Human Monsters: The Mysterious New Orleans Axeman Murders

I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

These were the closing words sent in a letter to the Times-Picayune on March 14, 1919, signed the Axeman. When the letter arrived, the town of New Orleans, Louisiana had been suffering from this killer for nearly a year. Four people had already met their end at his axe and just as many had been gravely wounded. Before the year was out two more would die and the whole town would dance to the Axeman’s Jazz.

Attacked In Their Beds

From The Terrible Axeman Of New Orleans

In the grey dawn hours of May 23, 1918, the murderer’s axe fell for the first time. While Joseph Maggio and his wife slept in their warm beds, a monster broke into their home. The killer split their skulls and slit their throats for good measure. All the police were able to find were the bloody clothes he’d left behind and an ominous note written outside the home in chalk.

Mrs Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just like Mrs Toney

The case went cold from there and the killer went quiet until a month later on June 27th. Louis Besumer and his girlfriend Harriett Lowe were attacked in the back of his grocery store while they slept. Miraculously both survived the assault, though Harriett would die sometime later on August 5th.

The attack made a bigger splash in the press than it normally would have once the papers found out Harriett Lowe wasn’t Mrs. Besumer. It grew even more scandalous when on her deathbed Harriett told the police that her attacker was actually Louis himself. That accusation landed him in jail before he was eventually acquitted on May 1, 1919.

On the same day that Harriett Lowe died, the killer struck again. This time he attacked pregnant Mrs. Shneider as she slept. Her husband came home to find her in a pool of blood and rushed her to the nearest doctor. Despite her head wound she survived and eventually gave birth to a healthy child. The Axeman’s bloodlust wasn’t sated for long and five days later on August 10th, he struck again.

“He was dark, tall, heavyset. Wearing a dark suit and a black slouch hat.” That was the description from Mary and Pauline Bruno, they were the first to ever glimpse the killer. They had been woken up by shouts and sounds of violence coming from their uncle’s room. They opened the door in time to see the murderer make his getaway out the window. Their uncle Joseph Romano didn’t last long enough for help to arrive.

 

Back With A Vengeance

Not long after Romano died, the police admitted that they had a serial killer and the press went wild. Something strange happened then. The Axeman, whose crimes had been at a breakneck pace, slowed down. People would report other cryptic messages or weapons left out in their yards and whisper it was the Axeman but no further attacks happened. That was until the bloody month of March when that letter arrived and the killer came again. The letter was as follows:

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans: The Axeman

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 (and the worst), 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 out on that specific 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

A map ran in the papers at the time of the Axeman’s attacks.

The letter arrived just four days after the Axeman’s worst attack. On March 10th Gretna, a town right across the river from New Orleans, felt the wrath of the monster.

Rosie Cortimiglia awoke to the sound of a commotion outside her bedroom door. She rose and took her two-year-old daughter Mary into her arms. When she opened the door she found her husband Charles struggling with a large man wielding an axe.

She watched as her husband was struck down and the fiend turned his attention to her and her child. Mary’s skull was split by the axe and she died that day. Her parents, though badly wounded, survived.

After the letter ran, the people of New Orleans took to throwing “Axeman Parties” where they would play jazz music throughout the night. Even as more bodies piled up, bringing the total to 6 dead and 6 wounded, people elevated the killer to cult status with songs and morbid costumes. Then, he faded away for good.

Unusual Suspects

As far as who the Axeman was, well that is where things get a little murky. There are many that think the Axeman was actually a man named Joseph Momfre, they base this around the story that the final victim was Mike Pepitone. The story goes that after Mike was murdered his wife shot and killed the attacker, who was a local criminal named Joseph Monfre. However, crime reports and records at the time are incomplete and vague. While Mike Pepitone is considered to have been the last victim of the Axeman, there is no record of a Joseph Monfre or his murder at the hands of an angry widow.

Another possible answer to who the Axeman might have been comes from that note left in chalk. While looking into who Mrs. Toney was, investigators could only find a connection to another string of axe murders that happened back in 1911.

Tony Schiambra was killed along with other Italian grocers in the area. Police at the time thought it was a hit by an organized crime group that practiced the Black Hand, which predated the mafia. However, it might have been the practice run for the Axeman. Whatever the truth might be, the identity of this demon from the hottest hell has never been found.

The Axeman’s Jazz Plays On

Much like how Jack The Ripper’s awful deeds have become woven into myth, so too has the Axeman’s legacy of blood endured throughout the years. With the killers professed love for jazz it wasn’t long before he got more than a few songs dedicated to him.

He’s also made an appearance in popular media such as American Horror Story: Coven, where he was played by the talented Danny Huston.

 

 

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(If you enjoyed reading about the Axeman feel free to check out other killers in my Human Monsters category.)

Sources:

Vintage news

Legends of America

The Serial Killer Files

 

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