The early hours of Thursday, May 23, 1918, cling to your skin. Your body pushes against the heavy, muggy air, and beads of sweat surface on your brow.
This morning, like many others in New Orleans, is uncomfortable, humid, and all-encompassing.
The street you’re walking down is mostly empty, save for a few stragglers. The street lamps make shadows of their figures, but soon, the darkness behind you consumes them.
The clopping of hooves and creaking of carriage wheels disappear into the distance.
Hurrying down Upperline Street, you pass closely stacked shotgun homes, their inhabitants probably deep in slumber.
Within seconds, you turn onto Magnolia Street and stare into the night. The darkness ahead of you is deep and silent.
A flutter of movement catches the corner of your eye, but you ignore it. These late nights tend to play tricks on the weary.
You continue on your journey and, like the people before you, soon the darkness consumes you, too.
The Axeman’s Beginnings
If anyone heard the attack on Thursday, May 23, 1918, no one came forth to stop it or raised the alarm.
In fact, no one realized anything was amiss until around 4:45 am. Strange groans from an adjacent room woke Andrew Maggio up from a deep, intoxicated sleep.
That night, Andrew, Joseph Maggio and his wife, Catherine, and other family members had been celebrating. Soon Andrew would be off to the Navy, a prospect that may have seemed promising for the Italian immigrant family.
When Andrew finally went to bed, Joseph and Catherine were still awake. The festivities had ended hours before Andrew woke up again, so any noise coming from anywhere in the house was unusual.
Andrew knocked on the wall that divided his and his older brother’s bedrooms, but received no response.
The house was completely quiet beside the groans coming from the next room. Regardless of the silence, Andrew must have felt something terribly wrong because he ran out of the house in a panic.
After exiting his home, he sprinted to his brother Jacob Maggio’s house down the block.
Soon sunlight would break, and the discovery in Joseph’s room would set the beginning of a nightmare that would grip New Orleans in terror for months.
The Idea of Vendetta
To understand the complexity of this story, you first have to understand the shared experiences of 19th century Italian immigrants in New Orleans.
The influx of Italian immigrants began in earnest in the 1880s. The need for cheap labor after the Civil War created an uptick in arrivals. Most of these Italian arrivals were Sicilian.
In fact, Sicilians made up over 80 percent of Italian immigrants by late the 19th century. This continued through the 1890s, and by the century’s turn, New Orleans boasted the largest Italian community in the South.
The relationship between sugar planters and Italian laborers was precarious but multi-beneficial. Sugar planters appreciated the Italians’ hard work and tenacity. In turn, the money Italians earned and carefully saved allowed them to establish a financially comfortable life in the United States.
Most Italians opted toward opening fruit stands or grocery stores. This worked out for them, and by the 1900s, Italian-owned groceries could be found all over. Despite their financial success, Italians still faced racial prejudice.
Italians misunderstanding of American racial beliefs and Italians’ willingness to work alongside Black Americans caused many white Americans to distrust them after they immigrated. In fact, the largest mass lynching of Italians occurred in New Orleans after the assassination of Police Chief David Hennessy.
The distrust wasn’t one-sided. Italians distrusted American authorities as well, so they settled conflicts amongst themselves through the custom of vendetta. The custom was oftentimes violent, and it wasn’t uncommon for disputing parties to get into shooting and knife fights.
The prejudice against Italians and the system of vendetta are important to understanding the confusion and failings that surrounded the investigation of the Axeman murders.
The Story of Mrs. Maggio
Although much of the Maggio’s early life is unknown, the shared experiences of Italian immigrants may help paint a better picture of their life.
Similar to most of the Axeman’s victims, Joseph and Catherine Maggio were Italian grocers. They ran their barroom and grocery out of the first floor of their home at the corner of Magnolia and Upperline Streets.
The Axeman’s reign of terror began with their murders in 1918. However, some evidence suggests that the Axeman’s operation began as early as 1910 with attacks perpetrated by an assailant nicknamed The Cleaver.
Regardless of whether the killings prior to 1918 were the Axeman’s doing, the murders between 1918 and 1919 showed an escalation in violence not seen in previous crime scenes.
Joseph and Catherine’s deaths were brutal. The attacker slit their throats and bludgeoned them. The attack was so brutal that specks of blood coated 7 feet up the walls and ceiling of the room.
Catherine died instantly, but Joseph survived until a little after his brothers found him.
Initial suspicion fell on Andrew. How was it possible that he heard nothing during such a barbaric attack? Why did the attacker spare him?
However, police release a tearful Andrew after intense questioning. Other factors led investigators to suspect a more sinister reasoning.
First, the attacker entered by chiseling a single panel out of the rear exterior of the Maggio’s door. The axe used to beat the couple belonged to them, and the attacker had left it their bathtub. Bloody clothes and a bloody razor were also found in and around the home.
Although some debate exists, little or no money was taken from the home. Visible jewelry and money were left untouched. Finally, accounts of an unknown man around the Maggio residence further cemented the investigators’ suspicion that someone else committed the murders.
Another interesting and disturbing discovery was made a few miles from the crime scene, a note written in chalk. The note read: “Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight, just like Mrs. Tony.”
Mrs. Tony Schiambra had been a victim in a spat of murders committed by The Cleaver between 1911 and 1912. The Maggio attack resembled those previous murders. Italian grocers were also targeted. The attacker entered the properties by chiseling a panel out of the back-door and killed his victims with an axe.
Could it be the same killer? Could a few dollars lead someone to commit something so horrific, or could it be the work of someone carrying out a vendetta?
All these questions swirled around the investigators’ heads.
The Jekyl and Hyde Concept
A month passed before the next attack. On June 27, 1918, an assailant brutally attacked Polish grocer Louis Besumer and his partner, Harriet Lowe, with an axe. Similar to the Maggios, Besumer lived in the vicinity of his grocery store. The weapon also belonged to Besumer, and was found in the home’s bathtub.
However, key differences existed in the Besumer and Lowe case. The sedated and delirious Lowe pointed the finger at an Afro-Caucasian individual. So police arrested Lewis Oubicon, a Black man recently employed by Besumer. They eventually released Oubicon for lack of evidence.
Soon after, Lowe accused Besumer of attacking her. Besumer came under suspicion, and investigators his searched home. There, investigators found letters written in German, Russian, and Yiddish.
Police began to suspect that Besumer was a German spy and attacked Lowe because discovered his identity. However, police released him after two days in their custody.
Months after the attack, Lowe, whose condition had further deteriorated, accused Besumer again. Police arrested Besumer. He spent nine months in prison before his acquittal. Lowe eventually died due to her injuries.
Similar to the Maggio’s murder, the Lowe and Besumer case went cold.
The Next Killing Attempts
Another attack followed on August 4, 1918. Pregnant mother of three Mary Schneider was violently beaten with a lamp from her bedside table.
Although initially attributed to the Axeman, the attack did not follow the same pattern as the others. The attacker ransacked Schneider’s home and made off with an axe and over a hundred dollars. Schneider wasn’t Italian, and the attacker didn’t use an axe when he assaulted her.
Schneider survived and delivered a healthy baby. Her case also went cold.
The One-Man Theory
Less than a week after Schneider’s attack, Italian barber Joe Romano was beaten with an axe on Saturday, August 10, 1918. Romano’s nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno, ran to his room after hearing the commotion. They found Romano bleeding out, and his attacker running into the night.
The sisters described the assailant as a dark-skinned, heavy-set man, wearing a dark suit and slouched hat.
Similar to the other murders, the attacker took little or no money, left a bloody axe at the crime scene, and chiseled away the back-door panel to enter the house. Romano was not a grocer, but his family operated a small grocery store from the front of the house he lived in.
Also similar to the Maggio attack, neighbors reported seeing and chasing off attempted intruders from their own homes in the previous days.
The Romano murder threw New Orleans into a frenzy of fear. The New Orleans Police Department received numerous calls a day with tips and suspicious sightings. Men stood watch over the families armed with a gun until sunrise.
Then, all went quiet. The city went without an Axeman attack for seven months.
The nightmare continued on Tuesday, March 11, 1919. Screams coming from the Cortimiglia home alerted the Gretna neighborhood of a horrible scene.
Neighbor Iorlando Jordano ran to the Cortimiglia’s finding Rosie Cortimiglia bleeding from severe head wounds and her two-year-old daughter, Mary, hanging from her arms, dead.
Rosie’s husband, Charles, was also badly beaten. However, he and Rosie both survived.
During their hospital stay, Gretna police questioned them about the attack. Both denied knowing or seeing their attacker.
Although the Cortimiglia attack closely resembled previous Axeman modus operandi, Gretna police persisted on with other suspects.
Gretna police arrested Rosie as a material witness upon her release from the hospital. After intense interrogation, she pinned the blame on the elderly Jordano and his son, Frank.
Investigators followed through with arrests despite a complete lack of evidence. The Jordanos were tried and convicted.
They were released less than a year later when Rosie retracted her story to the Times-Picayune. She stated that police intimidation led to her accusation of the Jordanos. Without Rosie’s testimony, the case eventually fell apart. It remains unsolved.
The more attacks occurred, the more questions that arose. How was it possible that the assailant could slip in and out of homes without detection and with such ease? Why did he always rely on axes found in people’s homes, and what was the motivation behind the brutality?
For some, the sheer savageness of the attacks and the savviness of the perpetrator, pointed to a being of supernatural origin. It didn’t help that just days after the Cortimiglia attack, the Times-Picayune would receive a letter that would confirm people’s fears of an unhuman killer.
The Night of All Jazz
The letter that the Times-Picayune received attested to the Axeman’s reign of terror in New Orleans. The letter read:
Hottest 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 the blood 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.
On Tuesday, March 18, 1919, every dance hall, café, and bar in New Orleans reached capacity. The sound of professional and amateur jazz bands streamed out of nearly every house in the city.
That night, New Orleans went without an Axeman attack.
The letter even inspired local jazz composer Joseph John Davilla to write the piece “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).” The sheet music cover depicts a frenzied and panic-stricken family playing jazz music in their home.
Although the letter sent New Orleans into an all-night jazz, drinking, and dancing frenzy, the authenticity of the letter has never been proven. Historians argue that the writing in the letter shows a sophistication that the actual Axeman likely didn’t possess. Some even believe that Davilla wrote the letter to attract sales for his Axeman inspired piece.
The Question of Who’s Next
More attacks with similar characteristics to the others followed in close succession.
The Axeman attacked grocer Steve Boca on Sunday, August 10, 1919. On Wednesday, September 3, 1919, an intruder broke into Sarah Laumann’s apartment and beat her with an axe. Both Boca and Laumann survived but couldn’t remember anything from the attack.
The final reported Axeman attack occurred on Monday, October 27, 1919. An intruder entered Mike and Esther Pepitone’s house and repeatedly struck Mike in the head. Esther, sleeping in another room, woke from the noise. She ran to Mike’s room to find a large, axe-wielding man fleeing the scene.
Mike died from his injuries, and like Boca and Laumann, Esther could not identify the attacker.
The Pepitone attack was the last to occur in New Orleans. Although some suspect that the Axeman went on to attack Italian grocers in other parts of the state, no conclusive evidence exists.
The Search Continues
Over a hundred years have passed since the last confirmed Axeman murder, but the legend of the Axeman lives on. The story of his rampage is still shared at slumber parties and around campfires. Amateur sleuths still comb through case files to try to figure out who the Axeman might be. You can find all types of podcasts and articles written about him.
It’s also important to note the multiple failings that led such a man to continue his attacks with impunity.
There are several reasons why the Axeman was able to operate in the way that he did:
- A lack of understanding of Italian culture in New Orleans, leading to an incorrectly suspected case of vendetta.
- A breakdown of communication between police departments, resulting in lost time and increased danger.
- Misidentification and connection of the Cleaver and the Axeman by the NOPD
Finally, it’s important to understand that in the early 20th century there was no word to describe a serial killer. DNA evidence wasn’t in existence, and the study of psychology was in its infancy.
The legend of the Axeman of New Orleans continues to incite curiosity, but its important to remember the faces and facts behind the case.
The Axeman’s attacks were brutal and tormented an entire city. The attacks left people fearful of sleeping in the place they should have felt the safest in–their homes.
Have you heard the story of the New Orleans Axeman before? Let us know in the comments!
My name is Leiana Pineda Gonzalez-Rubio, and I am the Content and Digital Strategist at Pelican State Credit Union. I have over 6 years of experience in the marketing and communications field. I love reading, dancing and making art in my free time as well as spending time with my boyfriend, family and my dogs.