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NOLA Lore: The Axeman



Each week, J.A. Lloyd will take readers through the secret and sometimes unexamined legends, myths, and folklore of New Orleans past. This week, learn about the jazz-loving, ax-wielding killer who struck fear in New Orleans almost a century ago. 

 

It’s just past midnight in New Orleans on Tuesday, March 18th, 1919, when the couple enters through the doors into the music hall. He elected to stay home, but she insisted they go. Eventually he caved, not without a few utterances under his breath.

 

All the venues are packed tight tonight — abnormally so for this day of the week. They were wandering the streets for nearly an hour before finally happening upon the club. The doorman nods at them; a silent okay to squeeze into the tiny hall. Like the other locations, it is overcrowded, but better than being at home.

 

It takes some effort to make it through the doors as the couple walks into the mugginess of the small area congested with the crowd. The people inside are conversing, laughing and swaying, all a loose collection of nerves. There’s the brassy sound of saxophone, trombone and trumpet; dancing piano keys, the light pluck of an upright bass and the pat pat pat of rolling drums. The bands in town have been playing for hours, yet these musicians appear as lively as ever.

 

Outside of the music halls in the surrounding neighborhoods, rings the sound of house parties and small jam sessions. It is jazz music, and only jazz, that fills the air on this evening. There isn’t a place within the city limits that the couple could not hear the music. It sounds like one big party, which is no strange occurrence in New Orleans by any means.

 

On this evening, however, New Orleanians have no cause for celebration which is evident by the twisting and turning of the woman’s hands. The hope is that jazz music will serve to spare their lives. On this particular night, it does.

 

The onslaught of jazz throughout the city was in response to the following letter sent to both the New Orleans Police Department and the Times-Picayune:

 

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

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, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night [March 19, 1919}, 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 on 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

 

For just over a year between 1918 and 1919 New Orleans was in a state of panic with the arrival of what many believed to be the real life boogieman. The fact was that the city had a troubling matter on its hands; a crafty serial killer was on the loose. His name: the Axeman. The name became linked with the killer because his preferred method of murder which was the use of an axe owned by the victims themselves. The killer had arrived quietly out of nowhere, taking the city by surprise. And just as quietly, 7 months after his letter was published, the Axeman disappeared.

 

His first victims, an Italian grocer by the name of Joseph Maggio and his wife, were claimed in late May of 1918. As the couple lay soundly asleep in their apartment above Joseph’s store, the Axeman entered, butchering the couple in their sleep. While a murder was evident, the police had yet to discover a serial killer was on their hands. Serval suspects were arrested and questioned in regards to the case, but all were released due to lack of evidence. With no leads to go on, the New Orleans Police Department found themselves at a loss with nothing before them but a dead end.

 

While the police remained puzzled, approximately a month later the Axeman struck again. This time his target was a man known as Louis Bossumer along with his wife Annie. Like Joseph Maggio, Louis was an Italian grocer. Both Louis and his wife were discovered the morning after the crime in a pool of their own blood. The bloodied axe used to batter them was found just a few feet from their bodies. Unlike the Maggios, Louis and Annie survived the attack. Complicating things further, Annie claimed that a young dark man had been the one to commit the crime then changed her story naming her husband as the culprit. Louis was questioned in regards to the offense but released when the authorities dismissed Annie’s claim. There was simply no way Louis could have taken an axe to his own head. Met with yet another dead end, the Police continued to scratch their heads while the attacks continued.

 

It was during August when the Axeman tried to claim his next victim, a woman by the name of Mrs. Edward Schneider. She too managed to survive the killer’s viciousness. When questioned by the police, Schneider described the perpetrator as a shadowy-like phantom. She woke to the figure standing over her bed just before the first blow of the axe hit.

 

Shortly after the attempt to take Mrs. Edward Schneider’s life failed, yet another victim met his fate with the Axeman. Joseph Romano, unfortunately, did not survive. Romano, like many of the others, was an Italian grocer.

 

By the time the New Orleans Police Department began investigating Romano’s death, it had become very clear that many attacks shared common themes. In addition to an axe being used, not a single item had been removed from the victims’ houses. Obviously this meant that burglary was out of the question. Moreover, in each case, a chisel was used in order to remove a panel from the victims’ doors.

 

One of the most glaring traits shared among the ruthless attacks was the link between the Italian grocers. The truth was simple: these individuals were being singled out by a serial killer. With the public becoming aware of a killer on the loose, alarm and fear took hold of the city. As rumors spread, people began to whisper tales of a being not of this world. The Devil, they said. Before long, it seemed as though the Axeman was lurking in every shadow and around every corner of the city waiting to claim his next soul.  

 

The violent occurrences settled down for a while and the city breathed a sigh of relief as the rest of the year passed without any more brutality at the hand of the Axeman. Some even believed that he had vanished for good. Then, just as the city began to let its guard down another grisly attack befell the town of Gretna. The crime took place on March 10th 1919, just a few days before the Times-Picayune received the Axeman’s letter of warning. The targets this time consisted of Charles Cortimiglia, his wife Rosie and their toddler Mary. Both Charles and Mary sustained fatal wounds, yet Rosie managed to survive. Again, the axe used in the assult was left at the scene of the crime.

 

Like the previous incidents, the investigation into the Cortimiglia murders left the police empty handed. Though there were no clues leading to the criminal’s identity, a major theory had been developed suggesting a link to the Italian Mafia. Since the Axeman was blatantly targeting grocers of Italian background, many believed the assailant to be a hitman working for the organized crime group. This theory, however, is little more than hearsay. While people assumed the existence of an Italian Mafia there’s little to no evidence to validate this belief. The truth is no Mafia was documented within the city of New Orleans at this time. Highly organized Italian crime had not yet developed in the area because Italian immigrants where still attempting to establish themselves in the region after recent arrival. Additionally, the Axeman crimes that followed the Cortimiglia family murders were not aimed at Italians in particular. Rather this was a purposeful move on the killer’s part or the work of a copycat remains unknown.

 

After the brutal attack on the Cortimiglias and the night of jazz induced by the Axeman’s letter life quieted down in New Orleans. The city believed that perhaps taking heed to the killer’s advice had saved the Crescent City residents. Months went by without word or indecent from the Axeman.

 

Things remained peaceful until the months of August and September when the Axeman appeared from the shadows yet again. The city was flung into a panic for a second time when 2 more attacks were reported. In both incidents, the individuals survived. While the crimes are associated with the Axeman these incidents did not follow his typical pattern. The victims were not grocers nor where they of his preferred Italian decent. Therefore, it should be taken into consideration that these crimes where, in fact, not related to the serial killer and either of coincidence or the work of an imitator.

 

The last known crime committed by the Axeman took place near the end of 1919. Mike Pepitone and his wife were both slain in their sleep on a fall night in October. The two were butchered by the Axeman who left behind his all-too-familiar calling card. Yet again, the blood-splattered axe lay mere feet from the couple’s bed. The Pepitones had 6 children who were left to sleep in the next room during their parent’s murder.

 

New Orleans never heard from the Axeman again after the Pepitone murders. The killer disappeared leaving a mystery in his wake that the city was never able to solve. To this day, all that remains are speculations of who he was, his motives, where he came from and where he went. He is the city’s infamous legend whose story will never be uncovered. Yet, the most chilling remnant the Axeman left behind is the knowledge that boogiemen can be made up of flesh and blood.

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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