The Midnight ASsassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt
for America's First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth
Henry Holt and Co., 2016; 336 pp
Reviewed by CHarlie Riccardelli
Author Skip Hollandsworth first came across a reference to the American serial killer The Midnight Assassin when reading an article about Jack the Ripper written during the time of that murderer’s London killing spree. The article referenced that the infamous butcher of London prostitutes may have been the same man slaughtering the frightened citizens of Austin, Texas. Yet how could another murder spree both contemporary and similar to Jack the Ripper’s disappear to time while the other remains an enduring legend? Luckily, Hollandsworth probes these questions while unearthing the truth behind America’s first serial killer in The Midnight Assassin.
What makes The Midnight Assassin a fascinating read over much of your typical true crime fare is the portrait of a city. Texas author Hollandsworth may be entranced by the crime, but he’s equally caught up in how the string of murders that occurred in the mid-1880s shaped the city of Austin just as it was prospering into the thriving metropolis it is today. Like Jack the Ripper, the never-apprehended Midnight Assassin remains a mystery as far as identity and motive. In the beginning, the killer’s victims were working black women. The city’s residents, gripped with panic, hoped to rest the blame on a black man or black men to justify the savagery of the crimes, but when no men were apprehended and the murders became more erratic, the city fell into paranoia.
The Midnight Assassin is most compelling not in the moments of crime, but in the way that the community leaders in Austin try to quash the problem and save their city from self-destructing. For members of the black community, it's policing their own people so as not to fall victim to an angry white mob. Pinkerton detectives (well, not quite) are hired to crack the case. City members leap to the forefront of modern technology as a way to keep their city streets safe. It’s an incredible story of a community trying to keep the peace under growing pressure.