The Axeman of New Orleans 1918-1919


The murders had taken place over a hundred years ago but the Jazzman story remains one of the greatest mysteries and unsolved murder cases within the annals of American crime.

They were a series of night slayings that were committed during a Post-War age of Jazz and new found optimism that were both dark and terrifying. It is a chilling story of terror during a seemingly golden time of boom where a New America had emerged but a night prowler was invading homes and creating night-time carnage and chaos.

The Axeman’s modern status is one of mythological urban legend and the rumours and theories behind this killer range from the interesting to the downright farfetched but terrifyingly the Axeman was real – very real.

There were four people brutally murdered and eight grievously injured by the Axeman. They were all New Orleans (and the neighbouring Gretna) residents, predominantly Italian-Americans and they were attacked within their own bedrooms by a “panel burglar”.  The weapon of choice usually belonged to the homeowner and the attacks took place inside the homes of the people where this creature struck. The attacks occurred from May 1918 until October 1919 and now 101 years later they remain unsolved. There were unfounded reports of attacks going back to 1911 however these have subsequently been questioned by researchers.

The letter sent by the “Axeman” claimed to spare anyone that was playing jazz – thus establishing the somewhat twisted and yet almost romantic motif that the Axeman was killing to promote his own love of jazz.

 
The city of New Orleans was in the grip of fear by 1918. The attacks were surprising and vicious.  The first victim, an Italian-American called Joseph Maggio had his skull fractured and his throat cut with a razor while his wife Catherine choked on her own blood – this clearly demonstrated the police description of a “murderous degenerate who gloats over blood”. In the spirit of a later serial killer known as the Night Stalker and pre-dating the infamous Richard Ramirez’s trademark of breaking into houses in the middle of the night this was the original Night Stalker. The Axeman had many of the same traits of Ramirez. He was a home invader with a desperate hate for women and a need to punish those as they remained the most vulnerable a human being could possibly be – asleep. There is of course a strong possibility too that the attacks were a sexual compulsion.


A LETTER TO NEW ORLEANS

The Axeman’s Letter to the People of New Orleans:

Hottest Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don't think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens (and the worst), for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

--The Axeman

And on the night of March 19th the Jazzman got his wish. The dancehalls were full and the majority of houses blared out jazz throughout the night and no murders occurred. However – it is impossible to distinguish if the above letter from the Axeman was real or a hoax in much the same way that we cannot identify the From Hell letters from Jack the Ripper. It is of course the most glamorised and famous aspect of the Axeman tale.

THE GHOST OF CLEMETINE

Strangely enough the unidentified Axeman was not even the first Axeman of New Orleans during that era. Clementine Barnabet was convicted in 1913 for a murder she carried out in 1911 whereby Clementine was a “voodoo murderess” with the same penchant for axe wielding as our Jazzman. The only difference is that she was awaiting execution at the time of the 1918 slayings. Claiming (allegedly) up to 35 victims she was described as “braining her victims with an axe”. Clementine is the stuff of an Anne Rice novel – true fantastical I cannot believe it is true New Orleans lore. To have this coincide with the Jazz loving Axeman is even more crazy and the overlap between the 1911 axe murder reporting and the 1918-1919 slayings could be explained by the presence of Bloody Clementine. In 1923 Clementine walked out of prison and was never seen again.

The first murder conclusively linked to the Axeman was on May 22nd 1918 where store owner Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine were discovered lying in pool of blood within their bedchamber. Joseph’s brother who was also a next door neighbour discovered the bodies. The killer had entered the house by chiselling a lower wooden panel out of the backdoor. The axe was left in the bathroom of the horror house and the razor was found in the neighbour’s garden. There was no evidence of stealing and thus no link to burglary as a motive...

The only clue found at the scene was a cryptic message written in chalk on the pavement a short way away from the murder house. It read:

Mrs Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs Toney.

The police linked the message to Mrs Tony Schiambra who was killed some 6 years earlier by an axe man. Again; experts cast doubt on whether any attacks prior to 1918 were carried out by the same man however this could link to a copycat slaying. Unfairly but beginning a running theme throughout the case Joseph’s brother was considered an early suspect in the murder. Andrew Maggio was booked in for questioning but released when police failed to break down his statement.

A month later the Axeman struck again. On 27th June baker John Zanca went to make a delivery to grocery store owner Louis Besumer (another Italian-American). Zanca was aghast to discover the remains of Besumer and what appeared to be his wife covered in blood but somehow both were somehow still alive. Besumer had been hacked at with an axe (the attacker had again entered through a panel via the backdoor) and attacked the seemingly ‘married couple’ while Louis Besumer and ‘wife’ Harriet lay sleeping. In a bizarre turn of events it emerged that Harriet was NOT Mrs Besumer but Louis Besumer’s mistress. Louis Besumer had been attacked with his own axe which again was found in the bathroom and there were no valuables taken. The police rounded up suspects including one of Louis Besumer’s employees but a lack of evidence produced no further charges. Harriet was to die two months later as a result of her injuries. Harriet’s final act before dying was to accuse Besumer of espionage and working on behalf of the Germans and pointed the finger at him for the attack. Louis Besumer (rather unfairly) was even put on trial for the attack but was acquitted.

The next victim was Mrs Schneider (a non-Italian victim). Schneider was pregnant at the time and was discovered by her husband with her scalp cut open and her teeth knocked out. She had managed to survive the attack and would later safely give birth to her daughter. The survival of some victims (despite horrific injuries) would indicate a frenzied nature of attack, rather than a methodical and pragmatic serial killer – the Axeman appeared to be attacking through methods of carnage and savagery. A FBI profiler would probably tell you that this indicates some form of rage and hatred towards women (or Italian-Americans). With Mrs Schneider’s attack the windows and doors showed no signs of forced entry and rather than an axe, a lamp was discovered near the scene and likely used in the attack. It kept in line with the victims being attacked by their own possessions.

The next target after Mrs Schneider was Joseph Romano. Romano was an elderly man who lived with his two nieces Pauline and Mary Bruno. The attack occurred on the 10th August 1918.

The sisters had found Joseph after he had been struck on the head and was discovered bleeding badly. They managed to get a peek of the Axeman and described him as dark-skinned, heavyset and wearing a dark suit with a slouched hat. The intruder had again used a chisel to the panels to force entry. Mr Romano died two days after the attack resulting from the injuries. The attack to Joseph Romano sent the whole of New Orleans into frenzy and police believed that they were looking for a real life Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Police detective John Dantonio believed that they were looking for a seemingly normal person in plain sight with a dark and devious double persona. It was now that the idea of a mass murderer was taking shape (serial killer was by then an unused term).

The next attack was particularly disturbing. The Cortimiglia family were attacked by the Axeman on the 10th March 1919. This time the attack occurred in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna. For unknown reasons it occurred seven months after the last attack and there is no explanation into the hiatus; however the M.O remained eerily similar. They were Italian Americans and grocers. The Axeman had entered the house by chiselling through the backdoor panel and attacked with the victim’s own axe. The Axeman had struck Charles Cortimiglia across the head causing a fracture and then turned his attention to his wife Rosie who was holding their two-year old infant Mary. Little Mary would die instantly with Charles and Rosie (despite their serious injuries) surviving the incident. It was fellow grocer Mr Iorlando Jordano that came to their aide when he heard the blood curdling screams and then alerted the authorities. Unfortunately for Mr Jordano he was then accused by Rosie Cortimiglia of the murders. Making an accusation, which Rosie later admitted was made out of spite and jealousy, saw Iorlando Jordano and his son Frank sentenced to life in prison and hanging respectively. Charles was allegedly so disgusted by his wife’s actions and the false accusation (which he told police were untrue at the time) that he reportedly divorced her. With Rosie later recanting her testimony the two men were then released and spared the multiple murder charges.

It was after the Cortimiglia attack that the infamous letter was sent to the Times-Picayune newspaper where the Axeman threatened an entire city and the city rather surreally threw a massive jazz party to keep him at bay.

The next attacks were questionable. The victims were Steve Boca and Sarah Laumann who both managed to survive. However the authenticity into these two incidents being the Axeman has always been questioned. The MO of attacking women matches Sarah Laumann and Laumann also suffered severe skull fractures and had her teeth knocked out in the attack however this time the perpetrator had entered through an open window and not the chiselling of the panels. Steve Boca’s attack was unusual in that there were no women present at the time of his attack and despite surviving he claimed to not remember anything from the attack. Many believe that these attacks were the work of a copycat as they either did not follow the same MO or unusually attacked a single man in his bedchambers.

The final slaying by the Axeman was on the 27th October 1919 against another Italian-American grocer called Mike Pepitone. Pepitone was awakened by a noise and was struck at his front door by an Axe wielding darkened figure. The figure then fled into the night unidentified by the Pepitone family. The blood from Pepitone’s wounds had sprayed onto a painting of the Virgin Mary. In this instance the nature of the attack and Pepitone catching them at the front door had fortunately spared both Pepitone’s wife and his six children.

And then after October 1919 the string of attacks just stopped...

WHO WAS THE JAZZ LOVING AXEMAN?

The first theory points to the Italian-American mafia. Due to the attacks mainly being carried out on Italian-American grocers it has led some to believe that it was the “Black Hand” that was behind the axe attacks.

The Black Hand was an early form of the Mafia in America and could link the murder to hardworking Italian-American business owners to an extortion racket run in New Orleans. This links the attacks to an old-fashioned vendetta in order to settle old scores and repay any outstanding arrears.

Joseph Mumfre is the only legitimate suspect linked to the real identity of the Axeman. Mumfre was connected to the New Orleans extortion racket and was later shot dead by Mike Pepitone’s widow in Los Angeles 1920. Further research has drawn a blank on this theory as there is no record of a “Mumfre” or “Momfre” having been in California let alone dying in California during that time and there is no source of a Mrs. Pepitone being arrested for any crime which leads many to claim that the entire story is an urban legend. The story of Esther Pepitone avenging her husband’s murder against an Italian mobster sounds almost too good to be true.

And into the realm of fantasy theories with many believing that the Axe Murders were the work of Clementine Barnabet’s copycat killers or a ‘phantom’ that could appear in houses in the middle of the night and existed in a realm of fancy. Anne Rice inspired ghost of the night that was attacking those as they slept vulnerably. This of course is a perfect explanation to blend into the gothic history of New Orleans but it is of course an idea of pure imagination....  

What are your thoughts and opinions into the existence of the near mythical and now fantastical true life story of the Jazz loving Axe Man?

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