“Devilish Deeds”: Serial Murder and Racial Violence in Austin, Texas, 1884–1885




Mollie Smith was born in Virginia, like her parents. They were likely members of the last generation born into slavery. Smith, however, was born into freedom, no matter how fraught the term came to be. As a child, Smith moved west, landing in Waco, Texas. Though it is unclear under what terms Smith made this journey or if the rest of her family was with her, she spent many of her formative years in this small central Texas town. Perhaps, like thousands of other freedmen and freedwomen, the Smiths migrated in pursuit of new opportunities, to reconnect with loved ones, or to escape the geographic reminders of slavery....Thus, threats to black women’s actual lives also implied threats to Austin’s social hierarchy. As a result, white interest in the murders was necessarily self-serving, but it required an unspoken acknowledgment: black female domestic servants’ social invisibility was a myth perpetuated to uphold white supremacy. Black women labored under scrutiny in white households but maintained vibrant social networks and communities outside of the purview of their employers. Thus, when Mollie Smith, Eliza Shelley, Irene Cross, Mary Ramey, and Gracie Vance were slain, their murders elicited responses from Austin’s black and white communities.

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