The Axman

Perhaps the most fright-invoking and horror causing serial killer in American history, was the Axman who stalked and victimized more than seventy years ago in New Orleans. He would roam the streets at night, smashing in the skulls of men and women with an axe, occasionally slashing their throats afterwards with a sharp razor. Tales say he chopped his way and hacked through walls and doors to get to his victims, in their own home or stores. His terrible doings may have started years before he gained national attention, but the first widely reported case was that of the brutal killing of Joseph and Catherine Maggio. His brother, Jake had been awakened before dawn on May 23, 1918 by a thumping noise and moaning on the other side of the wall where Joseph and Catherine slept. They ran a tavern and grocery store. Jake woke up his other brother, Andrew, and they went over to investigate. They found a scene of Joseph and his wife in pools of blood, with their heads cleaved open and Catherine's throat slit open. They found the bloody axe lying in the bathtub and a straight razor on the bed next to the victims. A neighbor reported to police that Andrew entered Joseph's house earlier and so police arrested him and Jake. A barber who worked for Andrew reported he had seen his boss take the razor away from their shop. Jake was released after interrogation, but Andrew was kept in custody. Andrew said he took the razor home to hone a nick out of it and he admitted getting drunk the night before and coming home late, but with no evidence, police reluctantly released him.

The local press revealed that New Orleans had been rocked by and epidemic of unsolved ax murders of Italian grocers in 1911. The wives of two of the victims had been murdered along with their husbands. When modern crime historians checked out those shoking headlines decades later, there were no records of the reported 1911 ax murders in police homicide files, coroner's reports or newspaper obituaries. The only name matching those of the victims in obituaries was Mary Rosetti, and she reportedly died of a natural cause.

Almost two weeks after the Maggio's deaths, on June 6, 1918, the Axman struck again. A deliveryman preparing to drop off bread and cakes at a small grocery store, run by Louis Besumer and his live-in companion, divorcee Anna Lowe, found the door locked. Curious about this, he checked the side door, and found a panel chiseled out. He pounded on the door to be greeted moments later by Besumer, whose face was bloody and he was staggering in pain. He didn't speak but he pointed towards the bedroom, where the deliveryman found Anna on the bed, bleeding from several ax wounds but still alive. The bloody axe used in this attack was found inside the house. Besumer who recovered, was unable to give police a description of the attacker. During a brief period of consciousness, Anna told police that Besumer was a German spy, and she died seven weeks after the attack, but not before identifying Besumer as the attacker. It seemed to homicide investigators that the attack was part of a quarrel turned violent, staged to mimic the Maggio murders. Besumer was arrested and charged with Anna's murder. He was tried and the jury found him not guilty.

In New Orleans, the mysterious axe murders continued. On August 10, Joseph Romano was found by his nieces covered with blood with skull cracked open. They glimpsed at a sight of a stranger wearing a black hat, fleeing from the house. Romano died a few hours later. Panic spread throughout New Orleans, and innocent men were chased down and beaten by frightened residents, for no other reason than their bad luck of being in strange neighborhoods. Police were deluged with reports of suspicious strangers, and sales of metal grates for doors and windows, skyrocketed. Men, especially grocers, sometimes stayed up all night with shotguns. The next attack was on March 10, 1919, followed by one on September 3. At about 1:30 a.m. on October 27, Deputy Ben Corcoran was walking home after his shift when an 11-year old girl rushed out of her house and screamed that her father was all bloody. Inside the combination home/grocery store, Corcoran found Mike Pepitone, his body chopped to pieces with an axe and his wife and six children gathered around him. He died a short time later at Charity Hospital. Pepitone's murder apparently ended the Axmen's terrible attacks. On December 2, 1920, Joseph Mumfre, a former New Orleans hoodlum and thief, was shot to death on a Los Angeles street corner by a veiled woman dressed in black. The woman, captured at the scene, was identified as the widow of Mike Pepitone. At her trial, Mrs. Pepitone claimed Mumfre was the killer of her husband. She was convicted and sentenced to 10 years, but was released after 3. The police were satisfied to accept that Mumfre was the Axman, whose record shows he was released from prison days before the first axe murder. But no one had ever explained why he focused his attacks on grocers, usually Italian. And it was never discovered how Mrs.Pepitone was able to track him down nearly 2,000 miles away to deliver her vengeance.

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