It’s easy to believe, in this epoch awash in social media with 24/7 coverage of everything, that the world is a far more messed-up place than back in “the good ol’ days.” While certainly our capacity for destruction has increased – high capacity magazines, bio-terror, nuclear proliferation – I offer that man’s basic instability (read: cruelty, sociopathy, violence) likely has not changed very much.
As evidence, I further offer the story of an American serial killer who, despite having a body count comparable to Jack the Ripper’s and being much closer to those of us in the U.S. than is Whitechapel, seems to have been largely forgotten by history.
I offer you The Axeman.
This murderer was active in New Orleans and neighboring Gretna at the end of WWI, and only for a period of about 18 months. A considerable public panic arose, and like most serial killers, he left as abruptly as he came.
His first known victims were Joseph and Catherine Maggio, owners of a grocery store and bar who were attacked while they slept in their apartment over their business on the evening of 22 May 1918. The killer broke into the house and slashed both of the victims’ necks, and then proceeded to bludgeon both with the dull side of a heavy axe blade. Catherine was killed on the spot, while Joseph lived long enough to give details to his brother, who found him, before expiring himself. Nothing valuable – including cash in plain sight – had been stolen. Police found the killer’s bloody clothing in another room of the apartment, as he apparently changed into clean clothes before fleeing the crime site; they also found his bloody straight razor tossed carelessly on the neighbor’s front lawn. That straight razor was determined to belong to Andrew Maggio, the same brother who found the victims, and who owned a barber shop down the street. Police focused on him as the perpetrator when he said he had been at his adjoining apartment and, though drunk, had heard nothing of the attack. Only much later, and sober, did he claim to detect “a strange groaning noise,” and going to investigate, found the bodies. Andrew told police that he had seen a strange man lurking around the block prior to the crime, and the straight razor notwithstanding, as police had nothing more with which to charge Andrew, he was released.
The next two victims were Louis Besumer, another grocer, and his mistress, Harriet Lowe, who were found early on the morning of 27 June 1918 by a bakery delivery truck, lying in pools of their own blood in the back of the store, both with slash and bludgeon wounds. Once again, nothing of value had been taken. The police arrested a new employee, but without any evidence, released him shortly thereafter. The media turned to their attention to the fact that Lowe, as she regained consciousness, accused Besumer of being a German spy who had attacked her, and sure enough, a search of the store uncovered letters written in strange tongues (turns out to have been Russian and Yiddish). Lowe died after botched surgery, and Besumer was charged with her murder once he recovered. Police, though, were unable to explain how he sustained his own injuries. He was acquitted after a ten minute jury deliberation.
And there were more victims. At least eight more. Elsie Schneider, discovered grievously wounded by her husband returning from work. Joseph Romano, an elderly pensioner found by his nieces with his head gashed and a bloody axe in the backyard. Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia and their infant daughter, all sustaining skull fractures, leading to the child’s death and lifelong disabilities for the parents. Steve Boca, another targeted grocer who sustained severe brain damage from his assault. Sarah Laumann, a single teen living alone who was gored and amnestic after her attack. Mike Pepitone, killed by the axe-wielding intruder as his wife and children were elsewhere in the home.
The city panicked. Axes were found at the crime scenes. Neighbors were arrested but released without evidence. The authorities wondered if this were a Mafia-influenced spree, given that many of the victims were Italian. Police began to suspect that the same individual was responsible for murders of other Italian couples stretching back to 1911, though this was never confirmed.
Then came the following letter to the local newspaper [the byline ‘Hell’ is no doubt a hat-tip to Jack the Ripper]:
Hell, March 13, 1919
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 demon from the hottest Hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Franz 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 with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little 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 just 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 your 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 it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, 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 fancy.
On 19 March, the dance halls, saloons, and bars of New Orleans were filled to capacity, with the citizenry all partaking of loud jazz music.
There were some locals, though, who not only refused to be intimidated, but took out ads in the paper, telling the Axeman that they’d be waiting for him with back doors unlocked, and 12-gauge shotguns in hand, and then provided street addresses.
There were no attacks that night. And shortly thereafter, the Axeman vanished.
And like Jack, he was never apprehended.
[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at firstname.lastname@example.org]
[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]