Cover Story: Atlanta’s Jack the Ripper

Did a serial killer murder 20 women a century ago?

On July 1, 1911, a 20-year-old woman named Emma Lou Sharpe sat in her house on Hanover Street in Atlanta and waited for her mother to come home. It was a Saturday evening, and Emma Lou was worried. Her mother had left an hour before to fetch some groceries and still had not returned.

Usually, this wouldn’t be a cause for concern, but these were unusual times. Just two weeks before, a neighbor of the Sharpes named Addie Watts was hit on the head with a brick. Then, as the local papers described in a mysterious understatement, “a coupling pin was brought into play.” Watts’ attacker then dragged her into a clump of bushes and slit her throat.</
Watts’ murder had been just the latest in a string of attacks that left the local African-American population on edge. All the victims had been of black or mixed race. All had been young, around 20 years old. All had been women.</
Emma Lou Sharpe fit that description almost exactly, but she was more concerned about her mother, whose name was Lena. Frantic with worry, Emma Lou set out in search of her mother. At the market, she learned that Lena had never showed up.</
Emma Lou started back for home. In the area that now separates Inman Park from Reynoldstown, she was approached by a stranger, who she described later, according to The Atlanta Constitution, as “tall, black, broad-shouldered and wearing a broad-brimmed black hat.”</
“How do you feel this evening?” the man asked Emma Lou.

“I’m very well,” she told the man, and began to walk past him. But he blocked her path.</
“Don’t be ‘fraid,” he told Emma Lou. “I never hurt girls like you.” Then he stabbed her in the back. Bleeding, she ran away, screaming for help.</
And Emma Lou’s mother? She was already dead, her head almost severed from her neck. Atlanta’s “Jack the Ripper” had struck again.</
Less than a half-century after the Civil War, the Atlanta of 1911 prided itself as the gateway to the New South. With almost a dozen major railroads spoking out from the city, the business of Atlanta was business. “Atlanta Always Ahead” was the slogan the local Ad Men’s Club chose as the city’s new motto. Inman Park and Peachtree Street were enclaves for the wealthy.</
For a select few of the city’s African-Americans, Atlanta was a model for racial tolerance. Black-owned businesses had sprung up on streets such as Auburn Avenue. Local colleges — Spelman, Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse), Morris Brown and Atlanta University (currently Clark Atlanta University) — were considered among the best black centers of learning in the nation.

But for most of the city’s African-Americans, life was hardly idyllic. Most worked menial jobs, installing sewers, perhaps, or cooking and cleaning in white households, then trudging home at night to dimly lit neighborhoods such as Reynoldstown and Pittsburg.</
And while Abraham Lincoln had given black Americans the right to vote, Georgia in the early 20th century actively sought to disenfranchise black voters by such methods as the poll tax. Segregation, meanwhile, was not just the practice; it was the law. Blacks could not be buried in white cemeteries, could not walk through white parks, could not drink in white bars, could not cut a white woman’s hair. In fact, a black baseball team wasn’t allowed to play within two blocks of a white baseball team.</
Nearly five years earlier, on Sept. 22, 1906, the facade of racial unity fell away when a crowd of several thousand white men and boys gathered in downtown Atlanta amid unsubstantiated reports that four attacks had taken place on white women at the hands of black men. The white mob went on a rampage. Three days later, an estimated 25-40 black Atlantans lay dead.</
By 1911, the population of Atlanta had climbed to more than 150,000, and whites actively sought to keep their neighborhoods free from black homeowners. That July, white citizens living on Ashby Street gathered at the Immanuel Baptist Church “for the purposes of suggesting methods of keeping negroes out of the vicinity.” Already, it seemed, four black families had moved into the neighborhood and there were signs that more were on the way. The committee decided to visit property owners in the neighborhood who might reside elsewhere and “ask them not to sell any of their property lying in that section to negroes.”</
So when young black and mixed-race women began showing up dead, it wasn’t cause for much concern in the local papers. Circulating largely among white readers, and staffed exclusively by white reporters and editors, papers such as the Atlanta Georgian, the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal were far more concerned about crimes among whites. Black-on-black crime merited little attention, as the Constitution showed May 29, 1911, when it buried a two-paragraph brief on page 7 under the headline “Negro Woman Killed; No Clew to Slayer — Was Found With Her Throat Cut Near Her Home.” The brief went on to say that the mutilated body of Belle Walker was found by her sister on Sunday morning, after Walker failed to return home the night before from her job as a cook at a home on Cooper Street.</
But it wasn’t until two weeks later, after Addie Watts was killed, that the newspapers began speculating that the murders of the “negresses” were perhaps the work of a solitary killer. “Black Butcher At Work?” asked the June 16 headline in the Journal, although the story beneath it stretched to just four paragraphs. Still, the final paragraph was perhaps the first in the local press that compared the Atlanta killings to the work of London’s serial killer of the 1880s. “On account of the number of recent murders of negro women, policemen advance the theory that Atlanta has an insane criminal, something on the order of the famed ‘Jack the Ripper.’ “</
Ten days later, the Journal elevated Atlanta’s Jack the Ripper to the front page. For the first time, the paper examined similarities among the crimes, noting that five Saturdays in a row saw the murder of a young black woman.</
But on the same day the Journal was sounding an alarm about a possible serial killer, the Constitution covered the sixth dead black woman in much the same understated way as before, naming the deceased and concluding, after just two paragraphs, that “mean whisky and cocaine are the probable causes.”</
Still, when Lena Sharpe was found dead and her daughter stabbed, even the Constitution had to admit, in a headline, that the “Theory of Jack-The-Ripper Is Given Further Substance.” The story underneath then recounted in detail how Emma Lou Sharpe came face-to-face with the man police believed was the Atlanta Ripper.</
The Journal described Emma Lou’s ordeal quite differently, however. In a much shriller tone, the paper said that Emma Lou and her mother had been together when they were attacked. After first knocking Lena down with a brick, the man slashed at Emma, who ran screaming from the attacker before fainting from loss of blood. She awoke to see the man standing over her, knife poised, until he was scared off by the sound of approaching footsteps.</
“While the ordinary negro murder attracts little attention,” the story said, “the police department was upon the alert last night, doubtfully [sic] expecting a repetition of the long series of crimes which have baffled every effort of the detectives.”</
By now, the verdict was certain. “It’s the work of the same man,” said Coroner Paul Donehoo.</
On the next day, July 3, the Journal made a page 9 mention that a local black undertaker, L.L. Lee, had offered a $25 reward for the capture of the killer. Meanwhile, papers throughout the country, intrigued by the prospect of another Jack the Ripper, began running wire stories with an Atlanta dateline: “Eighth Victim Of ‘Jack The Ripper’” screamed the Sandusky Star-Journal of Ohio.</
As another Saturday approached, the Journal asked the question that was on everyone’s minds: “Will ‘Jack The Ripper’ Claim Eighth Victim This Saturday?” The story quoted an unnamed veteran cop. “It’s coming,” he said. “The negro will kill a woman before midnight Saturday.”</
On Saturday night, July 8, 22-year-old Mary Yeldell left the home of W.M. Selcer on Fourth Street, where she worked as a cook. From down an alley she heard a low whistle. She stopped, and coming toward her was a “negro man, tall, black and well-built, and moving with a cat-like tread.”</
Yeldell ran screaming back to the Selcer house. Selcer met her at the door, then grabbed his revolver. He ran to the alley and found the man still standing there. But when Selcer told him to raise his hands, the man darted back down the alley. Selcer called the police, who arrived on motorcycles, but their search turned up nothing.</
Within days, black churches in Atlanta had fattened the reward for the killer, declaring in a resolution that the “foul and unpunished murders have placed a reign of terror over the laboring class of women of our race.”</
But the reward was useless. If it was true that the prowler who’d approached Yeldell was indeed the killer, his streak of Saturday night slayings had been broken. But he didn’t waste any time, evidently.</
On Tuesday morning, July 11, a group of men working on a sewer near the intersection of Atlanta Avenue and Martin Street, just west of Grant Park, came upon a large pool of blood in the road. They tracked the blood about 30 feet to a small gully, where they found the lifeless body of Sadie Holley, who worked at a local laundry. Her shoes were missing and her throat had been cut so that she had been almost decapitated.</
Clues were scarce. Police found combs worn by the victim on both sides of Atlanta Avenue. They also found a two-pound rock, smeared with blood.</
Within 20 minutes of the discovery, more than 100 onlookers had gathered. By 9 a.m., when Donehoo, the coroner, arrived, the crowd had grown to 500 people. Because so many murders had occurred, and because even the police weren’t sure which murders were the result of which killers, some papers called Holley’s death the Ripper’s seventh victim, while another called it his eighth, and another speculated it was his ninth.</
In any case, the effect was the same: hysteria. Police patrols were beefed up, but there seemed no pattern to where the killer was striking. Newspaper accounts decried the deaths, especially since all the victims, “with one exception,” were “hard workers and generally respected by both races alike. The character of the victims is largely responsible for the indignation at the murders, which has been so evident among the better class of negroes.”</
In an editorial, the Constitution chastised the police for not finding the killer. “What is the matter with the Atlanta police that they ... have not found the criminals themselves and locked them securely from further depredation? Is it indifference or incompetence? Is Atlanta in need of a police awakening or of a police shaking up?”</
By mid-July, Mayor Courtland Winn began publicly leaning on the police chief and chairman of the police commission.</
“Why the police are unable to cope with the situation is more than I can understand,” the mayor said.</
City councilmen were even more vocal. “We need the police department reorganized and put on a more efficient basis, and we need it badly,” Councilman Steve Johnston was quoted as saying in the Journal.

No doubt the police’s impotence was due, at least in part, to the fact that the Atlanta Police Department was all white.</
Within 24 hours of the discovery of Holley’s body, police arrested Henry Huff, a 27-year-old laborer. Huff had been seen with Holley the night she was killed, police said, and was arrested in bloody clothes with scratches on his arms. But Huff was only held on “suspicion,” and in the same Constitution story that described his arrest, the unnamed reporter seemed fed up. “The police department has nothing to say in explanation of its inability thus far to cope with the situation, further than the simple declaration that it is doing its best.”</
The story went on to say that the white community was “aroused” over the killings as well — killings that “have served to intensify the servant problem.” Faced with the police’s impotence, leaders of Atlanta’s black community called upon authorities to hire black detectives.</
Leaders of black churches urged City Council and the governor to set a reward for the capture of the killer. Their petition was endorsed by many prominent white Atlantans, including Asa Candler, founder of Coca-Cola and a future mayor of Atlanta.</
Not long after Huff’s arrest, police also picked up 35-year-old Todd Henderson at a saloon on Decatur Street. A man had seen Henderson with Holley the night she was killed in a drug store not far from the murder scene. Emma Lou Sharpe was brought to the station to identify Henderson.</
“How you gittin’ ‘long?” Henderson said when he was brought before Emma Lou, who “shrank back” at the sound of his voice, the Constitution reported.</
But another paper, the Georgian, reported that her identification wasn’t solid.</
“That’s the man,” she said initially. Then she qualified her statement: “If that’s not the right man, I’m badly mistaken.”</
The Georgian, like other papers quoting African-Americans, took great pains in spelling out their words in ways that reinforced racist stereotypes, a la Huckleberry Finn. For instance, Henderson was quoted as telling police, “Gee, if I wuz ‘Jack the Ripper,’ I sho wud hev begun on my wife. Fur she’s gibe me lots ob trubble.”</
The case against Henderson grew stronger when he told detectives that he hadn’t owned a razor or pocketknife in a year. But police learned that, on the morning after Holley was murdered, Henderson had dropped off a razor at a local barber’s shop to be sharpened.</
Although the cases against both Henderson and Huff remained circumstantial, police decided to hand over both men to the prosecutor, in hopes that a grand jury would sift through the evidence and decide which man to indict for the murder of Sadie Holley.</
Nevertheless, police themselves seemed doubtful they had gotten the right man. On Thursday, three days after the Holley murder, eight plainclothes patrolmen were assigned to night duty. And the police chief, Henry Jennings, explained the challenges his department faced in tracking down the killer.</
“The police department is handicapped, seriously so, by its small size, but even if we had more men, we could not stop crime,” Jennings said.</
The week ended with Gov. Hoke Smith offering a $250 reward for the capture of the Ripper.</
That Sunday, the string of murders was the focus of sermons in Atlanta’s black churches. At the First Congregational Church, the Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor said, “This bloody hand points to the sins of the colored people themselves. Our churches are doing good work, but they are not doing enough. ... They have been getting people ready to die when they should have been preparing them to live.”</
Proctor called on his congregants to clean up their neighborhoods by shutting down saloons and gambling dens. “Decatur Street is a reproach to our churches in this city. If each member of our churches would go down to that street and save one of its habitués, it would be better than all our praying and singing.”

Cleaning up the community, he said, would “make the work of a Jack the Ripper impossible.”</
The racism of the times was perhaps best displayed in the remarks of Nash Broyles. As city recorder, Broyles served as a local magistrate.</
“There is no such thing in Atlanta as a negro ‘Jack the Ripper,’” Judge Broyles said at the trial of a black man named Jim Murphy, who was charged with threatening to cut his wife’s throat. Murphy was fined $25.75.</
“It is just such cases as these that result in these murders of negro women,” Broyles said. “I am satisfied that every one of the several negro women slain recently in Atlanta were murdered by a different man. There are least 1,000 negro men in Atlanta today who stand ready to cut the throats of their wives at the slightest provocation.”</
Asked to explain why so many murders took place on Saturday nights, Broyles had a pat answer. Saturday night, he said, is the black man’s “big night” — the time when he “tanks up.”</
Over the coming weeks, the murders stopped. But police, under intense political pressure, continued making arrests. In virtually each case, the accused was nabbed based on accounts of witnesses who had put them at the scene of the crime. On Aug. 9, the grand jury indicted two men — Henry Huff, and a new suspect, named John Daniel. Huff was indicted in the Holley murder, but the papers would give scant information on Daniel, but said that his was a Jack the Ripper case.</
On Aug. 31, more than six weeks after the latest murder described as a Ripper crime, the Constitution reported that Mary Ann Duncan, a 20-year-old “negro woman,” was found dead in an area called Blantown, west of Atlanta, between a web of railroad tracks. Like Holley before her, Duncan was found without her shoes and with her throat cut from ear to ear.</
Despite the indictments of Huff and Daniel, both the media and police were certain they hadn’t arrested the true Ripper. That fall, the murders of young women resumed. The body of Minnie Wise, described by the wire services as a “comely mulatto girl,” was found in an alleyway Nov. 10, her throat cut, her shoes removed, and the index finger on her right hand severed at the middle joint.</
“He is a murder-maniac,” said the chief of police. “If we find this murderer, I am satisfied we will find a remarkable criminal, whoever he may be.”</
By this time, newspapers nationwide were running stories about the “Atlanta Ripper.” Detectives from other cities offered their services. Mayor Winn was getting embarrassed. In a letter to one of those outside detective agencies, his office struck a defensive tone: “Atlanta is known throughout the country as one of the most law-abiding cities of its size in the United States, and its police and detective departments are second to none. ... It is true that in some instances criminals escape arrest for a time, but even escapes of this kind occur in all cities.” The letter also outlined the strengths of the force — “200 capable officers” and 15 “keen-witted and experienced” detectives.</
But just a week after Winn’s office sent out the letter, Atlanta awoke to one of the grisliest murders yet — a woman with her head cut almost completely off, her heart cut out and lying by her side, her body disemboweled. The media attributed the crime to the Ripper, and the Constitution on Nov. 23 ran an interview with an unnamed police detective. His comments, even given the time in which they were spoken, are striking in their racism.</
“We won’t get to the bottom of this thing until we get some help from the negroes,” he said. “These murders are being committed among the lower class of negroes, ignorant, brutal beasts that know nothing else. Their acquaintances are afraid to talk, but if there was a little money slipped them we could find out invaluable clues, and I wager we would land the murderers. ... But we haven’t got the expenses.”</
At black churches, pastors advised their female congregants to not venture out at night. “Venturing out at night is inviting the monster’s ravages,” Pastor C.M. Tanner told a group of concerned citizens at Big Bethel Church, where a basket was passed and $1,200 raised as a reward for the Ripper’s capture.</
In December, Rev. Proctor was still clamoring for black detectives to be retained to help track down the murderer.</
Meanwhile, Henry Huff, who’d been accused of one of the Ripper murders, was found not guilty by a Fulton County jury. “This means,” reported the Georgian, “that the police department and the county authorities are as far as ever from a solution to the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders.”

Throughout the winter of 1912, more young women were found with their throats cut, but the pace never again reached the early summer of the year before. In March 1912, the Constitution reported that a grand jury had concluded that an Atlanta Jack the Ripper was a myth. “Each murder was committed by a different man. ... In each case, it was the result of jealousy following immoral conduct.”</
But the story — which ran just four paragraphs — didn’t explain how the grand jury reached its conclusion, and a month later the same paper ran a story headlined “Jack The Ripper Turns Up Again.” In this case, the body of a 19-year-old “octoroon” girl was found in a clump of bushes at the end of Pryor Street. She’d been stabbed in the throat.</
By the spring of 1912, the daily papers were writing about the Ripper’s 20th victim, a 15-year-old “pretty octoroon” found floating in the Chattahoochee River, her throat cut, her body mutilated.</
Although the media wasn’t convinced, police kept making arrests. In late April 1912, a man named Charlie Owens was sentenced to life in prison for one of the “so-called ‘Jack-the-Ripper’ murders committed in Atlanta during the past 18 months,” the Constitution reported. The story didn’t say for which murder he was convicted, however, and in a matter of weeks, the papers were attributing yet another murder to the Ripper.</
On Aug. 10, 1912, more than a year after the first Ripper murders had occurred, Henry Brown, also known as Lawton Brown, was arrested for killing Eva Florence, who had been murdered the previous November. Brown’s wife told police that he had come home on successive Saturdays — the same Saturdays that many of the killings had taken place -- with his clothes bloody, and would sit before the fire to dry them out. Under questioning, Brown revealed intimate details of the other crimes. Detectives believed they’d found their man.</
But had they? That October, Brown went to trial in the Florence murder, but John Rutherford, identified by the Constitution only as “a negro,” testified that police had put Brown through the “third-degree” during questioning. Rutherford said the detectives chained Brown’s arms to a chair and then struck him in the ears until he confessed. For his part, Brown said he often suffered “hallucinations” and would admit to almost anything under pressure.</
On Oct. 18, Brown was acquitted. Try as they might, Atlanta detectives could not convict anyone of the Ripper murders.</
Vance McLaughlin first heard about Atlanta’s Ripper murders when he was researching a book on a serial killer in Buffalo, N.Y. McLaughlin is a former Savannah police officer, and today is a criminal justice professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.</
Unfortunately, McLaughlin says, finding primary documents about the Ripper case — indictments, death records, police reports — is challenging. Many simply don’t exist. And the newspapers of the time were notoriously unreliable; each paper would ascribe a different number to each murder, so while some papers claimed the Ripper was responsible for 20 murders, another might say he had killed 21.</
McLaughlin says the hysteria created by the murders may have inspired a copycat killer. Or it’s possible that someone with murder on their mind simply used the same technique that was described in the papers to divert suspicion to a nonexistent serial killer.</
“If you were going to kill a black woman during that time, you’d certainly do the modus operandi and everything else,” McLaughlin says. “So was it actually one person who picked up on it, or maybe a couple of people who wanted to get rid of certain folks?”</
Whether or not police ever nabbed the Ripper — if he even existed — the Atlanta papers did not forget about him, and invoked his name several times in the coming years. In March 1913, the Constitution detailed the murder of Laura Smith, who was found with her throat cut. Like the other victims, Smith was young, of mixed race, and worked as a servant. Smith’s murder was the third that year.</
Then, in March 1914, three full years after the Ripper murders had begun, firefighters found notes pinned to fireboxes around the city. The notes’ author promised to “cut the throats of all negro women” who were found on the streets after a certain hour of the night. The newspaper attributed the notes to “Jack the Ripper.”</
In the coming years, in fact, when a black woman was found stabbed to death in Atlanta, the papers would point to the Ripper. Oddly, one of the final mentions of the Ripper arose during the infamous case of Leo Frank, the Jewish businessman who was charged in the death of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, and who was ultimately lynched. Besides Frank, there was one other prime suspect, a black man named Jim Conley.</
In April 1914, an out-of-town detective, W.J. Burns, said that Conley not only killed Phagan, but that he was responsible for the Ripper deaths. Nothing came of Burns’ claims.</
Over time, as memories of the murders faded, most of Atlanta grew to forget the Ripper. Seventy years later, the notion of a serial killer once again captured the city’s imagination, when more than 20 young black males were found murdered. Wayne Williams is now serving a life sentence after being convicted for two of the murders. His conviction came in an Atlanta that had changed drastically since the Ripper murders. But even today, 20 years after Williams’ conviction, doubts linger that he was the true serial killer.