Having included a spoiler warning in my summary, I'll assume anyone who's come this far either has already read Saylor's novel or doesn't intend to.
A Twist at the End deals with very real murders that took place in Austin, Texas, in 1884 and 1885, attributed to a serial killer who was never apprehended. Most of the victims were black servant women. Saylor provides a fictional solution. One of his viewpoint characters is young writer Will Porter (later to become famous as "O. Henry," master of twist endings), who lived in Austin at the time.
In this essay I discuss the book, and then, using the information Saylor has given us, go on to hypothesize about what may really have happened.
I love Saylor's novel. Some of the reader reviews at Amazon.com are unkind, saying no one could have been surprised by the climax. On second reading, it does seem he may have made it too obvious. But when I first read it, it worked perfectly for me.
I did realize early on who was blackmailing O. Henry in 1906. I'm sure Saylor expected readers to see that. But I didn't guess the full explanation.
Even when he gave us hints about a certain Dr. Fry, I wasn't sure he'd identify him and an accomplice as having been responsible for all the killings. And because I was reading and trying to absorb so much different information, I never connected Dr. Kringel--who came on the scene in 1906--with Fry. It may have helped that I didn't know which characters were real and which fictional; for all I knew, Fry might have been a real person who died in 1890. Also, I only later realized that the young Will Porter had gotten just two brief glimpses of him, and couldn't have been expected to recognize him in 1906.
The one attempted literary trick that didn't fool me was the discovery of a "lady lying in pieces on the Capitol grounds." Ironically, Amazon.com's own reviewer praised that while panning the book's climax. As I see it, several things that are right under the reader's nose, taken in combination, give away that the "lady" is a statue. The section title is "The Goddess of Liberty." (Think Statue of Liberty.) A State Capitol building is just the sort of place that might have its own statue of that type. Use of the term "lady" rather than "woman" seems unnatural in describing a corpse. And the Statue of Liberty is sometimes referred to as "Lady Liberty" or "the Lady." This was a clever sequence, but I find it hard to believe Saylor expected anyone to be misled.
My interest here is in the murders. Saylor's solution to the puzzle is intriguing, but it is fiction. Something like that may indeed have happened, sans the involvement of Will Porter. My guess, however, is that the real truth was very different.
I suggest that all the black victims were killed by the same person...possibly Walter Spencer, a black man who was the lover of the first woman killed. Two white thugs killed Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips; they were hired by Moses Hancock and Jimmy Phillips, who plotted together to dispose of their wives. The thugs were supposed to injure Jimmy slightly, to make it look good, but they attacked him a bit too enthusiastically.
Why Walter Spencer? I've heard that a serial killer's first victim is often a person he actually knows, while later victims merely fit the same profile. I confess I picked that up from the film Frequency, and the film itself doesn't make much sense. But the first-victim idea may still be valid.
The first Austin victim, Mollie Smith, was beautiful and desirable. Men put up with a lot to have her. But she had a hellish temper, and was apparently capable of violence. Assuming Saylor reports accurately what had happened when she was living in Waco, her employer there found her with a broken bottle in her hand, threatening to cut then-boyfriend Lem Brooks. (Granted, we don't know what Brooks had been doing or threatening.)
Flash forward to Austin, where Walter Spencer was living with her in a back room of her employer's house--a former porch that had been enclosed. There seems to be no doubt that Walter was a meek, easygoing man, whom Mollie dominated and sometimes bullied.
It's unclear whether Mollie's "migrem" headaches (presumably what we would call migraine) were an invention of Saylor's. I'm guessing there was some evidence--perhaps from overheard arguments--that she had a habit of using headaches, real or feigned, as an excuse to withhold sex from her lovers.
What do we know about the night she was killed? At about 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1884, Walter--undoubtedly injured, in bad shape--walked around to a front window of the house to plead for help. He seemed confused, and told the seventeen-year-old who came to the window that he didn't know how he'd been hurt or where Mollie was. The youth assumed Mollie had beaten him. He callously sent him off to walk to the nearest doctor, while he himself went back to bed. When Walter reached the doctor's house he passed out on the floor.
In the morning, the white employer's family assumed Mollie had run off to avoid the consequences of having injured Walter. But they finally checked her room, where they found an amount of blood and wreckage out of all proportion to what they'd expected--and a bloody ax. Soon afterward, Mollie's mangled body was found between a shed and the back fence. She had been raped when either dead or dying. Marshal Lee considered Lem Brooks (who, like Mollie, had moved to Austin) the prime suspect, but Brooks had an ironclad alibi.
Walter Spencer certainly could have killed her. As the marshal suggests later in the novel, Mollie could first have attacked and injured him. Suppose she refused him sex, and he kept wheedling. On that night she really did have a headache, and Walter was making a colossal pest of himself. So she hurled some choice insults at him--and finally, lit into him with the ax. She injured him badly. But he clung to consciousness, wrested the weapon away from her...
And the worm turned. With a vengeance. Once he'd started hacking at her, he went far beyond what could have been justified as self-defense. Then he viciously raped her.
Finally, he concealed the body and feigned ignorance of what had happened. He could have pretended that he'd come to--after being wounded by the "mystery attacker"--and found her dead beside him. But he may have reasoned that he'd get faster treatment for his own injuries if the family wasn't distracted by learning of Mollie's death. He'd had time to think, and left the back gate open to create the impression the killer had fled through it.
Loose ends to be tied up: what was the origin of the ax, which didn't belong to the family? Easy. Either Mollie or Walter had kept it as a defensive weapon. More likely it was Mollie's; she'd been alone there briefly before Walter moved in with her. (This was apparently the only instance, prior to the last two killings of white women, in which the weapon was left at the scene.)
And if Mollie and Walter had such a battle, why didn't the white family hear it? Answer: they did, but they thought it was a routine domestic quarrel, and neither the seventeen-year-old nor his older brother-in-law bestirred himself to investigate. Later, they--and the invalid wife's black nurse--were afraid or ashamed to admit they'd ignored a mortal struggle. So they lied, and once having done so, were afraid to change their stories. They undoubtedly believed the ruckus had been caused by an intruder, not by Walter.
After the habitually timid Walter had "snapped" and done this on one occasion, he felt a compulsion to do it again, with black servant women who reminded him of Mollie. Other factors may have been involved: perhaps Mollie had permanently scarred him, or perhaps the women he targeted had refused his advances.
The next attacks didn't occur until May. Saylor explains this in his novel by hypothesizing that the killers--traveling confidence men--had left town. My thought: if Walter was the killer, he needed time to recover from his injuries. Also, he hadn't been magically transformed into a brave man; it took him a while to screw up his courage.
In one place in the book, Saylor describes Walter as "simpleminded." But several characters are described that way, on scant evidence. And Saylor had given no previous hint that Walter was mentally defective. I'm assuming he really wasn't--that he knew enough, for example, to think of stealing chloroform and using it in his next attack. He may not have realized the dentist from whom he meant to steal it lived in rooms adjacent to his office. But when the man surprised him, he had the presence of mind to chloroform him. He then set the place on fire; the dentist only survived because the Fire Department got there quickly.
The two black women raped and killed--or the other way around--in May were Eliza Shelley and Irene Cross. The latter lived very near Walter, who was by then living with his mother. In Saylor's novel, at least, that prompts the marshal to visit and interrogate him. It seems likely the marshal really did question him. And if Walter was the killer, that could have frightened him into waiting several months before he struck again. (In Saylor's novel, the killers once again leave town.)
Rebecca Ramey's eleven-year-old daughter Mary was raped and killed in August. (She was found still alive, but just barely so.) The Rameys lived near Eliza Shelley.
The last of the attacks on black people occurred in September. Gracie Vance and her live-in boyfriend Orange Washington were killed; Gracie was also raped. Lucinda Boddy--who'd been staying with them because she was ill--was raped and badly injured, but survived.
The culprit had a close call on this occasion. Lucinda came to, got to her feet, and picked up a lamp while he was still nearby--outside a window. He ordered her not to look at him. And she responded by throwing the lamp at him! The noise that made must have forced him to flee. And there was a chance Lucinda had seen his face. But between the fever she'd had all along, and the head injury she'd suffered, she was hopelessly confused. She was sure she'd been attacked by Gracie's ex-boyfriend Dock Woods--who had an alibi.
Another source of alarm for the killer: a watch he'd presumably been wearing was found clutched in Gracie's hand. That might have led authorities to him...but didn't.
In November, Walter was arrested and tried for the murder of Mollie Smith. That was a desperation move on the part of the marshal and district attorney; there was no significant evidence. And there was apparently no suggestion that the events of that terrible night might have turned him into a serial killer--a concept few people grasped. He was found not guilty. But if he really had committed all the murders up to that point, he may have been frightened into stopping. Serial killers usually don't stop unless they die or are imprisoned. But that's not an absolute, and they seldom have this strong an incentive--actual trial for one of the crimes.
Of course, this theory would fall apart if it could be shown that the authorities checked Walter out after any of the deaths subsequent to Mollie's, and he had an unbreakable alibi. But Saylor doesn't tell us that. Marshal Lee seems to have thought of Walter only in connection with the Cross murder, and we're not told what sort of alibi he had, if any. If he claimed he was at home on any of the nights in question, alibis provided by his mother and brothers wouldn't carry much weight.
The two killings of white women in December strike me as copycat crimes. If Walter hadn't been paralyzed with fear before, he certainly must have been after those developments.
Several more topics call for discussion before I deal with the copycats.
Rebecca Ramey's boyfriend Alec Mack was spotted outside her living quarters on the night of Mary Ramey's murder; I'm guessing no one really knows what he was doing there. The lovers' meetings in the Black Elephant saloon, and Alec's concern over Rebecca's not having shown up that night, are--I think--Saylor's fictional solution to the problem. But it does seem certain Alec wasn't the killer. He was pursued from near the scene of the crime, and had no blood on him when he was caught.
My suggestion, which also accounts for the killer's having raped and murdered only eleven-year-old Mary: Rebecca actually had sneaked out and met Alec that night, leaving Mary alone. The child was, after all, in her employer's house, sleeping in a room off the kitchen.
Since it was August, it's possible they made love outdoors, not far away. Then Alec walked Rebecca home. She was shocked to find evidence of forced entry, perhaps some sign of a struggle--and Mary gone. Alec was with her when she made that discovery. They didn't go exploring in the dark, to find the child's body in the wash-house. Rather, they quickly agreed that Rebecca would raise the alarm, pretending she'd been hit over the head and had just come to. (The truth--innocuous as it seems to us--would have cost Rebecca her job, and wouldn't have made a bit of difference in finding Mary.) Alec lurked a little distance away, hoping to learn how things would turn out.
Consider: in this case, there was no blood inside the house. So Rebecca wasn't cut. If she really was rendered unconscious by the killer, she must have been either chloroformed or hit with a blunt object. And there were no screams at that time to attract the white family's attention; if there had been, the killer wouldn't have been able to do all he did to Mary. So it's a safe guess that the family was roused by a terrified Rebecca who had just regained consciousness--or pretended she had.
Another point: this was arguably the most risky of the killer's attacks, because Rebecca lived in her employer's home and didn't have a lover sharing her room. The killer could have neutralized a lover quickly, as he would Orange Washington; but if a man was supposed to be there, any overheard sounds would have been attributed to a normal quarrel. It makes sense that he took Mary to an outbuilding.
But why would he have done that and left Rebecca in the house, alive and not seriously injured? She might have come to and started screaming at any time. If he had chloroformed her and knew the drug wouldn't wear off for a while, why didn't he go back in and rape and kill her after he was finished with Mary? It's almost certain Rebecca had been his intended prey. One possibility is that she was having her period, and that disgusted him. But if that were the case, he would have been angry and frustrated--so why didn't he smash her head in? Far and away the best explanation of what happened is that Rebecca had gone out and left Mary alone.
Let's move on to the murders of Gracie Vance and Orange Washington, and the assault and rape of Lucinda Boddy. It's noteworthy that this is the first case in which there's a suggestion of two men having been involved. Admittedly, the only surviving witness prior to Lucinda was Eliza Shelley's eight-year-old son. But he didn't mention glimpsing or hearing a second intruder. And the discussions of footprints seem not to have raised the question of there being more than one person.
Lucinda claimed to have heard the man who was about to rape her say, presumably to a companion, "I'll take this one." But the evidence is weak. The confused Lucinda had immediately begun accusing Gracie's ex, Dock Woods--who turned out to have an alibi. When the police asked questions about Woods, they learned Gracie had broken up with him partly because he was friendly with a known thief, Oliver Townsend. They seized upon the notion that both Woods and Townsend had been involved, and they may have given Lucinda that idea--"put words in her mouth."
The puzzling tale of the watch found in Gracie's hand--later claimed by a Swedish servant named Inga Olafson--may be relevant here. Was it hers? The watch was ornate but not all that valuable. Perhaps it really did belong to the killer, even if he was a humble black man like Walter Spencer. Walter was the eldest of his mother's three sons; any heirloom of his father's probably would have passed to him.
Marshal Lee and the detectives he'd hired were willing to pay for information, however suspect, if it would help them make the case they wanted. Since Oliver Townsend was a known thief, they must have been eager for someone to come forward and identify that watch as stolen property. Inga Olafson obliged them; at the very least, she got a watch out of it. But the case against the two men fell apart. Not only did Woods have an alibi, Townsend was notorious for only stealing things worth less than twenty dollars, so he couldn't be charged with more than a misdemeanor.
There are other possible explanations of that troublesome watch. Inga said the would-be killer must have entered her room through an open window when she wasn't there, and stolen it from her dresser. Yet she claimed she usually wore it even while she slept. That suggests the possibility that he might have chloroformed her, taken the watch, but ultimately lost his nerve or been scared away by a noise. It seems unlikely, however, that she wouldn't have realized the watch had been taken while she slept.
This seems like a break with pattern in two ways. The killer had never previously menaced a white woman, servant or not. And he hadn't stolen anything.
Or had he? There had never been an adult survivor to tell whether a "trophy" had been taken. So it's possible the theft of a small item of jewelry wasn't a break with pattern. (It's claimed serial killers usually do take something.) But it's a bit hard to believe, considering how dark his victims' rooms must have been.
One thing is certain. In that time and place, a contemplated attack on a white woman would have been a major escalation.
Another possibility: the killer only attacked women who rejected his advances, and Inga had voluntary sex with him. He slipped off with a trophy anyway, but she didn't miss the watch immediately and never guessed the man who'd been with her that night had taken it. If we assume he would have murdered her if she refused him, there's still an element of escalation.
On the other hand...let's assume the truth was what I proposed initially. Inga--with the winking approval of marshal and detectives--claimed as hers a watch that really wasn't. That would have served not only to bolster a case against light-fingered Oliver Townsend, but also to send the city a message that white women would be in danger if the suspects weren't convicted.
Never mind that there was no reason to think it true.
Why do I believe the Christmas Eve 1885 murders were the work of a different killer or killers? There were significant departures from the earlier pattern. Killings at two sites took place on the same night. The victims were white, and neither was a domestic. One was apparently older than previous victims; and if what society then regarded as "loose morals" had been a common denominator among them (there's room for doubt about Irene Cross), she seems not to have met that criterion either.
Moses Hancock claimed to have glimpsed two "shadowy figures," and Jimmy Phillips is also said to have referred to his assailants in the plural. The idea that two men were involved didn't go back beyond the Lucinda Boddy incident--and in that case, there's some doubt there really were two.
The ax used in the first Christmas Eve killing was left behind, and the killers conveniently found another at the second site.
It's highly suspicious that the husbands of both victims were violent drunks, Jimmy Phillips had threatened to kill his promiscuous wife, and Susan Hancock had expressed fear her husband would kill her. There is, admittedly, no evidence a sober Moses had reason to want Susan dead. But he may simply have been fed up with her nagging him about the drink.
It's also suspicious that Susan's killers appear to have fled that murder scene, noticed Eula leaving May Tobin's house of assignation, and followed her on a spur-of-the-moment impulse--presumably with no idea what sort of situation they might be getting into, or whether they'd find a weapon. That's not at all consistent with the pattern of the original killer of black servants.
There's some doubt as to whether Eula was raped. The rape, if there was one, must have been less violent than others in the series.
Finally, the behavior of bloodhounds at both crime scenes was confusing. But it seemed to show that Jimmy--found wounded in his bed, with his unharmed baby beside him--had at some point been out in the yard where Eula's body was found.
Here's my theory. Jimmy Phillips and Moses Hancock met in a saloon--drinking was about the only thing they would have had in common--and agreed to kill their wives and pin the crimes on that handy serial killer (assuming some locals had by then grasped the serial-killer idea). They hired thugs to do the dirty work--probably two of them, and almost certainly white, because they wouldn't have trusted blacks.
Eula Phillips was set up on Christmas Eve, lured to May Tobin's for an assignation that was never meant to take place. The men knew her double life would come to light after her death. Her killers would appear to have spotted her after leaving the Hancocks', and followed her on a spur-of-the-moment impulse. That would suggest Susan Hancock had also been a randomly chosen victim. (Of course, it was inconsistent with the behavior of the actual serial killer; but these guys weren't geniuses.) In the interest of believability, one of the husbands--the younger, stronger one--would be wounded.
The nature of the plot helps to explain why the husbands didn't commit the murders themselves. It had to appear that the killers had followed Eula home from May's. The only way to make sure enough time elapsed between murders for that to have happened was for the perpetrators really to do it. (But Moses Hancock may have raped his wife in their bed before turning her over to them.)
How was Eula set up? A second mystery: why wouldn't May name the man who'd stood her up that night? (Saylor's Hiram Glass is undoubtedly a fictional character.) It's hard to believe Eula could have had a date with Comptroller Swain, a public figure who's been mentioned as a possibility. What married man would propose sneaking out to meet a call girl at 11:15 on Christmas Eve?
I believe that if May knew who the man was supposed to be, she became convinced he'd known nothing about it. Eula had been betrayed by the one person she was sure she could trust: her sister-in-law Delia. Delia had secretly turned against her because after she introduced Eula to prostitution, Eula had begun taking her customers away. So Delia plotted with the husbands to murder her. Before she left town (she was away on Christmas Eve), she pretended to act as a go-between and told Eula she'd arranged for her to meet some prominent man that night. Delia spoke to both Eula and May; Eula thought May had talked to the man, and vice versa.
Both husbands were suspected in their wives' deaths; Jimmy Phillips actually stood trial, and was convicted of second-degree murder. The conviction was later overturned on the ground that he'd threatened to kill Eula if he ever found out she was cheating on him, and the prosecution hadn't proved he knew.
But how could a woman who shared a bed with her husband (and baby!) sneak out for an assignation after he fell asleep without his realizing it? For that matter, how could she expect to get away with such a thing?
Was Eula not even trying to keep her new "profession" a secret? Had Jimmy pretended to accept it as a condition of their recent reconciliation, perhaps even welcome it as a source of income?
Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Saylor points out a grim irony associated with the Austin murders. Fingerprints were undoubtedly left at all the crime scenes and on the weapons. Only a few years later, the crimes could have been solved easily--and most might have been prevented.