Day 561: The Slash Of The Big Easy Axeman

originally published July 14, 2013

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.

So began a March 13, 1919 letter published in several newspapers, allegedly penned by the man who had been terrorizing New Orleans for the past year. Of all the unsolved serial killings in American history, this is one that’ll give anyone the most heebiest of jeebies. While unsubstantiated tales of his work date back to 1911, it wasn’t until May of 1918 when the Axeman of New Orleans really came out swinging.

On May 22, 1918, Joseph Maggio and his wife were sleeping in their home above the barroom and grocery store they ran. The couple had their throats cut by a straight razor, then the murderer grabbed an axe and whacked their heads with it, possibly to conceal the actual cause of death. Why would someone put in that extra effort? Well, the straight razor belonged to Joe’s brother, Andrew Maggio, who ran a barber shop. Andrew had taken the razor out of his shop a couple weeks earlier in order to have a nick taken out of it, presumably by the local razor de-nicker.

Okay, so there’s your killer. Andrew lived next door, and he clearly didn’t want police to figure out it was his razor that did the deed, which is why he used the axe. Except that the cops couldn’t make any charges stick. Andrew told police about an unknown figure he’d seen lurking around their building that night, and for whatever reason, his story was unable to be punctured by police questioning.

The next attack was even less tidy. Louis Besumer, another New Orleans grocer, was in bed with his mistress, Harriet Lowe. Using Besumer’s own hatchet, someone thwacked Besumer just above his right temple, then hacked Harriet just above her right ear. Both were discovered alive, but things didn’t look good for Harriet. Lewis Oubicon, a 41-year-old former employee of the store was briefly arrested for the crime, but there was nothing tying him to the act except that he was black, and in the American South back then, that was sufficient for people to presume guilt.

Shortly before her last breath a month later, Harriet Lowe claimed Louis Besumer did the deed himself, which led to his arrest and imprisonment for over nine months. A jury finally decided to acquit him, but not until the media had danced nine or ten jigs all over the story – keep in mind, Harriet was Besumer’s mistress; once his legal wife returned to town, this turned into the juiciest running story in the Big Easy.

When a Mrs. Schneider, eight months pregnant, was found covered in blood, attacked most likely by a bedside lamp, police began to suspect a link between this and the previous attacks. Less than a week later, an elderly Joseph Romano was found by his two nieces, who spotted the perpetrator dashing out the window. The bloody axe that had intimately connected with Romano’s head was lying in the backyard. At this point, citizens began telling tales to one another and to the police of having spotted a mysterious axeman lurking in various shadows around the city.

Forget the two notable suspects in the first two attacks – New Orleans had itself a serial killer, and the public was starting to get seriously freaked out.

Then the Cortimiglia family confused police even more. The three of them – Charles, Rosie, and baby Mary – were attacked by an axe-wielding maniac on March 10, 1919. Charles and Rosie survived, but Mary did not. Rosie fingered grocer Iorlando Jordano, who had lived across the street and was the first on the scene after hearing the family’s screams, as well as Jordano’s son. Except that Iorlando was a feeble old man, not likely to have swung an axe in his condition, and his son was over six feet tall and 200 pounds, unable to have slipped into the Cortimiglia residence through the panel that had been cut apart in the back door.

No matter – the Jordanos were found guilty, Iorlando was handed life in prison and his son was sentenced to hang. Case closed. At least until Rosie confessed that she’d made everything up because she didn’t like her neighbors. New Orleans still had an axe-murderer on the loose.

Three more victims fell to the Axeman of New Orleans in 1919. The previously-quoted letter had been published a week before the Cortimiglia attack – in it, the killer (assuming it was the killer who’d written the letter) announced he would spare anyone who was playing jazz music in their home. He asserts that he kills people and drags them to hell, just to keep him company. Creepy.

So who was the Axeman and why did he stop killing? While police made note of the tendency to target Italian immigrants and the lack of robbery attached to the murders, crime writer Colin Wilson pins the blame on a guy named Joseph Momfre, who was shot to death in Los Angeles in 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the final victim.

Except that there is absolutely zero record of Mrs. Pepitone having been tried or convicted of a crime, or even that she was in California at all. Also, while Momfre was a relatively common name in New Orleans at the time, there was no specific Joseph Momfre that could be tied to any of the attacks. There was a suspect by that name who was tied to the shooting of an Italian couple in their home way back in 1912, but there was no axe involved, and police were not ready to link that crime to the spree of 1918-19. Joseph Momfre and his alleged guilt remain nothing more than an urban legend.

And so the Axeman of New Orleans remains a mystery. Some believe the high instance of female victims meant the killer was a sexual sadist, though there was no evidence of sexual foul play at any scene. Some have speculated the mafia was involved, probably using the same black-guy=guilty / Italian=mafia logic I’d mentioned before. Others thought it might be a proponent of jazz music, since the published letter encouraged jazz as a deterrent to his attacks.

That one seems a little far-fetched. It would make for an interesting twist though.

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