whitechapel, calling himself Jack the Ripper. The bobbies even questioned Black Elk, the Lakota tribesman, who was left behind in London by Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Truth is stranger than.
Even though there were arrests, trials and mistrials, reward offerings and vigilante committees, additional police and Pinkerton detectives hired, and Austin’s famous “moonlight towers” (fifteen of which remain) were installed, the murders remain unsolved. But Hollandsworth, a tad obsessed, is still on the case. He asks that anyone with information potentially leading to the identification of the perpetrator please give him a call.
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