Mysteries of Travis County

Lost treasure, unsolved crimes and haunted buildings and more! This exhibit, based on the “Histories and Mysteries” History Day from 2017, looks at some the strange and mysterious parts of Travis County history. There are seven chapters to the exhibit, you can navigate by chapter below.

The Haunting of the Old Travis County Jail

If Hubert Harvey hadn’t fatally stabbed that young Austin man on Halloween night in 1916, he might have lived to see the fine new Texas
Highway Department building go up where the Travis County Jail once stood.

But that’s not how it worked out. At 1:50 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1918 Sheriff George Matthews sprang the trap on the gallows inside the jail and Harvey paid for his crime at the end of a rope.

Harvey, 34, had the distinction of being the last of nine men legally hanged in the castle-like stone jail, built for $100,000 in 1876 at the
corner of 11th and Brazos streets — present location of the Dewitt C. Greer Building, headquarters of what is now the Texas Department of Transportation.

Who knows? Maybe Harvey’s spirit has something to do with the mysterious footsteps and strange noises some TxDOT employees have reported hearing at night when the building’s supposedly empty. But for anyone who believes in ghosts, there are plenty of suspects.

John Wesley Hardin, Texas’ deadliest 19th century outlaw, cooled his heels in the still-new jail until his transfer to the state prison in Huntsville. John Ringo, another famous outlaw, did some time in the Travis County slammer before moving west to Arizona.

A more genteel inmate was William Sydney Porter, a popular young man with a penchant for puns, pilsner and games of chance. Later known world-wide as O. Henry, the short story writer got to reflect on the literary life for a while after being booked on a federal bank embezzlement rap in 1898.

The Highway Department, crammed in a state office building across the street from the old jail, saw the impending move as an opportunity to get
land for a new headquarters. Negotiations soon began with Travis County to buy the property.

“We wish to renew our recommendation that the State Highway Commission be permitted to erect a building to house the State Highway
Department in Austin,” read the fifth of nine recommendations made in the department’s seventh biennial report. “Such a building,” the 1930
report continued, should include “a laboratory, research department, and ample other space for carrying on its activities, now and in the future.”

Despite the transportation agency’s interest in the jail property, some Austinites suggested the old jail should be remodeled and transformed into a
public library named in honor of O. Henry.

In the end, practicality trumped preservation and the state razed the old jail. The department used free labor to clear the site, ordering a class of
Highway Patrol cadets then in training at CampMabry to do the job.
At a cost of $455,151.74, the new building opened in the summer of 1933 — only three years after it was requested. Impressive as the new
Highway Building was, nearly another 20 years went by before the agency got around to installing air conditioning. That cost $170,642 in 1951.
The building has seen various renovations since then, but no ghost busting.

Until 1923, under state law the sheriff of the county in which the condemned
person had been convicted bore the responsibility of carrying out an execution.
After that time, executions were by electrocution at the state prison in Huntsville.

For the superstitious, these are the other potential Greer Building “haunts”:

Taylor Ake, 18, hanged for rape, Aug. 22, 1879

Ed Nichols, 21, hanged for rape, Jan. 12, 1894

William Eugene Burt, hanged May 27, 1898 for killing his wife and two children.

Police found their bodies in a cistern at 207 E. 9th St.

Sam Watrus, 30, hanged Jan. 27, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery

Jim Davidson, 30, hanged Nov. 24, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery

Henry Williams, 30, hanged May 2, 1904 for murder and rape

John Henry, hanged July 12, 1912 for murder

Henry Brook, hanged May 30, 1913 for murder

While none of these men ever had to worry about the infirmities associated with the passage of time, by the late 1920s, the jail had begun to show its age. And so had the adjacent county courthouse at 11th and Congress. When Travis County officials decided to construct a new courthouse at 11th and Guadalupe in 1930, the plans included a larger, state-of-the-art jail on the top floor of the new building.


Text courtesy of Mike Cox, “Texas Tales” October 14, 2010,

The Buried Treasure of the Texas Hill Country

Texas has more buried treasure than any other state, with 229 sites within the state’s borders. The total value?  An estimated $340 million. And much of this treasure lies under the rugged oaks and rocky landscape of the Texas Hill Country. There are many stories behind this area, some that have been told for generations and many that may remain secrets taken to the grave by the original treasure owners.

The search for buried Hill Country treasure begins at its edge, in the community of Round Rock. Here, outlaw Sam Bass hid from the law until a final shootout with the Texas Rangers on July 19, 1878. Bass was in Round Rock making plans for a bank robbery. Before he died; however, many say that he hid much of the loot from his train, stagecoach and bank robberies somewhere in the area.

One of the most common tales is of a loot hid in an old tree by the outlaw. The legend began several years after Bass’ death, when maps leading to the alleged treasure appeared. The location was said to be in a hollow tree on what is now the Sam Bass Road, about two miles west of Round Rock. A tree similar to the one described on the map was spotted by treasure-hunters and chopped down–only to come up empty. Optimistic treasure seekers still wonder–could earlier searchers have chopped down the wrong tree?

The Sam Bass legends are not the only treasure-filled stories flying around Williamson County. One treasure story dates back to an ancient Spanish document regarding an old Spanish mine, located somewhere near Burnet. According to an Austin American story in the early 1920’s, a “pack train of burros carrying 40 jackloads of silver was pursued by a band of Comanche Indians and … the men in charge of the pack train buried the silver near where the town of Leander is now located.“

No one’s found the Spanish silver cache, but some treasure seekers in this area have struck gold–or gemstones, as the case may be. In 1925, W.E. Snavely of Taylor, who had hunted treasure for 60 years, found a ruby arrowhead weighing 15 karats, along with many other gemstones.

Heading west, back into the heart of the Hill Country, lie a number of treasure sites. Longhorn Caverns, outside Burnet, is said to be the home of more than one treasure trove. One tale involves who else but Sam Bass, who allegedly used the cavern as a hide-out following nearby robberies. Today the main opening of the cave is called the Sam Bass entrance. No Bass treasure has been found, but even today, parts of the 11-mile cavern are still being explored.

Another Longhorn Cavern tale involves the search for a treasure supposedly buried on Woods Ranch near Burnet.  After years of searching, one of the treasure hunters went to seek the advice of a palmist, whose cryptic recommendation was to dig “under the footprint.” There was speculation that this “footprint” might be a foot-shaped impression on the ceiling of one of the Longhorn Cavern rooms. The crew dug below this formation–only to find a container shaped hole below the surface. Where there had once been a metal container–and possibly a treasure–there was only a rust-lined hole. 

Packsaddle Mountain is also the home of the Blanco Mine, named for a Spaniard who found the location long ago.  According to J. Frank Dobie’s book Coronado’s Children, the mine was rediscovered in the 1800’s by a Llano settler named Larimore. While hunting, Larimore discovered the old mine–with its contents of lead and a high percentage of silver.

 In 1860, Larimore took a last trip to the mine with a man named Jim Rowland. The two men hauled out several hundred pounds of the metal, shaping it into bullets. Larimore, who was leaving the country, declared that he would hide the mine so well that no other person would ever find it. Supposedly, he diverted a gully directly into the mine, filling it with silt. Rowland carved his initials on a large stone marking the entrance to the mine, then covered it with earth. 

Llano County is home to other buried treasure sites, including $60,000 in gold and silver coins buried by Sam Bass near the community of Castell in the western part of the county. Bass buried the loot on a creek bed, marking the spot with a rock in a fork of a tree. The trail of Sam Bass continues to near the state capital, where he allegedly buried $30,000 in the community of McNeil. No treasure was ever recovered, and today there is little remaining of the original McNeil, located in the northern part of Travis County near Round Rock.

Author William Sydney Porter, under the pseudonym O. Henry, once wrote, “It is a well-known tradition in Austin and vicinity that there is a buried treasure of great value on the banks of Shoal Creek, about a mile west of the city…” Rumors of buried Mexican gold compelled treasure hunters to dig in the area for years, including Porter himself as well as other prominent locals. 

A.J. “Dad” Jernigan, Travis County Treasurer, swayed by the rumors of lost gold, was duped by a courthouse janitor who claimed to know where the treasure was buried. 

By the time the ruse was exposed, Jernigan had already borrowed over $4,000 from the county coffers to help fund digging. Of course, no gold was ever found, and unable to repay his dues, Jernigan committed suicide in his courthouse office on December 31, 1986. 

The biggest treasure of all, some say $3 million dollars’ worth, is said to be buried in Austin. According to one source, this money, part of the Mexican payroll in 1836, was stolen by the paymaster, a general, and seven privates. The men took the loot near where Shoal Creek empties into the Colorado.

Greed set in, however. Two of the privates murdered their co-conspirators. Before long, one of the privates had killed the other. The remaining outlaw returned to Mexico, then found he was unable to come to Texas again. He made a map of the site, showing that it was buried five feet underground, close to an oak tree with two eagle wings carved on it.

Another source claims that the treasure was nowhere close to $3 million, actually only about $80,000 in gold coins.  The story changes–instead of a Mexican payroll it substitutes Confederate money in the hands of soldiers who were afraid the Capitol would be overrun toward the end of the Civil War. According to The Rising Star Record (May 12, 1927), the treasure was purloined by workers on April 13, 1927.  Working on the banks of Shoal Creek, a crew of eight men worked on a forty foot tunnel for over eight months.  When questioned, they replied that they were working on “the foundation for a new bridge” and, later, “the foundation of a fine house.”  A guard was kept on the tunnel at night.

On the night of April 13, “a box was lifted from the square cut chamber between the rocks, for the next day the workmen were gone and the blasting has ceased. Curious throngs soon found the dark tunnel and with lights discovered traces of the large wooden box that had laid beneath the dirt for more than 60 years.“

The treasure was gone.

The Shoal Creek treasure may be gone, but plenty of others lie beneath the surface of the Hill Country. With permission from private land owners, anyone is free to take a pick and shovel and, like generations have done in the past, search for gold.

Text courtesy of Paris Permenter and John Bigley, 2006, Paris Permenter and John Bigley run the website, and are also the authors of Day Trips from Austin. 

The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger


The name Wilbarger appears on Texas maps in the form of Wilbarger County, in north-central Texas, as well as Wilbarger Creek, near Austin. They are named in honor of Josiah Pugh Wilbarger, a man whose experiences truly personified the thrilling and hazardous lifestyle of a pioneer on the Texas frontier. 

Wilbarger was born in the United States on September 10, 1801. He moved to Mexican Texas as part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Little Colony” in 1827 after getting married. As a married man, he was granted a title for a league of land (4,428 acres), which he located in Bastrop County at the mouth of what is now known as Wilbarger Creek. 

In August of 1833, Wilbarger rode with a group of men to survey land a few miles outside of Austin, a particularly dangerous affair for many reasons. As they stopped to rest, they were ambushed by a group of Comanche Indians. They ran for cover behind scant trees and fired back. Wilbarger first received an arrow through his calf and another wound in his hip. As he continued to fight, he was hit by an arrow in the other leg and was shot through the neck with a bullet shortly after, which temporarily paralyzed him. Two in his party were killed, two escaped, and Wilbarger was left for dead. Conscious but paralyzed, he had to watch as the two men who were killed in the attack were mutilated. Assuming he was dead, the Native American party also scalped Wilbarger.

 As night fell, Wilbarger, feeble from loss of blood and severe wounds that had quickly been infested with flies and maggots, waned in and out of consciousness. He was able to drag himself to a pool to drink water, but soon collapsed at the foot of a large Post Oak tree while attempting to make a three-quarters-of-a-mile trek to the home of Reuben Hornsby. Wilbarger claimed that while lying beneath the tree, he saw his sister approach him. She insisted he was too weak to travel and that help from friends would arrive, before she drifted off in the direction of the Hornsby home. Wilbarger later discovered that his sister had died the previous day in Missouri.

That evening, after Wilbarger was reported dead by the two men who had escaped, Mrs. Hornsby awoke from vivid dreams in which she saw Wilbarger scalped — but alive — lying underneath a tree. After falling back asleep and immediately seeing the same image, she woke Mr. Hornsby and “urged the men at the house to start to Wilbarger’s relief.” 


The tale of Josiah Wilbarger, originally told by witnesses from the Hornsbys’ home and by Wilbarger himself, spread throughout the colony, and was eventually written down by a family friend and one of Wilbarger’s brothers. The tale of Wilbarger’s survival has persisted through the years as a gruesome example of the dangers and adversity of life on the Texas frontier.

The men were indeed able to locate Wilbarger in the same state that matched Mrs. Hornsby’s visions, and he was taken to the Hornsbys’ home to be nursed back to health. Miraculously, Wilbarger survived his ordeal, but his scalp never fully healed, and a portion of his weakened skull always remained exposed. He died on April 11, 1845 after hitting his head on a low door frame. He was buried near his home, and in 1936 was reinterred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Today, while traveling in air conditioned comfort on Highway 290 from Austin towards Manor, a small bridge bears a green sign which reads “Wilbarger Creek.” Below the bridge, the creek named in honor of the courageous frontiersman flows on toward the Colorado River, serving as a reminder of Texas’ frontier days.


Courtesy of the Texas General Land Office, Save Texas History blog, Apr 27, 2016,

Shades of the Past: Austin Ghosts, from Pioneer Times to the Present


Maybe the souls who lived here in the distant past, even those whose names and circumstances are forgotten, haven’t receded as far from us as we think. Some people believe that the dead still go about their earthly business, or relive their darkest moments, in the same time and space we now occupy, in the old buildings where their shades have settled in like dust. Did the lives of certain of our forebears cut a groove so deep in the tapestry of time that their sighings, their smells, their very aspects have not yet faded from this earth?

Tales of ghostly hauntings are very old in Austin: One of the first, appearing in print in 1898, tells the legend of a famous Texas scout and his stolen Comanche bride, said to have died together on the grounds of the original Texas Capitol, at Eighth and Colorado. The father of the girl slew the scout in revenge for taking her from the tribe, and she in turn thrust a knife through her heart, falling over her lover’s body. For decades afterward, witnesses claimed the tragic couple still wandered the grounds at night.

Some ghost stories recall an Austin we can scarcely conceive of: a log cabin settlement reduced to desperate rations in the gloomy final days of the Civil War, when cornmeal mush was served at Texas Gov. Pendleton Murrah’s inauguration. In 1864, Murrah’s nephew came to visit at the Governor’s Mansion, where he fell rapturously in love with the niece of the governor’s wife. She laughed at his advances, so the story goes, and at midnight the house was startled awake by a gunshot. The nephew was found sprawled in a guest bedroom, a bullet through his head. As the story goes, the blood from the suicide was never even cleaned from the walls until 1870, because Murrah fled Texas shortly thereafter as Union troops advanced. That wing of the mansion was thereafter dreaded by housekeeping staff and visitors, who complained of doors opening on their own, cold breaths, and frightful moans.

When Union troops arrived in Austin, they camped along the banks of Shoal Creek, which flooded and created a yellow fever epidemic. The dying soldiers were boarded at a mansion still standing today at 23rd and San Gabriel, and many were buried on the grounds. The house was later purchased by Col. Andrew Neill, a Texas Revolutionary War veteran, who died there in 1883 (It’s now known as the Neill-Cochran House). Neighbors used to report that Neill could still be seen riding his horse in the yard, or even having tea with Gen. Robert E. Lee on the balcony. And on chilly nights, footsteps are said to echo in the streets near the house, perhaps the distant echoes of soldiers’ boots.

An aching melancholy for a doomed era perhaps helped popularize a vision once reported at the Raymond Mansion on West Sixth Street a few decades after the close of the Civil War: At night, a young woman in a ruffled, rose-colored gown descended the stairs into the arms of a Union soldier who galloped up to meet her. The story reported in the news was that a real-life Union sympathizer did fall in love with a woman who lived there, but he could not find her when he returned home from the war.


The palatial Driskill Hotel, opened in 1886, is said to house more ghosts than can be listed here. Sightings are reported in the hotel to the present day, including that of a former housekeeper in a long Victorian dress who appears to be still fussing with flower arrangements in the lobby, a longtime resident from the turn of the century who checks his pocket watch on the elevator, and a woman who carries shopping bags into a fourth-floor room where a wealthy Houston woman committed suicide in the early 1990s, after her fiancé canceled their wedding.

Some of the mansions of the city’s West End used to excite ghost tales as they succumbed to decay. The Glasscock home, which dated from the 1860s, was perhaps the most dreaded haunt of all. By the 1920s, when the house was torn down, its towering walls of red brick were sullen and unpainted, its windows, its portico sagging between twin broken columns that framed a darkened entrance. A woman with “sad eyes and sorrowful mien” was said to roam the rooms. Some supposed it was the wife of a Yankee carpetbagger, whose dying wish to be buried in the house’s basement was never fulfilled.


A teenage boy who dared to enter the home one evening was killed there, but not by an angry housewife. Startled by a cat, he hurtled down the stairs and caught his jacket on a baluster. He was found hanging there a few hours later: The newspaper said he died of fright. One night, a reporter with the American-Statesman had himself lashed to one of the home’s pillars so he could observe what went on there. A storm rolled in, and he, too, nearly caught his death of fear — not from apparitions, but from falling mounds of plaster.

But the most mysterious ghosts are the ones that appear unannounced, with no backstory that would anticipate their existence. Invisible footfalls that have been heard pounding up the staircase at the Speakeasy, followed by blood-curdling screams. A playful presence seems to run the elevators up and down all hours at the Driskill, where Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox once reported that an unseen hand picked out her evening wear for her. An unknown shade moves barstools and oozes mist at the Bitter End [now closed], a building whose address once placed it in the former prostitution and gambling district known as Guy Town.


503 Neches St. houses one of the most historically intriguing cases of paranormal activity. A psychic, reportedly without knowing the building’s history, once said she heard a black man laughing there, amused, she said, that he had become his own client. Records show that the building was once owned by a black undertaker named Nathan Rhambo, who opened a funeral home there around 1915 and was murdered in 1932. The murder, blamed on a young black man who police said was out to rob the wealthy Rhambo, threw the city’s black community into an uproar. Does Rhambo carry on in his old shop because he has something to say about the circumstances of his murder?


Maybe, like so many of Austin’s other shades, Rhambo just isn’t ready, or isn’t able, to let the past die away.

The hilltop south Austin St. Edward’s University is a Catholic institution whose antecedents go back to the 1870s.  In 1889 the campus was moved to its present site, where an “Old Main” style of building, designed by Galveston architect had been built. The main building was destroyed by fire 1903 and was replaced by the one that we see today.

The University is apparently riddled with ghosts, spirits, and supernatural entities. According to student lore, there are several popular spots at which to find these haunts. One is Doyle Hall, where a ghostly nun turns on the showers. Another is Mary Moody Northen Theatre, where the ghost of a young man who hanged himself using the sandbag ropes spooks witnesses. The apparition of his body has reportedly been seen and heard creaking and swinging on the ropes. At Premont Hall roams the ghost of a former resident advisor who died after slipping in the showers (his body supposedly wasn’t found for a week). This ghost makes itself known by slamming windows and doors and by turning on all the shower faucets at the same time.


Metz Elementary was built in East Austin in 1913. In 1990, the century-old school house was demolished and replaced with a more modern building. A trucking and excavation company was contracted to do the demolition, but the process did not go smoothly. Many of the heavy machinery operators reported that their machines would unexpectedly and inexplicably turn off during operation. Constantly, workers fell from ladders and tools disappeared. Workers also began reporting children’s writings on the blackboards and ghost of children in the restrooms. A clergyman was brought in to bless the building; nevertheless, a workman was fatally injured in a wall collapse and the area was leveled. By the time the school was completely demolished, the work was six months behind schedule and more than half of the work crew had quit.

Courtesy of Kevin Fullerton, originally published in the Austin Chronicle, Jan. 26, 2001, 

The Story Behind Austin’s Moonlight Towers


There’s a new fiesta in the making as we speak,” drawls a blonde, mustachioed Matthew McConaughey in 1993’s Dazed and Confused. “It’s out at the moon tower. Full kegs, everyone’s gonna be there.” 

From that point in the classic stoner comedy, a boring night shooting pool and running from a sadistic Ben Affleck is transformed into a picturesque snapshot of teenage debauchery. A gaggle of high schoolers mingle on a patch of land surrounded by a single, monolithic structure: a moonlight tower.

It’s one of those quirky and famous features of Austin that most people actually know very little about. So what is this thing? Where did it come from? Are there more?

One rumored reason for the moonlight towers’ construction is a response to the yearlong terror inflicted between Christmas of 1884-85 by the Servant Girl Annihilator, a serial killer who brutally murdered seven women and one man before disappearing completely. However, the moonlight towers were actually installed a decade after the murders ended. In fact, they weren’t constructed in the city at all.


The Fort Wayne Electric Company erected moonlight towers in Indiana, as a way to illuminate large areas of town in a time when street lamps were prohibitively expensive. In 1894, the city of Austin got in on the action and purchased 31 of them, each 165 feet tall, with a 15 foot base and weighing approximately 5,000 pounds. They were connected to electric generators at the newly completed Austin Dam, until the dam collapsed in 1900, killing dozens of residents.

The original source of light came from carbon arc lamps, which shed a blue-white light up to 3,000 feet in diameter. Later these lamps were replaced with incandescent bulbs with individual switches on each tower. World War II necessitated potential citywide blackouts, leading to the creation of a central city switch for all moonlight towers. The lights are now automated, using mercury vapor bulbs.

In the years since their installation, 15 of the 31 moonlight towers have been lost, mostly due to new construction. Still, the 17 remaining towers have since been recognized both as Texas State Landmarks (in 1970) and on the National Register of Historic Places (1976). Austin is believed the only place in the entire world where they still exist. In 1993, the moonlight towers were deconstructed and completely restored, down to the last bolt. Austin Energy celebrated this $1.3 million feat in 1995 with a citywide festival.


Though many of the moonlight towers are now gone or moved from their original locations, and even though Richard Linklater fabricated a moontower for his film so that it would conveniently be surrounded by a field large enough for an epic beer bust, the structures remain an iconic, everlasting piece of Austin history.

So next Christmas, when you’re spinning under the Zilker tree, the most famous moonlight tower of them all, remember just how lucky we are to have that rare beacon of light.


Courtesy of Austin365, 365 Things To Do In Austin, Texas, Mar. 19, 2016, 

How the 'The Servant Girl Annihilator' Terrorized 1880's Austin


Before Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of London, another midnight murderer was prowling halfway across the world. In Austin, Texas, an individual who became known as the “Servant Girl Annihilator” was responsible for the deaths of eight people between late 1884 and Christmas Eve 1885. Attacking victims in their beds and then dragging them outside to mutilate their bodies, the killer eluded police, private investigators, and mobs of civilians who took to the unpaved streets of newly settled Austin in anger and panic. He—eyewitnesses claimed it was a man—has been called America’s first serial killer, and his crimes remain unsolved to this day.

Just two decades prior to the murders, Austin was a “rustic cowtown with a population below 5000,” writes Skip Hollandsworth, a journalist at Texas Monthly and author of The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer. By 1885, the time of the murders, the city had reached the “verge of modernity,” boasting 14,500 residents, numerous restaurants and hotels, and an under-construction capitol building. According to Hollandsworth, “Austin had all the makings of an urban paradise.” Instead, it became an urban hell.


The killer’s first victim was Mollie Smith, a young black cook discovered in the snow near her employer’s home on December 30, 1884 with a gaping ax wound in her head. Smith had also been stabbed in the chest, abdomen, legs, and arms, creating such a large pool of blood she appeared to almost be floating in it.

After that was another black cook—Eliza Shelly, found on May 7, 1885. Shelly’s head was nearly split in two with an ax; the Annihilator’s choice of target, and his modus operandi, were becoming apparent. Irene Cross, a servant and the third black woman targeted by the Annihilator, was attacked on May 23; she was stabbed multiple times with a knife and practically scalped.

It was around this time that short story author O. Henry gave the killer his nickname. “Town is fearfully dull,” Henry wrote in a May 1885 letter to his friend Dave Hall, “except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead hours of the night.”

The spine-tingling moniker was perhaps a bit of a stretch, however: Only the first few to die were servant girls. The next victim, 11-year-old Mary Ramey, was dragged outside and into a washhouse, raped, and stabbed through the ear on August 30. The following two victims were a pair, sweethearts Gracie Vance and Orange Washington. On September 28, 1885, they were found with their heads bludgeoned—according to a report in the Austin Daily Statesman, Gracie was “almost beaten into a jelly.”


The Annihilator was escalating. On Christmas Eve 1885, he committed two separate crimes in entirely different locations—and unlike all of the previous victims, they were white: Susan Hancock, “described by one reporter as ‘one of the most refined ladies in Austin,’” and 17-year-old Eula Phillips, both murdered in their homes. Susan’s head was cleaved in two just before midnight on Christmas Eve, and her wounds showed that something sharp and thin had been stuck through her right ear into her brain. Eula’s life ended around an hour after Susan was discovered in the early morning of Christmas Day. Once again, her head had been crushed by an ax. A writer for the Fort Worth Gazette reported that she lay on her back, her face “turned upward in the dim moonlight with an expression of agony that death itself had not erased from the features.” She had been raped, and her arms were pinned down by timber.

Absent in every other killing, the wood pieces brought up a terrifying possibility. True, the lumber could be attributed to an opportunist Annihilator operating in a booming city filled with construction sites. Still, people wondered … What if another killer was at work? Did Austin perhaps have multiple serial killers on the loose? Until that point, no one had considered there could be more than one maniac involved. 

“Of course, at that time the phrase ‘serial killer’ had not even been coined,” Hollandsworth writes. “No one had thought of studying crime scenes to help create a psychological profile of a killer. Fingerprinting and blood-typing hadn’t been invented yet.” Police relied on dogs to track suspects, and a team of bloodhounds ran the lengths of Austin’s unpaved streets nightly, sniffing and howling. The Annihilator “boldly crisscrossed his city, hunting down women regardless of race or class, striking quickly on moonlit nights and then vanishing just as quickly,” Hollandsworth writes.

Private investigators were brought in by police, who hoped they’d be able to catch something their officers couldn’t, but their presence only whipped Austin into more of a panic…

…And then the murders stopped.

Servant Girl Murder Timeline

Several theories exist about the real identity of the murderer.  On July 15, 2014, the PBS TV show History Detectives aired an episode on the killings. Using a combination of historical research and modern techniques, including psychological and geographic profiling, they identified a suspect: Nathan Elgin, a 19-year-old African-American cook. Elgin worked in close proximity to the crime scenes and had a club foot which was similar to a footprint believed to have been left by the killer. In February 1886, shortly after the last murder, Elgin was shot and killed by police while he was attempting to assault a girl with a knife.

The PBS collaborated with J.R. Galloway, author of the book The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885.  The book includes over 100 newspaper articles from the 1880s, documenting the true story of one of the greatest unsolved murder mysteries of the late 19th century. Arranged chronologically, they allow the reader to experience the story as it transpired, the gruesome details, the colorful characters, and the never-to-be explained.

Excerpts from Sonya Vatomsky, How the ‘Servant Girl Annihilator’ Terrorized 1880s Austin, originally published on Mental Floss, 

Interested in learning more about the Servant Girl Annihilator Murders?

The archives’ digital collection include the 19th century inquest records and case files from the Servant Girl Annihilator Murders. Those records can be viewed here:

The 1865 Treasury Raid


When the bell atop the First Baptist Church started clanging about 9 o’clock that Sunday night, it was not a call to worship.

It was June 11, 1865. A full moon hung over Austin, a city of some 4,000 residents.

None of the men who rushed to gather in front of the Dieterich Building at Congress and 6th Street found it particularly surprising that an emergency of some sort had arisen, but the nature of it stunned them: A body of men had broken into the Treasury Building adjacent to the Capitol.                                          

Even though Confederates under ex-Texas Ranger John Salmon “Rip” Ford had won the final battle of the Civil War at Palmetto Ranch in Cameron County on May 13, the South had lost. Most state officials, not knowing whether they would be hanged as traitors or merely told to go and sin no more, preferred not to wait around to find out. They vacated their offices as well as Texas. Not only did Texas have no state government, little or no local law enforcement existed.

“Confederate soldiers, without officers or orders, are coming in every hour, and there is nothing but plunder and sack going on—and the citizens are as bad as the soldiers,” 35-year-old Austinite Amelia Barr wrote in her diary on May 25. 

On June 2, Confederate Gen. E. Kirby Smith surrendered aboard a U.S. warship in Galveston Bay. The same day, Mrs. Barr wrote: “Everything in confusion. Everyone suspicious and watchful, and there is no law.” 


George R. Freeman, a Confederate cavalry captain who had recently returned to Austin, a few weeks before had taken it upon himself to organize a company of volunteers to help preserve the peace. 

Somehow, Nathan G. Shelley, who had served as state attorney general before going into Confederate military service, got wind of the burglary of the unguarded treasury. Shelley found Freeman and the two men walked toward the Capitol. Soon both could hear the banging of metal on metal coming from the Treasury, where a faint flicker of candlelight could be seen through the upstairs windows. Freeman ran to the nearby First Baptist Church, roused the pastor and asked him to start ringing the church bell to sound the alarm.

The men collected rifles from the armory, loaded the weapons, fixed bayonets and fell into rank on the street in front of the building. The small command “double-quicked up the east side of the avenue to 10th Street,” as participant Fred Sterzing later recalled. From there they headed west to the Baptist church, just across from the Capitol. 

“The bandits were taking pains to keep their visit secret,” Sterzing recalled. “Pickets had been stationed at each of the gates in the fence which surrounded the… Capitol grounds and they were firing random shots down Congress Avenue.” 

On Freeman’s command, the volunteers charged down hill from the church. The guard the raiders had posted fired one volley at Freeman and his men and then fled into the state house. The volunteers entered the west door and ran down the corridor to the east door without encountering further resistance. From there, they sprinted to the adjacent Treasury building.

Those who had been inside the treasury rushed out the building’s north door clutching hats and tied-off trousers filled with coins. Some fired at the volunteers as they ran, but no one got hit.

Only one man had remained behind. As the volunteers ran up the stairs, the man started shooting at them. One round hit Freeman in the shoulder, causing a minor wound. Another shot blew off Sterzing’s hat.

Volunteer Al Musgrove described what happened next:

“The man came partly out into the hallway…. In one hand was his hat …full of silver. In the other was his six-shooter, which he threw down upon us. Sterzing and I instantly fired. One of the bullets struck him in the stomach…another…in the left elbow.” 

Instinctively, the man ran back into the room.

“Men, don’t shoot anymore,” he yelled. “I am mortally wounded.”

The volunteers ordered him to surrender.

“He came out bent almost double and fell to the floor,” Musgrove recalled. “The whisky oozing through the hole in his body could be plainly smelled.” 

Seeing that the man no longer posed a threat, Musgrove ran down the hall, looked to the north and “distinctly saw the bandits galloping away helter skelter in the direction of Mount Bonnell.”

His men both dismounted and outnumbered, Freeman decided not to give chase. Inside the vault room, scattered coins, bonds, worthless cash and other financial instruments came to the shoe tops of the volunteers. Several free-standing safes had been pushed over to expose the thinner metal of their backs, where the burglars had used hardened pickaxes to make holes large enough for them to stick their hands through. The vault remained locked.

The wounded man, identified as Alex Campbell, was carried to a room at the Swisher Hotel on Congress Avenue and later died. Refusing to name his colleagues, “with his last breath upbraided his fellow bandits as a set of damned cowards who ran at the first shot,” Musgrove said.

The next morning, Freeman led a posse in pursuit of the bandits. The volunteers found a few scattered coins dropped by the fleeing men the night before, but not the raiders.

“Who the robbers were is not yet positively known,” Austin’s Southern Intelligencer reported, “though circumstances point with almost certainty to some…desperate men who had long kept this section of country in fear by their acts of violence.” 

Neither the loot, today worth more than $250,000, nor the raiders were ever found. The Great Treasury Raid of 1865 stands as Austin’s coldest cold case. 

Courtesy of Mike Cox, “Texas Tales” January 29, 2009,