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In 1919, a song called The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa) was written by Joseph John Davilla. Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection Of Louisiana Folk Tales, a book with a chapter about the Axe-Man, was released in 1945.

The Axeman of New Orleans

 Legend has it that residents tried using jazz to appease the serial killer, but not before he claimed the lives of local Italian grocers

Who’ll be next?” is the question being asked by

detectives and Italians of New Orleans.

— The Times-Picayune

It was the night of March 19, 1919, and Jazz played in New Orleans.

Music poured out of private residences, where wealthy white New Orleanians hired bands to play music popularised in a mixed race Red Light District. Nightclubs and bars were packed to the point of overflow. In a city known for its lively atmosphere, this may have been one of the most gig-heavy nights in history.

Yet the musicians weren’t playing for love or money. These concerts were born of fear, ordered by an axe-wielding maniac who claimed to have come straight from Hell. The Axeman had declared that he would murder anyone in New Orleans who was not listening to live jazz music on a particular night.

History is littered with mysterious assailants who appear from the dark shadows and terrorise the community, only to disappear almost as fast as they came. However, a case in New Orleans in 1918 leaves no doubt that a madman was on the loose. An assailant only known as the Axeman cut a swath through the Italian community of New Orleans, leaving fear and death in his wake. There is no doubt that the Axeman was a real figure and not an artefact created from common belief. Even so, his identity and motivations remain a mystery until this day.

The Axeman dispatched his victims with an axe and sent taunting letters to the press (a technique pioneered by the original evasive serial killer, Jack the Ripper).

Although the attacks began in the fall of 1910, it was not until June 1911 that one of them was fatal and Joe Davi died. Then the Axeman (or the “Cleaver” as he was known in 1910–1911) disappeared for six years. It was when he returned—beginning with his murder of the Maggios in May 1918 and culminating with his other brutal attacks that the Axeman had New Orleanians thoroughly terrorised.

And while it’s impossible to verify whether he’s responsible for all of the murders ascribed to him, it is a fact that from May of 1918 until October of 1919, 12 people were attacked across Greater New Orleans—seven of whom died from their brutal wounds.

In almost every case, a small hole was carved out of a door. The Axeman would crawl through this opening—so small that several suspects were dismissed on account of their size—and then bludgeon his victims with an axe. Curiously, the weapon employed was often in the house and left at the scene of the crime along with the chisel used for breaking through the door.

The victims of the Axeman had qualities in common. They were mainly women; men only suffered blows if they got in the Axeman’s way and never seemed to be the primary target. Many of the victims were Italian Americans, who at the time represented the Big Easy’s white underclass.

With the coming of darkness, the residents of New Orleans would spend each night listening to every sound, looking at every shadow and would open their newspapers with trembling hands each morning. The Axeman had come to the city — and no one was safe, or so it seemed. To this day, the identity of the Axeman remains a mystery. Many believe that he was not a “man” at all, but a supernatural creature that was able to appear and disappear at will. There are others who believe that he was merely a demented serial killer who hacked off the heads of his victims while they slept. We will never really know for sure…

Axman photo layout
A front page in March 1919: Much of it was dedicated to news about the Axman. Notable is the story on the police theory that the killings have been perpetrated by one man, and the map of the crime scenes. Most of the victims were Italian grocers who lived in corner store buildings. The Times-Picayune

Citizens of Italian descent were no strangers to violence in New Orleans. In a city troubled by its tense race relations, the largest mass lynching in civic history was of 11 Italian Americans outside Parish Prison in 1891. Italians and their descendants lived in crowded slums that lacked the law enforcement presence of other neighbourhoods. Many assumed Italian neighbourhoods were run by mafia-esque organisations like the Black Hand, a stereotype grounded in some fact, but also inflated by prejudice and sensationalism. The recent end of World War I added fuel to nativist fires.

Into this volatile mix stepped the Axeman. On May 23, 1918, an Italian grocer named Joseph Maggio and his wife were butchered while sleeping in their apartment above the Maggio grocery store. Upon investigation, the police discovered that a panel in the rear door had been chiselled out, providing a way in for the killer. The murder weapon, an axe, was found in the apartment, still coated with the Maggio’s blood. Nothing in the house had been stolen, including jewellery and money that were nearly in plain sight.  Detectives quickly went to work on the case and while several suspects were arrested and questioned, all were released for lack of evidence against them. The only clue that was discovered was a message that had been written in chalk near the victim’s home. It read: “Mrs Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just write Mrs Toney”

Investigators began digging into old files, looking for possible cases that matched the Maggio murders, and to their surprise discovered that three murders and a number of attacks against Italian grocers had already taken place in 1911. The murders bore a striking resemblance to the Maggio crime in that an axe had been used in each and access to each home had been gained through a panel in the rear door. These earlier crimes had been thought to be a vendetta of terror organised by the Mafia. The police and the Italian residents of the French Quarter braced themselves for the worst.

During the Axeman’s reign of terror, police struggled in vain to piece together a profile of the killer, whose M.O. involved breaking into the victims’ homes and using their own tools and weapons against them. His preferred implement — which obviously earned him his nefarious nickname — was an axe, but in one of his earliest known murders, a straight razor was used to slash two victims’ throats. Most of the victims were Italian-American, which sparked rumours that the crimes were committed by a Mafia hitman, while criminologists on the case suspected the killer was targeting women, and only killing male victims when females were not home.

Reminiscent of an American version of Jack the Ripper, the axe-wielding serial killer broke into homes across New Orleans in the middle of the night and savagely hacked his sleeping victims with an axe before quietly slipping away into the darkness. As with the Jack, the Ripper murders that occurred in London during the late 1880’s, a canonical list of victims was attributed to the Axeman serial killer but in truth, nobody is sure how many victims died by his hand.  Regardless, by the time the attacks suddenly ended in October 1919, at least a dozen people had been attacked with at least six people hacked to death in bloody fashion.  The Axeman was never caught and his identity remains unknown.

Police theorised that the attacker was a respectable citizen with a violent alter ego. The Times-Picayune

Italian grocer Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine were asleep in their bed when The Axeman entered the home, slit their throats with a straight razor and then bashed them in the head with an axe. Catherine’s wound to her neck was so bad that her head was almost severed from her body, while Joseph lived for a short time after his brother found the victims and was able to get him help.

On June 27th1918, the killer struck again when he attacked and nearly killed Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe.

Shortly after 7:00 AM a bread delivery man, John Zanca, was making a delivery to a small grocery store onDorgenois and Laharpe streets, owned by Polish immigrant Louis Besumer, when he found the front doors to the store locked. Knowing that Besumer always opened his store on time, Zanca became concerned and went around to the rear of the store (where he knew the Besumer’s lived) and knocked on the back door. Louis Besumer answered the door – face covered in blood.

Besumer explained to Zanca that he had been attacked and pointed towards the bedroom door. Zanca rushed to the bedroom where he discovered bloody footprints leading out of the room.  Besumer’s presumed wife (more on that below), Anna (Annie) Harriet Lowe lay on the bed, covered with a blood-soaked sheet.

As with the Maggio attacks, investigators found that a wood panel had been chiselled out of the back door. They found a small, bloody axe, owned by Besumer, in the bathroom. Thinking that Besumer may have been implicated in the attack, he was arrested.

Meanwhile, Besumer’s “wife”, Anna Lowe, was rushed to the hospital with a deep wound above her left ear. At the hospital, she regained consciousness and was able to make a few (bizarre) statements to the police. Anna first claimed that she had been attacked by a “mulatto” (newspaper accounts tell us a black man, Lewis Oubicon, was briefly held as a suspect the next day) and then subsequently changed her story to blame Louis whom she claimed was a German spy. Given her addled state, police discounted most of what Anna Lowe told them but things began to unravel rather quickly after that.

Shortly after the attack, newspapers reported that secret spy papers had been found in the home (there is no evidence that this was true) and that opiates were found in the bedroom. A neighbour interviewed for the story added that both Louis and Anna were crazed drug addicts. The attention around Anna Lowe and Louis Besumer soon erupted into a media circus which further muddled the police’s investigation of the attack.

As if Anna’s bizarre statements to the police were not enough, Louis also began acting strangely. He admitted that Anna was not his real wife but that they had been living together. Besumer’s real wife arrived from Cincinnati in the days immediately following the attack which further inflamed the ongoing drama. Besumer requested that he be allowed to investigate the case on his own (this only added to the police’s suspicions about him). Police began to recognise that both Louis and Anna were making false statements simply to hurt each other out of spite.

As events spun out of control, federal authorities were called in to investigate. Eight months later, Louis was tried and found not guilty.  At the same time, two lead New Orleans investigators on the case were demoted due to unacceptable police work.

On August 5th, 1918, the killer struck again. This time his victim was a 28-year-old pregnant woman who he bashed in the face repeatedly cutting her scalp wide open, and if she hadn’t been found by her husband, she could have bled to death.

Most of the victims were Italians who lived in rooms adjoining their corner stores, leading to suspicions of Mafia involvement.

The June 1918 Besumer attack had severely damaged nerves on the left side of Anna Lowe’s face but doctors felt they could repair the damage. They could not.  On August 5, 1918, Anna was scheduled for surgery to her face.  She died two days later of complications from the surgery.

On the same day that Anna Lowe died, Edward Schneider returned to his home on Elmira Street late that evening after an unusually long day at work. When he entered his home, he noted that it was oddly quiet. He went into the bedroom where he found his pregnant wife covered in blood, her scalp cut open and several of her teeth knocked out. She was rushed to the hospital where after two days, she regained consciousness and was able to provide some details about the attack to the police. Mrs Schneider recalled that she had been taking a nap when she awoke to find a “dark figure” looming over her. She saw the glint of an axe coming down and then everything went black. Despite the trauma, one week later Mrs Schneider gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby daughter.

Shortly after the attack, police arrested a man, James Gleason, who had attempted to run from them. He was later released due to lack of evidence. With no suspects in hand, police began to wonder if the attack was related to the previous incidents involving the Besumer and Maggio families.  New Orleans citizens began to ask – is a serial killer loose in our city?

On August 10, 1918, just five days after the Schneider attack, sisters Pauline and Mary Bruno were awakened early that morning by the sound of loud thumps coming from the room of their uncle, Joseph Romano. Pauline sat up in bed, letting out a piercing scream when she found a tall, dark figure standing over her (some accounts say she saw the dark figure in the hallway). As Pauline wailed, the man bolted from the house. Later, Pauline expressed how nimble the fleeing attacker had been:

“He was awfully light on his feet.”

As the shadowy figure (described as a dark-skinned, heavy-set man wearing a dark suit) ran from the bedroom, Joseph Romano (the girls’ uncle) entered the room covered in blood from several deep gashes etched in his face. Joseph was rushed to Charity Hospital where, two days later, he died from the wounds.

Police were now beginning to recognise the Axeman’s modus operandi. As with the previous attacks, they found a door panel had been chiselled out of the back door and an axe was found lying in the yard.  Oddly, however, Joseph’s room (unlike the other cases) appeared to have been ransacked.

Charles Cortimiglia and his wife Rosie and baby daughter Mary were attacked on March 10th 1919.  All were hit with an axe, and Mary passed away while Charles and Rosie were treated and released.

On March 13th, 1919, a letter was sent by the Axe-Man claiming he would not kill anyone who played jazz all night and that he was in fact not human but a demon among many other claims.

On August 10th, 1919, Steve Boca was attacked in his home with an axe and was lucky enough to survive. 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was found in her home with axe wounds to her head and several of her teeth knocked out; she would survive the attack. The Axe-Man’s final target was Mike Pepitone, who was killed with axe blows to his head. Over the years of his attacks, many people were suspects and some were even arrested but none were ever proven to be the real killer.  A letter was written by the killer claiming unworldly things, and he was even compared to fictional character Mr Hyde.

So there is a quick run down of all the mayhem this killer caused in New Orleans, but his crimes and infamous style of murder also went on to be in many media projects besides a graphic novel.

The first Axeman attack seemed almost tentative. The second, on the Rissettos, was certainly worse, but it took him three tries before he managed to kill someone, grocer Joe Davi. And his murder of Davi was certainly cruel. Davi’s face was battered with a weapon consistent with a butcher’s cleaver, and his brains literally beaten out of his skull. The attack was so brutal that the force of the blows knocked a 15-degree angle into the mattress. When the killer returned to New Orleans after an absence of six years, his second set of victims were the Maggios in May 1918.

With Joe Maggio, the Axeman indulged almost in overkill. He hit him a couple of times with an axe, fracturing his skull, and then cut his throat…. Catherine’s throat was cut, and she drowned in her own blood. After that, the Axeman always left at least one person dead or dying, hitting his victim(s) on the head and face with an axe.

An axe-wielding maniac stalked the streets of the Big Easy, and the only way to avoid slaughter was to play jazz.

The story begins with a history of Louisiana, how it became a state, how New Orleans came about and who it was named after as well as some of the ups and downs throughout the city’s history. It covers the culture that grew in the city from music like blues and jazz to Mardi Gras all the way to the Union holding it during the Civil War and terrors that stalked the nights like Needleman, a chap who injected poison into his victims and even Jack The Clipper, a freak who liked to cut schoolgirls hair in theaters and buses. But our main story starts in 1918 when Andrew awakens to hear thuds and strange noises coming from his brother’s room.

Upon checking on him, Andrew finds that his brother is dead as is his wife in what is described at the bloodiest crime scene in the city’s history! A razor was used and found on the bed as was an axe that was left in the bathtub.  Nothing was stolen from the house, and the killer got in by using a chisel on the back door’s lower panel and crawling in, and even more oddly, a strange message is left on the sidewalk in chalk that is linked to the crime. Andrew and his other brother Jake are arrested for the murders but are both later cleared of the charges.

As one old-time police officer remembers, some cases from 1911 that had Italian grocers being killed in this fashion, and the Mafia and a group called The Black Hand became the suspects. More murders and attacks accrue, many with the killer using the victims’ own axes or hatchets to attack them with as well as entering via door panels or open back windows. Many people are accused of the crimes and all are proven not guilty, and the lucky ones who live through the attacks are unable to describe the killer. One case with survivors has the wife accusing another family who runs a store that competes with their own, and it seems as if anyone can be a suspect! Over time people start buying guns, and The Axeman fails at many attempts at breaking into houses.  Things seem to go back to normal until he attacks a family and murders an infant child!

In the early morning hours of March 10, 1919, the Axeman struck again. It was perhaps his most terrible crime yet. Mrs Charles Cortimiglia, wife of a grocer in Gretna, just across the river from New Orleans, awakened to find her husband struggling with a large man in dark clothing who was armed with an axe. As her husband fell in a bloody heap to the floor, Mrs Cortimiglia held her two-year-old daughter in her arms and begged her attacker for mercy, at least for the child. But the axe came down anyway, killing the little girl and fracturing the skull of her mother.

The police were once again stumped and rumblings began to suggest that perhaps the Axeman really wasn’t a man at all. Some claimed that he might be a woman, or a midget, enabling him to slip through the small space that he cut in the doors. But others maintained that he was a creature from the world beyond. How else, they questioned, could all of the witnesses describe the killer as being a “large man” when only a small person could have slipped through the chiselled panels in the rear doors? The killer had to have come in through supernatural means as each door was still locked when the attacks were discovered.

Following the Cortimiglia murders, New Orleans was again filled with terror. The police stated that they believed all of the crimes to have been committed by the same man… “a bloodthirsty maniac, filled with a passion for human slaughter”. And perhaps they were right – But the truth might have been a lot more bizarre than that.

A week after the attack on the Cortimiglia family, the Times-Picayune published a letter that purported to be by the Axeman. Calling himself “a fell demon from hottest hell,” he claimed to also be a lover of jazz. He said that on the next Tuesday night he would walk the city looking for a victim and that any residents who were listening to a jazz band would be safe.

In Ready to Hang, Robert Tallant said that night “in New Orleans seems to have been the loudest and most hilarious of any on record.” Contemporaneous sources indicate that while some certainly partied the night away listing to jazz, the more superstitious were really frightened, and most people ignored the letter. No one was attacked that night.

In 1919, a song called The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa) was written by Joseph John Davilla. Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection Of Louisiana Folk Tales, a book with a chapter about the Axe-Man, was released in 1945.

The editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper received a letter. The  strange letter was received on March 13, 1919 from a man claiming to be the Axeman, in which he comes across as the world’s most psychotic jazz fan:

The letter appeared as follows:

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, 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

The people of New Orleans did their best to follow the Axeman’s instructions to the letter. Restaurants and clubs all over town were jammed with revellers. Friends and neighbours gathered in their homes to “jazz it up” and midnight found the city alive with activity. Banjos, guitars and mandolins strummed into the night while Joseph Davilla, a well-known local composer, created the theme song for the night. He titled his composition “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz” and in typical New Orleans fashion, it became a huge hit.

When the sun rose the next morning, it was learned that not a single attack had occurred that night. Even though it’s doubtful that every home was filled with the sounds of jazz, the Axeman passed the city by, perhaps well satisfied by the celebration that was held in his honour.

The Axeman’s fury seemed to have dissipated with the night of music. Months went by without incident. It seemed the city had appeased whatever dark soul, human or otherwise, that had decided to torment it.

All was quiet for some time, until the night of August 3, 1919. In the darkest hours, a young girl named Sarah Laumann was attacked with an axe while she slept in her locked and shuttered home. She received  brain concussion but she recovered. Although the woman did not die, the attack pushed hysteria in the city to new heights. Miss Laumann was not the owner of a grocery store, she was not Italian and her attacker had not entered through a door panel, but a window. In other words, if he could attack Sarah Laumann, then no one was safe!

But also during this year, he is run off by aware townspeople who react and scare away the killer before he can claim a life. And after killing a total of six people and wounding six others, the killings just stop, and The Axeman fades away into the shadows and memories of New Orleans.

There is, however, a tantalising lead in the case. A year after the last killing, a man named Joseph Mumre was shot and killed on the Pacific Coast by Mike Pepitone’s widow, Esther Albano. She claimed Pepitone had killed her husband.

Esther Albano claimed that Joseph was the Axeman and that she wanted nothing but revenge on him for killing her husband; others don’t think this was the case at all.

There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest Mumre’s involvement in the killings. Mumre had taken part in a group of blackmailers who preyed on the Italian community. He was sent to prison in 1911, just after the first killings attributed to the Axeman. He was paroled in 1918, around the time that the killings began again. Mumre left for the coast around the time that the Axeman killings ended in 1919.

While the timeline syncs up, there was no physical evidence linking Mumre to the crimes. His death erased any chance for police to question him and ferret out his involvement in the case, if any. The only real lead died with him. Since those terrifying two years, the Axeman has passed into legend, and enduring and macabre figure in the folklore of a city steeped in bizarre happenings.

So ends the story of The Axeman who could have died a man or lives on as a demon roaming the world looking for his next time to strike terror.

The interesting part about this is that in 1911, years before the official Axeman attacks, horrific murders with the same M.O. were committed showing that this killer could have had even more victims than reported, and it also brings light to the fact someone in New Orleans really disliked Italian grocers.

The main suspect, and probably the man who was the Axeman of New Orleans, was Joseph Mumphre.  When he was in jail, the killings stopped for a brief time, and then once he moved away to L.A. the killing were done. He was clearly the main suspect and the right one for the police to have kept an eye on even though they didn’t, and it took the widow of one of the victims to give him justice at the end of a bullet.

The murders themselves have become the stuff of local legend, and the Axeman has achieved the status of a mythical boogeyman.

The Axeman was believed to have attacked roughly a dozen people in the Big Easy during the second decade of the 20th century, killing several. His reign of terror has enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, with the character factoring into season three of American Horror Story, Rick Geary’s graphic novel The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, and fictional takes like Ray Celestin’s The Axeman Jazz. But local songwriter J.J. Davilla first helped popularise his crimes way back in 1919 when he penned the song “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).” While attacks on immigrants and their descendants weren’t exactly unusual at this time in American life, the Axeman’s brutality quickly became the stuff of legend.

At the time, there was no New Orleans “Mafia” in the way it is popularly understood today—that is, no highly sophisticated or really even highly organised criminal organisation, although New Orleanians certainly believed one existed. There was “Black Hand” crime, a form of blackmail peculiar to Italian immigrants perpetuated by various gangs.

The last attack came in October of 1919 when grocer Mike Pepitone was slain. The Axman was never caught. The Times-Picayune

There were certainly vendettas between different groups of Italians who were reluctant to take their difficulties to the police. The murder of Tony Sciambra and his wife and that of Mike Pepitone can be best understood in that context. Italian criminal gangs, or the “Mafia,” if you want to call them that, usually handled their problems with a gun or a bomb, not at axe. Pepitone, despite what Tallant wrote, was not killed with an ax. And Italian gangsters in New Orleans didn’t usually attack women or children. Mary Sciambra was shot accidentally, while her husband, Tony, was deliberately targeted.

You have to understand the social situation of Italians in New Orleans in the early 20th century: In the late 19th and early 20th century, Italians (about 80 percent of whom were Sicilians) were brought into Louisiana and Mississippi to work in the cotton and sugarcane fields. They didn’t fit in very well to the black-white dichotomy of the segregationist South. They were not black but were also considered not quite white. And most of them weren’t content to stay labourers. These immigrants tended to work very hard, live on little, save every dime, and go into business for themselves as soon as they could, often starting as peddlers or fruit vendors.

By the time of the Axeman of New Orleans crimes, 1910–1919, Italian grocers were in the process of taking over the corner grocery niche in New Orleans. Some Italians were doing even better, like Antonio Monteleone, a Sicilian immigrant who became one of the wealthiest men in the city. The Axeman crimes are probably best understood as a native-born white labourer (eyewitness accounts confirm this) who had some grudge against the Italians who were leaving day labour behind to become small businessmen, possibly out of social envy or anxiety. Or he could have been a burglar who was sent to jail by an Italian grocer. But we know he was white, and we know he attacked Italian grocers.

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