Axeman of New Orleans

From Academic Kids

The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer active in New Orleans, Louisiana (and surrounding communities, including Gretna, Louisiana), from May 1918 to October 1919. Press reports during the height of public panic about the killings mentioned similar murders as early as 1911, but recent researchers have called these reports into question.

As the killer's name implies, the victims were attacked with an axe. In some of the crimes, the doors to the victim's homes were first bashed open with the same tool. "The Axeman" was not caught or identified at the time, although his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed.

Not all of the Axeman's victims died, but the savagery and utter randomness of his attacks terrorized much of the populace. Some early victims were Italian American, in particular the son of Pietro Pepitone who had killed Black Hand extortionist Paul Di Christina (Paulo Marchese) several years before, leading the newspapers to assume the killings were somehow Mafia related (similar to New York's Black Hand assassin "Shotgun Man"). However later crimes clearly did not fit this profile, and the apprehension of the general public grew. His victims included a pregnant woman and even a baby killed in the arms of its mother. The Axeman also seemed to draw direct inspiration from Jack the Ripper: he (or someone claiming to be the Axeman) wrote taunting letters to city newspapers hinting at his future crimes and claiming to be a supernatural demon "from Hell."

Most notoriously, on March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in the newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans's dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

Not everyone was intimidated by the Axeman. Some well armed citizens sent the newspaper invitations for the Axeman to visit their houses that night and see who got killed first. One invitation promised to leave a window open for the Axeman, politely asking that he not damage the front door.

Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been Joseph Mumfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim. Pepitone's widow, who served only three years for the killing, claimed to recognize Mumfre as the man she saw fleeing her home the night she discovered her husband's body. Though there is no direct proof of Mumfre's guilt, Wilson notes that Mumfre was in jail during all of the Axeman's "dormant" periods (including the period from 1912-1918), and free at all times the Axeman struck.

The Axeman in popular culture

In 1919 local tune writer Joseph John Davilla wrote the song "The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)". Published by New Orleans based World's Music Publishing Company, the cover depicted a family playing music with frightened looks on their faces.

In 1945 the book Gumbo Ya-Ya, A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales came out. The popular book contained a chapter on the Axeman entitled "Axeman's Jazz", which helped spark renewed interest in the Axeman. The book also reproduced the cover of the 1919 sheet music.

Writer Julie Smith used a fictionalized version of the Axeman events in her 1991 novel The Axeman's Jazz.

The Axeman killings are also referred to in the short story Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz by Poppy Z. Brite, published in 1997.

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