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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.
The Axeman in a letter attributed to him

The Axeman of New Orleans was a still-unidentified serial killer active in New Orleans, Louisiana, and vicinity, reportedly from May 1918 to October 1919 (although some, including concurrent ex-detective John Dantonio, speculated his span of crimes began in 1910-1911, while some were convinced it went on from 1915-1917 to 1920. These accounts were later contradicted by the likes of true crime author Michael Newton).

Case History

First Attacks

A map depicting where the Axeman's attacks happened.

A Times-Picayune piece about the Maggio murders

The first attack attributed to the Axeman occurred on the night of May 22, 1918. Italian grocer Joseph Maggio and his wife, Catherine, both had their throats slashed by an unknown intruder, whom then proceeded bashing their heads with an ax he had found in the house. Joseph died minutes after he and his wife were discovered by his brothers, Jake and Andrew Maggio. Police discovered the bloody clothes of the murderer in the house, suggesting he changed his clothes before fleeing. Andrew Maggio, whom worked as a barber, and whose straight razor proved to be the murder weapon, became the prime suspect, but was eventually released.

A few blocks from the murder scene, policemen had found a cryptic message chalked on the sidewalk. It read: "Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney". This was later interpreted as a reference to the alleged attack of another couple of Italian grocers in June 1911: Anthony and Johanna Sciambra (the latter was nicknamed "Mrs. Toney" by some of her customers). On June 27, another couple was attacked in the night time. Grocer Louis Besumer and his mistress, Harriet Anna Lowe, were found, with head blunt injuries, by a bakery wagon driver. They both survived the attempt. After the arrest and subsequent release of an African-American suspect in the case, Harriet (in what was deemed a delirious episode) alleged that Louis was a German spy. Later, she claimed he was also responsible for the June 27 attack. Besumer was arrested and later released. Because of the outcome, the press sensationalized the story.

In the early hours of August 5, Mary Schneider, a pregnant woman, was found badly wounded by a blunt force trauma. The intruder also picked up some dollars from Mr. Schneider's wallet. Mary claimed to remember an ax desending on her and then nothing more. The police, eventually, concluded that the murder weapon could have been a lamp found in her house (using his victims' objects as murder weapons was also part of the Axeman M.O.). Another suspect was taken in, but later released.

On August 10, an elderly man named Joseph Romano was attacked during the night. He was found bleeding from his head by his two nieces. The latters were also able to spot the intruder fleeing, describing him as a "dark-skinned, heavy-set man, who wore a dark suit and slouched hat". Joseph eventually died two days later of his wounds. This further attack caused likewise hysteria in New Orleans, with everyone fearing an home invasion by the Axeman.

On September 13, the Axeman apparently attempted another home invasion but couldn't succeed, because objects were obstructing his way. The method of entry was the same as the other attacks, as well as the targeted victims: grocer Paul Durel Jr. and his family.

The first 1919 attack occurred on March 10 of the same year, in Gretna (a New Orleans suburb). The victims were grocer Charles Cortimiglia, his wife Rosie and their daughter Mary. While the latter was killed, her parents survived. At first, Iorlando Jordano and his son were accused by Rosie Cortimiglia and arrested on charges of the attack. Later, as Rosie recanted, they were released.

The Letter

Cover of the sheet music of "The Mysterious Axman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)", a song wrote by local tune writer Joseph John Davilla in 1919.

On March 13, a letter was sent to the Times-Picayune that read:

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 published text of the letter caused widespread panic. On the night of St. Joseph (March 19) all of New Orleans' dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

Final Attacks

On August 10, Steve Boca, another Italian grocer, was attacked with an ax by an intruder in his home. The bloody murder weapon was left in his kitchen.

On September 3, Sarah Laumann was attacked either by the Axeman or by an imitator while sleeping. Just like Boca, she couldn't remember anything of the attack. Again, the bloody ax employed in the attempt was left at the scene.

The last attack attributed to the Axeman occurred on the night of October 27. Mike Pepitone, a grocer, was murdered by an intruder who was spotted by Pepitone's wife.

Modus Operandi

The Axeman mainly targeted Italian immigrants or Italian-Americans whom worked as grocers, presumably stalking them, before the attacks, for an unspecified amount of time. He usually killed his victims with their own sharp or blunt objects, such as axes or hatchets, with which he smashed their heads and faces repeatedly, sometimes fracturing their skulls. He also employed throat slashing and stabbing. Several alleged attacks attributed to the Axeman were also committed by shooting.

The Axeman entered his victims' homes mainly by chiseling panels in their doors and walls. His signature was leaving the bloody axes he had used on the crime scenes, after the attacks.

Profile

According to eyewitness accounts of survivors, the Axeman was a white working-class male in his 30s when the attacks began. From the ease with which he broke into the groceries and his use of a railroad shoe pin, a common burglary tool, the police concluded that he was an experienced burglar.

Crime analysts suggested the Axeman could have been a sexual sadist whom specifically sought female victims, as supported by some of the cases in which the man was wounded while the woman was killed. Writer Colin Wilson hypothesizes that the Axeman only killed the man of the household when he attempted to thwart his attack on the female. John Dantonio, a retired detective, was convinced that the Axeman was a "Jekyll and Hyde personality, like Jack the Ripper [...] suddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.”

A less plausible theory is that the Axeman committed the murders in an effort to promote Jazz music, as suggested by the letter attributed him.

Known Victims

  • 1918:
    • May 22, corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets, New Orleans:
      • Joseph Maggio, 41 (slashed his throat with a straight razor, then bashed his head with an axe; survived, but later died from his wounds)
      • Catherine Maggio, 36 (slashed her throat with a straight razor, then bashed her head with an axe)
    • June 27, corner of Dorgenois and Laharpe Streets, New Orleans:
      • Louis Besumer (fractured his skull with an ax; survived)
      • Harriet Anna Lowe (Louis' mistress; hit over her left ear, partially paralyzed her face; died on August 5)
    • August 5, Elmira Street, New Orleans: Mary Schneider, 28 (bludgeoned in the face and cut her scalp open; survived)
    • August 10, New Orleans: Joseph Romano, 80 (bludgeoned in the head with an ax; died two days later)
  • 1919:
    • March 10, corner of Jefferson Avenue and Second Street, Gretna, Louisiana:
      • Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia (parents; fractured their skulls with an ax; both survived)
      • Mary Cortimiglia, 2 (daughter; stabbed in the neck)
    • August 10: Steve Boca (cracked his head open with an ax; survived)
    • September 3: Sarah Laumann, 19 (bludgeoned in the head and teeths with a blunt object; survived)
    • October 27: Mike Pepitone (bludgeoned with an ax)

Possible

  • 1910:
    • April 13, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: Anthony/Giovanni Barracca (shot, then cracked his skull in two with an ax)
    • August 13: John and Harriet Crutti
    • September:
      • Joseph Rissetto (attempted; wounded with an ax)
      • Conchetta Rissetto (killed with an ax)
  • June 1911:
    • Joseph Davi
    • Marie Davi (survived)
  • May 1912: Anthony and Johanna Sciambra (both shot at close range)
  • 1917:
    • December 22:
      • Epifanio Andollina (attacked with an ax; survived)
      • John Andollina (Epifanio's older son; attacked with an ax; survived)
      • Salvadore Andollina (Epifanio's younger son; survived; his arm was wounded)
    • September 13: Paul Durel Jr. and his family (attempted)
  • December 1920, Alexandria, Louisiana: Joseph Spero and his daughter
  • 1921, Louisiana:
    • January, DeRidder: Giovanni Orlando
    • April, Lake Charles: Frank Scalisi

Suspects

Prime Suspect

Joseph Mumfre in a photograph published after his alleged fatal shooting

  • Joseph Mumfre (1875 - 1921)
    • Crime writer Colin Wilson, based on an account by author Robert Tallant, suspected Joseph Mumfre (also spelled Monfre, Momfre or Manfre) to be the Axeman. Mumfre was allegedly shot to death in December 1920, in Los Angeles, by the widow of Mike Pepitone. Wilson speculated that Mrs. Pepitone killed his husband's murderer for revenge. In actuality, Mumfre approached Mrs. Pepitone (who had remarried but her second husband had disappeared without a trace). He demanded $500 and jewelry. Mumfre threatened that if she didn't cooperate, he would "Kill [her] the same way he had killed [her] husband". Pepitone retrieved two guns and fatally shot Mumfre (who had a pistol in his pocket) 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.
    • On the other hand, sources revealed there may have been a man called Joseph Mumfre, Momfre, Monfre or Manfre (which was a common name at the time), in New Orleans, connected to the organized crime and accused of committing a bombing in 1907. However, local records for the period are not extensive enough to positively identify the individual.
    • Two of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their home, in 1912. The prime suspect was referred to by the name of "Momfre" multiple times.
    • Author Jay Robert Nash believed Mumfre to be a hitman working for the mob, whom extorted money from Italian grocers. However, not all the Axeman victims were Italians nor 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.

Others

  • 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, as the straight razor used to kill his brother and sister-in-law was his own. Was eventually released, as the authorities were unable to contradict his statements as well as his account of an unknown man supposedly seen lurking near the residence, prior to the murders.
  • Lewis Oubicon
    • An African-American man whom was briefly suspected of the Besumer attack. Was later released because of lack of evidence.
  • Louis Besumer
    • Indicted on charges of attacking his mistress, Annie Harriet Lowe, because of her own admission (she had earlier accused Louis of being a German spy, a fact that was allegedly confirmed also by a series of letters). Was later acquitted.
  • Emmett Daniels
    • A WWI veteran and medal of honour recipient. Charged in 1917 with the brutal rape of two women in Belgium in 1915, suspected of many more but acquitted on all counts. One member of his battalion claimed that Daniels killed a German soldier with an axe and kept hacking once his victim was dead, seemingly enjoying it.
  • James Gleason
    • A former convict. Was briefly detained on charges of attacking Anna Schneider. He was later released.
  • Unidentified Vampire
    • One theory albeit unlikely that was proposed by the investigators was that due to the fact that the killer managed to get into houses without any trace, they believed him to have supernatural abilities. The bloody nature of the crime scenes led the police to suspect an unidentified vampire as the culprit. This theory has since been ruled out.
  • Iorlando Jordano and Frank Jordano
    • Competitors grocers of the Cortimiglias. Suspected of their murders.
    • Were eventually exonerated, after Rosie Cortimiglia confessed she implicated them out of spite (however, further accounts suggested she was compelled to implicate them by police force members).
  • Also, as the majority of the victims were of Italian descent, 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. However, 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.

On Criminal Minds

While the Axeman was never directly mentioned or referenced on the show, he appears to have been an inspiration for the following unsubs:

  • Season One
    • Franklin Graney ("Plain Sight") - Both were serial killers and stalkers who targeted women (according to the Axeman's profile), stalked their victims for periods of time before their attacks (presumably in the Axeman's case), killed their victims in their homes, had six victims (though the Axeman may have killed more), had signatures involving leaving something at their crimes scenes (ballad snippets in Graney's case, the murder weapons used in the Axeman's), were given nicknames, and both viewed themselves as 'above mortals' in some supernatural way (Graney saw himself as "death", while the Axeman saw himself as a "demon").
  • Season Seven
    • Rodney Garrett ("Divining Rod") - Both were serial killers who primarily targeted women (according to Axeman's profile), broke into victims' homes and ambushed them, and used sharp objects to kill at least some of their victims (though the Axeman may have used other means). Also the way Garrett was described by the BAU as being compulsive (rather than being driven by sex) could be a nod to how the Axeman was profiled as having murderous impulses he must act on.

Notes

The alleged photo of the Axeman.

  • A photograph has surfaced on the Internet, allegedly taken around when Mike Pepitone was murdered. The photo depicts a man going inside the Pepitones' residence, holding what appears to be an axe. The authenticity of this photo is unknown.

Sources

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