The Axeman Of New Orleans terrorized and terrified the city between 1918 and 1919. The crazed attacker, who mainly targeted Italian grocers, would break into homes and attack his victims, usually as they slept. The killer was never identified and the murders remain unsolved.
Joseph and Catherine Maggio
At 5 am on the morning of May 23, 1918, an Italian cobbler named Jake Maggio was awoken by a series of strange groaning noises emanating from the other side of the wall. Jake went about rousing his brother Andrew Maggio, with whom he shared the room, and the two men set off to investigate the sounds coming from there brother Joseph’s room.
Upon entering Joseph Maggio’s room they saw him lying on his bed. Bloody and gasping for air, Joseph was struggling to stay alive. On entering the room further Andrew and Jake came across an even more gruesome sight. On the floor lay the body of Joseph’s wife of fifteen years Katherine, her throat had been slashed from ear to ear, her head had almost been severed due to the ferociousness of the attack. Joseph Maggio lost his fight for life soon after and before police arrived at the scene.
Joseph and Katherine had been brutally struck around the head with an axe before having their throats viciously slit with a sharp razor. The axe used was found to be one which belonged to Joseph Maggio, it was located bloodsoaked on the steps leading up to the house. Nearby was the blade which had been used to slit the throats of the couple, this was soon discovered to be the property of Andrew Maggio, who was a barber by trade.
Investigators soon found a point of entry the killer had used to gain access to the premises. A panel had been chiselled out of the back door of the apartment. Other evidence included a small safe that had been opened and emptied yet other evidence suggested robbery wasn’t the motive. Items left behind including Catherine’s small collection of diamond rings and $100 in cash left police of the opinion that the safe had been left open as an attempt to cover up the real motive.
During the early investigation, a neighbour said they had seen Andrew Maggio returning home drunk at around 3 am that morning. A colleague of Andrew’s also told police that Andrew had taken the razor home with him from work that same day. Along with the seemingly staged open safe, Andrew was made the prime suspect.
Andrew admitted he had come home drunk in the early hours after a night of drinking to celebrate (or commiserate) the fact he had just received his draft notice to the army to help in the battle which was the first World War. He was, however, adamant he played no part in the murder of his brother Joseph. His protestations mattered not as both Andrew and his brother Jake were arrested under suspicion of the murder of there brother Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine. Within days both men were released due to complete lack of evidence against them.
The Message In The Street And The “1911” Murders
A block away from the grocery store on the corner of Magnolia and Upperline Streets were the Maggios lived detectives came across a strange message on the sidewalk. Written in chalk it read:
“Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney”
Investigators had no idea what the message meant. It was quickly reported in the press, however, that the message was related to a series of unsolved murders which occurred in the area in 1911. The victims were three Italian grocers by the names of Cruti, Rosetti, and Tony Schiambra, the latter was reportedly murdered with his wife and it was stated this is whom the message was referring to.
The report was not entirely accurate, either misremembered or purposely exaggerated for more readers. August and Harriet Crutti (not Cruti), who owned a grocery store, were attacked on August 3, 1910. Both survived the incident and as money was demanded from Harriet a robbery seemed the motive.
The following month Italian grocers Joseph and Conchetta Rissetto were also attacked in there home. Though nothing was taken it was possible this was only because a nearby neighbour heard screams and was quickly on the scene.
Tony Sciambra was murdered alongside his wife Johana in 1912. Like the attack on the Rissetto’s the attacker got in through a window and attacked a sleeping couple. There was a major difference in modus operandi if it was the work of the same attacker, both victims were shot. Again the couple were Italian grocers.
A murder not mentioned in the press did, however, take place in 1911 and did share some similarities to the murder of Joseph and Catherine Maggio. Italian grocer Joseph Davi was attacked in his home on June 26, 1911. He was brutally beaten on the head, his brains were visible from the inflicted wounds. Davi would pass away in the hospital the following day. His pregnant wife Mary, who was just 16-years-old, survived the ordeal.
One theory surrounding all of these early attacks was that it was the work of the Black Hand, an early mafia gang. The gang would extort money from Italian businesses by sending a note telling them if they failed to comply there would be severe consequences, including death. In the case of Joseph Davi several of these letters were discovered by his wife after his murder.
Louis Besumer And Anna Lowe
On the morning of June 28, 1918, at around 7 am local baker John Zanca was delivering his rounds when he arrived at the grocery store owned by Louis Besumer. Zanca to his surprise found the store closed and so he made his way around to the back door where he planned to leave the delivery. Before doing so Zanca noticed that a panel of the back door had been chiselled out and so, feeling slightly concerned, he decided to knock on the door. After several knocks, the owner of the store Luis Besumer opened the door.
Louis Besumer’s face was covered in blood. John Zanca asked what had happened and made his way into the grocer’s home. Harriet Anna Lowe, the supposed wife of Louise Besumer, was unconscious and covered in blood on the bed. John Zanca, despite the surprising reluctance of Louis Besumer, contacted the police.
Besumer told detectives he had been asleep when he felt a blow to his head. Upon waking he didn’t see his attacker but instead saw Anna lying covered in blood in the hallway. He had then carried her, placed her on the bed and was about to call for an ambulance when John Zanca knocked on the door. Besumer also confessed that Lowe wasn’t his wife, he had met her in Florida three months prior and when he moved to New Orleans she went with him.
Detectives arrested an employee of Belsumer’s named Lewis Oubicon. Oubicon was unclear about his alibi at the time of the attack and he was black, which made him an easy target. It was soon apparent, however, that he wasn’t there man and attentions soon turned to Louis Besumer.
Due to the ongoing war, suspicious eyes were cast on many foreigners with aspersions cast about the possibility of them being involved in espionage. Stories quickly spread that Louis Besumer wasn’t the Polish immigrant he claimed to be but in fact a German spy. Thus it became the common belief that Louis Besumer had attacked Anna Lowe after she discovered his secret.
Harriet Anna Lowe regained consciousness and upon questioning, she stated that she had always thought Besumer could be a spy and that he was hiding something. Besumer was arrested. Detectives searched Besumers home and looked into his background. No evidence was found to suggest Besumer was involved in espionage at all and he was released.
Harriet Anna Lowe for her part was proving an unreliable witness. She soon recanted her spy story and instead claimed a mulatto man had attacked her. Her story would change several times. Tragically she would pass away several weeks after the initial attack after failing to recover from an operation on her wounds. Before her death on August 5, 1918, Harriet Anna Lowe would once more return to stating Louis Belsumer as her attacker. Besumer was arrested for a second time and charged with the murder.
It would be nine months before Louis Besumer’s case was heard. On May 1, 1919, he was found not guilty, with the jury taking just 10 minutes to make their decision. An unreliable statement from the victim was the only evidence against Louis Besumer. The fact that during his nine-month behind bars other similar attacks had taken place also may have played a part.
The same day that Louis Besumer was arrested for the murder of Harriet Anna Lowe the Axeman of New Orleans would strike again. On the evening of August 5, 1918, Edward Schneider returned home after working late. Even though he was late home he was still expecting his wife Mary to meet him on his return, instead, he found the home eerily quiet. Edward Schneider got no reply when he called his wife’s name and so went to see if she was sleeping upstairs. On entering the bedroom Edward Schneider found an upsetting scene.
On the bed, covered in blood, was his wife. Mary, who was eight months pregnant, had suffered a vicious blow to the head. Her front teeth had also been knocked out by her attacker. Despite the injuries, Mary Schneider was still alive.
After spending several days at Charity Hospital in a critical condition Mary Schneider regained consciousness. In regards to the investigation, this wouldn’t be the big lead investigators were hoping for. Mrs Schneider was unable to offer a description of her attacker. She stated she was asleep in bed when she woke to see a shadowy figure standing over her reigning blows down upon her head, she could remember nothing else.
Mary recovered from the horrible assault and just three weeks later the Schneider family welcomed a new member when Mary gave birth to a little girl.
On August 10, just five days after the attack at the Schneider home the Axeman Of New Orleans would strike again.
In the early hours of the morning, Mary and Pauline Bruno were sleeping when a series of loud bangs woke them. The noises seemed to emanate from the bedroom of their uncle Joseph Romano. As Pauline sat up to go investigate she had the terrifying sight of a shadowy figure standing at the foot of her bed. Pauline’s scream sent the figure fleeing from the scene. Pauline would later describe the man as being tall and heavyset but extremely agile, she also stated he was wearing a suit and a dark slouch hat.
Mary and Pauline went to check on their uncle Joseph. Joseph was conscious at first. He had several wounds to his face and skull and he was covered in blood. Pauline asked him if he knew who had done this but Joseph stated he didn’t before losing consciousness. Although alive upon arrival at Charity Hospital Joseph Romano died as a result of his injuries shortly after.
Joseph’s room had been ransacked but it wasn’t firmly established whether anything was missing. Inspection of the property found entry had been gained through a panel chiselled out of the door, as had been the case in the Maggio murders (and the Besumer/Lowe case, although at this point police felt they had the person responsible behind bars in Louis Besumer). In the yard outside detectives found the bloodstained axe.
Police were at a loss in their hunt for a suspect. A series of mafia hits was considered but not all the victims had been Italian, likewise not all had been grocers, making a link hard to find. The fact several women were victims also made police question the mafia’s involvement due to there “no women or children code” (a code that history has shown means very little).
A lone madman seemed the most likely perpetrator, however, this did little to help reveal an actual suspect.
Panic had started to grab hold of the community, no doubt greatened by the press coverage of the attacks. Police were inundated with reports of door panels been removed and axes found in yards. However, no more attacks occurred in 1918. After a flurry of attacks, it seemed the Axeman Of New Orleans had stopped or at least taken a hiatus. The latter would prove to be the case once 1919 rolled around.
The Cortimiglia Family
Nine months after the murder of Joseph Romano on March 10, 1919, across the Mississippi River in Gretna the Axeman of New Orleans made his return. In the most chilling of all the attacks, grocers Charles and Rose Cortimiglia were discovered in their home by neighbours, the victim of a vicious attack. In the arms of Rose was the dead body of the couples two-year-old daughter Mary.
They were found by neighbours, and rival grocers, Iorlando Jordano and his seventeen-year-old son Frank. The two men claimed to have heard screams as they passed by the Cortimiglia residence and went to investigate. Upon finding the horrific scene they then sent for an ambulance. This account soon came into question.
Detectives found the familiar signs of a panel chiselled from a door and the bloody axe on the back steps of the property. As in the attacks of 1918, it seemed nothing had been taken except the life of poor Mary.
Rose and Charles Cortimiglia both suffered fractured skulls but survived the assault. Within days of the attacks, Rose recovered enough to tell detectives she could name her assailants. Rose named Iorlando and Frank Jordano.
Charles denied the claims made by his wife, adamant that neither of the Jordano’s was the man who attacked him. Investigators also had their doubts. Seventeen-year-old Frank Jordano stood at six feet tall and weighed well in excess of 200 pounds, how he squeezed through the small panel removed from the door couldn’t be explained. His father was sixty-nine years old and in poor health. Despite all of the evidence saying Rose was wrong the Jordano’s were arrested for the murder of Mary Cortimiglia and the attacks on Charles and Rose.
On May 26, 1919, after a five-day trial, and to the shock of many, Frank and Iorlando were found guilty. Frank was sentenced to hang for the crime whilst his father was given a life sentence. Charles divorced his wife soon after the trail but the case against the Jordano’s would take another twist more than a year later.
On December 7, 1920, the accuser of the Jordano’s, Rose Cortimiglia confessed that she had falsely accused the men. Rose revealed she was jealous of the rival grocers and hated them, seeing her chance she blamed them for the murder of her daughter. Frank, thankfully before he had faced the noose, and Iorlando Jordano were released from prison soon after.
During their time in prison, however, more attacks had taken place.
A Letter From The Axeman Of New Orleans.
Just four days after the attacks on the Cortimiglia family a letter was published in the Times-Picayune newspaper supposedly written by the Axeman Of New Orleans. it read:
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 following Tuesday on May 19, 1919 jazz music could be heard for miles around as residents of New Orleans complied with the demand of its author that jazz music is played. No murders or attacks took place that night, the axeman seemingly keeping to his word. Many modern researchers now believe the letter was likely a hoax and not the work of the killer with one theory being that the musician Joseph John Davilla or an associate wrote it to help popularize there song “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa”.
Grocer Steve Bocca was sleeping on the night of August 10, 1919, when he awoke to find a shadowy figure hunched over him. Almost immediately Bocca lost consciousness and passed out.
On regaining his faculties Bocca stumbled out of bed and wearily made his way to a nearby neighbours home. Frank Genusa opened his door and Bocca again lost consciousness and collapsed into Genusa’s arms. Bocca’s skull had been cracked and he was covered in blood.
An ambulance soon arrived and took him to the Charity Hospital. Bocca gradually made a full recovery. As with other survivors, he was unable to describe his attacker and could remember little. Again detectives found a panel chiselled from a door and recovered the bloody axe at the scene. Once more nothing had been taken.
Although the attack on Steve Boca is included in nearly every article or book written on the Axeman Of New Orleans it may have never happened. Whilst researching her book on the murders Miriam C Davis found no newspaper reports of an attack on a Steve Boca or various variations of similar names. He also wasn’t named on any register or directory in the city of New Orleans. Perhaps, as we’ve seen in cases such as the Whitechapel Murders, an error or a myth has been passed on as fact over the years.
Nearly a month after the alleged attack on Steve Boca pharmacist William Carson was reading on the late evening of September 2, 1919, when he heard a scratching noise at his door. Taking no chances the pharmacist grabbed his nearby revolver and shot through the door, he flung open the door to investigate further whatever or whoever was at the door was gone. The police inspected the door and found what they believed to be chisel marks on one of the panels. William Carson had seemingly had a lucky escape.
As with Steve Boca, this incident was also questioned by Miriam C Davis. Sadly, Sarah Laumann would have no such luck, her attack was very real.
The following day on September 3, neighbours went to check on nineteen-year-old Sarah Laumann, who hadn’t been seen. Unable to get an answer when knocking on the door the decision was taken to break into her home. Upon doing so they found Laumann unconscious on her bed. Blood was streaming from a head wound and some of her teeth had been knocked out. An axe was found in the yard near an open window, which it seemed was how the perpetrator had made his entrance and exit.
Sarah thankfully survived her attack. Unfortunately for detectives, the surviving victim was once more unable to give any clear description or indication as to who the assailant may have been.
Doctors who examined Sarah were not convinced that the wound was caused by an axe as the wound seemed to be circular. This along with the different point of entry as well as less ferocity used in the attack left some detectives questioning whether this was the work of the same madman who had been terrorizing New Orleans.
A little over seven weeks later the Axeman Of New Orleans would seemingly strike again and for the last time. On October 27 grocer Mike Pepitone was attacked in his bed. Although asleep throughout the attack on her husband Esther Pepitone was awoken by a groaning sound. Upon sitting up she saw what she believed was the dark figures of two men making a sharp exit.
Esther looked across to see her husband a bloody mess. She quickly went to check on the couples six children and the police were sent for. The scene was horrific. Mike Pepitone’s skull had been fractured in several places, blood from the brutal blows had sprayed up the walls and onto the ceiling. Miraculously Mike Pepitone was still alive when police arrived but his fight for survival was short, he died soon after his arrival at Charity Hospital.
Other details vary depending on the sources you wish to believe. The weapon was said to be a bloody axe found on the porch by detectives, in other accounts it was an iron bar left in the room of the victim. The point of entry likewise has different versions with the now-familiar panel removed from the door often reported, though other accounts report the smashing of two window panes before opening the window and entering that way.
These varying versions make it even harder to determine whether Mike Pepitone was a victim of the same attacker that killed earlier victims. Likewise, his wife stating there were two attackers also call into question whether this was indeed the work of the New Orleans Axeman.
Esther Pepitone gave her version of events to detectives. She stated she didn’t get a good view of either of the men (important later) but that one was a tall, thin man and his accomplice a shorter and stockier man. Despite several theories, including an organised hit and a revenge attack as well as the possibility of being another victim of the axeman, the killer of Mike Pepitone was never caught.
Several other axe murders took place after the murder of Mike Pepitone across different parts of America but none have ever been a proven link to the New Orleans murders. However, there was one final twist in the story of the Axeman Of New Orleans.
On December 2, 1920, a man by the name of Joseph Mumfre was shot dead in Los Angeles by a female assassin. On arrest, it was discovered that the perpetrator was none other than Esther Pepitone.
As part of her defence Esther Pepitone, who had since remarried, had killed Joseph Mumfre because he was the person responsible for murdering her husband on that October night in 1919.
It was reported throughout the decades that Esther Pepitone was sentenced to ten years for the murder of Joseph Mumfre and served three. The whole account was called into question many years later by author Michael Newton as he could find no such prison or court records. Others since have found evidence the shooting did occur but that Esther Pepitone was spared any jail time.
It now seems clear the murder of Joseph Mumfre did occur but this leaves one massive question unanswered. Why did Esther Pepitone clearly state she couldn’t identify her husband’s killers and yet a year later was able to do so without fail? Had her mind become clearer in the time since or had she perhaps used her husband’s murder to get a more lenient sentence?
When news reached New Orleans Joseph Mumfre was briefly investigated. They found Joseph Mumfre had indeed spent time in New Orleans during the time of the attack. He had been there during the earlier attacks from 1910 to 1912 too. Each lull in activity also coincided with times that Joseph Mumfre. Had the Axeman Of New Orleans finally been uncovered?
Alas, probably not. Again whether through mistakes or myth the truth was that the dates Joseph Mumfre was in and out of jail actually ruled him out of some attacks rather than making him the prime suspect. There is no question he was an awful man but he wasn’t, and couldn’t have been responsible for all the murders. There is a possibility that Mumfre was hired to kill Mike Pepitone but no other links to any other victim exist.
The madman struck terror into the city for a little over a year before just vanishing into thin air and leaving many questions unanswered. Did he take up killing elsewhere? Was he himself killed? Was he arrested for an unrelated crime? How many victims were the work of one killer or killers? Sadly I’m confident these are questions we will never know the answers to. Over a hundred years have passed and my guess is the identity of the Axeman Of New Orleans will remain a lifelong mystery.