On the night of Tuesday 18th March 1919, the city of New Orleans was alive with jazz music. Venues were at capacity, all jazz acts were booked up, and those without the means to book a band created their own music in their homes. But the mood in the city, known as ‘the big easy’ and famed for its music scene and carnivals, was not joyful. Rather, the city was gripped by terror. The parties in full swing that night were not celebratory, but forced and strangely macabre.
The parties had been instigated by an article published in the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, that was claimed to have been written by a serial killer. The killer had stalked the streets of New Orleans for years, silently slipping into his victim’s homes as they slept and brutally crushing their skulls and bodies with an axe, before leaving his blood-soaked weapon at the crime scene and creeping back into the night. The press labelled him ‘the axeman’, but in his letter he called himself ‘a demon from the hottest hell’ and declared that on that Tuesday night he would stalk the streets again but spare any house from which jazz music was blaring. As the sun rose that Wednesday morning, the city breathed a sigh of relief. No one had suffered a grim fate at the hands of the axeman that night.
Whether or not the actual murderer wrote the letter is up for debate – it is thought that a local musician may have written it in order to boost sales of a jazz record he had just released. But the killings were all too real. Targeting mostly Italian grocers, the killer had the entire city gripped by fear and had the police chasing hopeless dead ends. By the end of 1919, he would commit one final heinous murder, before disappearing without a trace.
1910-1911 – The first axeman attacks
The axeman of New Orleans is generally considered to have been active in 1918-1919, but to limit a discussion on his activities to these years is to ignore some gruesome attacks several years previously. As the Serial Killers podcast explains, reports of a strange figure who crept into the bedrooms of Italian grocers at night and attacked them with an axe first surfaced in the city in the autumn of 1910, but it was not until 1911 that one attack was fatal.
Joe Davi was a handsome 26-year-old Italian immigrant who ran a grocery shop with his young wife, Mary, who was a few months pregnant. On the night of 26th June 1911, Mary woke to find a dark figure looming over the bed she shared with Joe. The figure asked her where she kept her money, and when she did not reply he struck her over the head with an object, rendering her unconscious. When she awoke again, she realised that blood was streaming from her head and turned to Joe. He was lying beside her with his skull cracked open, barely clinging to life. He remained alive for another day, before finally succumbing to his injuries.
Doctors determined that the object the young couple had been struck with was most likely a butcher’s cleaver, and the media christened the killer ‘the cleaver of New Orleans.’ Police were immediately certain that the killer was the same man who had committed the attacks the previous autumn, and Mary was able to give the police some description of her attacker, saying that he was tall, white, wore workman’s clothes, and spoke with a neutral American accent. The fact that he was white and wore workman’s clothes gave the police the impression that he was probably a low-skilled worker of northern European heritage who was resentful of the increasing number of Italian immigrants in the city. But if he was a workman, why did he attack grocers? Were grocers really a threat to his job security? Police theorised that they were dealing with an out and out hate killer, who attacked his victims not because they threatened his livelihood personally, but because he resented the fact that these new immigrants had done well for themselves while he was still poorly paid. This theory seemed to gain more weight given the fact that Joe Davi was a particularly successful grocer, who had worked his way firmly into the middle class. In any case, the theories the police had were soon redundant. With no physical evidence, they would have to wait for another attack to try and find more clues about their perpetrator. But there would not be another attack for seven years.
The Maggio Murders
On 22nd May 1918, 28-year-old Andrew Maggio received his draft papers - he had been conscripted to fight in the First World War. Terrified at the thought of going off to war, he spent the evening drinking in a bar and stumbled home in the early morning hours to crash out on his bed. At around 4am, Andrew was woken by mysterious noises, followed by a groaning sound. Still groggy from drink, he tried to focus his senses and realised that the noises were coming from the room next to his, occupied by his older brother Joseph and his wife, Catherine. Andrew raced to the nearby home of his other brother, Jacob, and told him what he had heard, and the pair of them agreed they ought to investigate the matter. As they approached the room they realised the back door had been broken into, and they were met by a horrific sight. Both Joseph and Catherine lay covered in blood in their bed, their throats slit and their heads caved in. Catherine’s injuries were so severe she was nearly decapitated, and Joseph clung to life for a few more hours before finally passing.
The police investigation was led by a new chief, Frank T Mooney, who made no connection between this attack and the cleaver attacks a few years before. As far as he was concerned, they had their man – Andrew Maggio was arrested for his brother and sister-in-law’s murder. The police were supported by the fact that the throat injuries were deemed to have been caused by a barber’s blade – Andrew was a barber by trade – and by the fact that the axe that caused the head injuries belonged to Joe Maggio, hinting that the perpetrator had knowledge of the victim’s home.
A newspaper report about the Maggio murders
There was also a degree of racism in the idea that Maggio had killed his family. Again, we turn to the Serial Killers podcast for a description of how there was a stereotype of Italian immigrants that they often had blood feuds, or vendettas, that escalated to the point of individuals taking the law into their own hands. This was a stereotype that particularly applied to the group that made up most of New Orleans’ Italian community – the Sicilians – and Mooney, of Irish descent himself, as well as other powerful men of northern European heritage thought the Maggio murders were simply a vendetta orchestrated by the scorned younger brother. However, the case against Andrew Maggio was based purely on conjecture, and without a clear motive or any evidence the police were eventually forced to release him.
In the summer of 1918, the axeman would appear to have set his sights on victims that did not fit his previous Italian demographic. On the morning of 27th June, John Zanca was delivering bread to a grocery shop and was shocked to find the owner, a 60-year-old Polish immigrant named Louis Besumer, was covered in blood as he opened the door. Zanca asked Besumer what had happened, but he seemed unconcerned about his injuries or the fate of his wife, 29-year-old Harriet Lowe, who Zanca discovered lying in a pool of blood but also still alive. Both were taken to hospital and Besumer said that he had been attacked with his own axe by a mystery intruder. The police did find that his back door had been broken into using a chisel that had been left at the scene, but they were suspicious of Besumer because he had significantly less severe injuries than his wife. Their suspicions were further aroused when letters in various different languages were discovered in his possession, and a delirious Harriet Lowe claimed he was a German spy – a severe charge at a time when the US was at war with Germany. The story got more bizarre a few days after the attack, when another woman claiming to be Besumer’s wife turned up in the city and it was discovered that Harriet Lowe was in fact Besumer’s mistress.
Police arrested an African American store clerk but released him due to lack of evidence and firmly pinned their focus of Besumer. Harriet Lowe died in August after complications from surgery, and the entire case against Besumer rested on her contradicting statements, which had all been given while she had severe head injuries and was heavily sedated. Besumer was acquitted at trial in 1919 after the jury deliberated for only ten minutes, and the detectives who interviewed Lowe were demoted for their shoddy work. While Besumer was in prison awaiting trial, yet more people had fallen victim to gruesome attacks.
On the night of 5th August 1918, Mary Schneider, 28-years-old and 8 months pregnant, tossed and turned as she struggled to get to sleep in the intense summer heat. She was alone that night as her husband Ed was working a night shift, but when she heard someone entering the bedroom she assumed he had returned early. She was sorely mistaken. The last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was a large, dark figure towering over her. A few hours later, Ed Schneider did return from work and found Anna with her scalp open and bleeding profusely. He rushed her to a hospital, where both mother and baby’s lives were saved – Mary gave birth to a healthy baby girl two days later.
Police determined that the weapon used to attack Schneider had not been an axe at all – the intruder had used a lamp to hit her over the head several times. As with the Besumer case, they did not believe this attack was linked to the Maggio killings, or indeed the Davi murder in 1911. They may have been correct in this assessment, as neither the Besumer or Schneider attacks fit the victim profile of those previous cases, but they still had other similarities: back doors had been broken into using a chisel, and, in the Besumer case, the victim’s own axe was used against them. The killer never brought his own axe to a murder scene, and it is possible he used a lamp in the Schneider attack because he could not find an axe.
As far as the New Orleans press was concerned the killings were all related, and they had a new moniker for the culprit. Days after the Schneider attack, the Times-Picayune printed a headline in which they labelled the killer as the ‘axeman’ for the first time. The people of the city bought copies in their droves, terrified at the prospect of a gruesome serial killer lurking around their neighbourhoods. Within just a couple of days, the axeman would justify their fears.
More Italian victims
On the night of 10th August 1918, not even a week after the Schneider attack and mere days after the first appearance of the ‘axeman’ label, 15-year-old Pauline Bruno was woken by the sound of a commotion coming from inside her small house. As she sat up in bed, she saw a man standing in her door way, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she was just about able to make out his features – tall, heavy set, and wearing dark clothes. Pauline screamed, waking her younger sister Mary, who also spotted the stranger. The shadowy figure hesitated for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to shut the girls up by attacking them, but eventually decided to flee. In his place, the girls’ uncle, 31-year-old Joe Romano, stumbled into the doorway clutching his face. The girls immediately called for help, and Joe was even able to walk out of the house himself, but he had been cut right through to the brain. He died of his wounds soon after.
The evidence – a broken into back door, a bloodied axe discarded in the home – all pointed to an axeman attack, and for the first time police chief Frank Mooney acknowledged that he was dealing with a serial killer who had a specific hatred for Italian immigrants. The city was plunged into a panic, with Italian and non-Italian residents alike buying guns and parents taking turns watching over their children at night. Mooney promised that he would find the killer, but everyone saw past his confident façade. He and his force had nothing to work with and were desperately hoping that their man would either make a mistake or be turned in by someone who knew him.
The axeman took a months long hiatus from his spree, and the people of New Orleans focused their attention on other seismic events in the world around them. Throughout 1918 another killer, the Spanish flu, wreaked havoc across the city, and in November the First World War came to an end, sparking joyful celebrations. But the new year would bring more death, a mysterious letter, and then a disappearance.
On 10th March 1919, the axeman returned – but not in New Orleans. Just across the Mississippi river lies Gretna, a suburb of the city that had so far been shielded from the axeman’s wrath. It was here that he struck again, claiming the life of a two-year-old girl, Mary Cortimiglia, and attacking her parents, Charles and Rosie. Since the attack had taken place outside of Frank Mooney’s jurisdiction, he could only watch with dismay as the Gretna police force embarked on an amateurish investigation where fingerprints were contaminated, the broken back door was fixed immediately and two neighbours were arrested and charged with the murder. The neighbours, 68-year-old Iorlando Jordano and his 17-year-old son, Frank, had been close with the Cortimiglia family but had developed a rivalry with them after Charles and Rosie opened a grocery store that competed with their own. Indeed, the killing came soon after the Iorlando had taken them to court over a business dispute. Gretna police had decided that the killing was a vendetta, despite pleas from Frank Mooney to look at a possible connection between this killing and the killings in New Orleans.
The evidence against the Jordano men was incredibly weak. For a start, Iorlando had arthritis and was going blind, which would have made it near impossible for him to wield an axe and attack three people, two of whom were able-bodied adults. Secondly, there was no way the 6 foot 2, 14 stone Frank could have fitted through the gap that the attacker had made in the back door. As Miriam Davis explains, Gretna police knew all of this, so decided to secure for themselves an eyewitness account. As soon as Rosie Cortimiglia was released from hospital she was arrested, denied a lawyer, and left under no illusions that she would remain in jail until she ‘remembered’ who had attacked her. After spending days saying that she could not be sure who attacked her, she finally relented and pointed to the Frank and Iorlando as the suspects. Gretna police produced a detailed account of the attack and forced Rosie to sign it, knowing that she could not read English and had no way of knowing what she was signing. The statement was enough to convince a jury, and Frank Jordano was sentenced to hang. Iorlando was given life imprisonment. Thankfully, they were both released in 1920 after Rosie recanted her statement and their convictions were quashed.
The mysterious Jazz letter
Perhaps annoyed that another culprit was being given ‘credit’ for his attack in Gretna, the axeman is alleged to have written the letter a few days later to the Times-Picayune in which he described himself as a ‘demon from hottest hell’ and promised to spare the lives of anyone who played jazz music the following Tuesday night. The origins of the letter are dubious, not least because the colourful language it used did not seem to fit the profile of a low-educated workman. Some people claim it was a local composer named Joseph Davilla, who happened to release a record called ‘the mysterious axeman’s jazz’ that week, who wrote the letter in an effort to boost his sales.
The final axeman attacks
Whether or not he wrote the jazz letter, the axeman spared the city that night in March and did not appear again until August, when he attacked a grocer named Steve Boca. The grocer survived his injuries but could not remember anything about the attack. On 3rd September, 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was attacked as she slept in the home she lived in alone. The culprit left an axe on Laumann’s front lawn, but the fact that she was not Italian nor a grocer, coupled with the fact that the culprit had entered the home through a window rather than the back door, creates doubts about whether this truly was the work of the axeman.
The last attack that the media declared was the work of the axeman came on the night of 27th October 1919. Mike Pepitone, a 35-year-old grocer, was discovered by his daughter lying in a pool of blood. He had been struck with an axe and died two hours later.
Frank Mooney was hopeful that finally he would be able to get his man, but his investigation found that Pepitone and his father had been involved in the murder of another Italian immigrant a decade previously. While some axeman murders had been wrongly classified as a vendetta killing, the Pepitone murder probably was one.
Just like that, the killings stopped. By the end of 1920, satisfied the axeman was not returning, Frank Mooney resigned his position as chief of police, despondently noting that his failure to catch the perpetrator had cost him any future career. Most criminologists agree that a serial killer, particularly one as vicious as the axeman, cannot just decide to stop murdering one day – there needs to have been a reason why he was not able to stalk the streets anymore – so it is likely that the axeman either died in 1919 or was sent to prison for an unrelated offence.
The fact that Pepitone was murdered with an axe was unusual for a vendetta killing, but could be ascribed to the fact that the real culprit hoped to pin the blame on the mysterious axeman. The same logic cannot be said to apply to most of the other killings. There was undoubtedly a vendetta culture in some parts of the Italian community and such killings were not uncommon, but they were usually efficient and clean. Most Italian gangs would have never used an axe to attack their targets, yet alone leave a handful of them alive to tell the tale. In addition, the Italian gangs had an unspoken honour code whereby it was very rare for women and children to be attacked as part of a vendetta. The axeman did not care about the gender or age of his victims, killing indiscriminately in a way the Italian gangs would not have done.
There remains other questions about the axeman. Why did he take so many breaks from his spree, particularly from 1911 until 1918? The breaks of a few weeks or months in between attacks are common for serial killers, who tend to lay low after one or two killings and bask in the ‘glory’ of what they have done, before trying to find new victims who can give them their next rush. The long break in between 1911 and 1918 is less explainable, though some have suggested there was a physical reason he could not attack during this time – maybe he was serving a prison sentence, or working in a night job that kept him off the streets while people were sleeping. Such an explanation could account for the sudden explosion in activity in 1918 – he may have been laid off early in the year and used his new found spare time at night to launch what he saw as a revenge mission.
Some of the cases listed in this piece were probably not axeman attacks. They may have been burglaries gone wrong, as the Laumann case may have been, or vendettas disguised as axeman murders, as the Pepitone case is likely to have been. However, there is no doubt that a serial killer did prowl the dark New Orleans nights in the 1910s, breaking into homes and savagely attacking their occupants. He mainly targeted Italian grocers but left the entire city paralysed with fear. He was vicious, hateful and terrifying. He was the axeman.
The Ministry of History is not an academic source. Our pieces are written by writers who have been keen students of history for years and are well versed in, and influenced by, countless other writers and works. For this article specifically our sources have included:
'The Axeman of New Orleans', Episode from Serial Killers podcast series, hosted by Greg Poulsen and Vanessa Richardson (2020)
'The Axeman of New Orleans', article published by crimeandinvestigation.com
'The Axeman of New Orleans preyed on Italian immigrants', article by Miriam Davis, published by smithsonianmag.com (2018)
'The Axe murderer who loved jazz', article by Meghan B Kelly, published by wbur.org
Image one - filmdaily.com
Image two - NOLA.com
Image three - openculture.com