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The Axeman of New Orleans

The unknown is terrifying.

On May 22, 1918 the world was still in the grips of WWI. In New Orleans, a barber named Andrew Maggio had just gotten his draft notice and decided that a night’s good drinking was in order. Returning home to the place Andrew shared with his brother, Jake, he noticed nothing unusual. He was also in no condition to determine if anything was amiss. Andrew and Jake’s rooms adjoined the home of their married brother, Joseph and his wife Catherine. 

On the morning of May 23, Jake awoke at 4 o’clock in the morning and realized that sounds like groaning coming through the wall where Joseph and his wife slept had awoken him. He then knocked on the wall but got no response. Becoming worried Jake tried to wake up Andrew. Andrew was hard to wake up in his inebriated form but was finally aroused from sleep. They both went into Joseph’s house and found evidence of a break-in. A wooden panel had been removed from the kitchen door and was laying on the ground with the break-in tool a chisel on top of it.

When they entered Joseph’s room they found him laying on the bed with his legs draped over the side. Catherine was laying partially over him. Joseph saw his brothers and tried to get up but fell over, half out of bed. When Andrew and Jake ran over to him they saw that he was barely alive with bloody gashes on his head. Catherine was already dead, lying in a pool of blood. Immediately they called the police. When Corporal Arthur Hatener arrived before the ambulance it was already too late. Joseph had already died. While waiting for backup, Hatener looked around for clues and questioned the Maggio brothers.

That morning the Times-Picayune newspaper ran the story of the murder along with pictures of the murder scene. The Maggios had lived behind their small grocery store and bar room which was located on the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets. The dead couple had been married for 15 years. The police determined that the brutal double homicide had just happened before dawn.

When Officer Hatener was looking around the bloody crime scene he discovered a pile of men’s clothing in the middle of the bathroom floor. In the cast-iron bathtub was an axe leaning against one side. It appeared to have been washed clean of blood. There are some different versions as to where the axe was actually found. One is that it was under the house and the second that it was on the rear doorstep. In the bedroom another discovery was made, lying in the blood on the bed was a straight razor, the kind a barber might use. It appeared that after the murderer had entered the house he had gone directly to the bedroom where he whacked Catherine on the head with the axe and then slit her throat with the razor. The razor had also been used on Joseph.

The coroner arrived and determined the time of death as being between two and three in the morning. When the bodies were removed from the house a woman came forward and said that she had seen Andrew outside in the wee hours of the morning. Jake and Andrew were taken in for questioning. The following day Jake was released but Andrew was kept in jail. Then the police learned that the razor used on the Maggio couple belonged to Andrew. Andrew admitted to bringing the razor home from the barber shop to repair a nick in it. The odds were against him.

In an interview to the Times-Picayune Andrew told them that it was bad enough that he hurt for the death of his brother but that he had been drafted as well. He said that he had seen a man enter his brother’s house at about 1:30 AM, but the police didn’t believe him. Police found the safe in Joseph’s house open and empty but money under a pillow and in drawers was left behind as well as Catherine’s jewelry wrapped and left beneath the safe. An empty black tin box was found in a corner.

Since there was insufficient evidence against Andrew he was released from jail. A few blocks from the small grocery store where the murders occurred two detectives found a strange message written on the sidewalk in chalk. It said, “Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.” 

Two weeks later on June 6, John Zanca was delivering bread to his customers. When he got to Louis Besumer’s grocery store he found it locked. This was a most unusual situation since the owner of the store on Dorgenois and La Harpe Streets was always there awaiting his bread delivery. Zanca went to the side door and heard some movement inside. When Besumer opened the door Zanca saw that his face was covered in blood. He said that someone had attacked him and pointed toward the bedroom. There Zanca found Besumer’s mistress covered with a blood-soaked sheet. She had a terrible head wound and bloody barefoot prints led away from the bed to a swatch of false hair.

Zanca called for an ambulance and the police. Investigators found that once again entry had been gained by prying loose a panel at the back door and a hatchet was the murder weapon. The axe was found in the bathroom and it belonged to Besumer. Besumer although conscious and alive couldn’t give a description of either the attack or the attacker. The other victim, Anna Harriet Lowe, 28 was taken to the hospital. Later Anna died of her wounds and the police thought that in this case there had been a bloody, domestic quarrel and when he recovered Besumer was arrested for her murder.

Two months after this incident on August 5, a businessman named Edward Schneider returned home late in the evening to discover his pregnant wife in the bedroom with a gaping head wound and some of her teeth knocked out. He discovered that she was still alive and called an ambulance and the police. In this case Mrs. Schneider survived and told the police that she awoke from a nap to find a dark figure standing over her and when the axe came down that was all she remembered. The attack did not affect her pregnancy and she gave birth to a healthy daughter.

New Orleans was frightened that an axeman was at large. Five days after the Schneider attack on August 10 another woman was confronted by a dark figure in her home. Pauline and Mary Bruno were awoken by loud thumps coming from their Uncle Joseph’s room. When Pauline sat up she saw a dark figure right there in the room with them. She began to scream and the figure ran from the house. When Joseph Romano came to her room his nightshirt was covered in blood from gashes on his face. He said he didn’t know who did it and instructed her to call the hospital. Joseph died from his wounds. During investigation Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg discovered an axe left in the yard. Romano had not been a grocer, but a barber.

The people of New Orleans were terrified. Suddenly the police were swarmed with calls of all sorts of sightings. The axeman left no fingerprints and there was no clear pattern among victims. Finally the axeman didn’t appear for the rest of the year. WWI ended and New Orleans settled down and life continued.

Then on Monday March 10, 1919 the axeman struck again. This time across the river in Gretna, an immigrant suburb. Screams came from a house on the corner of Jefferson and Second Street. A neighbor ran to help and came upon a terrible scene. Mrs. Rosie Cortimiglia who was badly wounded was holding her two year old daughter Mary. Mary was dead. Her husband Charles, a grocer lay in the floor in a pool of blood. Rosie said they had been attacked while they were sleeping. Her daughter had been sleeping in her arms and was killed by a single blow to the back of the head. Charles had fought with the attacker but the neighbors had heard nothing.

Once again a panel had been chiseled out of the kitchen door and a bloody axe was found beneath the kitchen doorstep. The coroner said that the deed was the act of a maniac. Rosie recovered from her wounds. Frank and Iorlando Jordano, a father and son who were business rivals of Charles were arrested. Before he succumbed to his wounds Charles supposedly had said that a white man had attacked him and named Frank Jordano but no one knows for sure. However despite all the conflicting testimony at the trail of the two men Frank got the death sentence and his father got life in prison.

In April Louis Besumer was acquitted of the murder of his common law wife. Then on August 10, Steve Boca, an Italian grocer was hit with an axe while he slept. He stumbled from his house to get help from a friend. He also recovered but had no memory of the attack. The axe was found in his kitchen. Three weeks later on September 3, the axeman came to the home of Sarah Laumann. This time when the 19-year-old girl was found in bed with multiple wounds to her head a bloody axe was left outside an open window. Mike Pepitone was the next victim. In the early morning hours of October 27, his wife heard sounds of a struggle in her husband’s room. She rushed in and nearly collided with a man running from the scene. Mike lay in his own blood. The axe was left on the back porch. Their daughter ran to summon the police. Mike died of his wounds. Mrs. Pepitone said that she had seen two men in her house and both had been large. She did not appear to be distraught while answering the policemen’s questions.

On December 7, 1920 Mrs. Cortimiglia who was sick with smallpox retracted her accusation against the Jordanos saying she had lied and that a saint had visited her and instructed her to redeem herself. Both men were released. Then the police received a report of an incident that had occurred in Los Angeles, California on December 2. It appeared that Mrs. Mike Pepitone who was dressed in black had accosted a New Orleans resident named Joseph Momfre. When he stepped out of a shadowed doorway she shot him. He dropped dead on the sidewalk and when the police came Mrs. Pepitone insisted that she had seen him running from her husband’s room the day he was killed.

Momfre did have a criminal record and during the hiatus between 1911 and 1918 and from the last murder in 1918 until the first murder in 1919, he had been in prison. During the time of each of the murders, he had been free and left New Orleans right after Pepitone was killed. However, there was no positive evidence. Mrs. Pepitone served three years of a 10 year sentence in Los Angeles and then disappeared. There were no more axe murders in New Orleans and no one knows for sure who the axeman really was. Another sinister being much like Jack the Ripper and just as frightening because you never know the ending. Could he be dead or alive? Could he be a neighbor who temporarily went mad? Frightening isn’t it?

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The Axeman of New Orleans
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