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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.

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