There are not many who havent heard of London's Jack the Ripper, but few are aware of the existence of his southern counterpart who was equally as ruthless and evil, and who had an entire city panic stricken and terrorized during the early 1900's. To this day no one knows for sure who the Atlanta Ripper was, but the murders and mutilation of nearly 20 African American women, occurred at a time of high tensions in America.
Since much of the south was still gripped by racism and segregation, the killings werent given the attention they deserved until the Ripper had already amassed a large number of victims, and finally caused outrage amongst Atlanta's citizens, so that they could no longer be ignored by the authorities. The most frustrating thing is that the person behind the Ripper murders was never caught due to the lack of investigation into the killings, which gave him growing confidence to take more lives.
Less than five decades after the Civil War, the city of Atlanta prided itself as the gateway to the New South and as such Atlanta becae known as "The Gate City." With almost a dozen major railroads passing through the city, business was booming. New buildings and homes were being constructed and Inman Park and Peachtree Street had become enclaves for the wealthy.
Beginning in April 1909, the bodies of African-American women began to show up in the historic Old Fourth Ward, some killed by gunshot, some killed by blunt force trauma to the head. The accumulation of bodies, almost one per month during that time stoked considerable fear in the area, especially once the next series of slayings began. With the increased brutality of each slaying, the notes pinned to fireboxes across the city, and the killers apparent fascination with his victims shoes, all create a grisly and disturbing glimpse into the mind of an insane murderer. Whether the Atlanta Ripper's identity belonged to an assortment of different individuals or a single predator, this is still hotly contested, and over a century later the question still endures: Who was the Atlanta Ripper?
It’s not possible to say with certainty exactly when the crime spree started and absolutely who the first victim was. So lets do a deep dive into the past and start from the beginning.
*On Monday, October 3, 1910, 23-year-old Maggie Brook’s body was found at the intersection of the Atlanta and West Point Railroad Track and Hill Street. A cook, Maggie’s skull had been fractured.
*On Saturday, January 22, 1911, 35-year-old Rosa Trice had the left side of her skull nearly completely crushed, her jaw stabbed and her throat cut so viciously that her head was nearly severed from her neck. After being killed, the perpetrator drug her body some 75 yards from her house on Gardner Street in the Pittsburg neighborhood before abandoning it there, where it was discovered. The level of brutality inflicted set the tone for the Ripper's future victims. Two hours after her body was found, her husband was arrested for her murder but released the following night for lack of evidence. The Atlanta Constitution reported her murder, including the grisly details of her killing. It is fiercely debated that she was the Ripper's first victim.
*On Sunday, February 19, 1911, the body of an unidentified black female was discovered in some woods by the West Point Belt Car Line, just outside the city limits. She was estimated to be 25 years old and her head had been crushed. Beer bottles had been scattered around her body. It was suspected she had been killed either on Friday, February 17, or Saturday, February 18.
*On Sunday morning, May 28, 1911, the body of Mary “Belle” Walker was found just 25 yards from her home on Garibaldi Street. A cook working in a private home on Cooper Street, Belle was found by her sister when she failed to return home from work the night before. Her throat had been cut in a jagged fashion. The Atlanta Constitution duly reported the crime in their May 29 edition on page 7, noting that a “Negro woman” had been killed and there were no clues.
*In the early morning of Thursday, June 15, 1911, Addie Watts, a resident of 30 Selman Street, was found in some shrubbery at Krogg and DeKalb Streets, close to the Southern Railway. Authorities believed she had first been hit in the head with a brick or a coupling pin from a train before her killer had stabbed at her skull with a coupling pin and then slit her throat. After she had been killed, she was dragged into the bushes near the tracks. Coincidentally "if there are such things" Addie Watts was the neighbor of Emma Lou and Lena Sharpe.
It was only after Addie Watts was discovered that the local papers began to speculate that there may have been a lone, solitary killer preying on the city’s young black women. On June 16, 1911, the day after the Watts killing, The Atlanta Journal ran a headline questioning whether a “black butcher” was at work in the city. It was this brief article (only four paragraphs) that first linked the Atlanta murders to those that occurred in London in the autumn of 1888, where five prostitutes were brutally stabbed to death and mutilated by the infamous Jack the Ripper. According to the article, the police were advancing the theory that “Atlanta has an insane criminal, something on the order of the famed Jack the Ripper.” The competing Atlanta Constitution, however, was still holding firm that the killings were isolated, unrelated incidents. Not surprisingly, when young black and mixed-race women began showing up brutally slain, it wasn’t cause for much concern in the local newspapers. Circulated largely among white readers, and staffed exclusively by white reporters and editors, the three city newspapers were far more concerned about crimes among whites. Crimes against blacks merited little attention
*On Saturday, June 24, 1911, Lizzie Watkins, a resident of West Oakland Street, became the next victim. She was found around 11 a.m. the following day at White and Lawson Streets. Like Addie Watts, she was found in a clump of bushes. Also like Addie Watts, Lizzie’s throat had been cut and her body had been dragged to where it was found after the fatal injury.
Following the Lizzie Watkins murder, the crimes were finally moved to the front page of The Atlanta Journal. The similarities between the victims and murders was pointed out, as was the fact that for five Saturdays in a row, young black or biracial women had been murdered. Through these reports, the public found out for the first time that in each case, it appeared the women were choked into unconsciousness before they were assaulted and killed and that the victims had been mutilated in the same areas of their bodies. Although not specified in the newspaper reports at the time due to the “delicate” nature, like London’s Jack the Ripper’s victims, Atlanta’s Ripper victims were not raped but their injuries appeared sexual in nature. Also like Jack the Ripper, Atlanta reporters claimed that the local killer had some type of anatomical knowledge. And once again, The Atlanta Constitution was behind the eight ball. Although it reported the most recent murder, the Constitution incorrectly opined that Lizzie Watkins’ death was due to due to cocaine and whiskey.
The first possible break or lead in the case came on Saturday, July 1, 1911 with the murder of 40-year-old Lena Sharpe. The Sharpe case is notable not only for the eyewitness encounter but also for two varying versions of what happened.
*In the first version as reported by The Atlanta Constitution:
Lena Sharpe failed to return home from a shopping trip one evening, her 20-year-old daughter, Emma Lou, panicked and began to search for her. Afraid of the Ripper who had been terrorizing the community, Emma Lou retraced her mother's steps to the market only to learn that her mother had never made it. While desperately searching the neighborhood, she encountered a man who she described to authorities as "tall, black, broad-shouldered, and wearing a broad-brimmed Black hat." After he asked her how she was, a wary Emma Lou responded that she was well and attempted to skirt around the man who blocked her path.
"Don't be 'fraid," the stranger replied, "I never hurt girls like you." He then proceeded to stab her in the back. Emma Lou pulled away and ran screaming for help while the large man let out a laugh and fled down an adjoining alley. Emma Lou was unaware at the time that she had been only steps away from the corpse of her brutally slain mother, and that she had managed to survive an encounter with the devil of Atlanta.
After Emma Lou's fearful shouts drew a considerable crowd, a search party made up of several men dispatched and soon found the body of her slain mother. Found near the Seaboard railroad tracks, Lena Sharpe had a large gash across her throat and her head was resting in a pool of blood. The throat slashing was so brutal that she was nearly decapitated.
*In the second version, as reported by The Atlanta Journal:
Lena and Emma Lou were walking together to the store when the black man, who had been hiding, blocked their path and struck Lena in the head with a brick. Lena fell to the ground and the man began slashing at Emma Lou, never uttering a word. Emma Lou ran from the scene, screaming, but fainted due to blood loss. It was then that the killer cut Lena’s throat so severely that her head was nearly severed from her body. He returned to Emma Lou, who had regained consciousness and saw him standing over her with a bloody knife. Only the sound of feet running toward them sent the killer scurrying for cover.
Whichever version was accurate, Lena Sharpe was indeed killed, and very nearly decapitated, with her body found by the Seaboard railroad tracks, and Emma Lou Sharpe was stabbed. The Atlanta Journal reported she was unlikely to live but it seems that she did indeed survive her wounds. She also got a good look at the man who stabbed her and quite probably murdered her mother.
*On Saturday, July 8, Mary Yedell, a cook for the W.M. Selcer household, was leaving work when she heard a sharp whistling coming from an alleyway. The 22-year-old then saw a tall, black stranger approaching her at a rapid pace and ran shrieking back to the home of her employer. Mr. Selcer quickly ran towards the alley, revolver in hand, and found the man lurking in the shadows. When Selcer confronted him, the stranger used the darkness of the passageway to slip away into the night. After a thorough investigation of the surrounding area, police were not able to find a suspect or any clues. Mary Yedell narrowly avoided becoming yet another name on the Atlanta Ripper's growing list.
*The body of Sadie Holley was found savagely mutilated, her throat had been slashe ear to ear and her head was caved in with a fist sized rock that was later found in a nearby field covered in blood, and her shoes had been removed. Despite falling in the middle of the Ripper's victim list Sadie was the first to be featured on the front page of The Atlanta Constitution.
*On November 21st, 1911 another body was foound partially buried under loose earth in a ditch near the juncture of Stewart Street and the belt line. When Mary Putnam's body was discovered at 7am, she was still warm to the touch. Marty's throat and breas had been viciously slashed and the killer's hand prints were visible in the dirt around the body. The most disturbing sign of the Ripper reaching such a frenzied pace was that Marys heart had been ripped out and was found laying nex to her body. Not content with that he also disembowelled her. When a bloodhound reached the scene, it followed a trail for 200 yards that abruptly ended at the car line. The cause of death was determined to be a broken skull and lacerated throat wounds. While the other injuries were caused post mortem.
One of the strangest things about this case was that several of his victims were found with their shoes removed, however they were always found nearby. Yet in the case of Sadie Holley, they were completely missing. As to why the Ripper was so fixated on his victims shoes remains a mystery.
In March 1914, fire fighterer began finding notes pinned to fireboxes all over the city. The killer (if it was the same person mind you) threatened to "cut the throats of all Negro women" who happened to be outside after a certain time of night and the notes were all signed "Jack the Ripper." Fire station house 2 recieved three false alarm calls, which were believed to have been made by the killer in order to draw attention to the letters. Whether it really was the Atlanta Ripper or a copycat remains to be seen.
A cook working for a household at Inman Park, Miss Ellen Maddox, was on her way home from work when she was attacked from behind and bashed over the head with a blunt object. She was beaten so savagely that her head was totally caved in and her facial features were almost totally unrecognisable. Despite the brutal attack Miss Maddox was still clinging to life and was able to talk to the detectives. With detectives by her bedside she managed to speak her final words, "He ran up behind me and hit me and then..." Unfortunatley those were the last words she ever spoke, sadly she later died of her injuries.
The Atlanta Ripper is believed to be responsible for the deaths of nearly 20 African American women. The official number during the four year killing spree is not confirmed and is still a cause of much debate.
The standard M.O. for these slayings was that the victims were approached from behind, clubbed over the back of the head and dragged off to another area where they had their throats slit and their bodies were mutilated in some way.
The victims were all from lower class neighborhoods and attractive young women. Due to the violence and savagery of the murders the Atlanta Ripper was offically compared to London's Jack the Ripper in a June 16, 1911.
The police were stumped for clues to the killers identity, and as each murder took place, they were no closer to catching the killer, which eventually made community leaders and churches offer rewards for the capture of the Ripper. With the similarties between many of the murders becoming more and more obvious, Atlanta law enforcement believed they were now looking for one serial killer.
However in March of 1912, a grand jury concluded that each murder was committed by a different African American man, they never explained how this conclusion was made. They stated that each case was a result of "jealousy following immoral conduct." Adding to the the theory that the Atlanta Ripper was just a myth, authorities kept arresting and sometimes even convicting different black men for the crimes, due to circumsantial evidence the men were rarely convicted.
27 year old Henery Huff was arrested for the murder os Sadie Holley. Witnesses reported seeing him with Holley the night she died. When he was arrested his pants were covered in dirt and blood, he had several long scratches on both arms. Interestingly while he was being held in jail awaiting his trial date , the Ripper murders continued. Therefore this was the strongest piece of evidence that lead to Henery Hoff being found not guilty.
Emma Lou Sharpe identified the man who had stabbed her in the back as 35 year old Todd Henderson. He was also seen in a drug store with Sadie Holley the night of her murder as well as his shoes matching the print left at the crime scene. A straight razor was believed to have been used during the attack and the police questioned Henery about owning one, he fiercly denied owning one until police discovered that he had in fact dropped a razor off at a local barber shop to be sharpened the morning after Sadie Holleys death. Believing they had their man the police were at best only able to provide circumstantial evidence and once again a grand jury dropped all charges against Todd Henderson.
There were several other arrests made during the Ripper's killing spree John Daniel, Henry Brown and Charlie Owens. With the trials of Todd Henderson and Henery Huff and subsequent not guilty verdict, along with the arrest and incarceration of John Daniel the murders continued and that cast doubt on whether Daniel was the murderer or at least making it appear he did not work alone.
Henery Brown was acquitted after it was revealed that the Atlanta police had beaten a confession out of him. but Charlie Owens was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for one of the murders. Many doubt that Owens was guilty because they point out the fact that after Owens was put in jail, the murders continued.
Alot of questions remain:
*Was Owens the Atlanta Ripper who teamed up with a murdering accomplice?
*Were there copycats?
*Was there only one killer?
*Had the authorities convicted the wrong person?
*What was the fixation with the victims shoes?
From what we know about serial killers they tend to carry out their crimes alone, per the victim statements there was never any mention of a second attacker.
The killings stopped in 1914 with the death of Laura Smith, and the residents of Atlanta could now put this behind them, Im sure the lingering effects still haunted them.