One of the most mysterious, and still unsolved, frenzies to grip the city of New Orleans came in the early 1900’s with the arrival of the enigmatic “Axeman”. Who was this strange and terrifying creature? Ghost, ghoul or something worse?
In May 1918, the greatest “boogeyman” that New Orleans has ever known arrived in the city. His coming would begin a period of terror in the city that would last for the next year and a half. 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...
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 chiseled 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 jewelry 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 organized by the Mafia. The police, and the Italian residents of the French Quarter, braced themselves for the worst.
Almost exactly a month after the Maggio murder came a second crime. Louis Bossumer, a grocer who lived behind his store with his common-law wife, Annie Harriet Lowe, was discovered by neighbors one morning, lying in a pool of blood. He had been badly injured but was not dead. Beside him was Annie, also injured but amazingly, not dead. Both of them had been hacked with an axe. The weapon was also lying next to Bossumer and was also covered with blood. A panel of the kitchen door had been removed, a chisel was lying on the back steps and nothing had been stolen.
After she regained consciousness in Charity Hospital, Annie first claimed her attacker had been young and very dark, but later, she changed her story and stated that Bossumer had attacked her. The police were skeptical however, never being able to ascertain how Bossumer could have attacked Annie and then fractured his own skull with the axe. After he recovered from his injuries, he was released.
Later on that year, in August, a woman named Mrs. Edward Schneider awakened in the night to see a tall, phantom-like form standing over her bed. She screamed just as the axe fell. A few minutes later, her neighbors found her unconscious with her head gashed and bloody and several of her teeth knocked out. She recovered from her injuries.
A few nights later, an Italian grocer named Joseph Romano was also attacked. This attack was just like the others although Romano did not survive. He died a few hours later and was never able to provide any clue as to the identity of the Axeman.
By this time, hysteria was sweeping through the city. Families divided into watches and stood guard over their relatives as they slept. People went about with loaded shotguns and waited for news of the latest “Axeman sightings”. On August 11, the killer was seen in the neighborhood of Tulane and Broad, masquerading as a woman, the rumors said. A manhunt was organized but without success. On August 21, a man was seen leaping a back fence but despite a quickly organized search party, the fiend escaped. Were these sightings real or merely fright-fueled imaginations at work?
While most of the so-called sightings can be attributed to panic among local residents, the Axeman did leave tangible evidence behind as well. Also on August 11, a man named Al Durand discovered an axe and a chisel lying outside his rear door in the early morning hours. His back door had been damaged but had apparently proved too thick for the killer to cut through.
In late August, the rear door of Paul Lobella’s grocery and residence was chiseled through. No one was home at the time. The same day, another grocer named Joseph Le Bouef reported that an attempt had been made to chisel through his rear door in the night. Awakened by the noise, he had frightened the intruder away. An axe was discovered dropped on his steps. The following day, another axe was found in the yard of A. Recknagle, who was also a grocer. Chisel marks were also found on his back door.
On September 15, a grocer named Paul Durel found that someone had also attempted to cut through his rear door. A case of tomatoes that had been resting against the inside panel had foiled the attack.
Then, as mysteriously as he had come, the Axeman vanished -- at least for awhile.
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 chiseled 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 -- On Friday, March 14, 1919, the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper received a letter from a man who claimed to be the Axeman. The letter appeared as follows:
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.
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 revelers. Friends and neighbors 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 honor.
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 a 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!
Was it really the Axeman though, or an imitator? No one knew for sure.
On August 10, a man named Steve Boca stumbled from his home on Elysian Fields Avenue with axe wounds in his skull. Dripping blood, he managed to make it to his friend’s home about a half block away. The friend, Frank Genusa, treated the wounds as best he could and then called for help. The police who searched Boca’s house found the classic signs of the Axeman, including the chiseled door panel and the bloody axe left lying on the floor.
On September 2, a local druggist named William Carson fired several shots at an intruder who had broken into his home. The intruder left a broken door and an axe behind, but managed to escape without injury.
Then in October, the Axeman appeared for a final slaughter. A grocer named Mike Pepitone was butchered in his bed during the night. His wife and six children, asleep in the next room, were not touched. The usual clues had been left behind but the authorities were no closer to learning his identity than they had been in the beginning.
But then the horror came to an end. This was the last murder attributed to the Axeman. He was never seen or heard from in New Orleans again. No one would ever learn the true identity of the Axeman -- or would they?
More than a year after the Axeman’s final appearance, a former New Orleans man named Joseph Mumfre was shot to death on the Pacific Coast. He had been killed by a woman named Esther Albano, who was later discovered to be the widow of the Axeman’s last victim, Mike Pepitone.
The police began working to try and untangle the mystery that probably linked Mumfre’s murder to the Axeman case. Some curious coincidences were revealed during the investigation. Mumfre had once been the leader of a band of blackmailers in New Orleans who had preyed on Italians. He had also been (for a separate matter) sent to prison just after the first axe murders in 1911. In the summer of 1918, he was paroled -- at the same time the Axeman appeared again. Immediately after the Pepitone murder, Mumfre had left New Orleans for the coast and strangely, the Axeman had vanished as well. In spite of this, there was no actual evidence to link him to any of the crimes.
Was Joseph Mumfre the Axeman? Or were there actually several killers, all working together to terrorize the Italian community? Or was the maniac actually what he claimed to be all along... “the worst demon that ever existed either in fact or in the realm of fancy”?
© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.