Interview: James Galloway on The Servant Girl Murders

Author James Galloway — also a library specialist at the Mallet Chemistry Library — was recently consulted by the PBS investigative television program “History Detectives: Special Investigations” in the production of an episode on a series of unsolved murders that occurred in Austin in the mid-nineteenth century. Galloway’s 2010 book, The Servant Girl Murders: Austin, Texas 1885, provided background for the program, having been drawn from his research utilizing the wealth of historical materials inhabiting special collections across the Austin area, including those at The University of Texas at Austin.

Galloway was took some time to talk with us about how the book came to be.

What got you interested in the murders? 

James R. Galloway: I took a history class — Methods in Historical Research — when I was finishing grad school here at The University of Texas in 1996 that focused on local history resources and collections. I was trying to come up with a topic for a research paper and I remembered this local legend about a serial killer from the nineteenth century in Austin.  I did some digging around and as far as I could tell no one else had done research on the topic. I thought it would make a good research paper and started looking into it.

What compelled you to write the book?

JRG: After I finished grad school, I was still interested in the story, I had barely scratched the surface of the primary sources I could find and I had no idea what had ultimately happened with the murders and I wanted to continue to investigate them in my spare time.

Where did you discover information about the events, and how long did you work to research the book?

JRG: The story of the murders was told in the newspapers from the time period; they were the primary source for the “story” and I ended up reading through a few years worth of microfilmed newspapers to find the beginning, where and when they started, and where the finally ended.  But there were a lot of loose ends, and questions that were never answered.

I spent about a year off and on at the Briscoe Center and the Austin History Center reading old newspapers when I had free time, and going through old city directories, and going to the State Library to look up census records, etc.

The Servant Girl Murders by J.R. Galloway

There was about a ten-year gap between my original research and publication of the book; it was sort of sitting there in the closet and I decided I would get it out and start working on it again in 2010. I decided to compile most of the original newspaper articles I had transcribed and put them into a readable, chronological story — without any intervening editorial exposition — and then follow those up with the essay on the murders that I had originally written back in the 90s and put it all together into a single volume.

After the book was published I would get emails and questions about it, so I decided I would go back and do a little more research and flesh out some of the details that I didn’t have at the time and I decided to put the subsequent material online www.servantgirlmurders.com.

The website has generated a lot of interest and I’ve been contacted by other people who are interested in the murders, writers, filmmakers, criminologists and even people whose family ancestors were living in Austin back then. Most recently, Travis County Archivist Christy Moilanen contacted me to tell me that they had found some old documents about the murders — trial transcripts and inquests — that had been in storage and hadn’t seen the light of day in 100 years. So new things are still turning up in the investigation.

Did you make any unexpected discoveries during your research, or come across things that you didn’t realize about Austin or its history?

JRG: I came across a lot of unexpected things!

For example:

  • You could be fined $5 for swearing in public.
  • The Justice of the Peace held his court sessions in a saloon.
  • There was a livery stable downtown that had a steam-powered elevator that lifted horses and buggies to the second story.

Austin in the 1880s was a boomtown, lots and lots of construction was going on; a lot of the oldest buildings and institutions in the city now were constructed in the 1880s. People were moving to Austin in great numbers. There was the ongoing concern of providing and maintaining the basic utilities the city needed, water, electricity, waste removal, telephones (there were probably about 300 telephones in Austin then), and having enough water pressure to put out fires was a great concern.

Austin, 1885. Texas State Library and Archives.

There were a lot of similarities with Austin of today. People loved outdoor recreation, going to parks, the river, Barton Springs, outdoor concerts, and there would be organized public transportation to get to the events so everyone wouldn’t have to drive out there in their buggies. Surprisingly there were traffic and parking problems downtown, but I guess everyone was  trying to go to the same place at the same time. People complained about property taxes. Sixth street was noisy and people complained about disturbances of the peace at night.

It’s pretty great having the breadth of special collections around the city, right? Were the general collections at Austin Public Library and the university useful, as well?

JRG: Yes, I’ve used the general collections at UT as well as the access to the numerous online databases that UT provides access to, and various online resources from the City of Austin and State of Texas.

Most of UT libraries holdings of historic Texas-related materials are available at Briscoe as you know, but there is a huge breadth of materials, monographs, journals, microfilms and online resources held in UT’s general collections that are integral to any research project.

For example, I found myself in Perry-Castañeda Library looking up information in old railroad journals, in the Architecture & Planning Library looking at materials about old buildings in Austin, and in the Law Library to find old court rulings and opinions.

There are probably a ton of other obscure, interesting stories about this city, and since you generated interest with The Servant Girl Murders, have you considered any other projects related to Austin history? Or any other books on the way? 

JRG: I’m very interested in Austin in the 1880s and I’ve come across a number of interesting stories from that time period and I’ll probably be coming up with some other things in the future.

History Detectives: Special Investigations – Texas Servant Girl Murders” airs Tuesday, July 15, on PBS. Check local listings for air times (8 p.m. on KLRU-Austin).