During several years in the early 1900’s, New Orleans teetered on the brink of panic after a string of horrendous murders that were as gruesome as they were terrifying. Reminiscent of an American version of Jack the Ripper, the ax-wielding serial killer known as “Axeman”, broke into homes across New Orleans in the middle of the night and savagely hacked his sleeping victims with an axe before quietly slipping away into the darkness. As with the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred in London during the late 1880’s, a canonical list of victims was attributed to the Axeman serial killer but in truth, nobody is sure how many victims died by his hand. Regardless, by the time the attacks suddenly ended in October 1919, at least a dozen people had been attacked with at least six people hacked to death in bloody fashion. The Axeman was never caught and his identity remains unknown.
Between 1911 and 1912 (a few years before the official Axeman murders), several gruesome axe murders occurred in New Orleans. Although accounts are sketchy, we know that a New Orleans newspaper article printed during the height of the Axeman murders (1918), contained an interview with a retired police detective who compared the Axeman attacks to several Italian grocers who had been murdered by an axe-wielding maniac from 1911 through 1912. The victims of the 1911 assaults, couples in most cases, had been asleep in their beds when someone broke through the panels in the back doors of their homes and killed them in their sleep with an axe.
According to newspaper reports, the first victim’s name was Cruti followed by a man named Rosetti who was hacked to death along with his wife. The third set of victims, the Schiambra’s (a husband and his wife, Tony) were murdered by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home on May 16, 1912. All of the victims of these early attacks were of Italian descent. At the time, police wondered whether a serial killer was on the loose or if the murders were the work of The Black Hand, a supposedly “defunct” Mafia group responsible for a spate of gang-related killings in New Orleans about 5 years earlier. Regardless of their confusion, by 1918 police would, without question, recognize the modus operandi of the serial killer who would come to be known as The Axeman.
On May 22, 1918, Jake and Andrew Maggio were fast asleep in their room which adjoined the home of their brother, Joseph Maggio and his wife of 15 years, Catherine Maggio, when Jake heard what sounded like groaning coming from Joseph’s room. Jake rapped on the wall but received no response. Jake reached over and woke his brother Andrew, who was still quite drunk after a night on the town celebrating his deployment to World War I the next day. Together the two brothers went outside and around to Joseph’s rear kitchen door where they found a lower wooden panel had been removed from the door. The panel lay on the ground, a wood chisel sitting atop it.
The Maggio brothers entered their brother’s home through the damaged kitchen door, walked past the bathroom, and into Joseph’s bedroom where they found him laying on his bed, legs dangling off the side, with Catherine’s lifeless body draped over him. Joseph was still alive and attempted to get up but slid to the floor, blood pouring from deep gashes around his head. Catherine lay lifeless on the bed amidst a pool of blood. Joseph stared pleadingly at his brothers for a few moments and then breathed his last breath.
Police searched the Maggio’s home, which was located just around the corner (at Upperline and Magnolia Street) from the small grocery store and barroom that they co-owned together. Inside the home, police found Joseph’s safe unlocked and empty (his brothers swore he always kept the safe locked) but money was left under Joseph’s pillow and Catherine’s jewelry box had been left untouched. This lead police to rule that robbery had not been the motive for the deadly attack.
In the nearby bathroom they found a pile of men’s clothing in the middle of the bathroom floor (the killer apparently had changed into clean clothes before escaping) and an axe sitting in the cast-iron bathtub. The axe had been washed but some blood still remained on the blade (reports of the axe’s location vary with one account saying the axe was found underneath the house and another reporting it was found on or under the rear doorstep).
In the bedroom they found a straight razor laying in a pool of blood on the bed. They surmised that the murderer had entered the room and struck Joseph Maggio with the axe, breaking through his skull, then turned and struck Catherine Maggio in the same manner. The killer then cut Catherine’s throat from ear to ear with the razor, nearly severing her head from her shoulders, before commencing to bash her about the head and face with the axe. Police put their time of death between two and three in the morning.
It was soon discovered that the straight razor used in the attack on Catherine belonged to Joseph’s brother, Andrew, who operated a barbershop at 123 South Rampart Street. Andrew admitted that he had brought the razor home to repair a nick in the blade but swore he had nothing to do with the murder of his brother and his wife. He was arrested two days later. Pleading his innocence, he told New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters:
“It’s a terrible thing to be charged with the murder of your own brother when your heart is already broken by his death. When I’m about to go to war, too. I had been drinking heavily. I was too drunk even to have heard any noise next door.”
After finding no further evidence indicating his involvement in his brother’s death, Andrew was released from jail a few days later.
About a block away from the murder scene, police found a puzzling clue – a cryptic message written in childish handwriting with chalk on the sidewalk.
“Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney”
Police recorded the message in their notebooks. They wondered if the message hinted that tonight’s murder was related to the 1911 axe murder of Tony Schiambra, the case that ended the string of gruesome axe murders that had taken place several years earlier?
Note: If readers are beginning to draw an eerie parallel to the Jack the Ripper murders that took place 30 years earlier, you are not alone. The parallels grew closer as the Axeman murders progressed leading some to believe that Axeman and Jack the Ripper were one and the same.
Shortly after 7:00 AM on June 28, 1918 (some reports indicate June 27), a bread delivery man, John Zanca, was making a delivery to a small grocery store on Dorgenois and Laharpe streets, owned by Polish immigrant Louis Besumer, when he found the front doors to the store locked. Knowing that Besumer always opened his store on time, Zanca became concerned and went around to the rear of the store (where he knew the Besumer’s lived) and knocked on the back door. Louis Besumer answered the door – face covered in blood.
Besumer explained to Zanca that he had been attacked and pointed towards the bedroom door. Zanca rushed to the bedroom where he discovered bloody footprints leading out of the room. Besumer’s presumed wife (more on that below), Anna (Annie) Harriet Lowe lay on the bed, covered with a blood-soaked sheet.
As with the Maggio attacks, investigators found that a wood panel had been chiseled out of the back door. They found a small, bloody axe, owned by Besumer, in the bathroom. Thinking that Besumer may have been implicated in the attack, he was arrested.
Meanwhile, Besumer’s “wife”, Anna Lowe, was rushed to the hospital with a deep wound above her left ear. At the hospital she regained consciousness and was able to make a few (bizarre) statements to the police. Anna first claimed that she had been attacked by a “mulatto” (newspaper accounts tell us a black man, Lewis Oubicon, was briefly held as a suspect the next day) and then subsequently changed her story to blame Louis whom she claimed was a German spy. Given her addled state, police discounted most of what Anna Lowe told them but things began to unravel rather quickly after that.
Shortly after the attack, newspapers reported that secret spy papers had been found in the home (there is no evidence that this was true) and that opiates were found in the bedroom. A neighbor interviewed for the story added that both Louis and Anna were crazed drug addicts. The attention around Anna Lowe and Louis Besumer soon erupted into a media circus which further muddled the police’s investigation of the attack.
As if Anna’s bizarre statements to the police were not enough, Louis also began acting strangely. He admitted that Anna was not his real wife but that they had been living together. Besumer’s real wife arrived from Cincinnati in the days immediately following the attack which further inflamed the ongoing drama. Besumer requested that he be allowed to investigate the case on his own (this only added to the police’s suspicions about him). Police began to recognize that both Louis and Anna were making false statements simply to hurt each other out of spite.
As events spun out of control, federal authorities were called in to investigate. Eight months later, Louis was tried and found not guilty. At the same time, two lead New Orleans investigators on the case were demoted due to unacceptable police work.
The June 1918 Besumer attack had severely damaged nerves on the left side of Anna Lowe’s face but doctors felt they could repair the damage. They could not. On August 5, 1918, Anna was scheduled for surgery to her face. She died two days later of complications from the surgery.
On the same day that Anna Lowe died, Edward Schneider returned to his home on Elmira Street late that evening after an unusually long day at work. When he entered his home, he noted that it was oddly quiet. He went into the bedroom where he found his pregnant wife covered in blood, her scalp cut open and several of her teeth knocked out. She was rushed to the hospital where after two days, she regained consciousness and was able to provide some details about the attack to the police. Mrs. Schneider recalled that she had been taking a nap when she awoke to find a “dark figure” looming over her. She saw the glint of an axe coming down and then everything went black. Despite the trauma, one week later Mrs. Schneider gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby daughter.
Shortly after the attack, police arrested a man, James Gleason, who had attempted to run from them. He was later released due to lack of evidence. With no suspects in hand, police began to wonder if the attack was related to the previous incidents involving the Besumer and Maggio families. New Orleans citizens began to ask – is a serial killer loose in our city?
On August 10, 1918, just five days after the Schneider attack, sisters Pauline and Mary Bruno were awakened early that morning by the sound of loud thumps coming from the room of their uncle, Joseph Romano. Pauline sat up in bed, letting out a piercing scream when she found a tall, dark figure standing over her (some accounts say she saw the dark figure in the hallway). As Pauline wailed, the man bolted from the house. Later, Pauline expressed how nimble the fleeing attacker had been:
“He was awfully light on his feet.”
As the shadowy figure (described as a dark-skinned, heavy-set man wearing a dark suit) ran from the bedroom, Joseph Romano (the girls’ uncle) entered the room covered in blood from several deep gashes etched in his face. Joseph was rushed to Charity Hospital where, two days later, he died from the wounds.
Police were now beginning to recognize the Axeman’s modus operandi. As with the previous attacks, they found a door panel had been chiseled out of the back door and an axe was found lying in the yard. Oddly however, Joseph’s room (unlike the other cases) appeared to have been ransacked.
After the surge in horrific attacks during the month of August, a media frenzy erupted and New Orleans slipped into panicked chaos. Bold headlines read: “Is an Axeman at large in New Orleans?” For the first time, the axe-wielding serial killer had been given a name.
The people of New Orleans were of course terrified. Sightings of the Axeman began pouring in from all over the city. One man, a grocer, found a wood chisel on the ground outside his back door. Another told of a panel gouged out of his door and an axe found lying in his yard. Another, upon hearing sounds, shot through the door, and when police came, they found signs that someone had chipped at the wooden door with a chisel.
Police meanwhile, could offer no solution to the identity of the killer. There seemed to be no clear evidence left behind and what little evidence was found, seemed unusual. Fingerprints were never found at the scene but there was no evidence that the surfaces had been wiped down either. Victims seemed to be chosen at random although many, but not all, were grocers. The attacker took great pains to chisel away at the wooden doors but always left the chisel behind after completing his task. And strangest of all, Axeman never brought his own weapon and instead, relied on axes found at the victims’ home. Nothing about this case made sense to the authorities.
It was at this time that John Dantonio, a retired detective, made public statements in which he hypothesized that the man who had committed the axeman murders was the same man who had killed several individuals in 1911. The retired detective cited similarities in the manner by which the two sets of homicides had been committed as reason to assume that they had been conducted by the same individual. In what we now recognize as the cliché “deranged serial killer”, Dantonio described the potential killer as an individual of dual personalities who killed without motive. This type of individual, Dantonio stated, could very likely have been a normal, law abiding citizen, who was occasionally overcome by an overwhelming desire to kill. He compared the killer to a real-life “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde”. He told reporters:
“Students of crime have established that a criminal of the dual personality type may be a respectable, law-abiding citizen. Then suddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.”
It remained eerily quiet for several months until Monday, March 10, 1919 when another vicious attack occurred in Gretna, an immigrant suburb just east and across the river from uptown New Orleans. A 69-year-old neighbor (named variously as Lorlando, Jordano, and Jourdano) heard screams coming from the house on the corner of Jefferson and Second Streets. Jordano rushed to the home where he found Mrs. Rosie Cortimiglia holding her dead two-year-old baby girl (Mary) in her arms. Next to Rosie was her husband, Charles Cortimiglia, laying in a pool of blood (reports vary – some say he may have died later, after reaching the hospital).
Investigators found the now-expected chiseled wooden frame removed from the door and noted that a pile of timbers had been carefully stacked by a fence to aid the attacker in his escape. A bloodstained axe was found underneath the kitchen doorsteps. Rosie recounted that her baby had been in her arms when the helpless child was killed by a single blow to the back of her tiny head. Her husband, Charles, fought with the attacker and was struck with repeated axe blows fracturing his skull. Police found no fingerprints and no money had been taken from the home.
Rosie recovered from the deep gashes to her head and told police that she felt the attackers were Lorlando Jordano (yes, the same Jordano that came to assist Rosie after hearing her screams for help) and his 18-year-old son Frank, a father and son team that were business rivals to the Cortimiglia’s. Rosie’s testimony at their trial was convincing and both were convicted, despite the fact that Frank’s 300-pound frame could have never fit through the small hole in the kitchen door. Even Rosie’s husband Charles vehemently denied his wife’s claims (some reports say he divorced her shortly after their trial). Frank received a death sentence while his father, Jordano, who at 69-years-old was deemed too old to have actively participated in the attacks, received life in prison. Their sentences would later be overturned after yet another bizarre series of events revealed their innocence.
Three days after the Cortimiglia attack, the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune received a strange letter which would draw even deeper parallels to the earlier Jack the Ripper murders. In the letter, which was published in all the local New Orleans newspapers, the Axeman said that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where jazz music was being played. The letter, dated March 13, 1919 with the words “Hell” written at the top of the page, read as follows:
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 fell demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come again and claim other victims. I alone know who they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with the blood and brains of him whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police not to rile me. Of course I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigation in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to amuse not only 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, for I am in close relationship to the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to visit New Orleans again. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a 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 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 those people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and as it is about time that I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, and 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 fantasy.
That night, the clubs and bars of New Orleans, filled to capacity with frightened citizens, played Jazz music all night long. No one was murdered that night.
In April 1919, Louis Besumer (whose mistress, Anna Lowe, had made accusations towards him before she died) went on trial. The coroner testified that only a man much stronger than Besumer could have inflicted on himself the wounds that Besumer had. The jury took 10 minutes to find him “not guilty” of the murder of his common-law wife.
On August 10, 1919, Steve Boca (also a grocer) was asleep when an attacker struck him with an axe cracking open his head. Boca awoke during the attack to find a dark figure standing silently over his bed. Boca remained conscious and ran to the home of a neighbor, Frank Benusa, where he collapsed at the doorway. As in the previous attacks, police found that a panel had been chiseled from his door and an axe left in the kitchen. Boca survived the attack.
Three weeks later, on September 3, 1919, 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was found by neighbors in her bed at 2123 Second Street with multiple gashes on her head and several missing teeth. A bloody axe was found outside an open window which appeared to be where the attacker entered and exited the home (no chiseled wood or other damage was found to the doors of the home). Laumann recovered from her injuries but could remember nothing about the attack.
On October 27, events would unfold that would provide police their best suspect to date. During the early morning hours, Mrs. Pepitone (some have identified her as “Esther Albano”) heard the sounds of a struggle coming from her husband’s room, which was located adjacent to hers. As she rushed to the room, she nearly collided with a man fleeing the scene. Inside the room she found her husband, Mike Pepitone, laying in a pool of blood. Blood spatter covered the walls of the room including a painting of the Virgin Mary hanging on a wall near Pepitone’s bed.
When police arrived, they found Mrs. Pepitone standing over the body of her husband. She stated quite simply:
“It looks like the Axeman was here and murdered Mike.”
Mike was rushed to Charity Hospital where he died from his injuries.
Police found that a panel had been cut from the door and an axe left on the ground behind the back porch. Records show that they felt Mrs. Pepitone’s behavior after the attack was rather odd. Strangely calm, she told them she had seen two large men run from her home. Her husband would be the last known Axeman victim.
About a year after the Pepitone attack and almost 2,000 miles away, an incident occurred in Los Angeles, California that seemed to reveal the identify of Axeman. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the incident even took place as the crime researcher that presented the story (Colin Wilson) has never been able to provide verifiable evidence to back up his tale.
According to the account, on December 2, 1920, Mrs. Pepitone (whose husband was the last known victim of the Axeman) stepped from the shadows of a Los Angeles street and shot a New Orleans resident named Joseph Mumfre. Mumfre was killed instantly and supporting her already odd behavior, Mrs. Pepitone calmly waited at the scene, gun in her hand, for the police to arrive. She told police that Mumfre was the man that had killed her husband – the man she had seen fleeing from her husband’s room after he was murdered.
After an investigation, police found that much of her story fit the available evidence. Mumfre had been in and out of prison his entire life and during periods when the Axeman attacks ceased, specifically the time between 1912 and the resumption of attacks in 1918, Mumfre had been incarcerated in prison. In other words, during the times of the Axeman attacks, Mumfre had been free. It was also said that Mumfre left New Orleans immediately after the attack on Mrs. Pepitone, at which time the Axeman attacks suddenly stopped.
Regardless, police found no direct evidence that Mumfre had been involved with the axeman attacks. Mrs. Pepitone received ten-years in prison for his murder. She served three years of the sentence and then disappeared.
Whether or not the story is true is up for debate. A modern-day researcher was unable to find any police or public court records in New Orleans nor Los Angeles that mentioned a man named “Joseph Momfre” having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles. In addition, other investigators have failed to find any record of Mrs. Pepitone being arrested, tried, or convicted for such a crime. There is simply no proof that the events described above really happened.
Furthermore, it is known that the name “Momfre” and its variants was not an uncommon surname in New Orleans during the time of the attacks and many “Momfre’s” have been found to have criminal records, including one Joseph Momfre who likely had ties to organized crime (one theory proposes that the Axeman attacks were Black Hand “mob hits” against grocers).
Another interesting clue relates to the early May 16, 1912 murder of Tony Schiambra (her husband survived the attack). According to newspaper accounts of the day, a prime suspect in the attack was a man by the name of “Momfre”.
On December 7, 1920, Mrs. Cortimiglia, who had accused Frank and Lorlando Jordano of killing her husband and baby child, contracted smallpox and fearful that her life was at an end, retracted her accusation against the Jordano’s. She admitted that she had lied to the police – she simply wanted her business competitors out of the picture and had made the claims out of jealousy and spite.
Both men were released from prison.
Officially, the identity of the Axeman was unknown.
The common modus operandi (MO) in the attacks was the method of entry (through a chiseled hole in a door) and the weapon used in the attacks – an axe. The method of entry in particular is quite puzzling given the amount of work that it would take to chisel a panel from a door and the small size of the openings in the doorway that were created – many claim that the openings were too small for a grown man to pass through. It is also puzzling that the attacker left behind the chisel he used at the scenes of the crime.
It appears as if the motive for the attacks was not robbery as the attacker never removed items from his victim’s homes. The majority of attacks were against Italian-Americans leading some to believe the attacks were racially motived. Since many of the victims were grocers, some wondered if the attacks were Mafia hits conducted to pressure the businesses into paying “protection taxes”.
Some have pointed out that most of the attacks seemed to target women and could have been sexually motivated, especially given the fact that Axeman seemed to only kill male victims when they obstructed his attempts to murder the women.
His ability to quickly flee the scene (“as if he had wings”) and the fact that the door holes that he used to enter the homes were unusually small led the citizens of New Orleans to wonder if Axeman were even human or if, as his infamous letter stated, he was some sort of ungodly demon.
Axeman was never identified and the cases remain unsolved.
The exact number of victims is unknown. According to Tales from The French Quarter, the number of Axeman victims could be much higher.
“In 1911 and 1912, similar murders left forty-nine people slaughtered in their sleep across portions of Louisiana and Texas. The trail of carnage began in Rayne, Louisiana where a young woman and her three children were found slaughtered in their family home. A month later, a family of three had been found in the same manner in Crowley, Louisiana, then shortly afterwards, another four found dead in Lafayette. All of the victims were asleep when decapitated and dismembered with what appeared to be an ax. Entire families were slaughtered mercilessly over the next year in various areas between Lafayette, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas. The killer left a note for police at one home that read, “When He maketh the inquisition for blood, He forgetteth not the cry of the humble, human five.”
In 2007, the following appeared on Find a Grave and hints at a serial killer captured after committing a very similar set of crimes.
Birth: Dec. 14, 1901 Louisiana, USA
Death: Jul. 15, 1949 Walla Walla, Walla Walla County Washington, USA
Jake Bird was known in the 1940’s as the Nation’s Most Prolific Serial Killer. A drifter with no roots, born and raised in rural Louisiana, he was a transient, traveling around from State to State, taking up odd jobs, wherever he could, soon moving on. He did manual labor, mostly known as a “Gandy Dancer” on the railroads. On October 30th, 1947, at the age of 45, Jake breaks into the home of Bertha Kludt and her daughter Beverly June Kludt, in Tacoma, Washington, he hacked them to death with an axe. Two Police Officers were sent to the residence to investigate screams heard. They seen a man run out the back door and quickly gave chase. They tackle him to the ground and arrest him, though he violently fought back, slashing both Officers with a knife, before being beat into submission. He was taken to the County Hospital, then hauled off to jail. He confessed to the killings, stating it was a Burglary gone bad. On November 26th, 1947, a month after the incident, after just a three day trial, a Pierce County Jury convicts him of First-Degree Murder and recommended the death penalty. At his sentencing, he declared that “All of you would die before me.” Referring to anyone connected to the case. Unhappy with his defense team. It was known as the Jake Bird Hex. Before he died, 5 men died of heart attacks and a sixth man died of pneumonia. While on Death Row, he confessed to 44 more murders across the Country. He claimed a murder for every year of his life. At least 11 of those murders were solved with his confessions. Starting with the Axe Murders of two women in Evanston, Illinois in 1942. Other victims were confirmed in Louisville, Kentucky, Omaha, Nebraska, Kansas City, Kansas, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Cleveland, Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and Portage, Wisconsin. Police in Houston, Texas, suspected he murdered a woman there, Mrs. Harry Richardson. His murderous rampage ended in Tacoma, Washington, due to alert neighbors and persistent Police action. He spent the last days of his life at Walla Walla State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. On July 15th, 1949, almost two years after his last crime, at the age of 48, he was hung on the gallows. He is buried in an unmarked grave at the Prison Cemetery.
His father was Charles Bird and his mother was Delie Bird. He had two brothers, Andrew and Lem.
Burial: Walla Walla Prison Cemetery Walla Walla Walla Walla County Washington, USA