To get us in the Halloween spirit, Benjamin Morris looks back at some of the city’s spookiest unsolved crimes—those committed by the Axman of New Orleans.
Serial killers, it seems, are back in the public imagination. With the recent publication of Murder in the Bayou, the broadcast of the documentary Bayou Blue, and the popular television series True Detective and American Horror Story, local appetites for the gruesome face a continual feast. At the time of year when the macabre becomes normal and the grisly mundane—as well as when local residents rack their brains and their closets for ideas for costumes—the opportunity to delve into New Orleans’ sordid past to whet those appetites is difficult to pass up. Indeed, its three long centuries give the Crescent City a rich trove of crimes from which to draw, but in the history of spectacular murders, one still stands out: the Axman of New Orleans.
The story has been told many times, with varying levels of sensationalism and care, but digging past the melodrama does yield a story that thrills and chills, even today. The basic facts are this: that beginning in May 1918, with the murders of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, an unidentified assailant terrorized the city’s populace with a series of gory, violent killings that would ultimately last for the next year and a half. Conducted typically in the dead of night, when the victims were asleep in their beds, these murders induced a level of public frenzy and fear rarely seen here in the Crescent City.
Characteristic of a serial killer’s methods, certain telltale aspects marked each case. First and foremost was the signature murder weapon, usually the victim’s own axe, and usually discarded nearby, drenched in blood. Second was the point of entry: In most cases, the killer chiseled away a panel from a back or side door and slipped into the victim’s bedroom from there. Third was the apparent lack of any other motive save murder, as valuables were rarely disturbed. And fourth was the dominant ancestry of the killer’s victims: Italian Americans (particularly grocers and merchants) comprised the majority of the targets, suggesting either a racial vendetta or inside jobs within a tightly-knit ethnic community. Those victims that did survive his attacks could only offer incomplete or contradictory testimonies, and despite their best efforts, police remained unable to stem the tide of blood.
At this point, the story could occupy the darker corners of human history in any city, were it not for one surprising turn: a letter that appeared in the Times-Picayune in March 1919, shortly after an attack on the Cartimiglia family of Gretna, from a writer who claimed to be the Axman himself. Startling for many reasons (not least that the sender claimed to be not human but an infernal being, and the address line was listed as “Hell” itself), most surprising of all was the killer’s admission of his fondness for, of all things, jazz—a music, which, in 1919, was still to some degree in its infancy. Near the end of his letter, he avows:
“[At] 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night [March 19, 1919], 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 on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.”
With public hysteria renewed by the appearance of this letter, residents packed barrooms and restaurants to play and listen to jazz. True to his word, no murders took place that Tuesday, and New Orleans would in fact see a lull until the killings resumed again that August. After a few final attacks, exhibiting largely the same pattern as before, they ceased for good in October 1919, with the Axman’s grand total yielding over a dozen assaults and six murders over 18 months. To date, the case has spawned numerous investigations, from historical inquiries to novels and comic books, and has yielded theories ranging from Mafia connections to supernatural entities—but even despite the appearance of fresh evidence, it still remains unsolved.
As any local guide will attest, New Orleans has no shortage of grisly murders or sordid stories to amuse tourists, amateur historians, or aesthetes of the arcane and awful. One may thus wonder why the the Axman specifically compels us. Perhaps what separates the Axman’s story from so many of the others, however, is not just the public frenzy and the terror, but the corresponding cultural response as well. For only in New Orleans would—before the presence of an avowed agent of death and destruction, sworn to slaughter all it saw fit—someone such as composer Joseph John Davilla go and write a song for it, a song that would not only satisfy the bizarre demands of this agent, but actually turn out as a remarkably accomplished tune in its own right.
Art in response to death, or art as the only proper response to death: Such is second nature in this city, whether it faces disease, disaster, or human horror. With this in mind, on your travels throughout the city this All Hallows’ Eve, perhaps whistle a few bars of the Axman’s jazz as you go, just in case he happens to be not too far away. It’s a small gesture, to be sure, but it might just be worth more than you know.