The Axeman of New Orleans

One of America’s most notorious and mysterious serial killers, the axeman left the city of New Orleans paralysed with fear during a killing spree that stretched from May 1918 to October 1919. His notorious penchant for jazz music is well documented, with his threats to break into any house that wasn’t playing jazz and murder the occupants resulting in the entire city reportedly packing out music halls or hiring jazz bands to perform for them.

The axeman was never apprehended, and his identity remains a mystery. He first struck on May 22nd 1918, breaking into the home of grocer Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine. After meticulously chiseling a wooden panel out of the back door to enter the property, the axeman murdered the sleeping couple, cutting their throats with a straight razor. After slitting their throats, he hacked at both victim’s heads with an axe before changing out of his bloody clothes and leaving. The pair were found shortly after by Joseph’s brothers Jake and Andrew, who lived next door. Joseph initially survived the brutal attack, but died shortly after. Catherine died immediately, her throat cut so deeply that her head was nearly severed.

A police investigation ruled out robbery, as clearly visible valuables had not been taken during the attack. The straight razor used in the attack was later discovered in a neighbouring garden and was found to belong to Andrew Maggio, who ran a nearby barber’s shop. As a result Maggio became the prime suspect of the investigation, but he was ultimately released after a lengthy questioning.

A map of New Orleans showing the locations of the fatal attacks. Image: Times-Picayune

The axeman struck again a little over a month later, on June 27th 1918. Again breaking into a home attached to a grocery store in the early hours of the morning, he proceeded to attack Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe. Besumer was struck in the temple with an axe and Lowe was hit above the ear. Both survived the attack with severe injuries, and Besumer was initially arrested after Lowe accused him of carrying out the attack, serving nine months in prison before being acquitted. Lowe died as a result of her injuries five weeks later.

The same day that Lowe passed away, August 5th 1918, the axeman made his third attack. Breaking into the house of Anna Schneider, he struck his pregnant victim multiple times after she woke up to find him standing over her bed. She was found by her husband after he returned from work later that night and survived the attack, delivering a healthy baby girl just two days later. Rather than an axe, police believed that Schneider had been bludgeoned with a bedside lamp.

Less than a week later, Joseph Romano was attacked and severely injured by an intruder. Again, the attacker had gained entry to the property by chiseling out a panel of the back door, and a bloody axe was found discarded in the garden. The attack was interrupted by Romano’s nieces Pauline and Mary, causing the assailant to flee. They later described the attacker as a dark-skinned, heavy-set man wearing a dark suit and slouched hat. Romano died from his injuries two days later.

The axeman didn’t strike again for eight months. In March 1919, an intruder broke into the home of the Cortimiglia family in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna. After a neighbour rushed to investigate screams coming from the residence, he found Rosie Cortimiglia standing in the doorway, holding the body of her two-year old daughter Mary. Her husband Charles lay nearby, bleeding heavily from a severe head wound.

While their daughter was killed immediately, both Charles and Rosie survived the attack. Rosie later accused neighbours Iorlando and Frank Jordano of carrying out the attack. Despite Iorlando being in poor health and Frank being too large to have squeezed through the panel that had again been removed from the back door of the property, both were arrested. Frank was sentenced to death by hanging and Iorlando to life in prison, but they were released after Rosie recanted her accusation.

Three days after the attack on the Cortimiglias, a letter purporting to be from the axeman was sent to New Orleans newspapers and subsequently published. In the letter the axeman stated that he intended to carry out his next attack at a quarter past midnight on March 19th. He spoke of his fondness for jazz music and claimed that he would spare anyone who was in a home where a jazz band was performing that night. The letter also claimed that the axeman was a demon native of Tartarus and capable of killing without repercussions every night if he chose to.

On the night of the 19th, dance halls across New Orleans were filled to capacity, and every professional and amateur jazz band in the city were booked to perform in hundreds of houses. Whether every person in the city attended a jazz performance that night is unclear, and frankly unlikely, but the axeman did not strike that evening.

While some residents hoped that the axeman had ended his attacks after successfully forcing the entire city to attend jazz performances, he returned to attack yet another Italian-American grocer, Steve Boca, on August 10th. Waking to find an intruder in his house, Boca was struck in the head. He pursued his attacker but was unable to catch him, later collapsing in the home of a neighbour, having suffered a cracked skull. He eventually recovered from his injuries.

Sarah Laumann was attacked a month later after an intruder broke into her home through an open window. Neighbours found the 19-year old the following day, unconscious and bleeding from severe head injuries. Several of her teeth had been smashed out in the attack. While she survived the attack, she remembered nothing of the night in question.

The axeman attacked his final victim on October 27th 1919, hacking Mike Pepitone to death after breaking into his home. Pepitone’s wife was woken by the noise of the attack and witnessed the intruder fleeing the scene, but she was unable to describe the man.

Pepitone’s death marked the final attack, and the axeman’s killing spree ended as mysteriously as it began. While a number of men had been arrested previously in connection to the attacks, none of them were ultimately found guilty. Some researchers believe that the real culprit was Joseph Momfre, who was shot dead by Esther Pepitone, the widow of the final victim, in Los Angeles in December 1920. This theory appears to have originated with crime writer Colin Wilson, but subsequent investigations have failed to find any reference to the death of a Joseph Momfre in Los Angeles at that time. 

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