The Axeman of New Orleans is an unsolved serial killer case from the early 1900s which ended with a peculiar request. The Axeman has been attributed with up to 12 possible attacks and 6 deaths. But first, how did we get there?
In the 1880s, Sicily had become a corrupt and dangerous region leading over 300,000 immigrants to travel from Italy to New Orleans. Many of these Sicilian immigrants settled in the lower French Quarter between Jackson Square and Esplanade Ave, Decatur to Chartres, and the area became known as “Little Palermo.”
While these immigrants were hardworking members of the community, they were treated with contempt and their ethnicity led to racial inequality and abuse. Many in the area considered them “culturally backward and racially suspect.” This unrest came to a crescendo between 1886 and 1910 when almost 30 Italian men were lynched by vigilantes.
Possibly starting as early as 1910, the Axeman terrorized New Orleans, especially the Italian community.
Possible Early Crimes
From late summer 1910 through 1912, a prowler wielding a meat cleaver terrorized the community late at night, often demanding money before striking the victims over the head. August Crutti and his wife were the first possible victims, followed by the Rissetto family. All victims in these early crimes survived. In June of 1911, Joe and Marie Davis were attacked in the same manner, and sadly Joe died of the head trauma.
Since there was never a confession or conviction in the case, it is still undetermined if these were the killer slowly escalating or just similar but unrelated incidents.
The Axeman Emerges
In late 1917, the Axeman developed his signature and M.O. The victims were asleep in their beds and attacked with objects found at the scene (usually an axe or hatchet) which was then also left, covered in blood. Survivors never got a good look at the culprit, but described a large, looming figure. Another signature at many of the crimes was that a lower panel of the door used for entry would be chiseled out.
On December 17, 1917, Eprfanio Andollino of 8301 Apple Street was attacked with a hatchet and struck 4 times in the head after the assiailant gained entry by chiseling out a lower panel of the door used for entry. His sons, John and Vadore, were also attacked, and his wife Anna and their infant daughter were luckily not attacked. All three victims survived.
On May 23, 1918 at the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets, the Axeman struck again. At 4901 Magnolia was the home of Joseph and Catherine Maggio who owned a barroom and grocery within the same building.
Joseph’s brothers Jake and Andrew also lived within the home in separate smaller areas. Andrew had spent the night celebrating his upcoming departure with the Navy. In the early morning hours, the Maggio brothers heard odd moans of pain from Joseph and Catherine’s bedroom.
They found the couple with their throats slit by a straight razor and heads brutally beaten by an axe. Joseph was still alive but died soon after being discovered. Catherine was nearly decapitated from her wounds and died more quickly.
The bloody axe was found on the scene and the bloody straight razor discovered in the neighbor’s yard. The lower panel of their kitchen door had been chiseled away.
The first suspect was Andrew Maggio. The straight razor was his, but he explained he had brought it home from the barber shop he owned to sharpen out a chip in the blade. Without concrete evidence, he was released.
An odd message was also found nearby scrawled in chalk on the ground saying “Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.” Some investigators at the time thought it might be liked to the fatal shooting of Tony Sciambra and his wife in 1912. Many locals referred to her as “Mrs. Tony, “ but nothing concrete came from this line of investigation.
On June 27, 1918, Louis Besumer and his mistress Anna “Annie” Harriet Lowe were attacked in the living area at the back of his grocery on the corner of Dorgenis and LeHarpe.
While the couple slept, the Axeman chiseled out the bottom panel of the bedroom door. Louis awoke to find the attacker standing over him with a hatchet. He was struck above his right temple. Annie was struck over the left ear.
The bloody couple was discovered by a bakery delivery driver, John Zanca, when he was dropping off the morning bread order. While he was an early suspect, he was released for lack of evidence.
At the time, it was believed that Lowe was his wife, however, it later came out that he was having an affair when a reporter asked to talk to Mrs. Anna Harriet Besemer and the hospital said there was no patient under that name. Besumer’s wife returned to New Orleans from Cincinnati.
From the attack, Annie was left partially paralyzed. She remained in the hospital for almost two months when she passed away during a surgical attempt to fix the partial paralysis. While in the hospital, Annie said that it was actually Louis who attacked her.
Louis survived the attack, but was later targeted as a possible German spy.
On August 5, 1918, Ed Schneider worked late and returned to his Elmira Street home to find that his 8-month pregnant wife Anna had been attacked. She had been hit in the face repeatedly with a lamp from the home. Luckily, the baby was unharmed and she gave birth to a healthy little girl two days later. The axe from their shed was missing but hadn’t been used in the attack.
An ex-convict, James Gleason, was arrested after running from the cops but they had no evidence. He claimed he ran because he had history with cops, but some remained suspicious.
Less than one week later on August 10, Joseph Romano was attacked with his two nieces Pauline and Mary Bruno in nearby rooms. When they heard the commotion, they ran to check on the 80 year old man and saw the attacker fleeing. They said it was a large man dressed in dark clothing and a “slouch hat”. This is the type of hat where one side of the brim would be pinned to the side of the hat while the other side “slouched” down. The lower panel of the back door was chiseled out and the bloody axe was found in the yard.
While Joseph was able to walk to the ambulance after the attack, he died from the trauma two days later in the hospital.
Another attempt was made on September 15, 1918. Grocer Paul Durel found a panel of his door had been chiseled open, but cases of tomatoes blocked entry.
At this point, the city of New Orleans was in a panic. Men were reportedly armed and guarding their families as they slept at night. Extra police patrols were also in effect, which might explain why the Axeman moved to the suburbs for his next attack.
On March 10, 1919 at the corner of Jefferson and Second Streets in Gretna, Louisiana, he struck again. Charles and Rose Cortimiglia were asleep with their 2 year old daughter, Mary. The family was then attacked by a man wielding the family’s axe. The parents survived head trauma and fractured skulls, but Mary died from a single blow to the head.
A grocer across the street, Iorlando Jordano heard the family’s screams and rushed to help. Jordano was a business competitor of the Cortimiglia family. Out of jealousy, spite and grief, Rose accused Iorlando and his 18 year-old son of the attack. Both were convicted of the attack, but she later came clean and the Jordanos were released from jail.
An interesting demand
A local paper, the Times-Picayune, received a letter from the Axeman asking the city of New Orleans to play jazz on the night of March 19.
Hell, March 13, 1919
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, 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 fantasy.
This demand even inspired a new jazz song called “Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa)” which gained a lot of popularity at the time. It’s even been covered more recently by Squirrel Nut Zippers and available to listen on Spotify.
Many were hopeful this signified the end of the Axeman’s reign. But on August 10, 1919 that was proven incorrect. Steve Boca was attacked in his sleep by a large man carrying an axe. He survived the attack and was able to make his way to the neighbor’s before falling unconscious. The police were called, but Steve could not remember much due to the head trauma.
On September 2, William Carson shot multiple rounds at an intruder which scared the attacker away. A panel was found to be chiseled our of the door and an axe was found in the yard.
The next day, 19 year-old Sara Laumann was attacked in her home at 2128 Second Street. Her neighbors found her beaten and unconscious in bed with head trauma and missing teeth. The attacker appeared to have entered through an open window, but Sara could not remember the attack. A bloody axe was found in the yard, leading police to believe it was the Axeman once again.
The final attributed victim was Mike Pepitone. On the night of October 27 on the corner of Scott and Ulloa Streets, Esther Pepitone heard a noise and found a large axe-weilding man and blood spatter throughout the room. Mike was struck in the head 18 times and died two hours later. Esther’s account of the evening varied over time. One report she said there were two attackers. Later she said it was one. She left New Orleans and relocated to Los Angeles where she remarried.
Two years after Mike’s death, Esther’s second husband Angelo Albano disappeared. A man named Joseph Mumfre visited Esther and demanded money and her jewelry. She resisted and shot him, killing the man. Some believe he may have been the Axeman.
He ran a blackmailing gang in New Orleans and his time in and out of prison coincided with the Axeman’s crimes, but this was never proven (or disproven).
Theories about the Axeman
- Some question if all the attacks were in fact committed by the same person or not. Some may have been copycat crimes, and there’s even speculation that Mike Pepitone may have been a Mafia hit.
- The holes in the door panels were too small for the supposedly large framed attacker. Many had speculated the killer was in fact a supernatural being, a theory later fueled by the Axeman’s letter.
- There are some similarities and connections to the Servant Girl Annihilator in Austin, TX in 1884 and 1885. This killer also attacked sleeping victims and one account mentioned a “slouch hat” similar to the description of Pauline and Mary Bruno after their uncle was attacked by the Axeman.
The Axeman’s Legacy
New Orleans is known to be a superstitious town. Even in modern times, clubs and bars play jazz music each night from March 13-15 to ward off the spirit of the Axeman. We may never know if the Axeman was a terrible human being, a spirit or a demon, but we do know he left a lasting legacy on the city. What do you think?
- Buzzfeed Unsolved