Sunday, November 15, 2009
The Axeman Of New Orleans
From May 1918 to October 1919, an unknown butcher held the city of New Orleans in a grip of fear, battering his way into the quiet homes of random sleeping families and savagely attacking them as they slumbered unaware.
His weapon of choice was an axe, and they called him the Axeman.
The night of May 22, 1918... all is quiet in the home of Joseph and Catherine Maggio. The Maggios, an Italian couple who run a small grocery and barroom on the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets, live in rooms behind their store, where they are fast asleep in their bed. So are Jake and Andrew, Joseph's two brothers who live on the other side of the double home. It is the dead of night when Jake is awakened by loud groans coming from the Maggio's bedroom on the other side of the wall. Something about it does not sound right. Concerned, Jake knocks loudly on the wall, and when there is no response he knocks harder. When there is still no answer, he rouses his brother Andrew and they head over to investigate. At the front door they find that a wooden panel from the door had been chiseled out, the chisel and panel lying discarded on the ground. Alarmed, they enter the home and rush to the couple's room. What they find is a bloodbath.
Catherine lies dead, her lifeless body partly draped across her husband. She has been struck in the head repeatedly with an axe, and her throat cut ear-to-ear with a razor. So deep is the wound that her head is nearly severed from her body. Her husband lies, still alive, with his feet dangling off the side of the bed. He is also severely injured from numerous axe blows to the head. Upon seeing his brothers he tries to stand, only to half-fall from the bed. The brothers immediately summon the police, but Joseph dies of his massive head wounds before they arrive. In the bathroom, investigating officers find a discarded pile of bloody men's clothing. They also find a bloodied axe, which was later determined to have belonged to the victims, leaning inside the bathtub. A wicked barber-type straight razor is left lying atop the bedsheets.
The Axeman of New Orleans has arrived.
The double axe murder causes a sensation among the shocked residents, who are rightly frightened and clamoring for an arrest. Yet after two weeks pass by without any further attacks, the nervous residents begin to relax and settle back into their routines.
Then, it happens again. On the early morning of June 6, a man named John Zanca is making the usual delivery of bread to a 59-year-old grocer named Louis Besumer, when he finds the store on Dorgenois and La Harpe Streets locked up tight. Mr. Besumer is routinely up early waiting to accept the delivery, so this is very unusual. Zanca decides to head around and knock on the side door. To his horror, when Besumer opens the door he is dazed and awash in blood. In shock, he tells Zanca that he has been attacked, and gestures shakily toward his bedroom. Zanca approaches the room with dread, and find Besumer's mistress, 28 year old Anna Harriet Lowe, lying on the bed, draped with a gore-soaked sheet. She is barely alive, suffering a grievous head wound from an axe. Bare footprints in blood lead away from the bed. Zanca calls police, who again discover a panel pried off of the back door. They also once again find the weapon- a rusty axe belonging to Besumer- left in the bathroom. Although Besumer is still conscious he cannot provide any description of the madman.
Anna Lowe is taken to Charity Hospital, where she lingers for several months before succumbing to her terrible wounds. Although she gives several differing stories of the assault before she dies- including one version where Louis Besumer is her attacker- police are unable to uncover any real leads on the Axeman from her testimony (Besumer was arrested for the murder, but was later cleared when it was proven that there was no possible way that Besumer could have self-inflicted the axe wounds to himself; the couple had a tumultuous relationship and were rumored to be drug addicts, perhaps these circumstances shed some light on Anna Lowe's accusations)
Two months later, on August 5, Anna Harriet Lowe passes away.
That same day, a businessman named Edward Schneider stays at his office later than usual; Schneider is soon going to be a father, and he is working overtime. When he finally returns to his home that evening, he anticipates his glowing wife greeting him at the door, as is her habit. Instead he is met with a silent house and no sign of his wife. Calling out for her and getting no response, Schneider worriedly heads toward the bedroom. There, in the bed, lies his wife- 8 months pregnant and drenched in blood. The room is splattered with red, and a horrific gaping wound is visible on her head. Some of her teeth have been knocked out by repeated blows to the face with an axe and lie scattered about the scene. Schneider rushes to her side and discovers that she is still breathing. He summons police and an ambulance.
Despite the awful nature of her wounds, Mrs. Schneider clings to life and regains consciousness after a few days in critical condition. She tries to recall the attack but cannot provide much to go on. She had been napping, she says, when she awoke to find the dark figure of a man standing over her. Before she could scream she saw the glinting axe whistling down through the air toward her face, and she remembered nothing more than that. Miraculously Mrs. Schneider not only survives the brutal attack, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl one week later.
August 10, five days later. Mary and Pauline Bruno are shaken out of an early morning sleep by a series of loud thumps coming from the room of their uncle, Joseph Romano. Startled, Pauline sits up in her bed and suddenly finds the tall, dark figure of a man standing over her. She screams with all her might, and the figure runs from the room (she later told reporters that the man "was awfully light on his feet" and that he almost seemed to have wings) At her screams, her elderly Uncle Joseph staggers into her room in a blood-drenched nightshirt. His face is marred with vicious gashes from the axe. "I don't know who did it..." he says to his niece, and then he collapses to the floor. His last words are to ask her to call for help. He dies at Charity Hospital shortly after. Police find the telltale chiseled panel removed from the door, and a crimson-splattered axe in the yard.
'IS AN AXEMAN AT LARGE IN NEW ORLEANS?' asks a newspaper headline soon after. The Axeman is here, and the population is terrified. The random nature of the crimes leaves everyone feeling unsafe- the butcher has attacked men, women, an elderly man, a sleeping pregnant woman. People are being killed at their most vulnerable, when they close their eyes and let go of consciousness and vigil. Paranoia is sweeping the city. Reports of potential intruders and possible sightings skyrocket, and families begin sleeping in shifts- often armed with guns- to watch over each other as they sleep.
The frightened city of New Orleans is in the Axeman's grip.
Yet, the Axeman does not make another appearance that year. As the months pass with no further axe attacks, New Orleanites finally begin to relax again and to return to normal life. The end of World War I also turns their attention to other matters. People began to feel that the horrible work of the Axeman is finished, or that perhaps that the killer has moved on to other hunting grounds.
And then, it happens again. Monday, March 10, 1919... bloodcurdling screams are heard from a residence at the junction of Jefferson and Second Streets. Iorlando Jordano, a neighbor, hears the cries and rushes into the home. Upon entering he sees the body of immigrant grocer Charles Cortimiglia splayed on the floor in a pool of blood. He has a grisly, gaping hole in his torso. Beside him crouches his wife Rosie, who is seriously injured with five gashes to the head, and covered in blood. She is screaming, and in her arms she holds the dead body of her 2 year old daughter, Mary. The Cortimiglias had been attacked with an axe as they slept. Rosie had been holding the sleeping baby in her arms when the attacker killed the girl with one single axe blow to the back of the neck. Charles Cortimiglia had tried to fight off the intruder, but had been violently overcome. As usual, the door has a panel chiseled from it, and a gory bloodstained axe is found left behind, lying under the kitchen doorstep. The Axeman is back.
Three days after the horrifying attack on the Cortimiglias, a disturbing letter is sent to the editor of the Times-Picayune. The letter reads:
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 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.
It is unknown if this letter is a prank, or the real thing. However, the people of New Orleans are not taking any chances. That night, every dance hall in the Big Easy is packed to capacity, and hundreds of houses around the city host raucous parties with both professional and amateur bands. Some well-armed citizens actually issue invitations to the Axeman, going as far as to say they would 'leave a window open' for him so he will not have to damage their doors. It is said that that night was one of the loudest, wildest parties in New Orleans history.
Perhaps this pleased the Axeman, for he took no victims that night.
On August 10, yet another Italian grocer becomes the target of the Axeman's bloodlust. Steve Boca is asleep in his bed when he is struck with an axe. Dazed and in shock, he manages to crawl out of bed and stumbles to a neighbor's home for help. Police find the now-familiar chiseled door panel discarded, and an axe left in the kitchen. Boca does recover from his wounds, but he has lost all memory surrounding the incident and can recall nothing.
Three weeks later, the night of September 3... a nineteen year old girl named Sarah Laumann is home alone, in bed, when someone (presumed to be the Axeman) creeps into the house. For some reason, this time entry is not made through a door panel. The girl is discovered in her bed, unconscious, with multiple axe wounds to the head. A bloody axe is left outside an open window. Sarah Laumann later dies at the hospital.
Mike Pepitone is the Axeman's next victim. During the early morning hours of October 27, Mrs. Pepitone hears sounds of a struggle coming from her husband's room, which is right next to hers. She claims that as she hurried to the room she was nearly knocked over by a large man running out through the doorway. He was carrying an axe. Sending her daughter to the neighbors for help, Mrs. Pepitone rushes to her husband's bed, where she finds him bloodied and torn, the victim of a vicious axe attack. The Deputy who responds to the call for help finds Mrs. Pepitone standing over her husband, where she says, "It looks like the Axeman was here and murdered Mike." Mike Pepitone is rushed to Charity Hospital but he dies the following morning from his massive wounds. Again, the panel cut from the door, and again... the gore-covered axe left behind on the back porch. Despite the fact that there were eight people in the Pepitone house at the time of the attack, the Axeman did not let the danger of being identified deter his attack, nor did anyone besides Mrs. Pepitone actually see the attacker.
At this point many citizens, including the States newspaper, begin to wildly theorize that the Axeman is something other than human. Some people point out that the panels removed from the doors were too small for any grown human to fit through, with the locks being unreachable from the removed panels, and the doors always found locked from the inside. With the combination of the atmosphere of paranoia and superstitious nature of New Orleans, some begin to wonder if the bloodthirsty and mysterious intruder with the axe really is from Hell, something not human, some sort of evil spirit, as his letter stated.
On December 2, 1920, investigators in New Orleans receive a report about an incident in Los Angeles, California. A man named Joseph Mumfre, a New Orleans resident, had been shot dead on the street. The shooter was a Mrs. Mike Pepitone, widow of the Axeman's last victim, who had waited in a shadowy doorway, dressed in black, as Mumfre approached, and then shot him dead. After Mumfre died on the sidewalk, Mrs. Pepitone calmly waited for police to arrive. She claimed that Joseph Mumfre was the man that she had seen running from her husband's room that night, axe in hand.
Mrs. Pepitone recieved 10 years for her crime, to be served in Los Angeles. She was released after 3 years and was never heard from again. Mike Pepitone would be the last known victim of the Axeman; there were no more axe murders in New Orleans following Joseph Mumfre's shooting.
The identity of the Axeman of New Orleans is still unknown.
The Axeman has become a legend, one of the most notorious boogeymen of New Orleans lore. Despite tireless investigation the crimes were never officially solved. Theories abound, though. One theory involves the Mafia... many of the victims were Italians, many were grocers. The thought was, perhaps these people had taken out loans and had not repaid their dues in some way. Rumors of a Mafia sect called 'The Black Hand' were whispered on the streets; it was reputed to be a secret oganization that carried out Mafia assasinations. They were said to deliver a warning note imprinted with a black hand to those who crossed them before carrying out their violent reprisals. Some theorized that maybe the Black Hand was sending a message to those who didn't comply with it's demands with the brutal axe murders.
Another theory focuses on Joseph Mumfre, the man that Mike Pepitone's widow claimed was her husband's killer. On May 16, 1912, an Italian couple named Shiambra were shot in their beds as they slept. Mr. Shiambra died, while his wife survived the attack. While this crime differed greatly from the Axeman's usual MO, there are some who believe that this may have been one of the first crimes in the series, due to the similarities in the victims, and the method of attack as they slept in their beds. The interesting thing is that newspapers at the time repeatedly referred to the prime suspect in this case as someone named "Momfre". Another intriguing link was found written on a sidewalk about a block away from the Maggio crime scene on the day of the murder- a message in chalk, scrawled in a childish hand, which read, "Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney." ...Mr. Shiambra's first name was Tony... was 'Mrs. Toney' a reference to Mrs. Shiambra? Some wondered at the coincidence. Was Joseph Mumfre the Axeman, and were the Shiambras one of his early attacks? The axe murders did stop with his death, but there was never any concrete evidence of his guilt beyond his killer's accustaion.
Perhaps, we will never know the truth. But the legend of the Axeman lives on. ..
Sheet music for a 1919 song called 'The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz'
Australian band Beasts Of Bourbon's 1988 promo video for a song called 'Psycho', off of their 1984 album 'The Axeman's Jazz'...
Please feel free to discuss your ideas, theories, questions and comments about the Axeman case in the comments....