Dark History in the City of Eternal Moonlight

Journalist Skip Hollingsworth asks near the beginning of The Midnight Assassin:

“Why is it that certain sensational events in history are remembered and others, just as dramatic, are completely forgotten?” 

Jack the Ripper committed his notorious murders in London’s East End a mere three years after Austin was terrorized by what we now would recognize as a serial killer. Even today Jack’s identity is still speculated about and any story, factual or otherwise, about the case consistently makes headlines. Yet most would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about what happened in Austin. So he’s got a good point.

Speaking of things forgotten, a segue: when I heard about this book, I was unusually obsessed with reading it. I had a lot on my plate at the time with other reviews and work projects; plus being abroad, I couldn’t get a decent-priced copy of it during the height of wanting it. By the time I got it, even without review commitments, I wasn’t in the mood for it after the initial frenzy of interest passed. Don’t you hate when that happens? Is it only me?

Then, over Christmas, my husband and I discovered a channel that seems to show, at least in the evening, regular hours-long marathons of Forensic Files. He’s recently started watching some true crime series with me, and quickly got sucked into that one. The last episode we watched before going to sleep one night was about an exceedingly creepy serial killer in Dallas who removed the eyes of prostitutes he killed.

That would be icky enough, but to make matters worse, when they figured out who was doing it, they also discovered that in his childhood, he’d engaged in the totally normal mother-son hobby of performing taxidermy on animals and birds. But his mother was cheap, and wouldn’t invest in expensive glass eyes for their stuffed animals, instead using cheaper, not-at-all-horrifying black buttons. (Now that I think of it, maybe that’s where Nail Gaiman got the idea for Other Mother in Coraline.) This in addition to other circumstantial evidence of horror-movie stereotypical serial killer behavior involving eyes.

Anyway, the journalist telling much of this story in segments throughout the episode was Skip Hollandsworth, editor of Texas Monthly. Even in my half-asleep haze, his name rang a bell, and I remembered this book buried deep somewhere in my to-read pile.

Unlike many readers, I’m not enamored with that “true crime” (it barely qualifies) and narrative nonfiction mega-favorite, The Devil in the White City. In that book, mysteriously beloved nonfiction author Erik Larson (I also read his In The Garden of the Beasts and it was horrendous too, yet he consistently outsells and dwarfs so many other authors in nonfiction despite writing consistently mediocre books. I don’t get it. Sorry for the segue but it’s maddening) writes of two tangentially connected tales: that of preparations for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, a doctor who built a labyrinthine horror house/hotel to lodge and murder ladies visiting the Fair.

My biggest gripe with that book is that it’s really about the Fair and the men who constructed and orchestrated it, with a lot of imagined scenes of Holmes and his crimes thrown in because much hard evidence is missing. It was so disjointed, the two stories barely connected, the World’s Fair half was boring and too much guessing in the Holmes story, all told in Larson’s signature melodramatic, cliffhanger-loving tone.

The Midnight Assassin follows a similar format, painting a portrait of the city of Austin and tying in the killings of 1884-85. But I found this much more interesting, and not written in the silly style that Larson uses. I really enjoyed the parts setting the scenery of Austin. At a July 4 celebration, an Austin real estate agent gave a speech predicting what Austin would look like in the year 2000, then 115 years in the future. “Most exciting [he] concluded, was that electricity would be used to ‘send shock waves through people, causing them to live longer and end all diseases,’ and that ‘entire armies and navies’ that dared to attack America would be ‘instantaneously destroyed with one electrical bolt!'”

Slices of life and events like this fascinate me, and help keep the story very much in a setting of the times, always important in understanding how and why events took the turns they did.

The assassin was actually dubbed the “Servant Girl Annihilator” (rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it) by a writer then living in Austin named William Sydney Porter, who would go on to become better known by a different name – short story writer O. Henry. This clunky moniker was quite literal – the man snuck into African American servants’ lodgings and bludgeoned them, often leaving a child or spouse alive. He later moved on to white, non-servant victims, but there’s a race element obviously at play, and that the police took to racist extremes. Since the initial attacks on servants all involved black victims, so-called “bad blacks” were targeted and profiled as responsible. The race divide in Austin at this time was immense, which given the date isn’t surprising, but it’s still disturbing.

Some gossipy scandal gets introduced once the killer moves on to white Austinites, and that was interesting but still felt a little too on the surface. That was my biggest issue here, as quickly readable as this, it throws out a lot of names and dates and places but doesn’t end up adding much to it all. A few side stories, like the political connections and effects of the crimes, and ideas about whether or not their nighttime occurrence eventually influenced the installation of Austin’s iconic Moonlight Towers, were great but not enough. The whole book felt like not enough.

The murders are well-told, but frustratingly little information is available about them, not much difference now to then. Investigative and forensic techniques were worlds behind today’s. Not many first-hand eyewitness accounts existed, and those that did are strange and unhelpful. In reading historical true crime, I prefer when the author presents some theories combining their research with whatever history has revealed in the meantime. Otherwise I might as well just read some Wikipedia entries. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t offer much that in vein, which was disappointing because he obviously did his homework.

“We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know.” Hollandsworth reminds near the end. He’s right, and his initial question remains unanswered – I don’t know why Jack the Ripper remains a household name and these events were largely forgotten, despite not many hard facts actually being known about either of them. I’m still completely fascinated and curious about what happened in Austin, but more frustrated than anything else at the end of this book. It had a lot of potential.

Still 10,000 times better than anything Erik Larson.

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer
by Skip Hollandsworth

published April 5, 2016 by Henry Holt and Co.

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