From May 1918 through October 1919, the city of New Orleans in the United States, and its surrounding villages, was in a state of terror. Someone was stalking the streets at night, murdering people in their homes. His preferred weapon? An axe.
The assailant, known as the Axeman, was never identified, and the killings are still unsolved. He primarily targeted Italian immigrants and Italians in the United States, attacking with an axe which often belonged to the victims themselves and was used as a weapon of opportunity by the killler.
As the body count increased, a pattern seemed to emerge and the killer’s approach became clearer. A chisel would be used to remove a panel from a home’s rear door, which was then left on the floor near the door, along with the panel.
The invader then entered the house and used an axe or a straight razor to attack one or more of the residents. The crimes were not committed with the intent of robbing the victims, and the culprit never took anything from their homes.
Because the bulk of the Axeman’s victims were Italian immigrants or Italian-Americans, many people assumed the killings were motivated by ethnicity. Despite the lack of evidence, many media outlets sensationalized this element of the crimes, even implying Mafia involvement.
But the crimes were never solved, and in recent years some have started to doubt the existence of the murderer. Were these unrelated crimes? Or was a madman loose in New Orleans, killing people in their homes?
The Axeman’s Victims
Fear had immobilized the city of New Orleans by the summer of 1918. The Axeman of New Orleans had been targeting Italian grocery stores, entering in the dead of night and attacking the grocers and their families. These brutal assaults left several people injured and four people dead.
Joseph Maggio was the first victim in May, his head cracked with his own axe and his throat slashed with a razor. Catherine, his wife, had her throat slit as well, choking on her own blood as she bled out.
Several lethal attacks that did not target Italians were also suspected to be the work of the Axeman. Although this was later disproved, this did nothing to calm the rising panic in the population of the city.
The Italian immigrant population was particularly scared, according to the press, with panicked men staying up all night to protect their families. The murderer, according to a somewhat unhelpful description by New Orleans Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney, was a murderous degenerate who gloated over blood.
On June 27, 1918, Harriet Lowe and her lover Louis Besumer were beaten in the back of his grocery store. Besumer was slashed across the right temple with a small hatchet. When officers arrived at the grisly scene, Lowe was unconscious with a deep cut over her left ear. Thankfully, both of them survived the ordeal, but were unable to help identify the Axeman.
Anna Schneider was the next victim, who was brutally attacked on August 5, 1918. She was 8 months pregnant at the time. That night, Anna awoke to discover a figure standing in silhouette above her, and she was struck in the face unexpectedly and without warning. She recovered from her injuries and gave birth to a healthy baby girl two days later.
Joseph Romano and his two nieces Pauline, and Mary Bruno were the next to be attacked. The sound of noise shocked the girls awake on August 10, 1918. They swooped into their uncle’s room and caught the Axeman fleeing the scene. Romano was gravely injured and died from the effects of his severe head trauma two days later.
By this point, the Axeman had attacked four households in as many months, and seemed to be on a rampage. But then, all of a sudden, the attacks stopped.
1919 and the Second Wave
For more than six months no more attacks were reported. The police however were unable to make any progress in identifying the killer. And then, on March 1919, the Axeman struck again, but not this time in the city.
Charles Cortimiglia and his wife, Rosie, lived in nearby Gretna, Louisiana, with their young daughter, Mary. Screams were heard emanating from the house on the night of March 10. Neighbors came to their rescue and found Rosie holding her dead daughter in her arms. Both Rosie and Charles had severe head injuries, but were able to ultimately recover.
Another six months passed and then on the night of September 3, 1919, Sarah Laumann was assaulted. The young woman lived alone and neighbors became concerned when she had not been seen for several days. They discovered the 19-year-old comatose on her bed with a significant head injury and multiple missing teeth.
The assailant had broken in through an open window and assaulted the victim with a blunt instrument. A bloodied axe was recovered in the building’s front yard. Laumann was able to recuperate from her injuries, but she had no recollection of the incident.
On the night of October 27, 1919, Mike Pepitone was assaulted. A loud commotion awoke his wife, who rushed at his bedroom door just as a huge, axe-wielding man fled the area. Mike Pepitone was bleeding profusely after being hit in the head, and died from his injury.
The entirety of the room was covered with blood, which had splashed over a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Mrs. Pepitone, a mother of six, was unable to offer a useful description of the killer.
With the murder of Pepitone, the attacks stopped again, this time for good.
Was There an Axeman?
Despite many of his victims surviving the attacks, police were never able to identify who the Axeman was and the murders remain unsolved to this day. Furthermore, despite similarities in the crimes there has been speculation that there never was a serial killer, and that the attacks were unrelated.
One popular suspect is Joseph Momfre, a man claimed in a 1921 newspaper to have been shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman’s last known victim. However this appears to be a dead end, as there is no record of such a man or that Mrs. Pepitone attacked anyone. It may simply be an urban legend.
Could all these attacks be a coincidence. While the number of murders was heightened for the time, there was a great deal of violent xenophobia between the different communities and several factors do seem to suggest this could be a case of mass hysteria in response to unrelated crimes.
For one, the targets were Italian grocery stores. The Italian Mafia was present in New Orleans at the time and these could be attacks associated with a protection racket. Secondly, the killer used weapons found in the victims’ houses. It is very unusual for a serial killer to rely on tools he hoped to find after breaking in.
Perhaps there never was an Axeman. But, one hundred years later, we will never know for sure.
Top Image: Who was the Mad Axeman of New Orleans? Source: Zef Art / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Wikipedia, 2022. Axeman of New Orleans. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axeman_of_New_Orleans
Davis, M, 2018. A mysterious serial killer prowled in a city rife with xenophobia and racism. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/axeman-new-orleans-preyed-italian-immigrants-180968037/
Nola Ghosts, 2022. THE AXEMAN OF NEW ORLEANS. Available at: https://nolaghosts.com/the-axeman-of-new-orleans/