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Unsolved Mysteries: The New Orleans Axeman

Sofia Lopez, Reporter and Editorial Board

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The New Orleans Axeman was an American serial killer active in New Orleans, from May 1918 to October 1919.As the killers name implies, the victims were killed with an axe. Most of the time the axe belonged to the victims themselves if not the Axeman used his own axe. In most cases the back door of the house was removed with a chisel that was left there. The murders were not motivated by robbery since he never removed any other objects other than the axe. Most of the Axeman’s victims we’re Italian immigrants or Italian-American, this lead police to believe the crimes we’re ethnically motivated. Many media outlets at the time sensationalized this aspect of the crimes, some even suggested Mafia involvement despite the lack of evidence.

The Victims:

During his time, the Axeman killed 12 people. These people and their families deserved justice but never got it.

Joseph Maggio was an Italian grocer who was attacked on May 22, 1918, he was killed alongside his wife, Catherine Maggio. The killer broke into the home and proceeded to cut the couples throats. He then bashed their heads in with an axe. George survived but died minutes after his brothers, Andrew and Jake Maggio, found them. Catherine died prior to the brothers arrival, her throat had been cut so deep her head was nearly severed shoulders. Law enforcement found bloody clothes, obviously the killer had changed into a fresh pair of clothes. Later on police had found a bloody razor, it was found to belong to Andrew Maggio. Andrew conducted a barber shop one of his employees, Esteban Torres, was questioned and said Andrew removed the razor from the shop two days prior to the murders. Andrew lived beside, in adjoining apartments, his brother discovered their bodies roughly two hours after the murders.

Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe were attacked in the early morning hours of June 27, 1918, in the quarters at the back of his grocery which was located at the corner of Dorgenois and Laharpe Streets. Besumer was struck with a hatchet above his right temple, which resulted in a possible skull fracture. Lowe was hacked over the left ear, and found unconscious when police arrived at the scene. The couple was discovered shortly after 7 AM on the morning of the attack by John Zanca, driver of a bakery wagon who had come to the grocery in order to make a routine delivery. Zanca found both Besumer and Lowe in a puddle of their own blood, both bleeding from their heads. The axe, which had belonged to Besumer himself, was found in the bathroom of the apartment. Besumer later stated to police that he had been sleeping when he was bashed with the hatchet. Almost immediately, police arrested potential suspect Lewis Oubicon, a then 41-year-old African American man who had been employed in Besumer’s store just a week before the attacks. No evidence existed which could have proved the man guilty, yet police arrested him nonetheless, stating that Oubicon had offered conflicting accounts of his whereabouts on the morning of the attack. Shortly after the attempted murder Lowe stated that she remembered having been attacked by a mulatto man, yet her statement was discounted by police due to her disillusioned state. Robbery was said to be the only possible explanation for the attacks, yet no money or valuables were removed from the couple’s home. Oubicon was later released as police were unable to gather sufficient evidence to hold him accountable for the crimes. Media attention soon turned to Besumer himself, as a series of letters written in German, Russian, and Yiddish were discovered in a trunk at the man’s home. Police suspected that Besumer was a German spy, and government officials began a full investigation of his potential espionage. Weeks later, after going in and out of consciousness, Harriet Lowe told police that she thought Besumer was in fact a German spy, which led to his immediate arrest. Two days later Besumer was released, and two lead investigators of the case were demoted due to unacceptable police work. Besumer was once again arrested in August 1918, after Harriet Lowe, who lay dying in Charity Hospital after a failed surgery, stated that it was he who had attacked her more than a month previously with his hatchet. He was charged with murder, and served nine months in prison before being acquitted on May 1, 1919, after a ten-minute jury deliberation.

Harriet Lowe was attacked while in bed with Louis Besumer. As is mentioned previously, Lowe was hacked above her left ear and found unconscious at the scene of the crime before she was rushed to Charity Hospital. Lowe became the center of a media circus, as she continually made scandalous and often false statements relating to both the attacks and the character of Louis Besumer, some of which are described in the preceding description. The Times-Picayune sensationalized Lowe and her outspoken nature upon discovering that she was not the wife of Besumer, but his mistress. A Charity Hospital source discovered the scandal, when Besumer asked to be directed to the room of “Mrs. Harriet Lowe,” and was inevitably denied access as no woman by that name was a patient. Besumer’s legal wife arrived from Cincinnati in the days immediately following the discovery, which further inflamed the ongoing drama. Lowe further gained media attention as she repeatedly made statements which voiced her dislike of the New Orleans chief of police, as well as her reluctance to comply with police questioning. After the truth of her marital status was revealed publicly, Lowe told reporters from the Times-Picayune that she would no longer aid the police in their investigation, as she suspected that it had been Chief Mooney who first informed the press of the scandal. Despite the scandal, and her delirious statements which suggested that Besumer was a German spy, Lowe returned to the home she shared with Besumer weeks after the attack. One side of her face was partially paralyzed due to the severity of the attack. Lowe died August 5, 1918, just two days after doctors performed surgery in an effort to repair her partially paralyzed face. Just prior to her death, Lowe told authorities that she suspected it was Louis Besumer who had attacked her.

Anna Schneider was attacked in the early evening hours of August 5, 1918. The 8 months pregnant, 28-year-old, awoke to find a dark figure standing over her, and was bashed in the face repeatedly. Her scalp had been cut open, and her face was completely covered in blood. Mrs. Schneider was discovered after midnight by her husband, Ed Schneider, who was returning late from work. Schneider claimed that she remembered nothing of the attack, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl two days after the incident. Her husband told police that nothing was stolen from the home, besides six or seven dollars that had been in his wallet. The windows and doors of the apartment appear to have not been forced open, and authorities came to the conclusion that the woman was most likely attacked with a lamp that had been on a nearby table. James Gleason, who police said was an ex-convict, was arrested shortly after Schneider was found. Gleason was later released due to a complete lack of evidence, and stated that he originally ran from authorities because he had so often been arrested. Lead investigators began to publicly speculate that the attack was related to the previous incidents involving Besumer and Maggio.

Joseph Romano was an elderly man living with his two nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno. On August 10, 1918, Pauline and Mary awoke to the sound of a commotion in the adjoining room where their uncle resided. Upon entering the room, the sisters discovered that their uncle had taken a serious blow to his head, which resulted in two open cuts. The assailant was fleeing the scene as they arrived, yet the girls were able to distinguish that he was a dark-skinned, heavy-set man, who wore a dark suit and slouched hat. Romano, although seriously injured, was able to walk to the ambulance once it arrived, yet died two days later due to severe head trauma. The home had been ransacked, yet no items were stolen from Romano. Authorities found a bloody axe in the back yard, and discovered that a panel on the back door had been chiseled away. The Romano murder created a state of extreme chaos in the city, with residents living in constant fear of an axeman attack. Police received a slew of reports, in which citizens claimed to have seen an axeman lurking in New Orleans neighborhoods. A few men even called to report that they had found axes in their back yards. John Dantonio, a then-retired Italian detective, made public statements in which he hypothesized that the man who had committed the axeman murders was the same who had killed several individuals in 1911. The retired detective cited similarities in the manner by which the two sets of homicides had been committed, as reason to assume that they had been conducted by the same individual. Dantonio described the potential killer as an individual of dual personalities, who killed without motive. This type of individual, Dantonio stated, could very likely have been a normal, law-abiding citizen, who was often overcome by an overwhelming desire to kill. He later went on to describe the killer as a real-life “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde”.

Charles Cortimiglia was an immigrant who lived with his wife and baby. On the night of March 10, 1919, screams were heard coming from the Cortimiglia Residence. Grocer Iorlando Jordano rushed across the street to investigate. Upon his arrival, Jordano noticed that Charles Cortimiglia, his wife Rosie, and their infant daughter, Mary, had all been attacked by the unknown intruder. Rosie stood in the doorway with a serious head wound, clutching her deceased daughter. Charles laid on the floor, bleeding profusely. The couple was rushed to Charity Hospital, where it was discovered that both had suffered skull fractures. Nothing was stolen from the house, but a panel on the back door had been chiseled away. A bloody axe was found on the back porch of the home. Charles was released two days later, while his wife remained in the care of doctors. Upon gaining full consciousness, Rosie made claims that Iorlando Jordano and his 18-year-old son, Frank, were responsible for the attacks. Iorlando, a 69-year-old man, was in too poor of health to have committed the crimes. Frank Jordano, more than six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, would have been too large to have fit through the panel on the back door. Charles Cortimiglia vehemently denied his wife’s claims, yet police nonetheless arrested the two, and charged them with the murder. The men would later be found guilty. Frank was sentenced to hang, and his father to life in prison. Charles Cortimiglia divorced his wife after the trial. Almost a year later, Rosie announced that she had falsely accused the two out of jealousy and spite. Her statement was the only evidence against the Jordanos, and they were released from jail shortly thereafter.

Rosie Cortimiglia was the wife of immigrant laborer Charles Cortimiglia. She was attacked alongside her husband on March 10, 1919, while sleeping with her baby in her arms. She was badly wounded by the axeman, but survived the incident.

Mary Cortimiglia was the two-year-old daughter of Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia. She was killed while sleeping in her mother’s arms with a single blow to the back of the neck when she and her parents were attacked on March 10, 1919.

Steve Boca was a grocer who was attacked in his bedroom as he slept, by an axe-wielding intruder on August 10, 1919. Boca awoke during the night to find a dark figure looming over his bed. Upon regaining consciousness, Boca ran to the street to investigate the intrusion, and found that his head had been cracked open. The grocer ran to the home of his neighbor, Frank Genusa, where he lost consciousness and collapsed. Nothing had been taken from the home, yet, once again, a panel on the back door of the home had been chiseled away. Boca recovered from his injuries, but could not remember any details of the trauma. It should be noted that this attack took place after the emergence of the infamous axeman letter.

Sarah Laumann was attacked on the night of September 3, 1919. Neighbors came to check on the young woman, who had lived alone, and broke into the home when Laumann did not answer. They discovered the 19-year-old lying unconscious on her bed, suffering from a severe head injury and missing several teeth. The intruder had entered the apartment through an open window, and attacked the woman with a blunt object. A bloody axe was discovered on the front lawn of the building. Laumann recovered from her injuries, yet couldn’t recall any details from the attack.

Mike Pepitone was attacked on the night of October 27, 1919. His wife was awakened by a noise and arrived at the door of his bedroom just as a large, axe-wielding man was fleeing the scene. Mike Pepitone had been struck in the head, and was covered in his own blood. Blood splatter covered the majority of the room, including a painting of the Virgin Mary. Mrs. Pepitone, the mother of six children, was unable to describe any characteristics of the killer. The Pepitone murder was the last of the alleged axeman attacks.

The Letter:

On March 13th, 1919, the Axeman sent in a letter to media outlets. The letter is the only one he has ever sent in and was the last one.

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortals of New Orleans:

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, Francis 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 (and the worst), 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 out on that specific 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.

–The Axeman

That Tuesday night no one died and the Axeman never returned to the city of New Orleans ever again. The Axeman’s identity still remains Unsolved and the case is closed.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Unsolved Mysteries: The New Orleans Axeman”

  1. Edgar on February 7th, 2018 10:49 am

    On that Tuesday night couldn’t someone have called the police to stay at their house and wait for the killer?

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