Americans are drawn to crime like moths to a flame. Whole societies obsess over serial killers and unsolved murders. We even have serial killer “groupies”. (Yes, I’ve met a few.) As much as we are repulsed by seemingly random acts of violence, we are fascinated by it as well. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps humans all have voyeuristic tendencies? Crime interests people. I learned early on in my public safety career to never tell strangers what I did for a living. They would immediately ask “What is the worst thing you’ve ever seen.” This is akin to making me relive your worst nightmare. So never ask that question!
If you look through newspapers and other means of popular culture from yesteryear, one thing you will notice is that crimes fascinated people 100 years ago just as they do today. Just as crimes like the O.J. Simpson case and little ole Casey Anthony draw huge media attention and consequently captivate American audiences, so too did the Mary Rodgers case from the 1840s, the Lindbergh Case from the 1930s, and the list goes on and on. We have a mistaken belief, it seems, that back in “the good old days” one needn’t fear being murdered or assaulted. Everyone went to church all the time and did nothing but good deeds. That, my Dear Readers, is a load of bullsh!t. People were just as…….fudged…….up back in the day as they are now. Human nature hasn’t changed.
So let us now turn our attention to New Orleans, Louisiana. The year is 1918. The month is May. In France, thousands of US soldiers are pouring into the country every day to bolster British and French troops. Soon they will help thwart Germany’s last attempt to win the war. Congress passes the Sedition Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to criticize the war effort. New influenza cases continue to pop up, the first of a deadly pandemic that will eventually kill millions. New Orleans is a city in transition. Once the home of Storyville, a thriving redlight district among the most notorious (and profitable) in the world, the city is now dealing with the after effects of its closure. The US Military considered it a bad influence on soldiers and thus pressured the city into shutting down what residents called “The District”. The mayor of New Orleans, Martin Berhman, said “You can make it [prostitution] illegal. You can’t make it unpopular.” True enough. Now The District is home to restaurants and jazz clubs, more music than sex. And of course, it being Louisiana and all, The District was also home to numerous low gambling dives.
On the night of May 22nd, 1918, a foul villain entered the home of a married couple, both Italian immigrants, named Joseph and Catherine Maggio. The two were attacked in their beds in the most horrendous of ways. The assailant slit their throats with a straight razor. The damage done to Mrs. Maggio was so severe that her head was almost completely severed. When finished with his heinous task, our killer then bashed them repeatedly in the head with an ax. Mercifully, Catherine expired quickly, as far as the police could tell but Joseph was still among the living when he was discovered by his brothers. One of the brothers, Andrew, quickly became the prime suspect as the razor blade was found to belong to him. He owned a nearby barber shop and an employee reported seeing him remove the blade. Plus, despite the killer smashing down a door, Andrew claimed to hear nothing of the attack itself and was only awakened by strange gurgling noises coming from the bedroom of our victims. Not a thing was found missing from the home, thus the motive had to be murder. Murder most foul! Young Andrew said he arrived home in a highly intoxicated state due to his imminent departure to join the Navy. Having once been a young college student myself, I can sympathize with his “state” on the night of the attacks!
Dear Readers, if I may impart a bit of wisdom to you, it is generally not a good idea for married people to have affairs. If you have ever watched a Lifetime Movie, you will know what I speak is true. One month after the murder of the Maggios, our fiend struck again. A “gentleman” named Louis Besumer was attacked whilst in bed with his mistress, a woman named Harriet Lowe. They were discovered the following morning when a grocer arrived with a delivery. Both were unconscious but still alive, bleeding from wounds to the head. The police managed to revive them long enough to get statements. According to Besumer, they were “asleep” when they were attacked. Perhaps. Or perhaps they were caught in, shall we say, the act. Lowe stated that a mulatto man attacked them but given the injuries that she had suffered and the fact that the attack took place in the dark, her statement is questionable. However, our esteemed NOPD considered it good enough to arrest the first available black man, who happened to have been previously in the employ of Besumer. And now things take a turn for the strange. Ms. Lowe at first claimed to be the wife of Mr. Besumer but this fact did not stand up to careful scrutiny. Though she slipped in and out of consciousness over the next few months, the police were able to speak with her numerous times. Before she died, she declared that Besumer himself was the killer! Given the fact that the murder weapon did belong to him, the police charged him with the deed. He was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for ten minutes! Her veracity was no doubt challenged due to the fact that she also accused Besumer of being a German spy. This was also not proven, of course. Chiefly because it probably wasn’t true. Hopefully none of you have ever had a jealous partner accuse you of being a serial killer!
Our fiend then took a break. But only for a short while. On August 5th, Mrs. Schneider opened her eyes and found a man hovering over her in the dark. As she no doubt adjusted to the shock, he began to smash her in the face. The victim was discovered when her husband arrived home from work after midnight. The police surmised that a lamp was the weapon here, not an axe, which may be the reason why Mrs. Schneider survived. In a shocking twist, our victim was eight months pregnant at the time! She gave birth two days later to a healthy child. Mrs. Schneider was not able to tell the police anything of use regarding the attack. So the police arrested another handy subject only to have to release him a short time later!
Naturally by this point the media was having a field day with their coverage of the series of baffling and seemingly random attacks. And our villain was about to escalate his behavior. Five days after Mrs. Schneider met the Axeman, he struck again. This time his victim was an elderly man named Joseph Romano. Hearing a commotion, his two nieces entered the room and saw our fiend as he made his escape. They described him as a dark-skinned, heavy man, wearing a dark suit and a slouch hat. (At least he had style!) Sadly, Mr. Romano left this world a few days later due to the severe head trauma he sustained in this latest bloodbath. And now, Dear Readers, panic gripped the city. People called the police to report shadowy men hiding behind every lamppost. Some reported finding axes left in their backyards! A retired detective stated that he felt these murders were connected to others which had happened in 1911. That did nothing to quell public fears. He hypothesized that our fiendish killer may have be a Jeckyl and Hyde wherein he would appear outwardly normal until moved to kill. This, of course, caused people to look very carefully at their neighbors. Is your neighbor just odd or are they a killer?
After the murder of Mr. Romano, the Axeman took a break. Or did he? It is possible that he moved on to other areas for a while to help avoid detection. Perhaps Baton Rouge or Mobile appealed to him and he visited for a while. With his axe. The city breathed a sigh of relief as it looked as though our fiend was finished with the Big Easy. But no. He had other plans for New Orleans. On the night of March 10th, Across the river from New Orleans lies the town of Gretna. That dark night neighbors awoke to screams coming from a house. They ran over to investigate and found a tragic scene. A husband and wife had been attacked while in their beds. The mother held a two year old girl in her arms who was sadly deceased, killed by a blow to the neck. The parents would survive. Mrs. Cortmiglia accused a local man and his son of attacking her family. Her husband denied this most strongly. The accused man was in too poor a physical condition to have done it. His son was too big to have crawled through the missing door panel whereby the killer gained access. None of this concerned the police. Both were arrested and convicted. The 18 year old son was sentenced to swing from the gallows while his father received a life term. After the trial, Mr. Cortmiglia divorced his wife, no doubt angry that she falsely accused two men of murder. A year later, she recounted her story and the two men were released. But an innocent man very nearly went to the gallows for a crime he did not commit.
Our Axeman had a sense of humor. Three nights after the attack on the Cortmiglia family, he sent a letter to the newspapers. “From Hell” it said, no doubt a tip of the slouch hat to Jack the Ripper! I will now give you a brief quote:
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.
Needless to say, Dear Readers, the citizens of New Orleans certainly did jazz it up that night. The Axeman was true to his word. Nary a murder was committed. No one got the ax. He took another break from axing the citizens of New Orleans, only to strike again on August 10th. Our victim survived, but was unable to give any information about the attacker. Six weeks later, a 19 year old woman who lived alone was brutally attacked whilst in her bed. Neighbors found her in a pool of her own blood, sans several teeth, with a nasty head wound. Alas, an ax was found in her front yard. Thankfully young Miss Laumann did not succumb to her wounds, but the police received no additional information as she was unable to recall the details of the dastardly attack. After another long pause, the killer struck for the last time (that we know of) on October 27th when he murdered Mr. Pepitone in the usual brutal fashion. Sadly, the victims wife who interrupted the killer in the midst of his foul deed could not give a good description to the police.
And so the Axeman faded into history and memory, though he is not well known outside of New Orleans, at least until he showed up as a character in a season of American Horror Story. The police never had much to go on. But the larger lesson here is that the good people of New Orleans refused to bow down to him, even when he was in the midst of his brutal spree. Indeed, a musician even penned a special song for him called “The Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Poppa). It was published in the months when the Dastardly Villian held sway over the birthplace of jazz. You can listen to one version of it here. Did the Axeman die? Was he arrested for another crime? Or did he simply take his horror show on the road? We’ll never know.