Posted on: July 25, 2015

Legendary and bizarre series of murders which shook the Louisiana city at the beginning of the 20th century.  It began on 23 May 1918, at the grocery shop of Mr and Mrs Joseph Maggio.  Someone broke into their store by cutting out a panel on the door.  The killer then hit the sleeping pair with an axe and cut their throats with a razor, which was subsequently found to belong to Andrew Maggio, Joseph’s brother.  Robbery wasn’t the motive, as $100 was found still stashed under the pillow.  Andrew Maggio was arrested for the murders, but released without charge.  He said “It’s a terrible thing to be charged with the murder of your 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 to have heard any noise next door”. 

In a nearby street some strange graffiti was found chalked on a pavement slab, with the message “MRS MAGGIO WILL SIT UP TONIGHT JUST LIKE MRS TONEY”.  This was thought to refer to a previous set of murderous attacks on Italian grocers in New Orleans in 1911/12, which had gone unsolved, and for which details are sketchy, but have led to speculation that the Axeman had something to do with the Mafia.  The chalked message has led some to draw comparisons with the Jack the Ripper murders in London’s East End in 1888, when a chalked message “THE JUWES ARE THE MEN THAT WILL NOT BE BLAMED FOR NOTHING” had been scrawled on a wall near one of the victims.  It wasn’t to be the only aspect of the case that would draw comparisons with the Ripper murders.

In the early hours of 28 June, the killer cut his way into the grocery store of Louis Besumer, and attacked Mr and Mrs Besumer with a hatchet.  Mrs Besumer died a few days later.  Because this was during the First World War, when paranoia was running rife, Mr Besumer was accused of being a German spy and arrested for his wife’s murder.  He was later found Not Guilty and released.

On 5 August, the killer struck a pregnant Mrs Scheider.  She was found unconscious by her husband when he returned home. Thankfully Mrs Scheider made a full recovery, and gave birth to a baby girl a week later.  On 10 August, Mary and Pauline Bruno,  two nieces of a barber, Joseph Romano, heard strange noises coming from his bedroom.  When they went to investigate they said a tall white man rushed out of the room, leaving Romano with fatal head wounds.  Once again the killer had gained entry by removing a panel from the door.  Pauline was to describe the attacker as being “awfully light on his feet”.

Panic inevitably began to seize the town.  As in Whitechapel, the police seemed helpless to apprehend the killer, who left no fingerprints at the scene of his crimes, and strangely never brought his own weapons with him, instead relying on what he could find at the homes of his victims.  The Axeman’s ability to flee the scene so quickly (“as if he had wings”), and his ability to climb through the small holes he made in the doors led some to believe he had supernatural abilities.

The Axeman didn’t strike again until the following 10 March, when he cut his way into the home of a Mr and Mrs Charles Cortimiglia, attacking them and killing their baby.  Mrs Rosie Cortimiglia accused an Italian family, the Jordano’s, who lived opposite, of the murder, although her husband disagreed with her.  The Jordano’s were subsequently put on trial for murder, and Frank Jordano found guilty and sentenced to hang, to enormous public disapproval.

Three days after the Cortimiglia incident, the local Times Picayune published it’s very own “From Hell” letter.  Unlike it’s more famous Whitechapel version though, this one was better written.  The writer said he was a demon, “from the hottest hell”, but as he liked jazz music, he would pass by any house which was playing jazz.  (This led to one bizarre theory that the killer was trying to promote jazz music!).  The letter predicted that the killer would strike again on St Joseph’s night (a time of festivity in New Orleans), at 15 minutes after midnight on 19 March.  The 19 March fortunately passed without the Axeman striking again.

Come September though and the Axeman was busy once more.  On the 2nd a chemist, William Carlson, disturbed the killer, who was cutting a panel out of the door, by firing a gun at him.  The Axeman ran off.  The following day he attacked 19-year-old Sarah Laumann in her bed.  Although she survived the incident, she could remember nothing of it.  A bloodied axe was found on her front lawn.

The final night in the Axeman’s reign of terror occurred on 27 October 1919.  The Axeman attacked and killed Mike Pepitone, a grocer.  His wife came into the room, to find her husband on the floor, and the Axeman fleeing the scene. Mrs Pepitone was reputed to have said “It looks like the Axeman was here and murdered Mike”.

Meanwhile Rosie Cortimiglia burst into the offices of the Times Picayune and said that she had made up the whole accusation against the Jordano’s out of spite, because they were business rivals.  She wailed that she had lost everything: “My baby is dead. My husband has left me. I have smallpox”.   The Jordano’s were released from prison.

The gaps of several months between the attacks suggests someone who was serving time in prison (or out of town), and crime author Colin Wilson, in his 1961 book The Encyclopaedia of Murder cited the most likely suspect as one Joseph Momfre.  Apparently Momfre had a long criminal record, and served bouts in jail for burglary, which coincided with the times when the Axeman went dormant.  In a dramatic postscript Momfre was shot dead in a Los Angeles street on 2 December 1920 by Mike Pepitone’s wife.  Mrs Pepitone would go on to serve 10 years in prison for the shooting.  That would seem to have tidied it all up nicely, but according to Wikipedia, another true crime writer, Michael Newton, said he had scoured the archives, and found no trace of a Mrs Pepitone being arrested, tried and imprisoned for shooting a Mr Momfre, and that Wilson’s theory (for which he produced no evidence) was nothing more than an Urban Legend.

At the end of the “demon” letter the author had concluded that “it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, and it wilt go well with thee. I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed in either fact or realm of fantasy. The Axeman’.  Well it was certainly a bizarre case, that’s for sure.




As the Axeman used an implement that was already at the house, it would seem that they had already determined that each residence had an axe. Why would you not bring your own weapon if you didn’t know that you could find one?

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