Suspended Animation: Dormant Stories Waiting to be Told

The Axeman of New Orleans

“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 (and the worst), for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.”

        -The Axeman of New Orleans March 1919

The early twentieth century was not without its fair share of brutal serial killers. In Ohio, the “Dayton Strangler” murdered six people between 1900 and 1909. Elsewhere in Ohio beginning in 1904 a series of women were savagely beaten, murdered, and left in streetcars around Cincinnati. Between 1898 and 1912 numerous families spanning from Nova Scotia all the way down to Florida were murdered during the night as they slept. In Georgia, at least two-dozen women were murdered between 1911 and 1915 by a killer known only as the “Atlanta Ripper”. But it was in 1918 that a serial killer began roaming the busy streets of New Orleans looking for victims largely favoring the city’s Italian residents. While previous serial killers were called more ominous names such as “Saucy Jack” whom we all know as “Jack the Ripper”, or perhaps San Francisco’s “The Demon of Belfry”, Nola’s newspapers simply referred to this one as “The Axeman”. The name of course, leaves little mystery as to his weapon of choice but like most if not all the killers mentioned above, the Axeman of New Orleans was never apprehended leaving him and his sadistic tale forever embedded in city’s history.

The first two definitive Axeman attacks occurred in the early morning hours of May 23, 1918 when Jake and Andrew Maggio arrived at the home of their brother, Joseph Maggio which he shared with his wife, Catherine. The couple owned and operated a grocery store located underneath the apartment where the Maggio’s resided. When the brothers came calling that morning, they found the store closed and the apartment quiet. When entering the couple’s bedroom, the brothers found Joseph and Catherine Maggio lying in a bed of blood, their throats slashed; Catherine’s so badly she was nearly decapitated. Their heads had been beaten and bashed in. To their surprise, despite his extensive injuries Joseph Maggio was still alive though, his injuries would later prove too great. The killer left behind key items such as the axe used to beat the couple along with the killer’s blood-splattered clothing indicating that the Axeman helped himself to Joseph Maggio’s wardrobe. The Axeman also left behind money and valuables that were in plain sight. Found in the neighbor’s yard was the bloody razor used to slash the Maggio’s throats. 

The issue with these objects were the people they belonged to. The axe was later found to belong to Joseph. To make matters more confusing, the razor blade turned out to be the property of Joseph Maggio’s brother, Andrew Maggio. Andrew came under even more scrutiny when the yard the razor was found in turned out to also be his. Andrew Maggio lived directly next door to the couple and for this, combined with the objects found at the scene, the cops quickly zeroed in on him. Maggio was interrogated for hours but police were unable to find any holes in his story. There was one major problem with their case against him, the killer’s foul-smelling, blood-stained clothing. It feels safe to assume the clothes did not belong to Andrew Maggio. If they had that would have been rather damning evidence and his case would not have fallen apart the way it had. Between finding his dead brother and sister-in-law and being accused of their murders, it is eerie to think that it was probably during his interrogation that it donned on Andrew Maggio that the killer had also been in his home as well where the razor blade had been taken. 

A little over a month later, on June 27th Louis Besumer and Harriet Lowe were attacked in the early morning hours in Besumer’s home located behind yet another grocery store. Once again, a couple were attacked while sleeping. The axe was left at the scene, and again the axe belonged to a victim; in this case Louis Besumer.

The couple were found by a delivery driver scheduled to make a drop off at 7am that morning at Besumer’s store. Besumer was suffering from a fractured skull whereas Lowe had been violently struck above her left ear. Unlike the Maggio’s however, Besumer and Lowe survived their injuries though one side of Lowe’s face was left paralyzed. Lowe went on to give weird and conflicting accounts of the attack as well as making some equally strange accusations against Louis Besumer whom she managed to have arrested twice. The first arrest came after Lowe accused Louis Besumer of being a German spy. That might seem far-fetched, and apparently it was since Besumer was only held for two days -but keep in mind that the First World War was still being fought, though the war ended later that year in November of 1918. When espionage didn’t work, Lowe then accused Besumer of being the axe-wielding madman that had attacked her. This accusation held more weight than the German spy story and for this, Besumer spent nine months behind bars until he was acquitted the following May in 1919 for lack of evidence. Besumer may not have been the Axeman but whatever happened between he and Harriet Lowe, it seems fair to suggest it was bad enough to evoke some serious scorn. It should be noted that Lowe died on August 5, 1918 due to complications from the surgery meant to fix the paralyzed portion of her face.   

            The day Harriet Lowe passed away the next victim, heavily pregnant Anna Schneider was home alone asleep when she awoke suddenly to find a dark figure standing over her bed. Schneider was violently beaten, her scalp torn open, and like the others was left in a bed full of blood which her husband found when he later returned from work. There are conflicting accounts of the weapon used in Schneider’s attack. In version one, the killer was unable to find an axe because the Schneider’s didn’t own one therefore, a nearby table lamp was used instead.

Version two has Schneider, like all the other victims attacked with an axe that the killer apparently stole from the couple’s shed. Rather it was a lamp or an axe Schneider survived, and in an act of pure badassery, she successfully gave birth to a healthy baby girl just two days after the attack. Three days later however, on August 10th an elderly barber named Joseph Romano was killed when he was beaten with an axe in his own home during the night.

                   It was at this point police finally began linking together Romano, Schneider, and the previous attacks. Thus far all of the victims had been asleep when the attacks occurred, all but perhaps one had been beaten with an axe which was taken from the victim’s property, their homes had been broken into via the use of chisels in order to remove door panels, none of the victims were robbed, three of them owned grocery stores, and the majority of them were ethnically Italian. Even stranger, a man named Al Durand called police claiming someone had broken into his home, or at least they had tried to saying he found a hatchet, screwdriver, and a .38 caliber cartridge outside his home the morning after Romano’s murder. Durand believed the intruder never made it into his home because he had been interrupted by a neighbor and had quickly taken off. Durand was not the only one either as there were dozens of others around the city that made similar claims of encountering the Axeman. Nola’s boogeyman was everywhere, in alleyways, on street corners, in front yards, and backyards. Newspapers ran away with the story and the residents of New Orleans panicked. With guns loaded, New Orleanians lost sleep as they stood guard over their homes and loved-ones; most notably the Italian population who feared the Axeman the most. Frank Mooney, the Superintendent of Police called the Axeman “a degenerate who gloats over blood.”

            The Axeman however, disappeared for several months following the Romano murder cruelly giving New Orleanians a false sense of security as it would seem he was only waiting for people to drop their weapons and stop looking over their shoulders. On March 10, 1919 in nearby Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans situated on the other side of the Mississippi river, screams were heard coming from the home of the Cortimiglia family. A neighbor across the street heard the screams and went running towards the front door of the home. Once inside, he found Rosie Cortimiglia covered in blood making an attempt to stand while also clutching a dead child in her arms; her two-year old daughter, Mary. Charles Cortimiglia was lying nearby on the floor copiously bleeding from a large wound on the side of his head. On the porch was an axe lying on its side covered in the blood of the three members of the Cortimiglia family.

The Axeman Letter

Three days later, the Times-Picayune received the first and only letter sent by the Axeman of New Orleans. The Axeman had a flare for the dramatic as he began the letter with “Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans” and wrote the word “Hell” next to the date, March 13, 1919 to indicate to the reader where the Axeman was writing from. Indeed, the Axeman had taken on the persona of an immortal, evil, and powerful demon from hell that had come to terrorize the people of New Orleans saying “I am not a human being, but a spirit and demon of the hottest hell”. But just to make sure there was no confusion, and of course to add more flare the Axeman added, “I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call The Axeman”. The Axeman spent considerable time in the letter making sure the reader understood that he was evil, unpredictable, and could pop up at any time in any place and violently murder more people. The Axeman gloated his confidence that the police would never catch him and that he finds their attempts to do so amusing. However, the Axeman’s main purpose of the letter was not only to establish his identity as a hellish demon that kills at random…but to share his profound love of jazz as well.

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 you people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.”

Yes, even serial killers have their jam and the Axeman’s was most definitely jazz. The Axeman was so into jazz he threatened the people of New Orleans with more axe murders if they refused to get down with some jazz at a specific time.

The jazzing time in question was to begin at 12:15 next to which he wrote “earthly time” on the following Tuesday, March 18, 1919. While his letter might seem humorous, the Axeman of New Orleans had a knack for attacking people in the middle of the night therefore, the threat was taken seriously. People all over the city flooded into bars and dance halls all of which played jazz, jazz, and more jazz throughout the night. Others hired bands and held jazz parties in their homes.

There was hardly a street where one could not hear jazz music being played somewhere and if they couldn’t, we’re certain they promptly moved to a jazzier area. The event inspired a local musician to write a popular jazz tune titled “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa)”, the cover of which depicts terrified people playing the tune as they attempt to appease the Axeman.

                Jazz unfortunately did not offer much safety for long. On August 10, 1919 the Axeman split open the head of grocery store owner Steve Boca who survived by managing to make it to a neighbor’s house where he was able to find help. Less than a month later, Sarah Laumann was found severely beaten and missing several teeth but otherwise survived. Just before Halloween on October 27, 1919 Mike Pepitone awoke after hearing a strange noise and got out of bed to investigate. He made it as far as his bedroom doorway before he was repeatedly struck by an axe and killed. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Pepitone’s murder was a result of a “longstanding vendetta” and while Pepitone was indeed the victim of an axe-man, it wasn’t the jazz-loving axe-man that terrorized Nola seemingly at random. Most sources however, still count Mike Pepitone as an Axeman murder and as far as New Orleans is concerned, he was the last. 

            There are a number of theories as to who the Axeman was and why he terrorized New Orleans the way he did. Many believe the Axeman’s victims were not chosen at random rather they were preyed upon due to his hatred for Italian immigrants.

Others like Frank Mooney believed the killer acted impulsively and the murders had nothing to do with ethnicity rather a need to kill due to insanity. Mooney also believed the Axeman was responsible for previous axe murders in Louisiana as early as 1911, as other Italian grocery store owners had been bludgeoned to death under similar circumstances. Mooney, however, was unable to prove this mostly because if the Axeman was indeed killing people in 1911, he wasn’t the only one. There was another killer running around and this time it wasn’t necessarily an axe-man but an axe-woman and she had a name, Clementine Barnabet. Barnabet’s story is a strange one and she deserves a blog of her own, but this much can be said, between 1909 and 1911 Barnabet murdered thirty-five people in much the same manner as Nola’s Axeman.

Some of the murders, such as Mike Pepitone couldn’t definitively be proven to be Axeman murders which raised the question, were there other killers running around New Orleans purposely mimicking the Axeman? Remember that Al Durand found a .38 caliber cartridge outside of his home the morning after the Romano murder. It was only natural for both Durand and the police to assume the Axeman had made a failed attempt to break into Durand’s home, but interestingly the other proven Axeman attacks never involved a gun. While there were a number of suspects, some of them even spending time behind bars, another even slapped with a wrongful conviction in the Cortimiglia case; none were ever definitively proven to be the Axeman. Smithsonian Magazine argues the Axeman moved on only to continue his killing spree in other areas outside of New Orleans with the murders of more Italian grocery store owners in 1920 and 1921. They make quite a case considering in true Axeman fashion the victims were killed with an axe taken from their own home and discarded. After 1921 however, it is anyone’s guess as to what happened to the Axeman of New Orleans. After 1919 it would seem the jazz-jamming Axeman was finished with New Orleans and had simply tipped his hat, bid farewell, and disappeared into the night as was his style. But in 1945 the Axeman suddenly reappeared, not in person of course, but as a short story in a collection of others revolving around the darker side of Nola’s past. Since then The Axeman of New Orleans has been immortalized in popular culture forever haunting us with his horrific crimes over a century ago.

Krista Funk

Managing Editor: The Moratorium