Who Was the Axeman? (Part One)

While I'm in New Orleans attending the annual meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society, I'd though I'd post about one of the most notorious episodes in this city's history....

It all began on May 23, 1918 when  the bodies of Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine were discovered in the apartment they shared above their New Orleans grocery store.   Joseph's two brothers, Jake and Andrew, lived in rooms on the other side of the house and came to investigate after hearing the sounds of moaning.   They found their brother, half out of bed and still alive though his throat had been cut.   He died just minutes later.   As for Catherine, she was already dead and the cuts to her throat were so deep that she had nearly been decapitated.  

Police were quickly summoned and their investigation determined that the killer had entered the apartment by chiselling out a rear door panel and slipping inside.   After striking both Maggios with an axe, the killer then finished them off by cutting their throats with a straight razor.   Since a considerable amount of cash and jewelry had been left behind, police ruled out robbery as a possible motive.  With no other suspects, police arrested Andrew  and Jake Maggio after determining that the razor in the killings came from  Andrew's barber shop.   Witnesses also reported seeing Andrew come home drunk sometime between 2 and 3 am.    Both men were later released after investigators failed to break down their story and other witnesses reported seeing a stranger lurking outside the Maggio home.   220px-Axeman_Map_New_Orleans_March_1919[1]

But another break in the case occurred when a bizarre message was found written in chalk on the sidewalk, about a block away from the house.  The message read: "Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs.  Toney."   When police checked their files looking for other crimes that might have matched the Maggio murders, they were stunned to discover three similar crimes that occurred in 1911.   All of these crimes involved the use of an axe by an unknown perpetrator but, since all of homes broken into had belonged to Italian-Americans, police at the time dismissed them as being Mafia-related.    Now they weren't so certain.

Their fears that a serial killer was stalking New Orleans seemed confirmed on June 28 when a grocer named Louis Bossumer was found staggering out of  the home he shared with his common-law wife, Annie Harriet Lowe.   A baker named John Zanca had been making a delivery when he found Bossumer and, helping him back inside, found Anne lying in bed.   Both had been attacked with an axe and had grievous injuries . Unlike the Maggios however, both of them were still alive and Zanca was able to get them medical attention.   While the attack resembled the Maggio killings, including the use of an axe,  Bossumer being a grocer, and someone having apparently broken in through a rear door panel, this new case took a bizarre turn when Harriet eventually accused her husband of being a German spy and attacking her.    She died soon after and Louis Bossumer was charged with her murder.   Though police argued that he might have killed Harriet and wounded himself to make it appear that the Maggio murderer had attacked them, this didn’t really impress the jury during his  trial.   He was acquitted months later due to lack of evidence. 

On August 5, just days after the attack on Louis Bossumer and his wife, a young married man named Edward Schneider came home to discover his pregnant wife lying unconscious in bed, her head and face covered in blood.  She was quickly rushed to Charity Hospital where she told police that she saw a “tall, phantom-like form” standing over her bed and screamed when the axe fell.    Fortunately, she managed to recover despite the large gash in her head and the loss of several teeth.    She was able to given birth to a healthy girl just a week later.   Though investigators determined that the attacker had entered the Schneider home through a window rather than a rear door panel, the assault resembled previous attacks in virtually every other detail.  

Just five days later, another assault occurred, this time involving an elderly man named Joseph Romano.  Romano’s niece Pauline and her younger sister Mary heard odd noises coming from their uncle’s bedroom and, after investigating, discovered her uncle being assaulted by a “dark, tall, heavy-set [man] wearing a dark suit and a black slouch hat.”  When she screamed, the suspect ran away while her uncle staggered out of bed and collapsed on the floor.   He died two days later in hospital.  This time around, police found all of the "signatures" in place.   A bloody axe was found in the backyard and the panel of the rear door had been cut out.   Romano's room had been ransacked though nothing had been taken.   The only real difference from many previous attacks was Romano's profession (he was a barber).  

By now, hysteria was rampant, especially in Italian neighbourhoods.   Fear of the killer, now dubbed "the Axeman", led to neighbourhood watches being set up with armed sentries patrolling the streets.   When a rumour sprang up that the Axeman had been spotted, disguised as a woman, a manhunt was organised though no one was found.    On August 11, a man named Al Durand discovered an axe and a chisel lying outside his rear door.   While the door had been damaged, whoever was responsible was apparently unable to break in.  Other attempted break-ins were discovered, all involving attempts to chisel in rear doors of local grocers, though no suspects were found.

After months of fear, the Axeman finally struck again on March 10, 1919.   Iorlando Jordano, a grocer living in Gretna, just across the river from New Orleans, head screams coming from the home of a fellow grocer living across the street.   When Jordano investigated, he found Charles Cortimiglia lying on the floor covered with blood.  His wife Rose was also seriously injured and she was holding the body of her two-year-old daughter Mary.   An ambulance was called and both Cortimiglias eventually recovered though it was too late for Mary.  As Rose Cortimiglia later told police, she had awakened that night to find her husband struggling with a large man in dark clothing who was holding an axe.  After her husband fell, Rose saw the axeman turn towards her and she pleaded for the life of the child she was holding in her arms.   But he didn't stop until killing Mary and fracturing her mother's skull.  Though police found a bloody axe lying on the back steps of the house, nothing had apparently been stolen.  

With news of the attack on the Cortimiglia family, Axeman hysteria gripped the people of New Orleans once more.   Along with countless reports of dark, heavy-set men lurking around neighbourhoods, police also dealt with panicked calls about  chiseled door panels, mysterious axes being found in houses across the city.  Italian grocers were especially panicked and pleaded for special police protection.  Though police superintendent Frank Mooney tried to settle these fears by announcing that the had assigned a special task force for finding the Axeman, his stating that "all the crimes were committed by the same man, probably a bloodthirsty maniac, filled with a passion for human slaughter" had the opposite effect.   Go figure.  

But the worst was still to come...

To be continued






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