History is littered with mysterious assailants who appear from the dark shadows and terrorize the community, only to disappear almost as fast as they came.
Many of these mystery figures were products of mass hysteria, such as the gas-wielding madman who stalked Mattoon, Illinois during World War II. The origins of other shadow attackers are less clear cut.
However, a case in New Orleans in 1918 leaves no doubt that a mad man was on the loose. An assailant only known as the Axeman cut a swath through the Italian community of New Orleans, leaving fear and death in his wake.
There is no doubt that the Axeman was a real figure and not an artifact created from common belief. Even so, his identity and motivations remain a mystery until this day.
The Killings Begin
The Axeman first materialized on May 23, 1918, leaving death in his wake. Joseph Maggio and his wife were butchered in their apartment, which was above the grocery they owned and managed together.
Police found that a panel on the rear door had been chiseled out. An axe, coated with blood, was found in the apartment. Nothing else in the apartment was touched. The only other clue was a message written in chalk near the victim’s home that read: “Mrs. Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just Write Mrs. Toney.” (check)
As the investigation progressed, police discovered more murders of Italian grocers, these from 1911. The killings bore a striking resemblance to the Maggio murders: the killer chiseled out a door panel and killed the victim with an axe he found in their home.
Police suspected a mafia connection. For their part, residents barred their doors, held their families close, and prepared for more carnage.
The phantom killer struck again a month later. Louis Bossumer and his common law wife, Annie Lowe, were found by neighbors, covered in blood and bearing terrible gashes made by an axe, which the assailant left in the bedroom. A panel on the kitchen door had been chiseled out. Again, nothing was stolen.
Annie Lowe later claimed the assailant was a young, dark man. But she changed her story and claimed that Bossumer himself was the culprit. Police dismissed this story as nonsensical, since no person in their right mind would take an axed to their own face. The killer remained at large, with no real clue to his identity.
Lowe and Bossumer both survived their injuries. His next victim, Mrs. Edward Schneider, who described her attacker as tall and phantom-like, also managed to survive. The next victim, who was attacked in August, was not so fortunate. Joseph Romano, another Italian grocer, died of his injuries.
A Letter From Hell
The attacks left panic in their wake. People began to see the attacker in every shadow and around every corner. Some said he was a tall, thin man, while others claimed that he was a man dressed in women’s clothes.
Still others claimed that the killer was a woman, or that he was a man but a midget. Otherwise, how could he fit through the small hole of a chiseled out door panel? Others whispered even stranger tales, that perhaps the killer was not of this earth.
A vengeful spirit perhaps, or even the Devil himself come to Earth to punish New Orleans for her sins.
Whatever the attacker’s identity, he or she went mostly dormant through September. A few residents reported attempted break ins, and others fired shots at lurkers in the dark. After September, there were no more such reports. As suddenly as he had come, the Axeman was gone. The crisis, it seemed, was over.
Or so it seemed. But on March 10, 1919, the Axeman perpetrated the most gruesome crime yet. in the town of Gretna, near New Orleans, an assailant in dark clothes attacked the Cortimiglia family. Charles Cortimiglia struggled with the attacker, but was overcome by his wounds and died.
The attacker then turned on Rosie Cortimilgia and her two year old daughter, Mary. despite Rosie’s pleas, the Axeman struck, killing the two year old and severely injuring her mother, who ultimately survived the ordeal.
The bloody attack set the city into a panic, which was only stoked by a letter received by the editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune on Friday, March 14, 1919:
Hell, March 13, 1919
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 who 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.
That night, the people of New Orleans partied as if their lives depended on it. Clubs and music houses were packed, and neighbors gathered in homes to play music. The city was alive with the strains of Jazz music. Joseph Davilla, a local composer, composed a song called “The Mysterious Axeman Jazz,” which became a hit in the city. That night, no one died at the hands of the Axeman.
Last Gasp and an Enduring Mystery
The Axeman’s fury seemed to have dissipated with the night of music. Months went by without incident. It seemed the city had appeased whatever dark soul, human or otherwise, that had decided to torment it.
That is, until the night of August 3, 1919, when the madman attacked a girl named Sarah Laumann in her home. Laumann survived, but this new atrocity marked a change in the Axeman’s behavior–Laumann was neither a grocer nor Italian. New Orleans was horrified to realize that no one was safe from the Axeman’s wrath.
He struck again that August, and in September he tried to strike again but was thwarted by a homeowner with a gun.
The final attack came in October, when the Axeman slaughtered Mike Pepitone in his bed as his wife and six children slept in the next room. Police found all of the now familiar signatures of the Axeman, but still had gleaned no clues to his identity. To this day, no one can say for certain who the Axeman was.
There is, however, a tantalizing lead in the case. A year after the last killing, a man named Joseph Mumre was shot and killed on the Pacific Coast by Mike Pepitone’s widow, Esther Albano. She claimed Pepitone had killed her husband.
There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest Mumre’s involvement in the killings. Mumre had taken part in a group of blackmailers who preyed on the Italian community. He was sent to prison in 1911, just after the first killings attributed to the Axeman. he was paroled in 1918, around the time that the killings began again. Mumre left for the coast around the time that the Axeman killings ended in 1919.
While the timeline syncs up, there was no physical evidence linking Mumre to the crimes. His death erased any chance for police to question him and ferret out his involvement in the case, if any.
The only real lead died with him. Since those terrifying two years, the Axeman has passed into legend, and enduring and macabre figure in the folklore of a city steeped in bizarre happenings.
Sources: Smith, Kalila. “Axe Murder in New Orleans.” CrimeMuseum.org; Rumsland, Katherine. “The Axeman of New Orleans.” CrimeLibrary.com; Taylor, Troy. “The Axeman’s Jazz.” Praireghosts.com