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Murder, Mockery, and Jazz: The Axeman of New Orleans 

Listen to jazz—or die. 

the mysterious axman's jazz record cover
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In New Orleans on March 19th, 1919, jazz music flowed through the night air. Every home, bar, and restaurant played jazz records or people gathered to listen to the many grooving tones of live jazz performances, but what sounded like a wonderful night of music came from a sinister threat.

In a letter sent to media after an onslaught of grizzly attacks on the community, the killer warned the people of New Orleans to take heed of his requestlisten to jazz or incur his wrath. 

In 1918, an axe-wielding killer wreaked havoc in New Orleans in a murderous spree that would see twelve attacks, six of which resulted in the victim's deathone of which was a young child.

In a terrifying spree that lasted around 18 months, the mysterious killer dubbed “The Axeman of New Orleans” would break into people's homes, and strike as his unsuspecting victims slept. 

So—who was The Axeman of New Orleans? 

The Spree Begins: The Maggio Murders 

The first victims of ‘The Axeman’ were Joseph Maggio, an Italian grocer, and his wife, Catherine, on May 23rd, 1918.

The killer had broken into their home in the dead of night and slit both Joseph’s and Catherine's throats with a straight razor, before striking them multiple times with an axe; their bloodied, lifeless bodies were found by two of Joseph's brothers, Jake and Andrewit is documented that Catherine’s throat was slit so deep, she was almost decapitated.  

When investigating the home, the police found that no items were missing which ruled out the motive to be robbery; they discovered that the lower panel on the kitchen door was removed, and they also found what was presumed to be the killer's bloodied clothes in the house, indicating that the killer changed his clothes before fleeing the scene.

In another shocking discovery, the straight razor that had been used to cut Joseph and Catherine's throats was found on a nearby lawnand that razor belonged to Andrew Maggio.

Andrew Maggio worked at the time as a barber, and a witness statement from one of his employees detailed how Andrew had removed the straight razor from his shop two days prior to the killings; because of this Andrew became suspect number one.  

Andrew Maggio lived in an adjoining property to Catherine and Joseph and claims he was intoxicated on the night of the killings, and thought he had heard groaning through the walls, but due to the state he was in, he was unable to do anythinghe also claimed to see a mysterious figure lurking near Joseph and Catherine’s home that night.

Eventually, the police were unable to gain any more evidence or prove Andrew’s alibi to be false, and Andrew was released from police custody. 

The Besumer and Lowe Attacks 

The second attack took place on June 28th (1918) whilst Louis Besumer and Harriet Anna Lowe slept in the back portion of Besumer’s grocery, located on the corner of Dorgenois and Laharpe Street.

A critically ill, but still alive Besumer and Lowe were found the next morning by a bread delivery man named John Zanca; both were stuck around the head with an axe that belonged to Besumer. Louis Besumer survived his injuries, but several weeks later, Harriet Anna Lowe succumbed to her injuries. 

The police at the time immediately arrested 41-year-old African American man Lewis Oubicon who had been working at the grocery store only a week before the attacks, as they claimed he gave “conflicting accounts of his whereabouts”—but due to insufficient evidence, Oubicon was later released. 

The Besumer and Lowe case became one of intrigue due to claims Lowe made before her death—she had stated to police that Besumer was a German spy, as she had found foreign hand-written letters in his possession, which resulted in him being detained by the police for two days before being released; however, Besumer was arrested again in August as whilst on her deathbed, Lowe named him as her attacker.

Louis Besumer served nine months in prison for her murder, before being acquitted in May 1919 due to the case being unreliable, as the only witness was Lowe who had suffered terrible head injuries and was also heavily sedated.  

However, it is stated that the police always had their suspicions about Besumer due to his injuries being significantly less severe than Lowe’s, and his apparent lack of emotion towards Lowe’s critical condition.  

During the time Besumer spent in prison, more victims succumbed to brutal attacks. 

The Schneider Attacks 

On August 5th (1918) Ed Schneider returned home to find his wife, Mary Schneider, who was eight months pregnant at the time, with her scalp sliced open and her face covered in blood; no forced entry was found at their home, but an axe was missing from their shed; it was also reported that the attacker swiped a few dollars from Ed Schneider's wallet. 

Mary was rushed to Charity Hospital, and two days later she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Although Mary survived, she also suffered from amnesia and was unable to recall any details before the attack, except for waking to see a large, dark figure looming over her; the police at the time surmised that a bedside lamp was used as the weapon as no axe was ever found in relation to the attack.

During the investigation, the police arrested an ex-convict by the name of James Gleason, not long after Mary’s body was found, but yet again, he was released shortly after due to a lack of evidence.  

The Joseph Romano Murder 

Pauline and Mary Bruno were awoken during the night on August 10th (1918) when they heard a disturbance coming from their uncle’s bedroom; when they went to investigate, they found their elderly uncle, Joseph Romano, had been struck violently over the head, the injury was said to have sliced through to his brain.

At the time Pauline and Mary both saw the attacker fleeing the scene, but they were only ever able to recall minor detailsthey described the assailant as having dark skin, being “heavy-set” and wearing “a dark suit and slouch hat.” 

After the attack, Romano was able to walk to the ambulance that had been called for him, but he died in hospital two days later due to his head injuries. At his home, the police discovered that a panel on the backdoor had been chiseled free—they also found a bloody axe in his backyard. 

Wicked New Orleans

Wicked New Orleans

By Troy Taylor

The Cortimiglia Tragedy 

On the night of March 10th, 1919, “The Axeman’ struck againbut this time he carried his wrath to the New Orleans suburb of Gretna. Rose Cortimiglia awoke to find her husband, Charles, battling an intruder in their bedroom, but Charles would not win the fight.

The intruder attacked both Rose and Charles by violently striking them over the head with an axe, causing them both to sustain skull fractures; the attacker then turned their sights to Rose and Charle’s two-year-old daughter, Mary.  

The Cortimiglia household was searched, and no items were taken from the property, which enabled investigators to rule out a robbery; upon further investigation, the back door to the house was found to have a panel missing, and a bloody axe was found on the property's back porch. Rose and Charles both survived their attacks, but their daughter did notMary died cradled in her mother's arms.  

Rose, while in hospital being treated for her wounds, accused her neighbors of being the perpetrators, 68-year-old Iorlando Jordano and 17-year-old Frank; Frank was once close to the Cortimiglia family, but a rivalry developed between the families when Charles and Rose opened a grocery store of their own, causing them to become direct competitors with Iorlando and Frank.

As the attacks happened not long after Iorlando had taken Rose and Charles to court over the dispute, the police arrested and charged the men with murder, however, the evidence against the men was weak at best.  

Iorlando had a myriad of health problems, including arthritis which would have made it almost impossible for him to wield an axe; Frank was 6 foot 2 and weighed in at around 200 pounds, making it impossible for him to fit through the missing panel on the back door.

The police were aware of this at the time, but they were desperate to pin the murder on someone, so once Rose was released from hospital, the police practically held her hostage until she “remembered” who had attacked her family.

Grenta police even drafted a detailed account of the murder, and even though she could not read English, Rose was forced to sign it—the signing of this account convinced a jury of Frank and Iorlando’s involvement; Iorlando was sentenced to life imprisonment, with Frank sentenced to hang. 

In 1920 Rose recanted her statement and claimed she falsely accused the men due to the trouble and turmoil caused by their rival grocery stores, and luckily, Frank and Iorlando’s charges were dropped. 

“...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…” — Excerpt from a letter sent by The Axeman to The Times-Picayune Newspaper. 

The Attack on Steve Boca 

The next attack took place after the infamous “axeman letter” was sent to a New Orleans Newspaper The Times-Picayune which we will cover in more detail later. 

On the night of August 10th, 1919, a grocer by the name of Steve Boca awoke to see a large, dark figure standing over his bed before he was attacked with an axe; Boca, although the attack had cracked his head open, managed to make his way to a friend's house, another grocer by the name of Frank Genusa, before losing consciousness.

The search of Boca’s home resulted in the same as the previous attacks—there was no evidence to suggest anything had been stolen, and a panel on the backdoor had been chiseled away; despite his injuries, Steve Boca survived his ordeal, but couldn’t recall any details about the attack or his attacker. 

The Attack on Sarah Lauman 

In early September 1919, 19-year-old Sarah Lauman was found by her neighbors when they broke into her apartment after she did not respond to their calls.

They found her unconscious on her bed, covered in blood—she had a severe head injury and was also missing several teeth. Lauman’s attacker had entered her apartment through an open window, before attacking her with an axe, which was later found discarded on the front lawn.

Lauman would also survive her attack, but like several other victims, she was unable to remember anything that happened before she was attacked. 

The Last Attack: Esther and Mike Pepitone 

During the night of October 27th, 1919, Esther Pepitone was jolted awake by the piercing scream of her husband.

Mike Pepitone had been struck over the head 18 times with a heavy nut and bolt, similar to the type of tool that is used to anchor down circus tents, and that weekend, there had been a circus in town.

Esther claimed to have seen two assailants in her husband's bedroom but was only able to describe them all as “large.” Mike Pepitone died of his injuries two hours after he was attacked. 

The Investigation: Who Was The Axeman of New Orleans—or what?

The terrifying reign of “The Axeman” was always believed to be a somewhat isolated incident that occurred from 1918 to 1919, however, similar crimes were taking place several years earlier between 1910 to 1911, with reports of an intruder breaking into people's homes, specifically Italian grocers, and attacking them with a heavy objectbut it was only in 1910 that these attacks would produce the first fatality. 

Joe Davi, a 26-year-old Italian grocer, and his pregnant wife, Mary Davi, were attacked as they slept; Mary survived her injuries, but her husband died less than 24 hours after the attack.

Mary was able to provide a description of the attacker as a tall, white male with a typical American accentthis led police to believe that the crimes were racially motivated, perhaps someone who resented the increase in Italian immigrants to area, especially if they had successful businesses; yet due to insufficient evidence, and with no way to catch the killer, the police simply had no choice but to sit idle, and wait for another attack, which happened in 1918 at the Maggio’s home. 

There were, and still are many speculations surrounding the identity and motive of “The Axeman” during his 18-month killing spreethe fact that several of his victims were Italian immigrants and grocery owners, another racially motivated motive wasn’t out of the question.  

In New Orleans during that time, there was a specific stereotype applied to Italian immigrants in that they were often in involved in “blood feuds” or “vendettas” that would see them “taking the law into their own hands” and this stereotype was often applied to the Italian community-based in the New Orleansthe Sicilians.

The chief inspector of the case, Frank Mooney, leaned into this stereotype and deemed the Maggio murders to be an act of revenge by the jealous younger brotherand this wasn’t the only time the police determined the other attacks to be vendettas from within the community, the same conclusion was drawn with Rose and Charles Cortimiglia, and Louis Besumer and Harriet Anna Lowe. 

Shoddy police work and the time also came into play, such as the police fixing the broken panels found on the victims' backdoors, and the reluctance to link the crimes to one attacker, but when non-Italian victims were the targets, it threw a huge spanner in the works when it came to determining a racist motive.

Was this the work of a begrudged New Orleans man who despised successful Italian grocers? Or was it a deranged killer targeting people for no other reason other to quell their bloodlust? The simple answer is no one knew. 

The Axeman of New Orleans Letter: “Hell, March 13” 

The case of “The Axeman” not only brought terror to the New Orleans community for several months, but the attacker also injected an air of “otherworldly” evil into the mix…. 

A New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune received a letter from the perpetrator that was dated “Hell, March 13, 1919.” The letter contained demonic ramblings that took the investigation to a whole new level of insanity: 

“Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) 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” 

a letter from the New Orleans Axeman from the Axeman himself to a New Orleans newspaper
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  • Photo Credit: newspapers.com

It’s safe to say that the letter worked, and on Tuesday 19th March 1919, the New Orleans residents filled the night with Jazz, and “the axeman” stayed true to his word—not one attack or murder took place that evening.

The next attack happened to Steve Boca several months later on August 10th, and a further two attacks took place which resulted in one last fatality of Mike Pepitone.

Many people speculated that the letter was a hoax, but many people also believed that the letter was sent to the media by the killer, due to his frustrations surrounding other people receiving “credit” for his attacks—it was also speculated that Jazz musician Joseph Davilla wrote the letter to the press in order to boost the sales of a record he was due to release that week titled “the mysterious axeman’s jazz.” 

the mysterious axeman's jazz record cover from the early 1900's
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the end of 1920, “the axeman” of New Orleans seemed to disappear as abruptly as he appeared, and no more axe-wielding attacks or murders occurred.

At the end of the almost year-long ordeal that brought tragedy, despair, and unimaginable fear to the community, Chief Inspector Frank Mooney resigned from the case, declaring that he had failed to catch the killer the media had dubbed “The Axeman.” 

A Bloody Mystery: Was the Axeman of New Orleans Ever Caught?

At every turn “The Axeman” managed to slip away under the curtain of darkness leaving behind many gruesome scenes, six bodies, and the population of New Orleans traumatized for life.

Was it the violent work of a lone serial killer? Or was it the work of killer, and a copycat? Did the real “axeman” send the infamous letter to the media? Or was it a fame-hungry local musician?

Perhaps the murders were all committed by different people, all with various motives, but regardless, one this is for sure—the culprit was, and probably will never be identified (and thus, never caught)—leaving the sinister tale of “The Axeman of New Orleans” a bloody mystery.