The Axeman forced a city to listen to jazz to avoid his terrifying wrath.
From May 1918 to October 1919, a serial killer aptly named the Axeman unleashed a wave of terror throughout the city of New Orleans. Though the total number of victims is unclear, at least 12 people across the metropolitan New Orleans area were attacked by the Axeman over a 17-month period, and at least seven died from their injuries.
On May 22, 1918, the first victims, an Italian grocer named Joseph Maggio and his wife, Catherine, were butchered as they lay sleeping in their apartment at Upperline and Magnolia Street. The couple’s throats were slashed with a straight razor, their heads bashed in by an ax. When investigators arrived, they found the bloody clothes of the murderer as well as an ax and a chisel. A panel in the rear door had been chiseled out, and though initially police suspected the motive was robbery, they quickly dismissed it after realizing nothing in the house had been stolen. In fact, money and valuables had been left in plain sight.
In hopes of quickly solving the case, detectives urgently questioned potential suspects, in particular Joseph’s brother, Andrew, who operated a barbershop at 123 South Rampart Street. After discovering that the straight razor used in the attack on Catherine belonged to Andrew, police arrested and charged him. Though Andrew admitted he’d brought the razor home to repair a nick in the blade, he insisted he’d had no part in the murder of his brother and sister-in-law. A few days later, he was released due to lack of evidence. The only clue discovered was a message written in chalk near the victim’s home: “Mrs. Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just write Mrs. Toney.” Interestingly, after investigators began researching old cases, they discovered three murders and a number of attacks against Italian grocers that had occurred seven years earlier, in 1911. In each of the murders an ax had been used, and in each instance the killer had gained access to the home through a panel in the rear door.
Almost exactly a month later, a grocer named Louis Besumer and his mistress, Annie Harriet Lowe, were discovered lying in a pool of blood. Besumer had been struck with an ax above his right temple, and Lowe had an injury over the left ear. Though both had been badly injured, they miraculously survived the attack. As with the previous cases, a panel of the kitchen door had been removed, a chisel was found at the scene, and valuables had not been stolen. After a brief search, investigators found a small, bloody ax (owned by Besumer). Besumer survived his wounds, but Lowe eventually died in August. Federal authorities were called in to investigate, and though Besumer had sustained serious injuries, including a fractured skull, he was arrested for Lowe’s murder. Besumer served nine months in prison before a jury acquitted him in May of 1919.
In the meantime, in early August of 1918, the Axeman struck again, attacking and wounding a pregnant woman. After returning from work, Edward Schneider returned to his home on Elmira Street to find his pregnant wife covered in blood. Though her scalp had been cut open and several of her teeth had been knocked out, she survived the attack and was able to provide police with details concerning the assailant. Though the police eventually arrested a suspect named James Gleason, he was later released due to lack of evidence. Just five days after the Schneider attack, on August 10, 1918, an 80-year-old Italian grocer named Joseph Romano was attacked. Romano was found covered in blood from several deep gashes in his face. Though he was rushed to Charity Hospital, he died two days later from his wounds.
During the next few months, the murders mysteriously stopped, and New Orleans residents breathed a sigh of relief. However, the Axeman’s rampage would soon resume, and over the next seven months, he would attack six more victims, including a two-year-old girl.
The first of these incidents occurred in Gretna on Monday, March 10, 1919. After hearing screams coming from a house on the corner of Jefferson and Second Streets, a man reportedly found Mrs. Rosie Cortimiglia clutching her dead two-year-old daughter. Rosie’s husband, Charles, was reportedly lying next to her in a pool of blood. After searching the premises, investigators found a chiseled wooden frame removed from the door and a bloodstained ax underneath the kitchen doorsteps. According to Rosie, her baby had been killed by a single blow of the ax, and though her husband had fought the attacker, he’d been struck repeatedly with the ax. As in previous cases, no money or valuables were taken from the home. Though Rosie’s neighbors (and business rivals) were initially charged and found guilty, their sentences were later overturned.
Three days later, on March 13, 1919, a person alleging to be the Axeman sent a letter to New Orleans newspapers offering a strange proposition: “I am very fond of jazz music,” he wrote, “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.”
That evening, the citizens of New Orleans followed the Axeman’s instructions. All night, jazz music blasted from restaurants and clubs across the city, and not one person was murdered. Interestingly, it was reported that the most common song heard that evening was a familiar composition titled “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz” written by a local composer named Joseph John Davilla.
While many New Orleanians breathed a sigh of relief, they would soon realize their feelings of security were premature. This became abundantly clear on August 10, 1919, when Steve Boca (also a grocer) was found after having been attacked with an ax. Though the blow cracked his head open, he somehow remained conscious and made it successfully to a neighbor’s home before collapsing in the doorway. As with the previous attacks, investigators found an ax and a panel chiseled from his door.
The panic coursing through the city only intensified three weeks later on September 3, 1919, when 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was found at her home on Second Street with multiple gashes on her head and several missing teeth. Six weeks later, the Axeman attacked his final victim, Mike Pepitone, who was found lying in a pool of blood. Unlike the other attacks, however, this time there was a witness. Pepitone’s wife (Esther Albano) reportedly saw the ax-wielding man running from the scene, and while investigators weren’t able to make an arrest at the time, Albano reportedly shot the suspect who had killed her husband one year later in Los Angeles. Though many doubted Albano’s claims that she’d killed the man responsible, a thorough investigation revealed that the man she’d murdered, named Joseph Mumfre, had been incarcerated for most of his life. In addition to his unsavory criminal history, investigators also discovered that during periods when the attacks had ceased, Mumfre had been in prison. Mumfre also reportedly left New Orleans immediately after the attack on Pepitone, at which time the attacks suddenly ended. In spite of this, there was no specific evidence to link Mumfre to any of the crimes, and while the circumstantial evidence was convincing to some, police didn’t agree, and Albano faced 10 years in prison for Mumfre’s murder.
While many still debate whether Albano actually murdered the Axeman, for many, the motivation for the attacks was clear. Because the majority of the incidents targeted Italian-Americans, many believed the murders were racially motivated. People pointed to the fact that most of the victims were grocers, and they argued that the attacks were Mafia hits conducted to pressure the businesses into paying protection money. While some were skeptical, there was evidence of similar murders outside the New Orleans area involving Italians in the same time frame: Joseph Spero and his daughter in Alexandria in December 1920, Giovanni Orlando in DeRidder in January 1921, and Frank Scalisi in Lake Charles in April 1921. These seemed to only bolster the theory.