Under the Moonlight

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We begin with an unsolved murder mystery, actually a series of unsolved murders, perhaps the work of the United States’ first serial killer.

Avery Trufelman:
Before Jack the Ripper terrorized London, before H.H. Holmes stalked the Chicago World’s Fair, Austin Texas was haunted by the Servant Girl Annihilator.

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman would like to reiterate that these murders are unsolved.

Avery Trufelman:
So it’s possible that these were individual murders rather than the work of one man. The hard fast fact is this: in 1885, eight women, mostly black servants, were brutally murdered in the dark of night-

Roman Mars:
And the night was very dark in Austin in 1885.

Bruce Hunt:
There was essentially no street lighting. The darkness of just life after sundown in the 19th century is something that modern people are just completely unfamiliar with.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Bruce Hunt. He’s an Associate Professor of the History of Physics and Technology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Bruce Hunt:
Basically, there was no outdoor lighting, there was moonlight. When the moon was out, that was about it.

Roman Mars:
And in 1894, the city of Austin decided to buy more moonlight in the form of towers.

Bruce Hunt:
They’re called moonlight towers because they were supposed to approximate a full moon.

Avery Trufelman:
Austin adopted moonlight towers, which really were towers. They were 15 stories high, very industrial looking, made of metal scaffolding and each was crowned with a circle of six lights soaring way, way high above the city.

Roman Mars:
Austin wasn’t the first to implement tower lighting. In the 1800s a lot of major cities had them. Arc light towers illuminated streets in New York, Baltimore, LA, San Jose, and Detroit.

Bruce Hunt:
Detroit had a very huge system, much larger than Austin ever had.

Avery Trufelman:
And that’s actually where Austin got their moonlight towers.

Bruce Hunt:
In 1894, the city purchased 31 of them from the city of Detroit.

Avery Trufelman:
And despite their romantic name, the absurdly tall moonlight towers were actually a very practical design.

Bruce Hunt:
They’re not meant to look cool, they’re very functional.

Avery Trufelman:
And their height was meant to accommodate the lighting they used.

Bruce Hunt:
They’re arc lights, they initially were arc clients.

Roman Mars:
Carbon arc lights, the precursor to the incandescent bulb.

Bruce Hunt:
Arc lights are basically a continued spark between two carbon electrodes. They’re extremely bright, a lot of glare. They’re the sort of thing you use in a searchlight.

Roman Mars:
And if you put arc lights at street level, that’s blinding.

Bruce Hunt:
Well, the solution to that was to put it up high enough that you’d spread the light out.

Avery Trufelman:
But even on their high tower, the arc lights were still so bright. I mean, they’d be bright by today’s standards, but then imagine what that would look like to you if you were an Austinite in the 1890s, accustomed to pitch-black streets and gas lamps.

Roman Mars:
A gas lamp has the power of about 15 candles. An arc light has the power of a couple thousand.

Ernest Freeberg:
It was a very intense light, almost too much light. People would go out and enjoy the light, but they would bring umbrellas in order to shield themselves from the glare.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Ernest Freeberg, head of the history department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He’s also the author of the book, ‘The Age Of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America.’

Roman Mars:
And the glare was just one of the problems with arc lights. There were a few other downsides.

Ernest Freeberg:
One was that it sounded like a swarm of angry bees. It would buzz and as these carbons burned, they would drop shreds of ash, burning ash down on people down below. So there was a drawback.

Avery Trufelman:
Even with their blinding glare and nefarious hum and deposits of molten ash, carbon arc lights were still so exciting. They created a whole new world for people accustomed to dim and dark cities.

Roman Mars:
Because bright electric light can highlight certain things that you might not even notice in the full light of day.

Ernest Freeberg:
So there’s a lot of great discussion about seeing the grass in a totally different way. People loved to look at their hands under the arc light in the dark and they were seeing the details of their hands in new ways.

Avery Trufelman:
Dude.

Ernest Freeberg:
So it was really a change in perception that was thrilling, and also the thrilling feeling of being out at night and feeling safe, because visibility equals safety.

Avery Trufelman:
Some cities thought that these newfangled street lights were going to cut back on the need for police or even eliminate law enforcement entirely.

Ernest Freeberg:
If you could set up an arc light in the middle of a town square, you’d sort of would be returning the square to the public and take it away from criminals and ne’er-do-wells who were hanging around in the shadows by driving out the shadows.

Roman Mars:
People called the arc lights policemen on a pole and they allowed for a whole new kind of nightlife.

Ernest Freeberg:
Many people were very excited to go out and attend a fancy ball under the arc light, but once they got there they realized that this harsh blue light highlighted every one of their imperfections, so every gray hair and wrinkle. Many people vowed that they would never again go near electric light.

Avery Trufelman:
Vanity aside, everyone was kind of nervous about the general idea of light at night.

Roman Mars:
“Twas unnatural,” they decreed. “The towers could cause sleeplessness, cast eerie shadows, crops would overproduce, hens would overlay.”

Avery Trufelman:
There were stories that the arc lights lured restless alligators to the shore and attracted biblical proportions of crickets, according to the Austin Statesman in 1921.

EXCERPT FROM AUSTIN STATESMAN:
“Egypt has nothing on Central Texas when it comes to scourges. After the recent flood came, the crickets tempted by the beams of light to settle in illuminated vicinities.”

Avery Trufelman:
Bruce Hunt suspects that these reports were overblown.

Bruce Hunt:
Eh. I think a lot of that was kind of newspapermen joking around.

Roman Mars:
Ugh. Journalism was so much fun back then.

Avery Trufelman:
But the biggest problem with the towers was that their height made them a drag to maintain.

Ernest Freeberg:
The arcs burned down the carbon electrodes very rapidly. So you had to go up and change them about once a day.

Avery Trufelman:
And I cannot emphasize enough how super tall these things are, as tall as a 15-story building. And if you look at one of Austin’s moonlight towers, there’s a rickety little pulley type thing in the center of it. It’s like a dumbwaiter apparatus.

Bruce Hunt:
And supposedly the guy would stand on that and pull himself up to go up and change the carbon electrodes every day. That’s a nuisance and an expense. And so as soon as they could, really, by the 1920s the city replaced the arc lights, the carbon arcs, with big incandescent bulbs, which were not as bright but were a lot easier to maintain.

Roman Mars:
But while Austin was futzing around with different bulbs, most other cities had already removed their tower lights completely.

Bruce Hunt:
Every place else abandoned them by about the 1920s, but Austin kept them.

Avery Trufelman:
Austin had fallen on hard times and the city couldn’t afford to tear down the towers, and so they just stayed.

Roman Mars:
And to this day, 17 of the original 31 survive … the last of the moonlight towers.

Avery Trufelman:
Although today without the arc lights, the moonlight towers have a kind of weak and distant glow. They’re easy to ignore, but you might know them from a little movie called ‘Dazed and Confused.’

Roman Mars:
‘Dazed and Confused’ is set in Austin in 1976. In the movie, a bunch of kids party and drive around until they all gather at the end by a moonlight tower.

[DAZED AND CONFUSED CLIP]
Wooderson: “There’s a new fiesta in the making as we speak, it’s out at the moontower.”

Bruce Hunt:
In the movie ‘Dazed and Confused’, the Richard Linklater movie, Matthew McConaughey says, “Party at the moontower,” but they’re moonlight towers.

Roman Mars:
In real life, people don’t actually go there to party.

Wiley Wiggins:
Most of them are just in sort of parking lots or something.

Avery Trufelman:
I went to a moonlight tower on the side of a busy road on the corner of 9th and Guadalupe.

Wiley Wiggins:
It’s not “Gwa-da-loo-pay,” it’s “Gwad-uh-loop.”

Avery Trufelman:
Clearly I needed a local’s help.

Wiley Wiggins:
My name’s Wiley Wiggins, I’m 38 years old. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas and in the early 90s, I was in a movie by Richard Linklater called ‘Dazed and Confused.’

Roman Mars:
He played the freshman Mitch Kramer, who wonders about the moontowers.

[DAZED AND CONFUSED CLIP]
Mitch: “Why’s it called the moontower anyway?”
Pink: “I guess they decided to put it up out here whenever they were building the power plant. Actually, it’s a good idea. I mean you got a full moon out here every day of the year.”

Avery Trufelman:
And then they all climb up the moontower.

[DAZED AND CONFUSED CLIP]
Slater: “This place used to be off-limits, man, cause some drunk freshmen fell off. He went right down the middle, smacking his head on every beam, man. I hear it doesn’t hurt after the first couple though.”

Roman Mars:
In real life, these moonlight towers would be really hard to climb, which is why for this scene, Richard Linklater made a fake moonlight tower.

Avery Trufelman:
The one in the movie had a ladder, not the pulley thing, and it was nowhere near as tall as a real moonlight tower.

Wiley Wiggins:
And I’m terrified of heights.

Avery Trufelman:
Wiley would have never tried this stunt. No one he knew actually did.

Wiley Wiggins:
When I was a kid there was always somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who had climbed it.

Roman Mars:
It’s unclear how many times this was ever attempted, but in any case, stories abound.

Avery Trufelman:
And there was a point when Austin considered finally taking these old lights down just like all the other cities had done.

Bruce Hunt:
In the fifties and sixties, the attitude was, “Well, these are out of date and we’re going to pull those down.” In fact, I’ve got a video that I found online that was sort of little historical vignettes of Austin that was made by one of the local TV stations in the 1960s.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
“Tonight, Progress Report Austin presents the Legends of Austin.”

Bruce Hunt:
And they said, “Here’s the moonlight towers and here they show-”

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
“Romance of these moonlight towers will disappear in a few years. There are 29 of these towers left, each 150 feet high with mercury vapor lamps of 9,000 candle power.”

Bruce Hunt:
“They’re out of date now and no doubt will soon disappear.”

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
“Modern times and new improvements in lighting have made these inefficient for providing light to our city at night. And it’s a shame for anyone who has walked under their glow on a fall evening, watching the shadows around them, knows the beauty they have provided.”

Bruce Hunt:
And there’s that sort of tone that that’s, well, a little remnant of our past that we will lose soon. Well, people just said, “Why should we lose it? Keep them up.”

Avery Trufelman:
So the towers were inducted into the National Registry of Historic Places in 1976.

Roman Mars:
Some of the towers even have plaques.

Avery Trufelman:
And Austin’s power provider, Austin Energy, funnels a lot of resources into maintaining the towers. Take it from Austin Energy spokesman, Carlos Cordova.

Carlos Cordova:
Right now what’s really interesting about the moonlight towers is they’re going to be going through a renovation.

Avery Trufelman:
And this renovation is a total drag because these towers are in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Carlos Cordova:
They have to be restored to their original form. So we can’t go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy bolts and nuts. The contractor has to cast bolts and parts that look exactly identical to the original so it can keep its historic designation.

Roman Mars:
That’s what I love about these moonlight towers, man.

[DAZED AND CONFUSED CLIP]
Wooderson: “I get older, they stay the same age.”
Don: “Yes, they do.”
Wooderson: “Yes, they do.”

Avery Trufelman:
Kind of an expensive project, isn’t it?

Carlos Cordova:
Yes, it’s very specialized work that of course affects the price, but you notice there wasn’t any uproar from the citizens about spending this money on the moonlight towers.

Avery Trufelman:
Austinites are willing to put up the funds. The towers are this point of civic pride. Every year during the holidays Austin Energy strings Christmas lights from the moonlight tower in Zilker Park, and Austinites lovingly refer to that tower as the Zilker Park Tree. Austin also hosts the Moontower Comedy Festival, and there’s a local band called Moonlight Towers, and at a restaurant, I ordered a drink called a Moonlight Tower.

Roman Mars:
The towers have become part of the character and folklore of Austin.

Wiley Wiggins:
I mean, there’s all sorts of legends and stuff about them. When I was a kid, of course there was always a legend that somebody had climbed up on acid and fallen off and died, which is evidently not true. But then, of course, the other legend is that they were built because there was a serial killer in the what, like the 1800s? And that one I think is supposed to be true, right? Have we verified this?

Bruce Hunt:
The Servant Girl Annihilator story is not a myth at all. Absolutely true. It has nothing to do with the moonlight towers-

Avery Trufelman:
At least not directly.

Bruce Hunt:
That was all over with well before the talk about the moonlight towers came up, and I’ve never seen anything about a need for them being associated with the Servant Girl Annihilator case.

Roman Mars:
Still, the Servant Girl Annihilator became the Genesis story that Austinites tell about these lights.

Avery Trufelman:
And the story of the Servant Girl Annihilator does truly illustrate the limitations of 19th-century nighttime. These carbon arc street lamps were chasing away darkness and fear-

Ernest Freeberg:
And I think it’s something we so easily take for granted – how liberating this is, how much the darkness was a permanent form of limitation on free will and human activity for us. I mean, it had great benefits, of course, that we sometimes miss because we have too much light now.

Avery Trufelman:
Moonlight towers were a strange offshoot, a sort of Neanderthal in the evolution of the streetlight.

Roman Mars:
And in Austin where ‘Keep Austin Weird’ is an unofficial slogan of the city printed on bumper stickers and scrolled on bathroom walls, you can’t help but feel like the moontowers are doing their part. After every other city has torn their towers down, Austin holds on to theirs and preserves them, a reminder of the time when the Texas Capitol was just an oddball little town that bought the moon.

  1. Great show! I live in Austin and went to a great party a couple years ago. A Silent Disco under one of the towers. One channel was playing Dazed and Confused as it was projected on a building and the other channel was a DJ spinning.
    BTW, no says GuadaLOOP anymore. It’s GuadaLOOP-A, but maybe it’s because we’re all Californians here now and are more familiar with the spanish language.

  2. Sam

    Hate to be a stickler, but it’s National REGISTER of Historic Places not National Registry. Love the story though. A great amalgam of obscure but interesting history, a favorite city, some pop culture and some good old fashioned historic preservation. I love it all, just like every episode!

  3. Shelly

    It bothers me how a Californian would move here and hang out with other Californians and then post a comment like that. WE still say GuadaLOOP. Not because we don’t know better, but because it’s part of being FROM HERE. It’s called culture. Please don’t move here because you like the culture and then try to destroy it.

    1. Another heartwarming aspect of Austin culture is a spirit of tolerance, compassion, and certainly evolving. No matter where one is from, when they move here, they are Austinites. I’m a native Austinite (born here – live here), but no better than any other native of transplant; especially the often unmentioned settlers of Buda. Usually from Mexico. Perhaps consider the culture is a fluid thing. Californians/All welcome – USC fans need not apply. Hook ’em Horns. I’m grateful to share this magical oasis in a desert of political futility.

      Peace, Love, & Music,
      Cullen Logan

  4. Alex

    It’s a shame there aren’t also moonlight towers along Burnet and Manchaca…

    I can’t begin to describe how happy I am that y’all did this episode. It’s so exciting to hear a respected authority on all things interesting/cool tell a story about my home.

    …and we already have the Old Austin guard waging war in the comments against the evil New Californians! This is everything I hoped it’d be.

  5. Qa'id

    Hold, on … this killer back in 1880’s, antebellum Austin was killing black girls? And people cared? That’s deep and surprising to me, knowing the American South as I do. Would have loved to hear more about that, in the context of lighting, crime, newly-ended slavery, technology, and media of the time.

  6. Gilgamesh Jones

    Yes, PLEASE correct the web site text to read the National REGISTER of Historic Places. I know it sounds petty, but for us historic preservation professionals, it’s all we have! ;-)

  7. Nicole R

    I was expecting that more of the episode would be devoted to exploring the murders. Instead it seemed liked the story about the unsolved murders was an afterthought. I did however find the information about the towers interesting.

    1. Owen

      I agree. It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story. I came in hoping to hear about lighting as part of crime prevention. I still would have listened if it was presented as a history of the towers.

  8. I grew up in Texas and have lived in Austin for more than a decade, and I’m with Roxy on the pronunciation of Guadalupe. But I also agree that most people say it the gringisimo way.

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