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The Axeman of New Orleans

Updated on August 17, 2016

The Axeman of New Orleans began his reign of terror in May of 1918. For the next eighteen months there was fear and dread all over the city. New Orleans has long been known for voodoo and witchcraft and many people never believed The Axeman was a man at all.

On the 23rd of May he committed what everyone thought was his first gruesome murder. Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine ran a grocery store and bakery, living in an apartment on the second floor. Murder was obviously the assailant’s only objective, as nothing was stolen. There was cash and jewelry left in plain sight. The axe he used was left behind, covered with the Maggios’ blood. There were few suspects and the men questioned were all quickly released for lack of evidence. The one clue left behind was a note near the Maggio home written in chalk: Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just write Mrs. Toney. No one ever figured out what that meant or who Mrs. Toney was.

Maggio Crypt at St. Louis Cemetery #1

The Axeman Stays Busy

Detectives began looking into old case files and were shocked to find three other murders with the same “method of operation.” All had been killed with an axe. The perpetrator had gained entrance into the home by removing a panel from the backdoor. The victims were all Italian. At the time the crimes were committed the police thought they were mafia-related.

  • A month later another grocer was attacked. He and his common law wife lived behind the grocery store. Louis Bossumer and Annie Harriet Lowe both survived the attack. The methods were the same as the Maggio murders. They were hacked with an axe, the attacker came in through a removed panel in the backdoor, and nothing was stolen.
  • In August, Mrs. Edward Schneider was attacked. She described a “tall, phantom like” form standing over her bed. She managed to let out a scream before the axe fell and nearby neighbors came running. She also survived the attack. Joseph Romano, another Italian grocer, was attacked a few days later. He was not so lucky and died from his injuries.
  • On August 11 Al Durand discovered someone had tried to pry out the bottom panel of his backdoor, but the wood was too thick and the would be intruder failed. He left the chisel lying by the door.
  • In late August four other men found evidence of the Axeman. Paul Lobella found his backdoor chiseled through but no one was home at the time.
  • Joseph Le Bouef heard someone trying to chisel through his backdoor and frightened the would-be intruder away, dropping his axe as he ran off.
  • The next day Mr. Recknagle found chisel marks on his backdoor and an axe in the yard.
  • On September 15 Paul Durel also found chisel marks on his backdoor. All four men were grocers.

After that it appeared the Axeman had left town. All was as it should be for almost six months. Then, on March 10, 1919, the Axeman appeared again and committed his most heinous crime yet. This vicious attack occurred in Grena which was just across the river from New Orleans. Charles Cortimiglia awoke to find the Axeman in his bedroom. He jumped up and began to struggle with the intruder. His wife woke up just as her husband fell to the floor dead. She grabbed their two-year-old daughter and begged for mercy, at least for her baby. The monster showed none. He swung the axe, killing the little girl and fracturing her mother’s skull.

After the short reprieve, the city of New Orleans was in terror again. There had always been talk that the monster committing these crimes was not a man but actually a monster of some sort. Every one who had seen him described him as being very big. There didn’t seem to be any way a person that big could fit through the removed panel of the backdoors.

The police said the man was “a bloodthirsty maniac, filled with a passion for human slaughter.” Four days after the Cortimiglia murder The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper received a letter. The writer claimed to be The Axeman. The letter was published in the newspaper immediately.

Letter from the Axeman to New Orleans residents

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

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, 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.

The Axeman

Cover of the 1919 Sheet Music

The people of New Orleans took the letter to heart and when Tuesday night came, the sound of jazz music could be heard coming out of almost every building in the city. The Axeman must have been pleased because he did not make an appearance anywhere that night.

The city went back to normal until August 3, 1919 when the Axeman struck again. A young girl, Sarah Laumann was attacked in her home with an axe. She suffered a concussion but survived. New Orleans became hysterical once again. Sarah had no connections to a grocery store, she wasn’t Italian, and the monster didn’t come in through the back door. No one was safe! But was this really the Axeman, or was it a copycat?

On August 10 another attack occurred that had the usual signs of the Axeman: Italian grocer, chiseled backdoor, axe left at the scene. The man, Steve Bocu, made it to a neighbor’s house and survived the attack. On September 2 a pharmacist, William Carson, fired shots at an intruder who ran away but left behind a broken door and an axe.

In October the Axeman made his final kill. Mike Pepitone, an Italian grocer, was butchered while his wife and six children were asleep in another room. They were left unharmed. That was the end of the Axeman’s reign of terror in New Orleans.

Mike & Esther Pepitone on their Wedding Day

Was James Mumfre the Axeman?

There is a theory that New Orleans resident James Mumfre was the Axeman, but the police have never been able to prove it.

More than a year after the last Axeman murder James Mumfre was shot and killed by Esther Albano, who just happened to be the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman’s final victim. Mumfree had been sent to prison just after the murders started in 1911. He was paroled in 1918, which coincidentally, were when the murders began again. Mumfree had left New Orleans right after the last killing. The police could never find anything but circumstantial evidence to support the theory so he was never arrested. Was he actually the Axeman? Or was it an other worldly being as many suspected? We will probably never know.

Map of the Axeman Murders

Who or what do you think the Axeman was?

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New Orleans, Louisiana

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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 15 months ago from Central Oklahoma

      Oh, goody! Looking forward to it!

    • Sarah Jewel profile image
      Author

      Lori Gross 15 months ago from Nashville

      You are so right. With our modern investigative tools he probably would have been caught fairly quickly. But stay tuned. I'm working on a list of modern day serial killers that have never been caught.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 15 months ago from Central Oklahoma

      Fascinating! However, as with many cases from that era, who knows what clues to the Axeman's identity went unnoticed or unrecorded by the primitive detection methods of the day. Of course, the value of fingerprints was still widely unknown then. But entering through a panel in the back door is odd, especially since witnesses say the perp was too big to fit through one. Unless of course he wasn't as big as he seemed when he was looming over one's bed with axe in hand!