Violence has always been a part of New Orleans life. At times, that violence goes beyond the norm and truly terrifies everyone. During the early years of the 20th Century, a tool-wielding maniac slayed and slashed enough people that he will be forever known as "the Axeman of New Orleans." Perhaps the scariest aspects of this criminal are that he was never identified nor brought to justice for his bloody crimes.
The Axeman's reign of terror began on May 22, 1918. Joseph and Catherine Maggio were asleep in their home on the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets. The man who would soon become known as the Axeman broke into their house, slashed their throats with a straight razor, nearly to the point of decapitation, then caved their heads in with an axe. Astoundingly, Joseph did not perish immediately. His brothers Jake and Andrew, who lived next door, found him alive two hours after the attack occurred, but he succumbed to his extensive injuries some minutes later.
When the police arrived, it was discovered that the Axeman stripped off his bloody clothes and changed into a clean set before leaving, but he took nothing else. The straight razor was found thrown into a neighbor's yard. Andrew Maggio was briefly considered a suspect because the razor that was used in the attack was his; he owned a barber shop, and his employee testified that he witnessed Andrew take home the blade. However, Andrew was quickly dismissed as the murderer.
In the early morning hours of June 27, 1918, Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe were brutally attacked in Louis' grocery store on Dorgenois and Laharpe Streets. They were struck with immense force on their heads and knocked unconscious. A wagon delivery driver named John Zanca found them alive but badly injured. The police ascertained that the couple had been struck with Louis' hatchet, which was left in the bathroom by the perpetrator. The police arrested an African-American man named Lewis Oubicon for the crime because he had just started working at the grocery store, but he was released due to lack of evidence.
Louis and Harriet became swept up in a media frenzy due to Harriet's outlandish and often baseless claims about Louis. Harriet claimed that Louis was a German spy. He was arrested but soon released due to a lack of evidence. Harriet disliked the Chief of Police and would not cooperate further with their investigation because he revealed to the public that she was not Louis' wife.
In August 1918, Louis was arrested yet again when Harriet confessed that it was Louis who hit her with the hatchet. Harriet revealed this information as she lay dying in Charity Hospital after a botched surgery, intended to repair the hatchet wound that had left her with partial face paralysis. Louis was charged with murder after her death, and he served nine months in prison before being acquitted the following year due to a lack of evidence and Harriet's history of lying.
The day that Harriet passed away, the Axeman attacked his fifth known victim. Anna Schneider was eight months pregnant when the Axeman bludgeoned her head while she slept in her home on Elmira Street. Her husband Ed found her alive a few hours later. Despite her massive head trauma, Elmira delivered her child two days later. The police investigation revealed that the woman had been bashed with a lamp from her nightstand. An ex-con named James Gleason was arrested for her attack, but he was released due to lack of evidence.
Days later, on August 10, 1918, Joseph Romano was hit on the head in his bedroom several times. His nieces Pauline and Mary Bruno heard the attack and ran to help him. Joseph initially survived the attack, but he died two days later from his injuries. A bloody axe was found in the backyard of the house, and a hole was discovered that had been chiseled in the back door, a trait that would become known as the Axeman's modus operandi. Perhaps due to the growing media hype, the Axeman stopped his rampage at the end of the summer.
Across the river in Gretna, on March 10, 1919, Charles Cortimiglia, his wife Rosie, and their child Mary had been viciously attacked. Their neighbor Iorlando Jordano heard their screams and rushed to their home on Jefferson Avenue and Second Street. Baby Mary was already deceased from her wounds. Rosie and Charles suffered massive head trauma and were taken to Charity Hospital. The police believed that the Axeman was back since they found a bloody axe in the backyard and a partially damaged back door; however, Rosie claimed that Iorlando and his son Frank were the culprits. Iorlando and Frank were arrested for the crime and were found guilty for it. They were given a life sentence and death sentence, respectively. Charles divorced Rosie over her claims of their guilt, but she later admitted that she made it up under duress. Sheriff Louis Marrero had jailed Rosie until she signed an affidavit stating that her neighbors were responsible, presumably because he wanted this crime solved no matter what. Rosie told reporters at The Times Picayune that she was coerced into implicating the innocent men. The men were finally released from their unjust sentences in December of 1920.
The citizens of New Orleans were aghast that the Axeman was active again. Presumably capitalizing on the media frenzy that his horrendous crimes fed, he wrote a letter to The Times Picayune and the N.O.P.D. on March 13, 1919, which was published. The Axeman claimed to not be human but a spirit that was set on killing when he saw fit. He wrote, "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."
Despite the frightening, disturbing, and insulting nature of the letter, the Axeman claimed that there was one way to receive his mercy-playing jazz. He claimed that he was fond of jazz, and that he would spare any home in which he heard jazz playing on Tuesday, March 18, 1919, at 12:15 a.m. "(earthly time)". Those who weren't playing jazz would "get the axe." The callous murderer seemed to stick to his word as no one was harmed that night, but this peace wouldn't last for long.
On August 10, 1919, the anniversary of his attack on Joseph Romano, Steve Boca was beaten with an axe while he slept at home. He did not die from the attack, but he had a terrible skull fracture that he only noticed after he ran out of his house to find the intruder. He ran to his neighbor Frank Genusa's house where he collapsed. The police again noticed the same means of entry as previous crimes and connected the attack to the Axeman.
On September 3, 1919, 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was beaten in the face with an axe that her attacker left on her front lawn. She survived the attack. Mike Pepitone did not survive, however, when the Axeman bashed his head with an axe on October 27, 1919. Mike's wife saw the Axeman fleeing the scene, but she couldn't see him well enough to give the police a description.
While the killer was never caught, there have been suspects identified throughout the years. Some researchers even believe that not all of the murders attributed to the Axeman were his. Stories of mafia hits, long-standing disputes between rival grocery store owners and the like, surround these attacks and others that were similar. It's also speculated that the Axeman was responsible for attacks in 1920 and 1921 in Alexandria, DeRidder, and Lake Charles. Most of the known victims were of Italian descent and were involved in the grocery business.
The mystery of the Axeman may never be solved-and perhaps that is why this story, like many others, has become part of the lore of this city and its people.