Killer axman spares jazz lovers in New Orleans bloody slashing spree
Almost 100 years ago, terrified New Orleans citizens took an odd approach to warding off a phantom who had been on a bloody rampage in their city for more than a year.
They played jazz, as loud as they could, in the middle of the night.
Music-appreciation night was the result of a letter to the editor received by The Times-Picayune on March 14, 1919. It contained a warning about a bloodbath to come at 12:25 a.m., Tuesday, March 19. “Hell” was the return address.
“I shall leave no clue,” the letter said, “except perhaps my bloody ax, besmeared with the blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.”
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But the writer thoughtfully offered a path to salvation.
“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 house a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned,” the letter noted. “One thing is certain and that is some of those persons who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the ax.”
As to the jazz-loving devil’s identity, the letter writer said, “I am not a human being, but a spirit and a fell demon from hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the axman.”
The city known for letting the good times roll first became aware of the “Axman of New Orleans” on May 24, 1918. Joseph Maggio, who owned a grocery and bar on Magnolia St., and his wife, Catherine, were found in their bed mutilated with an ax and razors.
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The killer had gained entry by chiseling out a lower panel in a wood door. Police found the blood-caked ax, which belonged to Maggio, in the bathtub. Nothing of value was missing, ruling out robbery as a motive.
Music-appreciation night was the result of the bloody spree the axman would perform.
Police delved into old crime records and found a few that followed the same pattern years earlier. On Aug. 19, 1910, grocer August Crutti was bashed in the head in his bed at night. Police recovered the weapon — a meat cleaver that Crutti used in his grocery. They also traced the break-in path — a panel of glass chiseled from a kitchen door, a method that echoed the Maggio killing. Crutti would survive.
Similar attacks on grocers continued until late 1911, then stopped abruptly. Six years later, they started again, leading up to the Maggio murders.
Several traits linked these crimes, suggesting they were the work of a single “bloodthirsty maniac,” police told reporters. Grocers, mostly Italian ones, were the primary targets and men suffered the brunt of the violence. The weapon was generally an ax or meat cleaver owned by the victims. Attacks were always at night and entry was often through a panel chiseled out of a door.
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Examining the past, however, did not stop future violence.
On June 27, someone whacked grocer Louis Besumer and his mistress, Harriet Lowe. Besumer’s wounds were not life threatening, but Lowe died from complications of her injuries in August.
Before she died she told police that the attack was Besumer’s handiwork. He was arrested and imprisoned for nine months, awaiting trial. When he finally faced a jury, it took about 10 minutes to acquit him, although some believe that Besumer “almost certainly was Mrs. Lowe’s murderer,” wrote Miriam Davis in her 2017 book on the case, “The Axeman of New Orleans.”
On March 10, 1919, just after Mardi Gras, there was another axman-style attack, this time in Gretna, a town across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. An Italian grocer, Charlie Cortimiglia, his wife, Rose, and baby, Mary, 2, were beaten and hacked in the night. The baby died.
Police quickly picked up suspects Iorlando Jordano, 68, and his son Frank, 17, neighbors and landlords of the Cortimiglia family.
Rose Cortimiglia told police that she saw the Jordano men kill her baby, and a jury believed her. The father was sent to prison for life and Frank got the death penalty.
He was running out of appeals in 1920 when Rose Cortimiglia admitted that she had lied. The Jordanos were soon free.
The jazz letter came into The Times-Picayune office shortly after the Cortimiglia attack. Accounts vary on how much jazz was actually played — some say it was just a few parties, others that dance halls were packed and bands were active in homes all over the city. Whatever the reality was, no ax-wielding demon killed anyone that night.
The letter is widely viewed as a hoax, perhaps the work of songwriter J. J. Davilla, trying to drum up publicity for his new composition-“The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).”
The last New Orleans murder attributed to the axman was on Oct. 27, 1919, when grocer Mike Pepitone was found in bed, his skull “battered into an almost unrecognizable mass,” wrote The Times-Picayune.
The mystery killer then vanished, with a dozen attacks and six deaths attributed to him. Davis, however, found reports of attacks bearing his signature in other parts of the country after 1919. He may have just moved on.
Some historians have long said the axman was a Mafia thug who was shot dead by the wife of one of his victims in Los Angeles in 1921. But no one can say for sure.
The axman’s identity is still a lively topic among crime aficionados, but 100 years later it’s unlikely his name will ever be known.
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