Cold cases are some of America’s greatest mysteries, fueling both societal imagination and horror with their often-complicated stories. But what exactly is a “cold case,” and what makes some so memorable? Read on to learn more about what defines a cold case, and the first of five mysterious cold cases that remain unsolved today!
So, what is a cold case?
In the most general terms, a cold case is a crime that has gone unsolved and has lacked any recent criminal investigation. More often than not, the term “cold case” is used to refer to violent felonies (such as murder, or rape), which are not subject to the statute of limitations that less severe crimes are. In rare cases, disappearances can be referred to as a cold case if the victim has been missing for a long enough stretch of time. However, the term most typically is applied to an unsolved murder case.
A major misconception with cold cases, however, is that they are closed investigations – this notion is untrue. In reality, cold cases are neither open nor closed investigations, but are instead in a type of stasis. This discrepancy is important, as it allows a cold case to be revisited when any relevant evidence (whether it be new eyewitness testimonies, a re-examination of files or material evidence, or a new suspect) can be presented. This distinction has been especially useful as forensic technology has improved in the 21st century, allowing many cold cases to be solved utilizing DNA evidence that was previously unavailable.
Little-known US Cold Cases
To date, there are at least 200,000 unsolved murder cases in the US, a large portion of which are marked as cold cases. This is especially true in larger US cities, where up to a third of all murders will go unsolved each year. While a handful of these cases have garnered a large amount of public attention, such as the Black Dahlia murder, or the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, many have fallen to the wayside or have been overlooked entirely since their occurrence. For the next five weeks, we’ll be exploring some of the most heinous forgotten cold cases, starting this week with the Servant Girl Annihilator:
1884 – 1885: The Servant Girl Annihilator
Sometimes known as the “Servant Girl Killer,” the annihilator committed a series of eight axe murders in and around Austin, Texas. The “Servant Girl Annihilator” is known as one of the earliest serial killers of all time, predating even England’s infamous Jack the Ripper. His crimes occurred long before the concept of the serial killer had come into existence, however. His presence in the 1880s was such a morbid novelty to the police of the day that it was deemed impossible by both political and police officials alike to be the work of one man, or even one group of men.
Austin in the 1880s was only beginning to develop into the influential state capital it is today, with a population of between 11,000 and 14,000. A city on the very edge of the modern world, the Annihilator’s crimes catapulted Austin into the leagues of big-crime cities. His first victim, Mollie Smith, was murdered on December 30, 1884. A young African-American cook, Mollie was found in the Texas snow with a large axe wound to the head. She had also been stabbed in various other places, leading to a grotesque amount of blood loss.
The Annihilator’s crimes other crimes shared similarities with Mollie’s murder, with all of the victims (seven of whom were female) having large head wounds dealt by an axe. In the case of one of his last victims, Susan Hancock was dragged from the bed she had been sharing with her 16-year-old daughter, and was found with her head cleaved into two pieces. Many of the Annihilator’s victims were dragged from their beds alive, before being mutilated and left outside.
In total, the Servant Girl Annihilator murdered seven women and one man, who was the partner of a female victim. The case left Austin police scrambling, and several more policemen were hired, along with citizens forming a committee to patrol Austin’s streets at night. These efforts succeeded – the killer vanished without a trace, and the murders finally ended on Christmas Eve, 1885, nearly a year to the day after the murder of Mollie Cook.
However, authorities could not make up for the killer’s lack of a trail – eyewitness testimonies were often contradictory, describing the killer simultaneously as a dark and light-skinned man. In total, 400 different men were arrested at some point in connection with the killings, but none were ever convicted. Although there was some suspicion that a Malay cook, who left Austin just weeks after the last murder, may have been the killer, no substantial evidence has confirmed this theory. Today, the case remains one of the oldest unsolved murder sprees in US history.
The Macabre Monday Series will run for five weeks, featuring one cold cases each week! Check back next Monday for Part II of our series, the Little Lord Fauntleroy murder. If that’s just too long, check out our true crime titles!