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Jazz It Out: The Axeman of New Orleans

Between May 1918 and October 1919, the Axeman of New Orleans terrorized the Italian grocer population in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While he had less than a 50 percent kill rate (not exceptional for a serial killer, definitely not one with personal connections to “His Satanic Majesty, Francis JosefFrancis Josef From 1848 to his death in 1916, Franz Joseph I (referred to as "Francis Josef" by the Axeman in his infamous letter) was the emperor of Austria-Hungary.Much like the beloved American actor, Tom Hanks, Joseph was seen in the eyes of many in Austria-Hungary as a father figure for the nation. But, unlike Tom Hanks, he was an absolute monarch who was considered to be more of an authoritative dad than one with a more kind and fuzzy nature. Despite his ridged nature, Joseph was often described as charming, courteous, and handsome, and was a well-respected leader by the majority of the empire.However, there were a few people in the country with strong, murderous daddy issues that weren't so thrilled with him. Hungarian nationalist, János Libényi, was one of them, and in 1853, he attempted to assassinate Francis by stabbing him in the neck.Due to his beloved reputation and the fact that he wasn't an evil dictator like Hitler or Mussolini, we're not entirely sure how he ended up in the Axeman's inner circle. Mussoloni and Hitler didn't make the list because neither was actually alive at the time – but we're fairly confident that they would have. , etc.”) he made quite an impact on the city that STILL insists on jazzing it out between March 13 and 15th every year, to avoid incurring the wrath of the Axeman.

Thank God the #DickSquad is back to tackle this mystery. For over 100 years the identity of this killer with terrible aim has remained a mystery. Can we solve it? Hell yeah, we can certainly fail at doing that.

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The Axeman Attacks

May 23, 1918: Joseph and Katherine Maggio

Joseph and his wife Katherine Maggio owned and operated an uptown grocery store and saloon at 4901 Magnolia Street. Hailing originally from Sicily, the pair had been in the grocery business for the past six or so years. And like many small business owners at the time, the location of their business was also their home with the business at the front and a few rooms in the back where they lived along with Joseph’s brother. 

It was around early in the morning on May 23, 1918 when the suspected axe man made his way into their bedroom at the back of the building and hacked the couple to death. Joseph Maggio was struck with an axe, then a razor was used to cut his through while Katherine was almost entirely decapitated. 

At 4:45 AM, Andrew Maggio, brother of Joseph and the couple’s housemate, woke up to hear moaning coming from the next room. He apparently banged on the wall but there was no reply. In a panic, Andrew thrust himself out of bed and instead of checking on his brother and sister-in-law he booked it to his brother Jacob Maggio’s house a block over, then the two ran to get the other Maggio brother, Salvadore, and a half hour or so later the three Maggio brothers opened the door to Joseph and Katherine’s bedroom and found the gruesome scene.

According to the New Orleans States paper that was printed that afternoon the remaining Maggio brothers found “lying diagonally across the bed, with his feet touching the floor, …the body of Joseph Maggio.” They further described “On the floor alongside the bed and resting across the feet of her husband lay the dead body of his wife. The floors and bed were smeared with blood. The man was not yet dead. Jake Maggio summoned the police, while Andrew telephoned for the Charity Hospital ambulance. He died shortly after the arrival of the internes (sic) from the hospital.”

The original motive was believed to be robbery, but while the safe was open no one could confirm that there was supposed to be money in it as Joseph had recently made the largest deposit they’d ever made in the bank: $650 (just over $11,200 in 2020 value), and there was a receipt box from the previous day that was smashed but the contents of which was estimated to be less than $50.

One of the panels of the front door was missing and police suspected that the murderer hopped the fence, grabbed the Maggios’ axe from the backyard and crawled through the hole in the door. Joseph was attacked first, then Katherine. But the police were shocked that Andrew heard nothing—there was blood splattered more than 7-feet up the wall. It did not look like a quiet crime scene.

Andrew was briefly questioned for the murders as the razor that was used to slit his brother’s throat was similar to one that he’d taken home from his barber shop. More damning was the fact that they’d found a blood-soaked shirt of his at the home. But, then again, why would he have to break into the house? The case against Andrew fell apart quickly. 

More evidence was later found by the police, a screwdriver that was used to chisel out the door panel in the backyard, a blood-soaked suit and socks recovered in the yard next door along with a bloody razor, and a block down the street the following words were written on the sidewalk in chalk: “Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight, just like Mrs. Tony.”

The murder of the Maggios remains unsolved to this day. And it’s interesting to note that while fingerprinting was a thing at the time—it wasn’t standard practice at the time nor was there a CSI-like fingerprint database that they could have used to identify the man.

June 28, 1918: Louis Besumer and Anna Lowe

Louis Besumer and the woman often referred to as his “mistress” Anna Lowe were sleeping soundly in their home located on the corner of Dorgenois and Laharpe Streets on June 28, 1918, when they were attacked by the axeman.

We couldn’t find a ton on the case, but it’s said that the axeman broke into the home, hit Louis on the head with an axe which fractured his skull and Anna in the ear. Louis stumbled out of the house opening the door for a bakery delivery driver, Zanca, who was making his morning deliveries. Zanca quickly got police and emergency medical, despite the fact that Louis protested because he didn’t want them to find out about his mistress. 

Louis managed to survive the attack and while Anna survived another 7 weeks, she ultimately passed away from the attack. Before her death she gave a statement that said she saw a large white man with a hatchet attack them, but because of her state of mind, her recollection was ignored. 

Just like the attack on the Maggios, the bottom panel of the door was missing and the axe the attacker borrowed from the home was left behind at the scene.

August 5, 1918: Anna Schneider

We’re not really sure where the attack of 28-year-old Mrs. Anna Schneider took place except to say it was on Elmira Street. But we do know that it was sometime on August 5, 1918 when the pregnant Mrs. Schneider was found by her husband at home in the early evening. 

Anna described waking up to a dark figure standing over her, he then proceeded to bash her in the face repeatedly. While this attack did not take place late at night, it’s suspected of being orchestrated by the axeman due to the fact that the Schneider’s axe was missing from their shed. The victim was rushed to Charity Hospital. She ultimately survived the attack and even gave birth a week later.

August 10, 1918: Joseph Romano

Eighty-year-old Joseph Romano lived with his two nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno, near S. Tonti and Gravier Street. The girls awoke early in the morning on August 10 by the “sound of a commotion” in the next room where their uncle slept. They burst in the bedroom to find their uncle with open cuts on his head, the result of an axe-blow given by an assailant was seen fleeing the scene. 

Pauline and Mary described the assailant as a heavy-set, dark-skinned man who was wearing a dark suit and a slouched hat. Joseph Romano was gravely injured but still managed to walk to the ambulance as it arrived. Unfortunately, he passed away two days later due to severe head trauma.

Police found a bloody axe in the backyard, a panel on the back door that was missing (it appeared to have been chiseled away) and the home was ransacked though nothing was stolen.

Later that month, the New Orleans States newspaper printed that “armed men are keeping watch over their sleeping families while police are seeking to solve the mysteries of the axe attacks. Extra police are being put to work daily.”

Then the Axeman of New Orleans seemingly disappeared. Or so everyone thought…

March 10, 1919: Rose and Charles Cortimiglia

Charles, Rosie and their daughter Mary Cortimiglia lived on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Second Street in Gretna, Louisiana (a suburb of New Orleans across the Mississippi River). Charles was an Italian immigrant with ties to the grocer community, fitting the perfect description of the Axeman’s ideal victim.

On the night of March 10, 1919, seven months after the last attack, screams were heard coming from the Cortimiglia home. Across the street neighbour and fellow grocer, Irlando Jordana rushed across the street to discover that Joseph, Rosie and Mary had all been attacked by a man wielding an axe.

He described the scene as Rosie stood in the doorway with a serious head wound, clutching the deceased body of her infant daughter. Charles lay on the floor, bleeding profusely. Irlando called for help and the Cortimiglia’s were rushed to Charity Hospital. Charles was released two days later and Rosie later on.

Like other crime scenes, nothing was stolen from the home but a panel on the back door had been removed, like other axeman murders. But Charles Cortimiglia was having a grocer-to-grocer beef with Irlando Jordana, and Rose claimed that it was actually Irlando and his 17-year-old son Frank that attacked the family. Frank was over 6-feet tall and weighed over 200 lbs—he would have been much too large to fit through the door’s panel. And Charles vehemently denied his wife’s claims, but the two were still arrested. In fact, Frank was sentenced to hang and Irlando to the rest of his life in prison But a year later, Rosie admitted to “falsely accusing the two out of jealousy and spite” and they were released.

The Axeman of New Orleans Letter: Hell, March 1919

But the Cortimiglia’s murder wasn’t the only axeman-related excitement that happened in March of 1919. Instead, something a little more bizarre happened… A taunting letter was delivered to the New Orleans based paper the Times-Picayune that read:

Hell, March 13th, 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 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 (and the worst), 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 out on that specific 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

As bizarre as the letter was, on the Tuesday in question, the city was full of people jazzing it out, as per the axeman’s odd request. Those that were able to had jazz music blaring on their record players—and those that didn’t have access to in-house music, flooded the jazz clubs in New Orleans to ensure that at 12:15 they were sufficiently jazzing it out as to not get murdered by the Axeman… or should we say Jazzman? And, no Axeman deaths occured that night that we know of.

The letter also inspired a popular Jazz song at the time called Don’t Scare Me Papa (aka The Axeman’s Jazz)

The Final Axeman of New Orleans Attacks

August 10, 1919: Steve Boca

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Axeman simply disappeared once the city had succumbed to his jazz it out request? Unfortunately, that was not the case and the next Axeman death happened on August 10, 1919.

Steve Boca was also sleeping in his home when he woke up to find an axe-weilding man standing over him. He described suddenly losing consciousness and waking a time later to stumble out of his bed to the street and over to a friend’s house where the police were called. 

Steve ultimately survived the attack, but unfortunately his memory never returned.

September 3, 1919: Sarah Laumann

Sarah Laumann lived on 2128 Second Street and was 19-years-old when someone entered her house through an open window and beat her with an axe. She was found by neighbours when she didn’t answer the door with a severe head injury and missing teeth. 

The axe that was left behind was surprisingly not Laumann’s, it’s suspected that the Axeman brought it himself. While Sarah also ultimately recovered from her injuries, she had no memory of the incident at all.

October 27, 1919: Mike Pepitone

The last Axeman attack that we know about took place on October 27, 1919, on the corner of Scott and Loa Street at the home of Esther and Mike Pepitone. Esther woke at 1 AM to find her husband screaming. She ran to the bedroom to find Mike being attacked.

Mike’s head was struck 18 times and died two hours later. Esther reported seeing two figures in the bedroom, but couldn’t identify them as they fled. However, these assailants didn’t use an axe but instead a large bolt with a heavy nut like something that’s used to secure a circus tent. There was actually a circus on a nearby two-lane avenue.

We should note that while there were no more Axeman attacks in New Orleans, some suspect he moved elsewhere in Louisiana, because there were a few other similar deaths including:

  • The killing of Joseph Spero and his daughter Alexandra in December 1920
  • The murder of Giobanni Orlando in DeRidder in January 1921
  • The killing of Frank Scalisi in April 1921 in Lake Charles

Who was the Axeman of New Orleans?

After the death of Mike Pepitone, there were no more reported Axeman attacks, which leaves one remaining mystery: who is the Axeman of New Orleans? Well, there are a few theories about that…

Theory #1 Multiple People or a Copycat Killer

The first theory about the Axeman isn’t exactly who it is, but the fact that it was actually the work of several copycat killers instead of all one dude. 

There is some speculation that some of the Axeman killings aren’t like the rest of them—case and point, Mike Pepitone. Some believe that his murder was actually a Mafia retaliation killing for someone that his dad killed…

Likewise, the attack on Louis Besumer and Anna Lowe is also questionable to some familiar with the case. While Anna died, Louis was only injured and he actually ended up being charged with her murder. 

Besumer had written letters in Yiddish and Russian so authorities decided that he was part of a German spy ring and that the attack didn’t have anything to do with the Axeman at all. This, of course, doesn’t explain his injuries, but it’s reported that Anna blamed Louis before he died and said he was a Nazi spy. The second theory surrounding the death of Anna Lowe was that it was a domestic dispute. Ultimately Louis was acquitted.

Theory #2 The Axeman Was a Supernatural Being

Oddly enough some believe that the Axeman must be a supernatural being that can slip through small openings in doorways, then become the large man that witnesses described… you know, like Ant Man.

Theory #3 Joseph Mumfre was the Axeman

Joseph Mumfre was connected to Esther and Mike Pepitone. After Mike’s death, Esther survived and moved to Los Angeles where she married Angelo Albano, but on the second anniversary of Mike’s death Angelo disappeared and was never found again. Esther said before they had gotten married, Angelo had ended business relations with a man named Joseph Mumfre. 

On December 5, 1921, Mumfre visited Esther’s home at 554 East 36th Street in Los Angeles and demanded $500 and Esther’s jewelry or he said he would “kill her the same way he killed her husband,” in response, Esther killed Mumfre with a revolver.

So, what does this have to do with the Axeman you ask? Well since Esther was present at the Axeman’s slayings, when she was arrested for shooting Manfre, she claimed that he was the Axeman and she’d seen him running from the bedroom the night that Mike was murdered. 

LA police also said that there was other evidence linking Mumfre to the Axeman killings, including the fact that he was running a blackmailing ring in New Orleans that preyed on Italian immigrants (almost all the victims were Italian grocers), he was in and out for prison during the previous 10 years and his dates out of prison coincided with the axeman killings (though we also read somewhere that said that the dates didn’t line up. But there was only circumstantial evidence that linked Mumfre to the Axeman attacks and Esther Pepitone said that there were two men during her husband’s attack.

Theory #4 The Axeman Was a Revenge Killer

Some speculate that the Axeman was taking revenge against Italian-Americans because Black jazz musicians “weren’t getting their due credit.” The evidence? The first jazz recording was lead by Italian-American Nick LaRocca. And despite the fact that there’s debate whether or not it was truly jazz music, it lead many to claim that him and his band “invented jazz.”

Theory #5 Axeman was Upset About Red Light District

The next theory is that the Axeman was revenging the lost red light district in New Orleans. Apparently the red light district, called Storyville, was shut down in 1917, by the Navy who shut down everything from gambling dens and brothels to dance halls. Supposedly there was someone really mad about that.

Theory #6 The Letter Wasn’t Written by the Axeman

While this doesn’t answer who the Axeman is, there are some that suspect that the Hell Letter was not written by the Axeman. In her book The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story, author Miriam Davis believes that the letter wasn’t written by the Axeman because he wasn’t very intelligent and the letter was. Apparently she believes that the Axeman was a run-of-the-mill burglar and the letter was written by a man named John Joseph Davila who was a musician and jazz composer… and also the guy who wrote and released The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa) and make a “pile of money” from it.

Theory #7 The Black Hand

Because the victims were mostly Italian grocers, it’s possible that the Axeman killings were done by a pseudo mafia called The Black Hand who used extortion methods in Italian neighbourhoods at the time. Those that think this believe that the murders and attacks were linked to unpaid extortion debs, but if that’s the case, it’s likely the Axeman wouldn’t have made so many mistakes.

Theory #8 An Ungodly Demon

The most likely theory is that the Axeman was an ungodly demon. He appeared in homes in the middle of the night then seemingly disappeared. So it’s obvious that he was “the worst spirit that ever existed in fact or realm of fancy.”

Ghost Stories

There really aren’t a lot of hauntings associated with the Axeman, but we did manage to find a few smaller ones.

  • The house that Joseph Maggio and his wife Katherine were attacked in is said to be haunted. It’s alleged that on some nights in the area people report screams and shrieks.
  • Likewise, the hospital where Joseph Romano was treated is said to be haunted by his “restless spirit.”
  • The aptly named “Haunted Hotel of NOLA, is said to be the location where the Axeman kicked back and relaxed when he took nights off from his murder spree. And apparently he never really left.

There is also an area tradition to play Jazz music in most pubs and clubs in the area at least once a night from March 13 to 15, to ward off the Axeman’s vengeful, demonic fury.

Did you love this episode? Check these other gems out:

The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for Jazz It Out: The Axeman of New Orleans themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:

The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “Jazz It Out: The Axeman of New Orleans” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.

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Between May 1918 and October 1919, the Axeman of New Orleans terrorized the Italian grocer population in New Orleans, Louisiana. Can we solve, yet again, another mystery?

Who do you think the Axeman of New Orleans was? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!

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