An award-winning staff writer at Texas Monthly, Skip Hollandsworth is known for his long-form print journalism and true crime storytelling, from his book The Midnight Assassin to his eight-part podcast Tom Brown’s Body, about the tragic disappearance and death of Thomas Brown in Canadian, Texas.
Hollandsworth is in Amarillo this week for Amarillo College’s Creative Mind Lecture Series—a free event at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. With the event approaching, Hollandsworth graciously answered questions from Brick & Elm cofounder Jason Boyett.
[Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Jason Boyett: Before your original Texas Monthly article and later the book The Midnight Assassin, the story about the 19th-century serial killer in Austin, Texas, wasn’t widely known. How did you first find out about it?
Skip Hollandsworth: Why do certain stories gather momentum and become internationally known, and other stories disappear out of the history books? Ironically, I was reading a history book about Jack the Ripper, and one line said some Scotland Yard detective thought the killer came from, quote, “a small city in Texas” where “a series of similar murders had occured three years earlier.”
And I thought, What small city in Texas? What similar series of murders? and I began researching at the Austin History Center at the Austin Public Library. Story by story, I began to build up a collection of [old newspaper] articles about what was clearly a brilliant, brutal, vicious killer who haunted the streets of Austin for a year, cutting apart women of every race and class. I just kept thinking, How is this story not known?
JB: Beyond the tie to Austin, what else grabbed your attention about those killings?
SH: I think it was the disbelief that something evil was lurking in their city. Austin, during that year, was going through extraordinary change. It was hurtling from its frontier past into America’s Gilded Age. Electric lights were arriving, telephones were arriving, there was a new concert hall, there was a new state university being built called the University of Texas. There was a new state capitol being built that was going to be bigger than the U.S. Capitol. There was all kinds of traffic up and down Congress Avenue, mule-driven carriages.
It was the arrival of modernity with the arrival of the 20th century coming soon, and along with it came the arrival of 20th century crime—a serial killer. It’s hard for us to believe that now, because our libraries are full of novels and nonfiction books on serial killers. But the concept of a serial killer didn’t exist back then.
JB: You wrote about the sensational press coverage of the murders at the time, with Austin Daily Statesman headlines like “Blood! Blood! Blood!” Can you compare the media atmosphere back then to the sensational ways crime is covered today?
SH: That’s a really good question. It felt very much the same as the journalism [today] when a series of murders breaks out in a certain city, and everyone’s trying to outdo one another to get newspaper sales. [Back then], every newspaper in the state had an Austin bureau to cover the legislature. All the big cities had reporters there, and they were all competing to see who could sell out their newspapers at the drug store downtown first. It became a rich source of material for me. Something was happening that no one could understand—something terrible.
JB: True crime podcasts are incredibly popular these days. Given the newspapers’ approach back then, do you think the public had the same appetite for those kinds of stories?
SH: Absolutely. Every newspaper was writing those kinds of “Blood! Blood!” headlines and going into almost literary descriptions of the corpses. They seemed to be copying the great horror writers of the 19th century, like Edgar Allen Poe, and you can see that influence in their writing. Then at the end of the murders, when the two white women were murdered, the New York reporters arrived. Joseph Pulitzer, who was then the most famous newspaper publisher in the country, sent down a reporter by train from the New York World to write a 7,000-word story about the killings.
He wrote a chilling paragraph about how this was not an escapee from the state lunatic asylum, this was not some monster like a real-life “Frankenstein.” This was a normal man by day who, at night, let loose with a different kind of violence that was never before seen. It was planned. It was methodically carried out. The reporter said this was a new kind of killing because it was someone who kills to gratify his own passion.
JB: Can we switch gears a little and talk about the podcast Tom Brown’s Body, which of course has a connection to the Texas Panhandle. Why did you select a serial podcast format to explore that story, as opposed to writing something long-form for Texas Monthly?
SH: The minute I heard this story told to me for the first time about Tom’s disappearance, I knew that it was going to play out like a great narrative, with several chapters, and it could be an audio narrative. There were enough people around who would talk and enough characters to keep you interested in the story—and there was a mystery at the heart of the story. Instead of short-shrifting it with a magazine story, we decided to do a major podcast.
You know, I’m an old coot in the media game now, and I showed up in Canadian with my iPhone. I didn’t have a podcast crew, and I just started interviewing people. Within 10 minutes, I realized this is one horrible, scary, sad and bewildering tale that needs room to be told. That’s why we did it as an eight-part series.
JB: Since the format was new to you, what did you enjoy about podcasting—especially using it to explore a true crime story?
SH: It gave the listener a chance to be part of the story. Instead of me describing the events, you heard firsthand from the sheriff, from the private investigator, from the family, from townspeople. You heard firsthand what was going on from their point of view. And you could hear their voices and be able to decide or guess whether they were telling you the truth or not. It just gave a layer of realism that writing a magazine piece doesn’t necessarily get you.
JB: You’ve reported on stories all over Texas. This one is very specific to the Panhandle. Is there anything you learned about the people of the Texas Panhandle while working on the project?
SH: I always loved doing Panhandle stories ’cause that’s real Texas to me. In many ways, I’m a city boy. I didn’t have any connections to the oil business or to ranching. I didn’t ride a horse and didn’t go hunting. But I’ve done a lot of stories about the Panhandle. The one that touched me the most was about those wildfires that hit your area [in 2017] and those young cowboys who died trying to save their cattle [“The Day the Fire Came” in Texas Monthly].
I just went out there, totally befuddled. Why would they do that? I talked to their families about these handsome young cowboys. And I learned about the cowboy way, and it was just an extremely moving experience.
With Tom’s story, here was a boy who was, in many ways, a normal teenage boy. He was very popular and successful and the last person you think would just disappear into thin air. The reason that story was so interesting to me, in part, was the setting. Canadian is a town where everybody knows everybody. It’s isolated enough that it felt like an entity to itself, and people cared about their town, and in the midst of this kind of unity a boy disappears. His bones are found a year or so later. How did that happen?
JB: Storytellers like to tie up loose ends, but both of these projects—The Midnight Assassin and Tom Brown’s Body—end with a lot of uncertainty. As a storyteller, how did you feel about the lack of resolution?
SH: Well, I did enough research where I thought “I’m gonna find the killer. I’m gonna identify the Midnight Assassin.” It was this arrogant hope that I could do it, or that I could find someone who would give me the quote about what really happened to Tom. But that’s not the way life works. Most of these stories, in most cases, don’t end with everything neatly packaged. They end in questions, with people haunted. That’s what those two stories do. They torment you. You can’t escape the story.