Written by: Jenae
Arguably, this is one of the most fascinating cases in US history, the Axeman was a US based serial killer who was active from May 1918-October 1919 in New Orleans, LA. You may be familiar with this case due to its depiction on American Horror Story: Coven. His spree of murder began quickly and ended just as quickly and mysteriously, abruptly coming to a halt in the Fall of 1919. During his spree, he killed six people and wounded six others.
As one would assume, all the incidents were committed with an axe or a straight razor, usually found within the home. The Axeman would chisel off a portion of the victim’s back door, leaving the pieces on the floor near the entrance. He would then attack whoever was inside. However, these attacks are believed to have been planned, as they often were attacks on Italian-American families or Italian immigrants.
Joseph and Catherine Maggio were the first victims. On the evening of May 22nd, 1918, the Axeman broke into the home and slit the throats of both people with a straight razor, before smashing their heads with an axe. Catherine’s attack had been so violent that she was nearly decapitated. Joseph’s brother found the pair, Joseph was even still alive for a few minutes after his arrival. When police arrived, they found the blood-stained clothes of the killer. Their home was not searched, but the razor used to kill the duo was found on the neighboring lawn the next morning. Police found that the razor belonged to Joseph’s brother, Andrew, who owned a barber shop nearby. He lived in the connected apartment and had been home at the time of the attack. He was the first one to find Joseph and Catherine, two hours after the attack because he heard moaning through the wall. Andrew said he didn’t hear the attack due to having too much to drink but investigators were hesitant to believe him. Police named Andrew a prime suspect but changed their minds once there were reports of a strange man lurking outside the Maggio residence.
The next attack took place on June 27th, 1918, about a month after the first murders. The victims in this case were Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe. The couple was attacked in bed in the living quarters in the back of his business in the early morning. Louis was struck with a hatchet that had been found in his own bathroom and used against him and his mistress. Luckily, a delivery driver had come to make a delivery and found the pair in a puddle of their own blood. Both parties survived their attack. Soon after, police arrested an employee that had just started at Besumer’s store, Lewis Oubicon, a black man in his 40s. Police had zero evidence to arrest him on but stated that he had given police conflicting alibis for the morning of the attack. He was eventually released due to the lack of evidence. Soon after the attack, Lowe said she remembered being attacked by a mixed race man but the police ignored this. The media then began to attack Besumer, after finding letters in German, Russian, and Yiddish in his home. Police believed him to be a German spy and took him into custody. Lowe confirmed that she also believed this. However, Besumer was released and the two officers who arrested him were demoted. Lowe was the center of heavy media coverage of the case, fueled mostly by the affair that they were both having. Several months after the attack, Lowe had undergone surgery for the partial paralyzation of her face, a side effect from the attack, and died. Before her death, she told police that she believed that Louis Besumer was her attacker. After her death, Besumer was arrested again and charged with her murder, only to be acquitted after nine months in prison.
Victim five was one very pregnant Anna Schnider, who was attacked in the evening of August 1918. She awoke to a man standing over her, hitting her in the face. Her scalp had been cut open and she had no memory of the attack. She wasn’t found until almost midnight by her husband. In a twist, investigators thought she had been attacked with a lamp in the house. Police pointed fingers at an ex-con who lived in the area, James Gleason. Initially, he ran from police due to fear of being framed. He was arrested but was released shortly after due to lack of evidence. Anna lived and brought a healthy daughter into the world, two days after her attack.
Just five days after the attack on Anna Schnider, the Axeman struck again. This time, the victim was Joseph Romano, an older man that lived with his two nieces. The nieces heard commotion coming from their uncle’s room and when they went to investigate, they found him with two open wounds on his head. As the ladies entered, the perp was fleeing the home and they were able to catch a glimpse of him. They described him as a large, dark-skinned man in a suit and hat. Upon investigation, authorities were able to find a bloody ax in the backyard. This attack began a city-wide panic about being the next victim of the Axeman. Joseph was incredibly tough, he even walked to the ambulance when they arrived. Unfortunately, Joseph died from his injuries two days later. Because of the mass panic, the public began to theorize about the man, including linking him to similar murders in 1911.
The next set of victims were the Cortimiglia family. Charles, Rosie, and Mary (only 2 years old) were attacked in their home in in Gretna, LA, a suburb of New Orleans. On March 10, 1919, neighbors awoke from screams coming from the Cortimiglia household. When a neighbor went to check on the family, he discovered that something horrible had happened. Charles and Rosie both had massive head wounds and Mary was dead from one blow. The pair was taken to the hospital and treated for their wounds. Upon discharge, Rosie pointed the finger at the neighbor who had found them, 69-year-old Iorlando Jordano and his 18-year-old son Frank. Charles completely disagreed with his wife and made this well-known. At such an old age and in such bad health, there’s no way that Iorlando could even commit the attack. The son, Frank was far too large to fit in the chiseled out portion of the back door. Regardless, the police arrested the two men and charged them with murder, sentencing the son to death penalty and the father to life in prison. After this trial, Charles and Rosie divorce. About a year after the divorce, Rosie told authorities that she lied about the Jordanos attacking her and they were released from prison.
Exactly five months later, the Axeman attacked Steve Boca while he slept. Steve was struck in the head and attempted to chase his attacker up the street before he realized that his head had been split open. He went to the home of a neighbor, where he lost consciousness. Eventually, Steve recovered but he couldn’t remember anything about the incident. This was also the first murder that took place after the Axeman taunted the police with the Axeman letter. More on that later.
On September 3rd, 1919, 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was attacked in her apartment. Neighbors discovered her lying unconscious after they had come to check on her. The next day, investigators found a bloody ax in the front lawn of the apartment building. Luckily, Sarah survived but she didn’t remember anything about the attack.
Finally, in October 1919, the Axeman took his final victim. Mike Pepitone was attacked as he slept and died from his injuries. His wife had run into the killer as he fled, but couldn’t remember anything about him.
Three days after the Axeman attacked the Cortimiglia family, newspapers published a letter from the Axeman. It read:
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.
Initially, police believed the motive might be robbery but investigators quickly ruled this out because valuables and money were left in the home, even though they were in plain sight of anyone who entered. Although no one knows for sure, there are speculations about the motive. There are two big theories: one states that the crimes were ethnically motivated due to the victims that were attacked. The other large theory says that the Axeman was actually a sadist who was interested in the torture and murder of women, and that the Axeman only killed men who got in his way of murdering women. One other, less well-received theory states that he murdered in order to promote jazz music.
One retired detective shared that he believed this was someone who killed with no motive and would have a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde like personality”. Someone who was fairly normal but sometimes was overwhelmed by the want to kill.
There have been many suspects throughout the years. They often differ between law enforcement and journalists alike. The most well-known theory is from true crime journalist Colin Wilson. Wilson speculates that the Axeman was Jason Momfre. Momfre was shot by the wife of the final victim, she shot him in LA in 1920. However, other journalists were unable to find record of the shooting, death, or an arrest. This explanation is now regarded as more of an urban legend.
In 1911/1912, an Italian couple was shot in their home early in the morning, the husband lived but the wife died. Journalists reported the suspect’s name as Momfre. However, because this MO is so different, many believe that these may be unrelated.
There’s no more evidence that has been found to conclusively link anyone to the crimes.