If you’re like me, then you have an odd fascination with serial killers. And even more of a fascination with serial killers who were never caught. So understand my surprise when I discovered that Austin, Texas is home to one such mystery. Enter the Servant Girl Annihilator — a truly interesting tale from Austin’s past that not many people seem to know about. I hadn’t heard about it either until I found out that Crank Collective, an Austin based theatre group, had made a musical comedy based on the events that took place — Murders and Moontowers. Needless to say, I’m a bit skeptical when it comes to musical comedy, but I was able to chat with John Cecil from Crank Collective to learn more about what’s going on.
“The show is based on true events back in Austin in the 1880s,” Cecil said. “There were originally six or seven servant girls who were killed. At first they thought it was a criminal gang and then they thought it was a lone killer. Then some lower-class and upper-class women were killed – two on the same night – and that turned into a very dramatic trial where the two husbands were strangely accused of killing their wives on the same night with an axe, even though in one case the husband was also attacked. And then the serial killer just disappeared.”
By this point, I’m both intrigued and confused by the whole thing, and the more I dug, the more interesting it became. How was there literally an axe murderer roaming the city? According to Cecil, the city wasn’t the same beauty we know it to be today, and that left room for some assertions to be made.
“Since there was a crime wave, many people said that if they electrified the city and added electric lights that would drive the crime out of downtown,” he explained. “They also tried to close what was called Guy Town, which in Austin was the rowdy district where they had so-called houses of assignation. and lots of bars and lots of trouble. Eventually, they erected the towers, which they called moon towers.”
Now, I’m hooked. I’ve got to know more about the the history, but even more about the production itself. With this being a completely new work coming straight from Austin, I was curious to know how they came up with the idea to turn a time of chaos into comedy. Crank Collective, led by producing director John Cecil, is a rotating group of actors, musicians and theatrical artists that has performed in New York, Prague and Bucharest, and for its Texas History Series, they recently produced Cabeza de Vaca, Alamo Aftermath, Boomtown, and The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
“We do this a lot with shows,” “The more you dig down into the sources of this stuff the more strange things people say. Especially the newspaper reports of the time. With this case there was a lot of newspapers coverage, and people all have opinions. So 100 years plus later, a lot of this stuff seems sort of amusing. We took that idea, and using some trial transcripts and a lot of other information about it, and made it into a musical comedy. It talks about the murders and it talks about the lights, and it culminates in one of the most dramatic trials of the case.”
While there may be plenty of humor found in this history lesson, it’s important to remember that there are people getting killed — by an axe murderer no less — and in a time like this people panic and histeria slowly takes over. While there were likely many situations which could highlight this issue, the Crank Collective chose to focus on other areas in their production for the most part.
“There was some heavy duty stuff, you know — they lynched people,” Cecil said. “At the time, they have vigilante mobs trying to lynch people. While I didn’t want to show a lynching in a musical comedy, we do have a mob who gathers steam in the middle of the town, but is eventually dispelled by the mayor — so we couldn’t just leave them out.”
Murder mystery fans have swarmed over this case for years with a number of theories about who the killer may have been. There’s one theory that speculates that the killer was a cook in the Austin area, who moved to London to continue his dirty work as the infamous Jack the Ripper. There isn’t a lot to support this claim, but researchers have found evidence of one man who made the move from the southern side of Texas to London in the same time frame as the killings shifted from Austin to London, but no definitive proof has come to light.
Despite the raunchy, rowdy history behind this chapter of Texas history, Cecil assures that the show is appropriate, even for kids as young as 10. They’ve still got tickets on sale for their last few shows (I’m definitely going), so check out this unique piece of history if you’re in Austin.