87 - The Axeman of New Orleans


Hell, March 13, 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

Normally we would put this letter in the timeline where it belongs but we really think it sets the mood for the episode. It is now obvious that we are talking about none other than The Axeman Of New Orleans! This is another unsolved series of murders along the lines of The Cleveland Torso Killer and the Hinterkaifeck murders that we’ve covered. Are you sensing the pattern? Cus there's a pattern.


For over a year, from May 1918 to October 1919, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana was in a frenzied panic over a roaming serial killer dubbed the “Axeman”. The killer often struck with an axe that was found at the house of the victim. It wasn't always an axe, but it was always brutal. The axeman prayed on italians in New orleans. Today we will discuss the murders and some of the suspects of this crazy unsolved case.


First Murders:


Joseph and Catherine Maggio were italian immigrants who owned an Italian grocery and tavern at the corner of Upperline and Magnolia streets. The couple lived in an apartment behind the store and an adjacent apartment was occupied by Joseph's brothers Jake and Andrew. In the early morning of may 23rd 1918, at about 5 am, Andrew was awakened by loud thuds and moaning coming through the wall of the connecting apartment. Andrew awoke Jake and told him what he had heard. Andrew pounded on the wall but got no response. The brothers then rushed over to their brothers apartment to see what was happening. When they opened the door to their brothers room they were greeted by a horrifying sight. The room was covered in blood and the couple lay on the bed in a horrible state. The couple was laid out on the bed covered in blood each with several gashes in their heads.

In addition their throats were severed. The police arrived and questioned the brothers and searched the apartment. They found that a panel in the door had been removed with a chisel and that was the point of entry. A blood smeared axe was found in the bathtub which was identified by the brothers as Joseph’s. There was a safe that had been opened and rifled through but nothing appeared to be missing. There was also a box of cash and gems under the bed that had not been touched. Andrew, the younger brother was under suspicion immediately. He was a barber by trade and admitted the straight razor found on the bed, that was used to cut the throats of the victims, was his. Jake had just received his draft notice and spent the night drinking. A neighbor confirmed that he had come home at around 2am, before the killing was thought to have happened. Both men were taken down to the station. Jake was released soon after but Andrew was held longer in hopes they could build a case against him. With no physical evidence, the police released Andrew a little later in the day. One block from athe murder scene a cryptic message was found written in chalk on the sidewalk. It read:


“ Mrs Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.”


What did this mean? Who was Mrs Toney? No one really knew but some thought this may have something to do with the murders of three italian couples killed in much the same way in 1911. The three couples were all italian grocers that were hacked up with axes. The houses were entered by the killer removing door panels. The husband of the last couple murdered had the first name of tony. Could his wife be the “Mrs. Toney” from the message? Oddly enough journalists could find no accounts of these crimes even though they were reported by a retired detective that claimed to have worked the cases. People started thinking this may be mafia related and have something to do with the couple not paying protection money.


It doesn't take long for the killer to strike again. Saturday June 16, 1918, a baker named John Banza arrived for a delivery at a grocery store at the corner of Dorgenois and LaHarpe streets. The grocery is owned by 59 year old Louis Besumer. He lived in an apartment behind the business with his companion, 28 year old Anna Harriet Lowe. As John was making his delivery, he found the front door locked so he went around to the side door and knocked. The door opened and John was shocked when Besumer opened the door and greeted him covered in blood from a large gash on his head. “We were attacked,” Besumer told John. In the bedroom John finds Anna, mutilated and barely clinging to life. There are bloody footprints leading from the bed to a swath of false hair on the floor. Once again entry was through a removed door panel and the weapon was a small rusty hatchet identified by Besumer as his own. Also no money or valuables were missing, just as in the first incident. Besumer couldn't give a description of the assailant and his wounds were not life threatening. Anna lays delirious from her wounds but claims she was attacked by a “mulatto”. Shortly after, a black man who worked at the grocery store had quit just a week prior, was arrested and questioned. He was ultimately exonerated and released. Anna's condition worsened and she began to accuse Besumer, the owner of the store, of the attack and claimed he was a german fuckin’ spy! The u.s. Justice department refutes this claim. The neighbors, obviously, begin to talk, spreading rumors of the two being an estranged couple, that secret government papers were found in the apartment, and even that the two were drug dealers with a secret supply of narcotics. Monday August 5, 1918, Anna died without saying anything else about the attack. When Besumer is released from the hospital he asks police if he could investigate the murder himself. This only makes the police suspicious and they actually arrest Besumer and try him for murder! He was eventually acquitted after a whopping ten minute...yes ten minute deliberation. Basically the jury took a smoke break and was like fuck it ...not guilty... lets go home.



On the same day that Anna died, another grisly scene was found. In the suburb of Algiers, just across the Mississippi river from New Orleans, Edward Schnieder was arriving home after working third shift at his job. As he walked into the house, something felt off. The house was way too fuckin quiet. He calls out to his wife but she doesn't answer him back. As he suspiciously walks around, He unexpectedly finds his wife lying on the bed bleeding profusely from several cuts to the head. She is also 8 months pregnant. The police and ambulance arrive and after a search, there is actually little that links this attack to the previous ones. There was no entry by a door panel, the weapon was missing, and they were neither italian nor grocers. So, was it connected or does our killer just NOT have an MO. Which, if you’re up on your serial killer methodology, you’ll recognize that’s not exactly “normal”. According to crimemuseum.org (and all the good true crime researchers and authors), there are three main types of serial killers.


THE MEDICAL KILLER


Although this type of killer is very rare, there have been some people who have become involved in the medical industry to carry out their nefarious deeds. This type of killer feels they are shroud because it isn’t uncommon for people to pass in a hospital. They are usually highly intelligent and know how to carefully and cleverly conceal their murders. If it appears that a victim has died a natural death, there will be no reason for anyone to suspect foul play and search for the guilty party. Few doctors in history have managed to kill dozens of people before others began to catch on.


THE ORGANIZED KILLER


This type of serial killer is the most difficult to identify and capture. They are usually highly intelligent and well organized to the point of being meticulous. Every detail of the crime is planned out well in advance, and the killer takes every precaution to make sure they leave no incriminating evidence behind. It is common for this type of psychopath to watch potential victims for several days to find someone they consider to be a good target. Once the victim is chosen, the killer will kidnap them, often through some sort of ploy designed to gain their sympathy and take them to another location to commit the murder. Once the person has been killed, the perpetrator will usually take precautions to ensure the body is not found until they want it to be. A criminal like this usually takes great pride in what they consider to be their “work” and tend to pay close attention to news stories about their deeds. One of their motivating factors may be to stump the law enforcement officers who are trying to solve their crime.


THE DISORGANIZED KILLER


These individuals rarely plan out the deaths of their victims in any way. Most often, the people they kill are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This type of serial killer appears to strike at random whenever an opportunity arises. They take no steps to cover up any signs of their crime and tend to move regularly to avoid being captured. Disorganized killers usually have low IQ’s and are extremely antisocial. They rarely have close friends or family, and do not like to stay in one place for too long. These killers are prone to have no recollection of their deeds, or to confess that they were motivated by voices in their heads or some other imaginary source.



Ok so on Saturday August 10, 1918, Pauline and Mary Bruno, age 18 and 13 are awakened in the middle of the night. They live behind a grocery store at the corner of Gravier and Tonti streets with their uncle Joseph Romano, age 30. He is a barber and Italian immigrant. The girls are awoken by sounds of a struggle coming from their uncles room. They sat up to see a large hulking figure looming in the doorway, and no… it wasn’t Mr. Moody. The girls screamed and the figure took off running. Their uncle staggered into the room and said something had happened, as the girls followed him into the kitchen. He was covered in blood. “My head hurts, call an ambulance!” he said. He then lapsed into unconsciousness and was taken to the hospital where he died a short time later. Pauline would say that Joseph was a good man with no enemies. The murder weapon was again the victims own axe which was taken from his shed and found covered in blood on the kitchen floor.


By now the italian community is undoubtedly on edge. And for obvious and good reason... They were all wondering who would be next. In an in depth and profound statement, the Police Superintendent said:



“I am of the belief that the murderer is a depraved killer with no regard for human life.”



Really? What the fuck made you assume that ? Brilliant….absolutely brilliant! Fly off and save someone else, captain obvious!


Sales of rifles, pistols, and shotguns increased, as did the addition of bars, grates, and grills on windows. Police are inundated with calls about suspicious people, findings of axes and chisels discarde on the street, and at least four incidents of grocers finding evidence that someone had tried to gain entry into their buildings using a chisel on the back door. In these cases the doors were too thick for the chisel to get through and whoever was trying to get in just gave up. There was even a report of a man that heard scraping sounds at his back door so he fired his shotgun at the door and saw someone hauling ass away from the house.

One man said an entry attempt was foiled by a case of tomatoes blocking the back door on the inside. That's one lazy killer, seriously, that is lame. Oddly enough, the range of victims and dates seem completely random. Police had pretty much no leads. The only things they knew for sure were that the killer entered by chiseling out door panels and attached brutally with axes and hatchets found at the scene of the crime. There was a lack of much more evidence. There were no clear finger or foot prints at the scenes. The city was in a panic. And of course there was no shortage of people bringing up the Jack the ripper comparisons. Since were also postulating that the killer may be a jekyll and hyde type personality. A normal well mannered person that may have some impulse take over that turns then into a killer with a blood lust… Which we suppose is like many serial killers.


Well as the summer went by and the year was coming to an end, things died down on the axe murderer front. The war ended and people rejoiced and the murders started to fade from the public consciousness. By the new year most were not talking about the murders anymore and many had let their guard down. Then in March of 1919 it all came rushing back.



Charles Cortimiglia, an italian immigrant, his wife Rose and the couple's two year old daughter May, live behind their store at the corner of 2nd and Jefferson streets in the suburb of Gretna. On the morning of March 9, 1919, a neighbor, Hazel Johnson, went to the store to find it locked up. This struck her as odd as Charles was known for his reliability. He had the store open at 5am every day including Sundays without fail. Hazel knocked but received no answer. She went around to the side of the building and peered into the bedroom window but it was so dark, she couldn’t see anything inside. She went around the back and saw that a panel had been removed. And so, for some stupid ass reason she decided to go inside…all of these people wandering into other people's homes are just asking for it honestly… Who does that?! You know it's gonna be bad… Call the fucking cops.

At any rate, once inside she of course, found a disturbingly brutal scene. She found Rose bleeding profusely from deep gashes on her head and holding the body of her dead daughter. Her husband lay on the bed beside them with several severe injuries to his head as well. Clinging to life the couple was taken across the river to Charity Hospital. Rose suffered a few severe injuries to her head but was expected to survive. Her husband had his skull crushed during the attack and was not expected to live. In the hospital, as Rose was recovering she was able to recall waking up in the night to her husband struggling with an intruder who was brandishing an axe. After disabling the husband the intruder came after her and her daughter. Incredibly she claims she was able to identify her attacker! She named 17 year old Frank Jordano, son of their neighbor iorlando Jordano. The Jordanos owned a competing grocery store on the same block. According to locals there had been bad blood between the families for a little while now. The Cortimiglias had worked for the Jordanos managing their grocery store. The Jordanos decided to take over managing the grocery themselves putting the Cortimiglias out of work. The Cortimiglias then opened their own grocery just a few doors down. The Jordanos vehemently deny any wrongdoing and claim the relationship with the Cortimiglias has been cordial. Also standing at 6ft tall and weighing over 200 lbs, they say there's no way their son could have squeezed his big ass through the removed door panel. A few days later, surprising everyone, Charles regains consciousness. He says that in fact it was not the neighbor that attacked him but it was an unknown assailant. Despite this, Frank and his father are placed under arrest for the murder of Mary Cortimiglia.


This brings us to Friday March 14, 1919. The newspaper in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune, publishes the letter that we read at the opening of the show. A mocking letter full of cryptic statements. Again, the letter states that the following Tuesday, the axeman will spare anyone playing jazz as he is a jazz aficionado. The following Wednesday would be St. Joseph's day, a day off celebrating within the Italian community. Accordingly, Tuesday night there was all kinds of shit going on around the city. Jazz clubs were packed with people. Axeman parties were in full swing at people's houses. Even homeless people along the riverfront improvised their own instruments to play jazz all night. True to his word, the axeman did not cometh. Not one was attacked that night… And they probably had a ton of fun not getting killed, but THAT would NOT be the end of the axeman's reign of terror.


Wednesday May 21st sees the trial of Frank and iorlando Jordano. Despite overwhelming evidence to their innocence and the refusal of Charles Cortimiglia to identify either of them as the attacker, the jury convicts the two men based solely on the accusations of Rose. The judge sentences Frank to death and his father to life in prison. Everyone was hopeful that the axeman's run was over, however on Sunday August 10, 1919… The axeman would strike again.


On this morning, Stephen Boca, you guessed it, an italian immigrant grocer, SHOCKER, came stumbling out of his apartment that was, yes… Connected to his grocery store on elysian fields Ave. He stumbled down the street bleeding profusely from several severe head wounds, making his way to a friend's house. His friend Frank helped him in, treated his wounds and called for help. The police investigated the scene and found all the axeman trademarks including the chiseled door panel and another, you guessed it, a bloody axe in the kitchen.


On Tuesday September 2, 1919 a druggist named William Carlson hears a suspicious noise outside of his back door. He fires several shots through the door at the would be intruder. The figure runs off leaving behind a what? Yep! An axe!


Wednesday September 3rd 1919 a young woman named Sarah Laumann is attacked in her bed by a man with a DUN DUN DUN… axe. She sustains several head wounds but recovers at the hospital. She claimed the man came after her in the dark with an axe, yet she could offer no description of the attacker. A bloody axe was found in the yard but that's possibly the only similarity at the crime scene. Entry was gained through a window not a chiseled door panel. And she was young, not italian and not a grocer. Was this the work of the axeman, or maybe a copy cat killer?


Mike and Rose Pepitone were italian immigrants who ran a grocery store at the corner of Ulloa and South Scott streets. They shared the residence with their 6 children ages 2-12. In the early morning of Monday October 27 1919, a man named Ben Corcoran, a sheriff's deputy, happened to be walking by the store. As he passed by, the Pepitone's 11 year old daughter came running out screaming at him for help. Inside the home he found a horrific scene. Mike Pepitone lay on the bed with his skull smashed in from several smashes with a blunt object. He was still alive…but barely. He was rushed to the hospital where he would die a short time later. His wife and children were all unharmed. Rose claims that around 2am she was startled by her husband's screams. She saw two shadows retreating towards the children's room. That's right… She said she saw TWO shadows. She turned to the kids room but the attackers had dipped out the back door. Police include this in the axeman murders, despite a couple of significant differences. First, entry was made via a window that was broken enough to unlatch and open it. Second the murder weapon was a pipe with a large nut at the end. it was found that there was no axe on hand at the house so they think the killer used whatever they found. Also the obvious claim of there being two attackers. Police noted that Rose did not seem to be upset over the incident and did not cry or show any emotion when answering questions. We'll get back to Rose Pepitone in a bit.


The residents didn't know it yet but this would be the last axeman killing. And just as abruptly as it started, it was over… no more axeman. So who was it… Were there suspects? Let's take a look.


First off, whatever happened to Frank and his father that were convicted in the killing of 2 year old Mary Cortimiglia? Well on December 6 1920, Rose Cortimiglia recanted her statement and claimed she only accused the men because of her jealousy stemming from the feud between the families...a family feud if you will…SURVEY SAYS!! No? Ah whatever fuck you if you don't think that's funny. Anyway, The men were given full pardons and set free.


Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been Joseph Momfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim. Wilson's theory has been widely repeated in other true crime books and websites. However, true crime writer Michael Newton searched New Orleans and Los Angeles public, police and court records as well as newspaper archives, and failed to find any evidence of a man with the name "Joseph Momfre" (or a similar name) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles.


Newton was also not able to find any information that Mrs. Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano, and in others simply as a "woman who claimed to be Pepitone's widow") was arrested, tried or convicted for such a crime, or indeed had been in California. Newton notes that "Momfre" was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time of the crimes. It appears that there actually may have been an individual named Joseph Momfre or Mumfre in New Orleans who had a criminal history, and who may have been connected with organized crime; however, local records for the period are not extensive enough to allow confirmation of this, or to positively identify the individual. Wilson's explanation is an urban legend, and there is no more evidence now on the identity of the killer than there was at the time of the crimes.


Two of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home in the early morning hours of May 16, 1912. The male Schiambra survived while his wife died. In newspaper accounts, the prime suspect is referred to by the name of "Momfre" more than once. While radically different than the Axeman's usual modus operandi, if Joseph Momfre was indeed the Axeman, the Schiambras may well have been early victims of the future serial killer.


Ok, so let’s talk about THE BLACK HAND…


Since the majority of the Axeman’s attacks were on Italian-American grocers, it has led some to believe that they were all victims of an early form of Mafia, called the Black Hand. Black Hand crime was a name given to an extortion method used in Italian neighbourhoods at this time, therefore the murders could be linked to unpaid extortion debts. However, the Axeman frequently left suspects alive, which many Mafia experts believe would not have been the case if they’d have been true Black Hand attacks.


In a similar vein, many Sicilian immigrants to American at that time had a deep distrust of the authorities, which led them to take disputes into their own hands and settle them the old-fashioned way, otherwise known as the ‘vendetta’. The vendetta could well have been the reason behind a number of the attacks. The good ol “sleep with the fishes, see! Meh!”


COPYCAT KILLERS

Although the Axeman had a very distinct M.O., not all of the killings followed it to the letter, leading some to believe the Axeman was, in fact, several people who may or may not have been working together to terrorise the community. Looking at some of the crimes there were definitely differences to the norm. Whether it be the murder weapon or the mode of entry, even the number of assailants. This tends to be a pretty popular theory in a lot of circles.


UNGODLY DEMON

His ability to appear in people’s houses in the middle of the night and vanish just as easily, have some believing the Axeman was indeed what he said he was in his letter to the press - ‘the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.’ People point to the fact that whomever it was, was able to fit through tiny openings in the doors lending to the claim that it was a shape shifting demon. Combined with the wording in the infamous letter, since people who are easily led down that path believe wholeheartedly that this was truly the work of evil incarnate.


Other than those theories there doesn't seem to be much else in the way of suspects although during the investigation of the murder of the first victims, the Maggios, a crazy side story emerged, it goes as follows:


The killing of Joseph and Katherine Maggio was never solved. But the case did take up another phase the next day, just hours after Andrew Maggio's release from jail. At 3 a.m. on May 26, Dodson and Obitz, the detectives who discovered the writing in chalk on the sidewalk a block from where Joseph and Katherine Maggio had been killed, were sitting on a stoop at Baronne and Calliope streets while investigating a series of robberies in the neighborhood. A man approached them. Dodson and Obitz "accosted" him, according to news reports about the incident, and a gunbattle began. Obitz, 38, was shot through the heart and died.



In the aftermath, two innocent men who were mistakenly identified as having been the man confronted at Baronne and Calliope were shot dead by police, who faced no legal consequences for the killings. STREET JUSTICE! FUCK YEAH! Four days after the fatal shooting of Obitz, a teenager named Frank Bailey was arrested as a suspect at a house at the corner of Liberty and Perdido streets.


"Will the death of Detective Theodore Obitz handicap the police in their pursuit of evidence upon which to lay a foundation for disclosing the murderer or murderers of Joseph Maggio and his wife, who were hacked to death with an axe last Thursday morning in their bedroom of Magnolia and Upperline streets?" the States asked in a front-page story published on May 28. "Obitz was one of the most active of the investigators in the Maggio mystery, and is said to have possessed some information that might lead to its solution."



Bailey confessed to several robberies and to shooting Obitz, though at trial he changed his story and said he had falsely admitted to the killing of the officer because he was being tortured by police. He didn't deny firing his gun in the shootout. But Obitz, Bailey said at trial, had actually been shot by Dodson, the other officer. You hear that? The other COP shot him! Hhmmm suspicious much?!


The jury didn't buy it, however. Frank Bailey was convicted of murder in the death of Theodore Obitz and sentenced to die at the old Parish Prison. He was executed just over two years later, on Aug. 13, 1920. He was 18 years old.


Before going to the gallows, Bailey angrily denounced the prosecution.


"Detective Harry Dodson, partner of Obitz, was the man who killed him," Bailey told the States in a jailhouse interview published the day before he was hanged. "One of the bullets fired by Dodson struck Obitz in the head as he was shooting at me. I fired three shots as I ran, but I am sure none of them took effect. I fired as I ran and could not take aim.



"But if I am to die for the murder of Obitz, who is going to pay the penalty for the deaths of Louis Johnson and Abraham Price, two innocent negroes who were shot down while they were hunting me?


"When I have been executed, nothing will have been taken out of this world Friday. Most persons who hang are expected to make a last request. I will make none; not to the people of Louisiana. But I will make it to God. He hears; the public do not. I am going to walk to the gallows without a whimper. If there is such a thing as a spirit coming back to earth, I do not want to come back."


Wow… So that's another crazy arm of this case that, while not directly related to the axe murders, produced more craziness and death.

There were some later attacks too that might possibly have been the Axeman – Joseph Spero and his daughter in December 1920, in the city of Alexandria in central Louisiana, Giovanni Orlando of DeRiddler in western Louisiana a month later, in January 1921, and Frank Scalisi of nearby Lake Charles in April of the same year. Opinion is divided on whether these later attacks were the work of the Axeman or not. Some researchers do not even attribute the Pepitone murder to him.


We’re very unlikely to ever know for sure. The Axeman was never caught, and there are a number of potential suspects, all of whom are problematic in one way or another.



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