Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Analysis and Interview With "Texas Monthly" Executive Editor Skip Hollandsworth: Non-fiction Crime Book "Midnight Assassin" about the Austin 1885 Serial Murders.

Chris Rice Cooper 

*The images in this specific piece are granted copyright privilege by:  Public Domain, CCSAL, GNU Free Documentation Licenses, Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law, or given copyright privilege by the copyright holder which is identified beneath the individual photo.

**The links along with the names of the persons and/or organizations are at the end of this piece in alphabetical order.  Some of the links will have to be copied and then posted in your search engine in order to pull up properly

***Excerpts from The Midnight Assassin:  Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer are highlighted this way.

Skip Hollandsworth’s
The Midnight Assassin: 
Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer
“The Community of Souls:  Social Responsibility In the Wake of Serial Killer Mayhem”

When Texas Monthly Executive Editor Skip Hollandsworth, 60, was a young teenager living in Wichita Falls, Texas he along with his friends would make the Friday night ritual of driving by the local mental hospital, North Texas State Hospital (Left), which he described in the June 2010 issue of Texas Monthly.  
       "For us, the state hospital, which nearly everyone referred to as LSU, or Lakeside University, because it was located across from Lake Wichita (Right attributed to Michael Barera), was our real-life haunted house. The fact that two thousand adults were being treated for 'insanity' out in those buildings, just past the city limits sign, simply tortured our imaginations." 
He switched seats from the truck to the actual hospital room where he would play the cello for the patients of North Texas State Hospital. (Left)   Soon he became a volunteer in every department of the hospital communicating with the patients in what he described as a “community of souls who had never been able to make it on the outside.”
       “I volunteered at the hospital, utterly curious about the patients who had crossed some invisible line into an unknown world.”  Hollandsworth said to CRC Blog in an email interview on December 8, 2017.
The patients made a huge impact on Hollandsworth and his career choice of becoming a journalist:  I realized that what I loved about my visits was that I got the chance to study people who went right up to the line of normal behavior—and then, inexplicably, stepped over it. I was captivated by the patients and tried to fathom what it felt like to be swept away by madness.”  Hollandsworth wrote in a Texas Monthly article.  Above Left Melancholia attributed to Albrecht Durer in 1514.
Hollandsworth received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas Christian University in 1979 and has been writing ever since:  screenplays, crime stories, celebrity features, but his most recent accolade is the crime nonfiction book Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt For America’s First Serial Killer, published by Henry Holt and Company in hardback and kindle on April 5, 2016; and paperback on April 11, 2017. The Midnight Assassin cover design is by David Shoemaker.

 From December 31, 1884 to December 24, 1885 the city of Austin, Texas was terrorized by America’s fist serial killer, christened the Midnight Assassin.  The Midnight Assassin ritualistically, barbarically, and viciously murdered seven women and one man with axes, knifes, rods, screwdrivers, clubs, and bricks.
The first of the eight murders occurred on December 31, 1884 when African American cook and maid Mollie Smith, 23, (in article on Left) was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and stomach, the stab wounds so deep they revealed her internal organs. She also had slash wounds to her legs and arms. Her head was almost chopped in two by an ax; on May 7, 1885 African
American woman Eliza Shelley, 31, (Right) had ax wounds and screwdriver wounds to her head and between her eyes in addition to stab wounds, some four inches deep, all over her body; on May 22, 1885
African American cook Irene Cross, 33, (Left) had an ax scalping head wound and her arm nearly severed; on August 29, 1885
African American girl

     Mary Ramey, 11, (Right) had a rod slammed through both of her ears and both sides of her brain; on September 28, 1885 African American cook Gracie Vance was
beaten to death with a brick and her boyfriend Orange Wash-
ington (detailed in article on left) was beaten to death with an ax; on December 24, 1885 prominent white woman Susan Hancock, (Below Right) 43, had a rod penetrating both ears to her brain;  and on that same night of December 24, 1885
prominent white Eula Phillips,17, (Below Left) had her head chopped in two by an ax; disturbingly, unlike the other murders, her body was placed in a crucifixion pose with three small pieces of wood across her chest and her stomach.
Hollandsworth, who has been writing for Texas Monthly since 1989, first heard of the Austin murders in 1988 when he met with Nicole Krizak, a Texas public high school teacher who happened to be working on her own novel based on the Austin murders. This spiked Holland-sworth’s interest and he began
his research almost immediately.  He and Krizak would compare notes and would meet to discuss the progress of their work:  "Nicole was wanting to write a novel about the murders, and I wanted to write a non-fiction book about the killings.  We discussed theories about the case,"  Hollandsworth (Above Right) said to CRC Blog in an email interview on December 7, 2017.

 Hollandsworth spent almost twenty-five years researching and writing Midnight Assassin until its final completion in 2013.  In the an interview with Heather Seggel (Left) of Book Page Hollandsworth stated:
“Throughout the writing of the book, I would wonder, Could it be this man? (Jack the Ripper aka James Maybrick Right) Or that man? (“four-toed Negro” Nathan Elgin)  Is the killer a barefoot chicken thief? (Oliver Townsend) Or is he a famous politician? (John Hancock Below Left) Is he a Malaysian cookwho disappeared suddenly just after the last set of killings? (Alaska or Maurice) Or
is he well-known young doctor who worked at the state lunatic asylum? (Dr. James P. Given Below Right) The answer has got to be out there somewhere—in an old musty record in a police department filing cabinet, or in a letter hidden away in someone’s
attic. Maybe this book will lead to the answer. But then again, maybe not. After all, this killer was unlike anyone ever before seen—a brilliant, cunning monster who set off a citywide panic, and then disappeared forever.”
Hollandsworth had no difficulty finding a publisher, Henry Holt and Company, (1904 Logo Left) for his non-fiction book, which is surprising to me since the book truly has no ending – the America’s first serial killer remains unknown to this day. 

Why then could I not put Hollandsworth’s Midnight Assassin down?  Perhaps because what makes this nonfiction book connect with its readership is that finally we have a nonfiction work not completely focused on the serial killer but on the victims, their family, and their community.  Every aspect of the community from the housewife, the local storeowner to the mayor to the police chief and even to the state governor is affected and in someway scarred by the year of carnage the Midnight Assassin left.  (Above Right Illustration by David Palumbo for Texas Monthly.  Copyright granted by David Palumbo) 
But the victimization continued – and not by the Midnight Assassin but by all of Austin (Left in 1888), which Hollandsworth described as his most interesting character.   
There were the white employers of the first five victims.  Why were these employers not held accountable for not providing a safe environment for their workers?  Why were the upper class and wealthy more concerned with greed and what attire to wear instead of finding the truth?  Why were the politicians in Austin more concerned with power, winning the next election, and their public persona instead of finding the truth?  Why were the defense attorneys and the District Attorney focused on winning the next court case instead of finding the truth? 

There is also the issue of police brutality – the same issue that greets us even today; but back then it was more prevalent and more acceptable especially if the person who was under arrest was of the lighter skin shade. (Right Austin Police on March 21, 1885)
It’s pretty obvious and clear to me that the white society, particularly the upper crust white society, did not panic at the thought of the first five murders – the victims after all were only black  – but all that changed when two prominent white women were murdered in much the same way. (Above Left Moses Hancock - Susan Hancock's Husband) 
There are numerous questions about politics, race economics, and prejudice that are asked in this book that we should ask today.  For the same things that happened in Austin in 1885 are happening in today’s culture.  Are we doing all we can do to prevent Austin 1885 from happening, again?  (Above Right Jimmy Phillips- Eula Phillips's husband)
Finally we have a seasoned writer who is brave enough to ask ALL the right questions – not only who the killer is?  Who the victims are?  And who the community is?  But what we as a community are responsible for – especially for individuals who are marginalized? (Above Left Skip Hollandsworth)
       One of the many good solid reasons why Midnight Assassin is a work of art, reliable research and superb story telling is because Hollandsworth had the same goal as Truman Capote (Right)– not to write the non-fiction novel; but to make sure this historical non-fiction book had the same story-telling elements of the fiction novel.
“I tried to make the scenes novelistic, but I wrote it as a straight-forward, documented history.” Hollandsworth told CRC blog.  Hollandsworth gave Talia Lavin (Above Left) of the New Yorker, a more detailed answer on June 20, 2016 issue below right:  “Serial killers create better
chronological narrative.  You have a killing; you have a break. You have a second killing; you have a break. It gives you a chance to watch the panic begin to build, watch the fear rise, slowly and slowly.  The structure lends itself to drama.  The building of suspense leads to a spectacular dénouement, in which the killer is either caught or commits a final atrocity before evading justice.”
I asked Hollandsworth if the same North State Texas Hospital that influenced his decision on being a journalist influenced the writing of Midnight Assassin.  His response was no.  I found his response surprising especially since he has a fascination with the patients of the mental state hospital and has a mission of focusing on the victims, especially those who are marginalized.  And perhaps the most marginalized victims of all would be those who are confined in a mental facility. (Above Right Portrait of the Insane attributed to Theodore Gericault in 1822)
And that mental facility in Midnight Assassin is the State Lunatic Asylum, which is supervised by superintendent Dr. Ashley Denton. (Right)  Dr. Denton, 48, is a member of the upper crust white society but unlike most of his counterparts, Dr. Denton was compassionate and treated his 550 patients as valued human beings.
Dr. Denton received $200,000 from the legislature and spent the funds on landscaping the grounds with lily ponds, gazebos, benches, green grass, flowers, shrubbery, statues, and curvy dirt paths.   Dr. Benton had the ten-foot-high picket fence surrounding the hospital and its grounds torn down and replaced it with a four-foot high fence.

He also had the asylum’s cemetery, where unclaimed lunatics were buried, moved from its spot next to the main building to a plot of land over a hill so that his patients would not have to see it and be overcome with morbid thoughts.

He had the walls of the hospital painted a sparkling cheerful white, purchased new beds for the patients’ rooms, and decorated the hallways with fresh flowers. In addition he also allowed cats and dogs to wonder the asylum grounds, which uplifted the patients’ spirits.
He also allowed the patients to wear the clothing of their choice, which was normally their own personal clothing, which boosted the patients’ morale. (Patients and visitors Left)

He also set up a daily schedule for the patients in which they were awakened before dawn, given a bountiful breakfast (a leading theory of the day was that much of insanity was due to a lack of proper nutrition), sent off to work (most of them labored on the asylum’s 120-acre farm or its 15-acre orchard) and then encouraged at the end of the day to develop what Denton called “their gray cellular material” by reading books and newspapers in the day rooms, singing patriotic songs around a piano, playing cards, chess, or billiards, or bowling on the single ten-pin lane in the asylum basement.

On February 12, 1886 Dr. Denton’s daughter Ella was to be married to Dr. James P Given, the asylum’s assistant superintendent.  Dr. Denton chose the wedding day to introduce his version of the asylum to the Austin middle, wealthy and upper crust whites.  Dr. Denton made sure the wedding guests knew what the emergency bell was used for (to sound in case a patient escape) and that it had been silent for the past several months.

His patients had no desire to run away, Denton said.  For them the asylum was a rural paradise, a peaceful refuge, an Eden-like outpost far away from the unbearable rigors of civilization.

Unfortunately that civilization at the time was Austin 1885 where an unknown but clever serial killer was on the loose and all aspects of the community were affected.  The sadness of the story, other than the carnage of what the Midnight Assassin did and left behind, is that the community as a whole did not try their utmost best to find out the truth; or perhaps at the very least their motives were never pure and in fact self-motivating.
Perhaps that is the horror of this story – a horror that is repeated even today.

*Read an excerpt from Midnight Assassin by clicking on the link below:

WEB LINKS in alphabetic order

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