|The Axeman of New Orleans|
Early 20th century New Orleans, the Axeman's haunt
|Number of victims:||8|
|Span of killings:||May, 1918–October, 1919|
|Date apprehended:||never caught|
The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer active in New Orleans, Louisiana (and surrounding communities, including Gretna, Louisiana), from May 1918 to October 1919. Press reports during the height of public panic about the killings mentioned similar murders as early as 1911, but recent researchers have called these reports into question.
As the killer's pseudonym implies, the victims were attacked with an axe. In some of the crimes, the doors to the victim's homes were first bashed open with the same tool. "The Axeman" was not caught or identified at the time, although his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed.
Not all of the Axeman's victims died, but the savagery and utter randomness of his attacks terrorized much of the populace. Some early victims were Italian American, in particular the son of Pietro Pepitone who had killed Black Hand extortionist Paul Di Cristina (Paolo Marchese) several years before, leading the newspapers to assume the killings were somehow Mafia related (similar to Chicago's Black Hand assassin "Shotgun Man"). However, later crimes clearly did not fit this profile, and the apprehension of the general public grew. His victims included a pregnant woman and even a baby killed in the arms of its mother. The Axeman also seemed to draw direct inspiration from Jack the Ripper: he (or someone claiming to be the Axeman) wrote taunting letters to city newspapers hinting at his future crimes and claiming to be a supernatural demon "from Hell".
Most notoriously, on March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in the newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans's dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.
Not everyone was intimidated by the Axeman. Some well armed citizens sent the newspaper invitations for the Axeman to visit their houses that night and see who got killed first. One invitation promised to leave a window open for the Axeman, politely asking that he not damage the front door.
Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been "Joseph Momfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in December, 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim". Wilson's theory has been widely repeated in other true crime books and web sites. However, true crime writer Michael Newton searched New Orleans and Los Angeles public, police and court records as well as newspaper archives, and failed to find any evidence of a man with the name "Joseph Momfre" (or any reasonable facsimile) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles. Newton also was not able to find any information that Mrs Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano, and in others simply as a "woman who claimed to be Pepitone's widow") was arrested, tried or convicted for such a crime, or indeed had been in California. Newton notes that "Momfre" and variants was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time of the crimes. It appears that there actually may have been an individual named Joseph Momfre or Mumfre in New Orleans who had a criminal history and may have been connected with organized crime; however, local records for the period are not extensive enough to allow confirmation of this, or to positively identify the individual. Wilson's explanation is an urban legend, and there is no more evidence now on the identity of the killer than there was at the time of the crimes.
One of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home in the early morning hours of May 16, 1912. The male Schiambra survived while his wife died. In newspaper accounts, the prime suspect is referred to by the name of "Momfre" more than once. While radically different than the Axeman's usual MO, if Joseph Momfre was indeed the Axeman, the Schiambras may well have been an early victim of the future serial killer.
- Joseph Maggio was an Italian grocer who was attacked while sleeping alongside his wife, Catherine, at their home on the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets on the night of May 22, 1918. He survived the initial attack, but died minutes after being discovered by his brothers Jake and Andrew, who lived in the other side of the double, and had come to investigate after hearing his calls.
- Catherine Maggio was the wife of Joseph Maggio. She was attacked during the night along with her husband on the night of May 22, 1918. Numerous blows were inflicted to her head with an axe and her throat had been cut so deep that her neck was nearly severed.
- Louis Besumer, also a grocer, was attacked in the early morning hours of June 6, 1918, alongside his mistress Anna Lowe. He was critically wounded in the attack but managed to survive.
- Anna Lowe was attacked while in bed with Louis Besumer. She had been badly wounded and died a few hours later at Charity Hospital.
- Mrs. Schneider was attacked in the early evening hours of August 5, 1918. The 8 months pregnant Schneider awoke to find a dark figure standing over her and she was bashed in the face repeatedly with an axe. She was discovered later when her husband returned from work. She was treated for her wounds at Charity Hospital and delivered a healthy baby girl 3 weeks after the attack.
- Joseph Romano was an elderly man living with his two nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno. On August 10, 1918, Pauline awoke to find a man standing over her. She screamed and the man leaped off into the night. She entered her uncle's room to find him critically injured. With his dying breath, Romano instructed his niece to call the hospital.
- Charles Cortimiglia was an immigrant who lived with his wife and baby on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Second Street in Gretna, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb. On the night of March 10, 1919, screams were heard coming from the Cortimiglia Residence. Neighbors rushed in to find Rosie Cortimiglia kneeling on the floor in a pool of blood next to her husband, who had a gaping hole in his torso.
- Rosie Cortimiglia was the wife of immigrant laborer Charles Cortimiglia. She was attacked alongside her husband on March 10, 1919 while sleeping with her baby in her arms. She was badly wounded by the axeman, but survived the incident.
- Mary Cortimiglia was the two-year-old daughter of Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia. She was killed while sleeping in her mothers arms with a single blow to the back of the neck when she and her parents were attacked on March 10, 1919.
- Steve Boca was a grocer who was attacked in his bedroom as he slept by an axe-wielding intruder on August 10, 1919. Boca survived his wounds. It was duly noted that the assailant chiseled his way through the back door, similar to other Axeman attacks.
- Sarah Laumann was attacked on the night of September 3, 1919. The 19-year-old suffered numerous head wounds and died at the hospital. This is the most mysterious of all of the crimes because Laumann was the only one in the house at the time and there were no witnesses.
- Mike Pepitone was attacked on the night of October 27, 1919. His wife was awakened by a noise and arrived at the door of his bedroom just as a large axe-wielding man was rushing out of it (some accounts say she saw two men fleeing her husband's room.) Pepitone was transported to Charity Hospital where he died early the next morning.
In 1919 local tune writer Joseph John Davilla wrote the song "The Mysterious Axman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)". Published by New Orleans based World's Music Publishing Company, the cover depicted a family playing music with frightened looks on their faces.
The 1945 book Gumbo Ya-Ya, A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales includes a chapter on the Axeman entitled "Axeman's Jazz", which helped spark renewed interest in the murders. The book also reproduced the cover of the 1919 sheet music.
The Axeman killings are also referred to in the short story "Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz" by Poppy Z. Brite, published in 1997.
The Australian rock band Beasts of Bourbon released an album in 1984 called "The Axeman's Jazz"
The 2007 song "Deathjazz" by Las Vegas progressive rock band One Ton Project parallels the story of the Axeman.