The Axeman of New Orleans

After a time of mass immigration and the settlement of Italians and Sicilians in New Orleans, a time of strife began.

Italian immigrants were highly disliked in New Orleans, and it shone through in 1918 when the Axeman murders began.

The terror started with the brutal murder of Joseph Maggio and his wife, Catherine. On that night in May of 1918, the Axeman took a straight razor to their throats before he bashed in their heads with an axe. The law enforcement quickly ruled out robbery, as none of the valuables were taken after the murder. They questioned a few people but quickly let them go after no leads appeared.

Less than a month later, the Axeman attacked again. This time, Louis Besumer, a grocer, and his mistress Harriet Lowe were found badly injured in the back of his store. Besumer had been struck with an axe above his right temple, and Lowe had been hit over her left ear. They were both still alive, and an investigation began on who could’ve attacked them. A few were questioned, and one man was even arrested, yet all were released. Although people were scared of the crime and began to become fearful, people cared more about the scandal of their affair more. Harriet Lowe had been partially paralyzed on the side of her face, and received surgery to correct it. She died two days later, on August 5. In the midst of it all, she had claimed that it was Besumer who attacked her. He was charged with murder after she died, and served nine months before he was acquitted on May 1, 1919.

At the same time of Harriet’s death, a similar attack happened. This time, a pregnant woman, Mrs. Edward Schneider, was attacked while she was sleeping. Her husband found her badly injured with her scalp cut open. She survived, and delivered their child two days later. Investigators began to speculate whether the three attacks could be linked.

Five days after the attack on Schneider, there was another attack, an elderly grocer, Joseph Romano. His two nieces heard a commotion in their uncle’s room, found he had taken a blow to his head, and the attacker was fleeing. Two days later, Romano died from head trauma. His two nieces were able to give a description of the attacker: a dark-skinned, heavy-set man. Some were arrested, but released.

A pattern was forming. All of the attacks featured certain evidence that was alike each other: None of the valuables were taken, ruling out robbery. The weapons used were always hatchets or blades, usually owned by the victims. Panels of doors and windows were chiseled away at every crime scene. Most importantly, a majority of the victims were Italian.

 

Fear of the Axeman deepened, and a new wave of attacks and murders swept through New Orleans. The terror was palpable, and people began taking extraordinary measures to protect themselves and their families. Once, the Axeman put a notice in the newspaper telling people to play jazz music at night if they didn’t want to die. After a few months, the Axeman troubles calmed down, and the attacks stopped. That is, until March 10, 1919, when he struck again.

This time, the Axeman attacked in the small town of Gretna, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He attacked Charles Cortimiglia and his family, seriously injuring Charles and his wife, killing his two year daughter, Mary.

There is some controversy over what happened after the attack. Some say that his wife, Rosie, stayed in the hospital and claimed that their neighbors, Iorlando Jordano and his son, Frank, were responsible for the attack. Others say that the police investigators pressured her and arrested her as a material witness until she claimed that it was their neighbors who attacked them, making her sign an affidavit.

The police may have decided that their neighbors were guilty since they were both grocers, and were in the middle of a lawsuit. It was easier to accept two feuding Italian families rather than a murderer wandering the streets of Gretna.

Both Iorlando and Frank were found guilty; Iorlando was sentenced to life in prison, Frank was sentenced to hang. After the trial, Charles divorced his wife, Mary, and nine months later, Mary redacted her statement, saying she had been forced by the police to say that her neighbors had committed the crime.

In December 1920, both Iorlando and Frank walked free. At the same time, the real Axeman walked, too. We may never know who the Axeman was, but we know the torment he brought onto Italian immigrants of New Orleans.

What do you think happened? What do you know about the mysterious case of the Axeman?

 

The Axeman of New Orleans

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/axeman-new-orleans-preyed-italian-immigrants-180968037/