In this article:
- The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer who terrorized New Orleans, Louisiana from 1918 to 1919 and was known for killing his victims with an axe and other sharp objects he could find the victims’ homes.
- It wasn’t the axe murders that made the Axeman of New Orleans famous, but his seeming passion for Jazz music that led him to threaten the people of NOLA to play jazz in exchange for not targetting them.
- Despite his infamous reputation, the Axeman had only killed six people while another six managed to survive his attacks.
- The Axeman was never caught, leading many to believe that he later resumed murdering people but with a different M.O to throw off investigators.
Many true crime cases about serial killers revolve around killing women for Freudian reasons. Still, the case of the Axeman of New Orleans stands out for being the only string of murders committed in the name of jazz.
The notorious axe-wielding murderer would often target Italian immigrants and couples in their homes, a rather risky choice of modus operandi given that he would have two people struggling against him and it increased the chances of having additional witnesses.
But some killers are risk-takers. So despite his sloppy victim survival rate of 50%, you got to hand it to the Axeman of New Orleans — he had a fine taste in music.
Who Was the Axeman of NOLA?
Okay, enough credit. Serial killers have a penchant for delusions of grandeur and the Axeman was no different.
While he could have kept his air of mystery, he later decided that it would be fun to roleplay as a demon of hell and wrote the New Orleans press a letter about being “a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell” who was chummy with “His Satanic Majesty” and “The Angel of Death.”
The Axeman’s fondness for writing to the press about his exploits earned him another name, “America’s own Bayou Jack the Ripper.”
Edgy. But let’s start with the facts.
The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer who operated in New Orleans, Louisiana during the early 1900s. The first murder attributed to him was the gruesome death of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, an Italian couple who died on May 22, 1918.
The spouses were found with their throats slashed and their heads bashed in with an axe that he found inside the Maggio residence.
Needless to say, this is how he got his axe-swinging moniker.
The mysterious murderer continued to terrorize Louisiana until October 27, 1919, when he committed a final attack on another Italian immigrant, Mike Pepitone.
Six Dead, Six Injured: The Victims of the Axeman Case
Depending on who you ask, the Axeman either had 12 victims or 13, either way, he must have been pretty bad at the whole murdering gig considering that many of his victims lived long enough to tell the tale and 3 of them managed to make a full recovery.
The following victims’ encounters with the Axeman of New Orleans make up most of what’s known about the enigmatic murderer.
Catherine and Joseph Maggio
His first two victims, Catherine and Joseph Maggio, were found to have died under mysterious circumstances. While getting murdered with an axe seems straightforward, the case was complicated by the fact that the Axeman had used a razor, rather than the axe, to slash his victim’s throats.
And it just so happened that the razor belonged to Andrew Maggio, one of Joseph’s brothers, who was one of the two people to discover Joseph lying in a pool of his own blood.
Andrew had arrived together with Jake, a third Maggio brother, only to find their sibling horribly mutilated after having his skull bashed in with an axe. To their surprise, Jake was still alive, if only barely.
Meanwhile, Catherine had sustained deep wounds so deep it was said that her head looked like it was about to fall off her shoulders.
While modern medicine and 911 may have been able to save Joseph, this was the 1910s and by the time the police arrived, Joseph was already dead. Not that they could ask him questions, of course, since he was in no state to answer.
The police did a check of the home, looking out for missing belongings and signs of where the killer may have entered and left.
Since there were no missing items, the police ruled out robbery as a motive for the murder which led them to ask about tensions that the Maggio couple may have had with their neighbours, friends, and family.
Now, this is where things start to look very bad for Andrew. Not only was his razor used as the murder weapon but he literally lived next door to his brother and sister-in-law.
He even admitted to hearing strange groaning sounds through the wall of his home but told police that he had just gotten home from a party and was too drunk to realize that his brother was getting murdered next door.
Esteban Torres, an employee at Andrew’s barbershop, gave a statement saying that he had seen Andrew bring home the razor and that Andrew told him he was only taking it to “hone a nick from the blade.”
The police then took Andrew in for questioning, initially believing him to be the killer until he was able to convince them that he had seen a man lurking around the Maggio residence before the murder.
Louis Besumer and Harriet Lowe
As if to help Andrew clear his name, the Axeman of New Orleans struck again on June 27, 1918. The Axeman cornered another local Italian grocer, Louis Besumer, at the back of his grocery store and proceeded to attack him with a hatchet, hitting him on the temple with it.
The Axeman found a second potential victim keeping Besumer company, Harriet Lowe. Lowe was Besumer’s mistress and she is the one the Axeman actually managed to kill.
Lowe sustained a cut above her right ear that led to her death a couple of months after the attack. This incident, especially the Axeman’s choice to not finish off Besumer, led to speculation that he was a Jack the Ripper-type moralist who targetted women he deemed “impure.”
Anna Schneider was 8 months pregnant when the Axeman of New Orleans came for her.
She woke up on the evening of August 5, 1918, to see a dark figure looming over her bed before bashing her face in with an axe. Anna managed to fight off the Axeman and was later found by her husband who immediately took her to the hospital.
Anna claimed to have no memory of the night after the attack began but survived to give birth to a healthy baby girl.
Pauline and Mary Bruno and Joseph Romano
Sisters Pauline and Mary were staying at their uncle Joseph’s house on the eve of August 10, 1918, when they were awoken by the noise from a fight between the Axeman of New Orleans and their uncle.
Unfortunately, Joseph Romano was a senior at the time and suffered severe head trauma that resulted in his death two days after the incident.
Like Anna Schneider, Pauline and Mary described the fleeing Axeman as a dark, tall figure.
Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia
Charles Cortigmalia was the third person to fight the Axeman of New Orleans. There’s a chance he may have been at least mentally prepared for an attack by the Axeman since the death of Romano brought Louisiana’s fear of the Axeman to a fever pitch.
Rumors circulated at the time that the Axeman was a supernatural entity, but faced with no choice but to go mano a mano with the Axeman to protect his wife Rosie and their 2-year-old daughter, Mary, Charles decided to throw hands.
The couple survived but unfortunately, Mary didn’t make it.
Just like Anna, Pauline, and Bruno, Charles went on to describe the Axeman as a tall, dark man.
The Axeman of New Orleans Tells Mortals to “Jazz It”
The Devil may have gone down to Georgia with his fiddle, but he sent one of his demons to New Orleans to promote jazz.
At least, that’s what the Axeman of New Orleans claimed when he wrote his letter from Hell.
The letter was published on March 16, 1919, in the Times-Picayune and opened by greeting the New Orleanian reading it with “Esteemed Mortal,” a phrase so ambiguous yet polite that you could probably get away with using it for work emails as long as you don’t declare yourself to be a demon from the hottest hell that can’t be caught by police.
As if claiming to be a demon wasn’t weird enough, the Axeman of New Orleans left instructions for what is the most bizarre hostage-taking of a city in true crime history:
“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…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.”
That night, New Orleanians played and blasted jazz music from every street in the city.
The Axeman of New Orleans’ strange demands even led to the creation of “The Axeman’s Jazz,” also known as “Don’t Scare Me Papa”, a ragtime piano song that sounds way too upbeat for a song made at axe point.
Joseph John Davilla, the composer of the Axeman’s Jazz, later published the piece with a Times-Picayune cartoon on the cover. The cartoon depicted locals fearfully playing jazz music to save their lives on the night of March 16.
Naturally, this made people suspect that the Axeman of New Orleans’ letter was just a PR stunt.
Demons, Copycats, and the Italian Mafia: The Suspected Axemen of New Orleans.
Onto the fun part of every true crime case: Who was the Axeman of New Orleans? While there were a few people suspected of being the shadowy axe murderer, namely Andrew Maggio, the authorities were never able to get a conclusive or even remotely solid idea of who the Axeman of New Orleans was.
Wild speculation ensued with everyone from demons in hell to the Italian mafia being suspected of the crimes. But the likeliest suspect was a known anti-Italian racist with a pre-existing criminal record.
The Italian Mafia Did It
The Axeman of New Orleans’ victims were mostly Italian grocers hence the speculation that the Italian mafia organization called the Black Hand was involved.
The Black Hand was known for extorting businesses within local Italian communities and since Italian immigrants at the time preferred to “take care of their own affairs” (read: settle things outside the law), it was theorized that the victims did not pay the mafia their extortion debts.
Demons Did It
No joke. Many people at the time sincerely believed that the Axeman of New Orleans was a demon.
Back when true crime podcasts weren’t everywhere and the concept of serial killers was practically non-existent aside from Jack the Ripper, people thought that a cruel and unidentifiable murderer must be a supernatural entity.
Randos Did It
The inconsistencies around how many victims the Axeman of New Orleans actually killed are partly because some only count immediate deaths while others count additional deaths that resemble the Axeman’s M.O.
That said, the Axeman was rather sloppy and inconsistent for a serial killer which is why some people believe there were actually multiple Axemen who were, to put it simply, just going along with the theme as best as they could.
A Racist Did It
Joseph Mumfre was a former leader of a blackmailing gang that targeted Italian immigrants in New Orleans and was suspected of being the Axeman after the widow of Mike Pepitone, the last victim, shot him dead in Los Angeles.
Incidentally, records show that Mumfre was in prison every time the Axeman of New Orleans went on hiatus.