In the early 20th century, the city of New Orleans was terrorized by a mysterious and brutal killer known as the Axeman. From May 1918 to October 1919, the Axeman struck at least 12 times, attacking his victims with an axe or straight razor while they slept in their homes. The murders were never solved, and the identity of the Axeman remains a mystery to this day.
The Axeman was known for leaving the murder weapon and not stealing anything, ruling out robbery as a motive. There were disputed claims of letters sent to police and newspapers. Axeman’s victims were aged 17 to 60, men and women, with many being Italian immigrants, suggesting a grudge against the community. On March 13, 1919, the Axeman attacked Joseph and Catherine Maggio with an axe, leaving them for dead. Catherine survived but couldn’t identify the attacker before she died from her injuries.
Axeman’s Letter to police:
The Axeman of New Orleans is known for sending letters to the police and newspapers during the height of his killing spree, though the authenticity of these letters is disputed. One of the most well-known letters purportedly written by the Axeman was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on March 13, 1919. In the letter, the Axeman claimed to be a demon from hell and threatened to kill again, stating:
“Hell, March 13, 1919
Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans:
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 the 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 letter caused a sensation at the time, and many people in New Orleans took it seriously, with some even hosting jazz parties on the designated night to avoid becoming a victim. However, some historians dispute the authenticity of the letter and suggest that it may have been a hoax or a publicity stunt by the newspaper. Despite this, the legend of the Axeman and his supposed love of jazz music has become a part of New Orleans folklore.
The Axeman of New Orleans Timeline
To better understand the terror that the Axeman brought to New Orleans, it’s helpful to look at the timeline of his attacks. Here are some of the key events in the Axeman’s killing spree:
- May 23, 1918 – The Axeman’s first known attack occurs in the home of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, who is attacked with an axe while they sleep.
- June 27, 1918 – The Axeman attacks Louis Besumer and his mistress, Harriet Lowe, with an axe while they sleep.
- August 5, 1918 – The Axeman attacks the Cortimiglia family, killing Frank and his infant daughter and seriously injuring his wife and two other children.
- March 10, 1919 – The Axeman attacks the Albano family, killing Charles and his wife Rose and seriously injuring their 15-year-old daughter.
- March 13, 1919 – The Axeman attacks the Maggio family again, this time leaving Catherine for dead.
- March 14, 1919 – The Axeman attacks the Schneider family, killing Louis and his daughter and seriously injuring his wife and another daughter.
- March 19, 1919 – The Axeman sends a letter to a local newspaper, claiming that he will spare anyone playing jazz music on the night of March 19. The night becomes known as the “Night of the Axeman” as jazz music is played throughout the city.
- August 10, 1919 – The Axeman’s last known attack occurs in the home of Steve Boca, who fights off the attacker before he can be killed.
After the attack on Steve Boca, the Axeman disappeared, and the killings stopped. Despite ongoing investigations and numerous suspects over the years, the Axeman’s identity remains a mystery.
The Axeman’s methods were consistent throughout his killing spree. He targeted Italian immigrants, who made up a large portion of New Orleans’ population at the time. He would break into their homes at night, using a chisel or axe to pry open windows or doors. Once inside, he would attack his victims with an axe or straight razor, sometimes using their own weapons against them. The Axeman was a careful and calculating killer, leaving little evidence behind at each crime scene.
Suspects but no arrests
While there were several suspects investigated during the Axeman of New Orleans’ killing spree, some have garnered more attention and speculation than others. Here are some additional details about the suspects:
- Frank Jordano – Jordano was known to have been involved in several disputes with Italian immigrants in the city, and it was rumored that he held a grudge against them. However, he had an alibi for at least one of the Axeman’s attacks and was never definitively linked to any of the crimes..
- Joseph Mumfre (1875 – 1921): Crime writer Colin Wilson suspected Joseph Mumfre to be the Axeman. Mumfre was allegedly shot to death in December 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone. Mumfre threatened that if she didn’t cooperate, he would “Kill [her] the same way he had killed [her] husband”. Mumfre had a pistol in his pocket and was shot at least eleven times. She was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Concurrent reports stated that Mumfre was in jail during the Axeman hiatus between August 1918 and March 1919. Others reported that he was in jail from 1911 to 1918. True crime writer Michael Newton didn’t find any evidence about “Joseph Mumfre” or Pepitone’s widow. Nowadays, Wilson’s theory is considered to be an urban legend. Author Jay Robert Nash believed Mumfre to be a hitman working for the mob, who extorted money from Italian grocers. However, not all the Axeman victims were Italians or grocers. According to scholar Richard Warner, the chief suspect in the crimes was Frank “Doc” Mumphrey (1875–1921), who used the alias Leon Joseph Monfre/Manfre.
- Andrew Maggio: Brother of one of the first reported victims of the Axeman worked as a barber. Briefly considered as a suspect in the case.
- Lewis Oubicon: An African-American man who was briefly suspected of the Besumer attack.
- Louis Besumer: Indicted on charges of attacking his mistress, Annie Harriet Lowe.
- Emmett Daniels: A WWI veteran charged in 1917 with the murder of two women in Belgium in 1915, suspected of many more but acquitted on all counts.
- James Gleason: A former convict who was briefly detained on charges of attacking Anna Schneider.
- Iorlando Jordano and Frank Jordano: Competitors grocers of the Cortimiglias. Suspected of their murders. Were eventually exonerated.
- Rosie Cortimiglia: Confessed she implicated Iorlando Jordano and Frank Jordano out of spite.
- Unidentified Vampire: One theory was that the killer managed to get into houses without any trace, leading the police to suspect an unidentified vampire as the culprit. This theory has since been ruled out.
- Organized Crime and Other Theories: The “Black Hand” and the Mafia were briefly suspected to be behind the murders, with the Axeman working as a hitman on behalf of one of these organizations. This was deemed improbable, mainly because it was believed the mob wouldn’t have left survivors as the Axeman did, and also because of lack of evidence to support this.
Despite years of investigation and numerous suspects, the identity of the Axeman of New Orleans remains unknown. Some people believe that the killer may have been a transient or a drifter, while others speculate that he may have been a member of the city’s criminal underworld.
During the time of the Axeman of New Orleans’ killing spree, there were several sketches created based on witness descriptions of the killer. However, these sketches were often inconsistent and did not provide a clear image of what the Axeman may have looked like.
One of the more widely circulated sketches was created by police artist John F. Gruber in 1919, after the attack on Mike Pepitone. This sketch depicted a man with a prominent nose, a pointed chin, and dark, wavy hair. However, some people questioned the accuracy of the sketch, as it was based on a description provided by Pepitone’s wife, who was not present during the attack.
Another sketch, created by a local newspaper artist, depicted a man with a more rugged, muscular build and a thick, bushy mustache. This sketch was based on the description of a witness who claimed to have seen the Axeman fleeing the scene of one of the murders.
Theories regarding who Axeman is
Some speculate that he targeted Italian immigrants as revenge for mistreating his family, while others believe he had a mental illness based on his bizarre letters. There is also a theory that the Axeman had mafia connections and carried out the killings as part of a larger criminal plot. Additionally, some speculate that the Axeman may have inspired copycat killers in New Orleans and elsewhere.
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