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Notes For Unsolved: The Terrifying Axeman of New Orleans

Research notes for True Crime Season 2 Episode 1

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**Research compiled for Ryan & Shane on February 22, 2017 by Adriana Gomez.

The Crimes

  • The attacks happened in 1918, the last year of WWI.
  • Over a period of roughly 18 months, there were 12 attacks and six deaths.
  • The Axeman would attack people at night, while they were in their beds.
  • He would not use his own tools.
  • He would usually find his way through the backdoor and use whatever was at hand inside the home.
  • A local composer Joseph Davilla was inspired by the Axeman and wrote the song Don’t Scare Me Papa, also known as The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz.
  • Victims of the Axeman were mostly Italians who were store owners and grocers.
  • Some think the first Axeman attacks occurred in 1911 with a handful of murders: the Rosettis, the Schiambras, the Davis, and the Cruttis. Most were Italian grocers and their wives who were attacked by an axe-wielding killer. However, there it is possible these killings did not occur because reportedly no record of their deaths attributed to murder by the same characteristics can be found in contemporary newspapers. (In my opinion that would explain why most sources don’t agree on their spelling.)
  • Others believe his first attack was in 1918 when attempting to kill the Maggios.
  • In most cases, the Axeman entered through the backdoor of the residence by smashing a hole.
  • The killer would use an axe or straight razor.
  • He would typically enter the victim’s bedroom and attack in the middle of the night.
  • The Axeman would also usually leave the axe behind near the scene of the crime.
  • The Axeman’s victims were mostly Italian, leading people to believe the Mafia was involved.
  • Others argued that it could not have been the Mafia because they did not kill women. The axeman had killed women and a young girl.
  • Some believed the Axeman was a respectable citizen of New Orleans with a Jekyll-Hyde personality.
  • John D’Antonio, a detective from the time of the Axeman attacks believed that this person’s alter ego could lie dormant for months or years, suggesting the 1911 attacks may have been the same Axeman. He allegedly stated that the attacker may have been, “a respectable, law-abiding citizen when his normal self. Compelled by an impulse to kill, he must obey this urge…”
  • Another theory is that many people were inspired by the original attacks and decided to copycat.


The Victims

The Maggios: The first suspected Axeman attack. May 23, 1918.

  • Location: 4901 Magnolia Street
  • Jake and Andrew Maggio, who were Joseph’s brothers and living under the same roof, found Catherine Maggio was almost entirely decapitated and her husband Joseph Maggio suffered severe injuries.
  • Their valuables were not taken so it was clear that robbery was not the intent.
  • The bottom panel of the kitchen door was knocked out and the door was open but upon investigation, it was found that no one had heard or seen anything.
  • An axe was found on the scene. And though fingerprinting was around at the time, it was allegedly not yet a standard procedure used to find a suspect.
  • The murder used Joseph’s axe on the victims’ heads, and a razor on their throats.
  • Reportedly near the home on the sidewalk, the killer wrote in chalk: “Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.”


Louis Besumer and Anna Lowe: Attacked on June 28, 1918.

  • Location reportedly: Dorgenois and Laharpe streets
  • When they were discovered, Louis was severely injured, and Anna was in the process of dying.
  • Some suspected a baker who was making morning deliveries: John Zanca.
  • He was a baker who discovered their bodies when he knocked on the door of Besumer’s grocery store and did not receive a response.
  • When he entered their living quarters, he found the bottom panel of their bedroom door was missing.
  • A bloody axe was found in the bathroom.
  • Anna Lowe lived for another seven weeks after the attack. She supposedly recounted to the police that a large white man with a hatchet had attacked them.
  • After her death, Louis Besumer was charged with the murder of Anna Lowe.
  • Police found that Besumer had written letters back and forth in Yiddish and Russian. They eventually came to the conclusion that Besumer was part of a German spy ring or spymaster for the Kaiser and the attack had nothing to do with the Axeman. They also concluded that this case was a domestic dispute that ended with Louis attacking Anna.


Mrs. Ed Schneider: She was attacked on August 5, 1918. She was pregnant.

  • Her husband found her in the afternoon when he was returning from work. She was nearly dead with her head battered.
  • Mrs. Schneider woke in the middle of the night to a figure looming over her.
  • Her screams during the attack woke the neighbors and they found her unconscious. Her head was bashed and she mas missing many teeth. She was rushed to Charity Hospital.
  • Upon investigation it was discovered that their axe was missing from their shed.
  • A week following the attack, she gave birth.


Joseph Romano: On August 10, 1918, Joseph Romano’s nieces Pauline and Mary Bruno heard their uncle struggling and discovered him with a bashed head.

  • Location allegedly: Tonti and Gravier Street
  • He was an 80-year-old Italian barber.
  • They allegedly saw the attacker and described him as “dark, tall, heavy-set, wearing a dark suit and a black slouch hat.”
  • Romano died two day after the attack.

In August 1918, the New Orleans States newspaper allegedly recounted,

Armed men are keeping watch over their sleeping families while the police are seeing to solve the mysteries of the ax attacks… Extra police are being put to work daily.”

The Cortimiglias: Attacked March 10, 1919.

  • Rose Cortimiglia woke to her husband fighting the Axeman. Her husband Charles was beaten, and Rose and their two-year-old daughter Mary were also attacked.
  • It is said that they were found by a neighbor who was alerted by the screams.
  • Others say they were discovered by a visitor who became wary when they did not answer the door.
  • Rose and Charles survived. Mary died.
  • The neighbor, Jordano, and his son were convicted for the crime, but this was eventually overturned.
  • The axeman also used the Cortimiglias’ axe.
  • Following this attack, the alleged Axeman wrote a letter to The Times-Picayune.


“Axeman” Letter to Times-Picayune:
At the time of the letter there had been five murders since May 1917 that were potentially committed by the Axeman. The Axeman dates the letter “Hell, March 13, 1919.”

  • The Axeman described himself as a “fell demon from hottest hell” and confesses his love for jazz music.
  • In the letter he announces that on March 19, 1919, at 12:15, he will fly “over New Orleans” but spare those who play jazz music:

“Now, to be exact, at 12:15 o’clock (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 the people. Here it is:

“I am very fond of jazz music and I swear by all the delis 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. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for the people. 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.”

No one was killed on March 19, 1919.
The Axeman states: “Esteemed Mortal: They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether, which surrounds your earth. 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.”

He calls the police stupid:

“I take no offense in which [the police] have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid so as to amuse not only me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Joseph, etc.”

The Axeman claims that he “could be much worse if [he] wanted to.”


Steve Boca:
On August 10, 1919, Steve Boca was badly injured in his home.

  • He awoke to a man next to his bed with an axe.
  • After the attack, he reportedly staggered to a friend’s home, who then called the police.
  • Boca survived, but did not regain his memory.


Sarah Laumann: Location reportedly: 2128 Second Street.

  • Nineteen-year-old Sarah Laumann was reportedly attacked either in August or September of 1919.
  • Allegedly, the attacker entered her home through an open window.
  • When she regained consciousness, she could not recall details of the attack.


The Pepitones: October 27, 1919. Esther and Mike Pepitone ran a cornerstone together at South Scott and Ulloa Street.

  • Close to their business, there was a circus on Tulane Avenue for the weekend.
  • Esther Pepitone awoke around 1 a.m. to her husband’s screaming and reportedly ran to the bedroom.
  • She found her husband unconscious but alive.
  • Their mattress was soaked and their walls were splattered with blood.
  • Mike Pepitone’s head was violently struck 18 times, with possibly multiple weapons, but it was difficult to tell because his skull was so badly damaged.
  • Esther saw two figures in the bedroom but could not identify them.
  • When she was rushing into the room she allegedly nearly collided into the attacker.
  • The two men left, exiting through the room where their six children stayed, and out the back door.
  • They fled down South Scott Street, heading towards Canal.
  • Esther is quoted saying every time her husband “turned his head, blood came from his head and face… It simply poured over the bed.”
  • Esther proceeded to open a window and began screaming while their 11-year-old daughter ran out for help.
  • Sheriff deputy Ben Corcoran was the first to arrive on the scene.
  • He found a weapon on the chair next to Mike Pepitone: a bolt with a heavy nut, something used to secure a circus tent.
  • Mike Pepitone was rushed to the hospital and died within two hours. He was 36 years old.
  • He was the last alleged victim of the Axeman and his murder was never solved.
  • One interesting thing to note: No one understood why Esther did not wake up sooner while her husband was being assaulted. She claimed that she sleeps “very heavily” and “heard nothing until [her] husband screamed.”
  • It was typical of the Axeman to enter a home at night.
  • In this case, the Axeman broke into a front-house window.
  • There was $100 cash in the kitchen that the two figures did not take. So this was clearly not a robbery.


Another Theory: However, others believe Mike’s death was the result of a long-standing Mafia feud.

  • In 1910, Mike’s father, Peter Pepitone, had killed a man named di Christina outside of a building that Peter owned and had once leased to di Christina.
  • When di Christina’s lease was up, Mike Pepitone moved his business and home to that location.
  • Though there were no witnesses to verify this, Peter Pepitone claimed that he fired at di Christina from Mike’s bedroom.
  • He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to serve five years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.


Suspects

Jake and Andrew Maggio: Joseph Maggio’s brothers Jake and Andrew were initially suspected and put in jail. Jake was released the following day but police held Andrew because they believed his razor was used to commit the crime. Andrew was released after a few days.

John Zanca: He was the suspected attacker of Louis Besumer and Anna Lowe. He was a baker who discovered their bodies when he knocked on the door of Besumer’s grocery store and did not receive a response.

Louis Besumer: Before dying, Anna Lowe allegedly blamed her partner Louis Besumer and said he was a Nazi spy. He was acquitted. Anna Lowe has also said that she was attacked by “a mulatto” and people began to suspect the newly-hired help, but they were also quickly released.

The Jordanos: Rose Cortimiglia blamed her neighbors Iorlando and Frank Jordano for the attack. Frank Jordano was allegedly sentenced to hang, and Iorlando was sentenced to life. Supposedly, after the trial the Cortimiglias divorced and months later Rose was arrested for prostitution. Rose later admitted to perjury and the Jordanos were released.The police eventually agreed that the Axeman was one person, killing at random.

Joseph Mumfre: In Los Angeles, on December 2, 1920, Esther Albano, the former widow of Mike Pepitone, was arrested for shooting and killing Joseph Mumfre. She claimed that he was the Axeman and had seen him run from her bedroom. The LAPD noted that there was evidence linking Mumfre to the death of Mike Pepitone.

  • Mumfre was in and out of prison for the past ten years and his time outside of prison coincided with attacks by the Axeman.
  • It also seemed that attacks from the Axeman stopped after the death of Joseph Mumfre.
  • Esther was acquitted for Mumfre’s death.
  • After her Mike Pepitone’s death, Esther moved to LA and married Angelo Albano in 1921.
  • Before their marriage, Albano had recently ended business relations with a man who went by many names, including Joseph Mumfre.
  • On the second anniversary of Mike Pepitone’s death, Angelo went missing and was never found.
  • Esther approached Mumfre and asked about her husband. Allegedly Mumfre was not aware that she was the wife and responded: "Yes. Albano has a big house and plenty money. He is being held for some of that money. His wife will be asked for it after things quiet down."
  • December 5, 1921 Mumfre visited the Albano home at 554 East 36th St. in Los Angeles. He demanded $500 and Esther’s jewelry, threatening that he would “kill [her] the same way he had killed [her] husband.” She believed he was admitting to killing Angelo Albano.
  • Esther killed him with a revolver.
  • Upon investigation, the police found that Mumfre lead a blackmailing gang in New Orleans that preyed on Italians.
  • Just after the 1911 attacks possibly linked to the Axeman, he was sent to prison-for a separate reason.
  • Before the 1918 attacks, he was on parole.
  • Following the Pepitone attacks, Mumfre left New Orleans and the Axeman attacks stopped.
  • However, there was not enough evidence to directly link him to the crimes, and eyewitnesses can be wrong. Only circumstantial evidence led people to believe Mumfre was the killer.
  • Remember, Mrs. Pepitone initially said there were two men in her bedroom.
  • This raised questions. Was the Axeman one serial killer or were multiple people involved?
  • Some believe Mumfre was a Mafia hitman, taking revenge on the Pepitone family.
  • Others believed the Axeman to be a woman, or a little person who could fit in small spaces they carved into doors, or a supernatural entity that could slip through tiny entranceways and become the “large man” that witnesses describe the killer to be.


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