Between May 1918 and October 1919, a vicious killer was terrorizing the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. He had attacked at least twelve unsuspecting victims in their homes. He would chisel his way into houses, removing wall panels and gaining entry through back doors, and then slaughter whoever he would find inside. His weapon of choice was an axe, which usually belonged to the victims. He would violently swing the axe at their heads, killing most of his victims. No items of value were ever taken from the homes and robbery was ruled out as a motive. Even though he would regularly leave the murder weapon behind at the crime scene, his identity was never discovered and he was never caught.
The Axeman, as he was called, taunted police with letters claiming he was a demon from Hell. Many of the victims were Italian-American or Italian immigrants and appeared to have been chosen at random. Were the brutal attacks ethnically motivated? Authorities could never tell as the murders suddenly stopped in October 1919. Not everyone was scared of the dreaded Axeman. Some residents put announcements in the newspapers challenging the Axeman to visit their homes late at night. These well-armed citizens promised to leave a window cracked for their would-be assailant. The killings were immortalized in American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of the popular television series, where the Axeman was portrayed by actor Danny Huston.
15. Joseph & Catherine Maggio – Victims #1 & 2
Joseph Maggio, and his wife, Catherine, were asleep in their home on the night of May 22, 1918. The mystery man broke into the home and made his way to their bedroom where he slit the couple’s throats with a straight razor as they slept. He then took an axe and crushed their skulls. Joseph managed to survive the attack long enough to be found by his brothers, Jake and Andrew Maggio. However, he died minutes later. Catherine never had a chance as her throat had been cut so severely that her head was nearly removed from her body. Investigating police found a set of bloody clothes at the scene, believed to have belonged to the killer, indicating he changed into a clean set before exiting the home. The bloody razor was later found in a neighbor’s yard.
14. Louis Besumer & Anne Harriet Lowe – Victims #3 & 4
Louis Besumer was a married man, having an affair with Anne Harriet Lowe, with whom he was with in the early morning hours of June 27, 1918. The couple was in his apartment behind the grocery store he owned when they were attacked. The killer struck Besumer with a hatchet above his right temple, fracturing his skull. Lowe was struck just above the left ear. The couple was found around 7:00 A.M., by John Zanca, a bakery delivery driver on a routine stop. They were lying unconscious in a puddle of their own blood. The bloody small axe, which belonged to Besumer, was found in the bathroom of the apartment. Though both survived the encounter, they told police they were sleeping when the attack occurred and never saw who hit them.
13. A Victim Becomes A Suspect?
After the attack on Louis Besumer and Anne Harriet Lowe, police began to uncover suspicious activity concerning Besumer. It began to look as if he might have been a German spy. Later, after Lowe regained semi-consciousness, she made delirious statements to police that she believed Besumer was indeed a spy and he was arrested. Besumer was later released and the investigating officers were demoted for shoddy police work. Then Lowe claimed she believed Besumer was the one who struck her. When Lowe recovered, her face was partially paralyzed due to her injuries. After a failed surgery to repair her face, Lowe died. When news of Besumer’s infidelity and his legal wife was discovered, the media ran with Lowe’s scandalous and false accusations. Besumer was again arrested, this time for Lowe’s attack and murder. He served nine months in jail before he was acquitted on May 1, 1919.
12. Mrs. Schneider – Victim #5
In the early evening on August 5, 1918, an 8-month pregnant woman history only remembers as Mrs. Edward Schneider, awoke to see a shadowy figure standing over her. Before she could react, she was struck in the head repeatedly with such force that several of her teeth were knocked out. Returning home late from work, Edward Schneider found his wife shortly after midnight. She was bleeding profusely from her scalp, her face completely covered in blood. She was lucky to have survived. Surprisingly, just two days after the attack, Mrs. Schneider recovered enough to give birth to a healthy baby girl. There were no signs of forced entry and nothing was missing from the home. Police believed she was struck with a lamp that had been on a nearby table. Soon after the attack, police arrested James Gleason, an ex-convict, who was found nearby. However, he was soon released for lack of evidence.
11. Joseph Romano – Victim #6
Elderly Joseph Romano lived with his two nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno. On August 10, 1918, the nieces awoke when they heard some noise coming from their uncle’s bedroom. When they entered the room, they found Romano with two wide open wounds to the head. They arrived just in time to see the attacker flee the scene. The described him as a dark-skinned, heavy-set man, wearing a dark suit and drooped hat. Romano, though seriously wounded, was able to walk to the ambulance. Unfortunately, he died just two days later from the severe head trauma. The home was ransacked, but again nothing was taken. Police found a bloody axe in the back yard, and discovered a panel on the back door had been pried open. This was the murder that galvanized the city’s fear and had citizens claiming to see the Axeman everywhere! Some even reported finding their axes mysteriously laying in the back yards.
10. Charles, Rosie, & Mary Cortimiglia – Victims #7-9
Charles Cortimiglia lived quietly in a New Orleans suburb, with his wife, Rosie, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mary. On the night of March 10, 1919, neighbor Iolando Jordano heard screams coming from the Cortimiglia home. He hurried across the street to investigate and, upon his arrival, found the Cortimiglia family had been attacked. Rosie was in the doorway, head bleeding heavily. She was holding her daughter in her arms. Charles lay on the floor, at her feet, with a head wound bleeding profusely. The family was rushed to Charity Hospital. Both Charles and Rosie had suffered skull fractures but survived; however, infant Mary was killed instantly by a single blow to the back of the neck. Again, nothing was stolen from the home and it appeared violence was the only motive. A panel on the back door was found to have been pried open and a bloody axe left on the back porch.
9. The Axeman’s Letter
On March 13, 1919, just days after the attack on the Cortimiglia family, authorities received a letter. It was marked as sent from “Hell.” The letter taunted the police, claiming, “They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible… 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.” The letter continued, “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.” The Axeman promised to continue his reign of terror for as long as it suited him and claimed to be “…the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.”
8. Steve Boca – Victim #10
Late in the night of August 10, 1919, Frank Genusa was awoken by his neighbor, Steve Boca, banging on his door. When he opened the door, Boca collapsed unconscious at his doorstep, his head cracked open and freely bleeding. In the hospital, Boca recovered and remembered being stirred by a dark figure hovering over his bed. He could remember no details of the attack other than waking and running outside to investigate the home invasion. It was only then that he realized that he had been struck by the unknown axe-wielding psycho. The police found nothing taken from the home; however, once again, a panel on the back door had been chiseled open. Boca eventually recovered from his injuries.
7. Sarah Laumann – Victim #11
Young Sarah Laumann was only 19 years old and lived alone. It was the night of September 3, 1919, when neighbors came to check on her welfare. When she didn’t answer, the neighbors broke through the front door and found young Sarah lying unconscious in her bed. Her head split open, with her face and bed covered in blood. She had been struck with such ferocity that several of her teeth had been knocked out. It appears she had been the next victim of the Axeman. Police found that the intruder gained entry to woman’s apartment through an unsecured window. The weapon used looked to have been a blunt object, but a bloody axe was also found on the front lawn of the apartment building. Though her injuries were severe, Laumann did recover, yet was unable to recall any details of the horrible attack.
6. Mike Pepitone – Victim #12
On the night of October 27, 1919, Mike Pepitone became the final known victim of the Axeman. His wife was awakened by a noise in the night and went to his bedroom door just in time to see a large, axe-wielding man fleeing the room. Pepitone was found struck in the head, and surrounded by a pool of his own blood. Much of the room was covered in blood splatter. Mrs. Pepitone and their six children were left unharmed and hadn’t realized the deadly assailant had gained entry to their home. Mrs. Pepitone was unable to furnish police with any details of the attacker; however, it is believed that she secretly suspected who the killer might have been and, some say, even went after him herself.
5. Was Lewis Oubicon The Axeman?
After the Besumer and Lowe attack, police arrested a man named Lewis Oubicon, a 41-year-old African-American man who worked in Besumer’s store. No evidence has ever been made public linking Oubicon to the attack, yet police arrested him nonetheless. Supposedly, Oubicon offered conflicting accounts of his whereabouts when the attack occurred. Victim Lowe made a statement to the police indicating that she recalled her attacker being a dark-skinned man, yet, due to her delirium, many of her statements were discounted. Police offered up robbery as Oubicon’s motive, yet there was no evidence of money or valuables being taken from the scene. As there was no sufficient evidence to hold him as a suspect, Oubicon was eventually released.
4. The Axeman – A Real-Life Jekyll & Hyde?
How could someone as deranged as the Axeman commit such violent crimes at night, yet go unnoticed daily by those around him? Retired detective John Dantonio hypothesized the Axeman might have been responsible for another rash of killings that occurred in 1911 and 1912. The similarities between the attacks led him to believe that the cases were related. Dantonio believed the attacker was a man of multiple personalities, whose only motive was chaos and murder. He believed this type of killer could very well live a normal life by day as a law-abiding citizen, yet be overcome at times by an irresistible need to kill, like a real-life Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Such a man might not even fully realize the actions of his alter-ego.
3. Were Iorlando & Frank Jordano Both The Axeman?
When she regained consciousness, Rosie Cortimiglia told police that the man who discovered the attacks, Iorlando Jordana might actually be her attacker. Since Iolrando was 69 years old, and in poor health, she further claimed that his son, Frank, assisted him in carrying out the gruesome crimes. Standing almost 2 meters tall (6 ft) and weighing over 90 kg (200 lbs.), police believe Frank was too large to have fit through the removed panel on the home’s back door. Charles Cortimiglia strongly repudiated his wife’s claims that the Jordanos were the attackers. Nonetheless, police arrested the two and charged them with murder. On the basis of Rosie’s statement alone, the Jordanos were convicted. Frank was sentenced to hang, while Iorlando received life in prison. Charles divorced his wife after the trial. About a year later, Rosie admitted that she falsely accused the pair out of malice, and the Jordanos were released from prison.
2. A Prime Suspect Emerges
Noted crime author Colin Wilson put forth the notion the Axeman might have been a man named Joseph Momfre. Momfre was believed to have been shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1920, by the widow of final victim Mike Pepitone. Wilson’s theory has been widely repeated; however, other writers refute this theory as an urban legend, as there is no actual archival evidence that the Momfre murder ever occurred. Archival records suggest a real criminal by the name of Joseph Momfre, or Mumfre, did exist at the time in New Orleans, yet they are not detailed enough to identify him as a suspect. Scholar Richard Warner believed that the prime suspect was a man named Frank “Doc” Mumphrey (1875-1921), who just happened to use the alias Leon Joseph Monfre/Manfre. Indeed, one of the survivors of the 1912 attacks possibly committed by the Axeman, made statements that his attacker was a man he knew only as “Momfre.”
1. The Axeman Loved Jazz
In one of his letters to the local newspapers, the Axeman promised to attack another unsuspecting victim at 15 minutes past midnight, on March 19, 1919; however, he vowed to spare anyone he found to be playing jazz music. “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… some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.” This was widely reported and on that night the sound of jazz music flowed through the city. Dance halls were filled to capacity and amateur jazz bands played in houses throughout the city. True to his word, no murders were committed that night. That same year, local songwriter Joseph John Davila wrote “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa),” the cover art to the album depicted a terrified family playing music.
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