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How the 'Axeman of New Orleans' Terrorised a City and Escaped the Law

Legend has it that residents tried using jazz to appease the serial killer, but not before he claimed the lives of local Italian grocers.

Seth Ferranti

Seth Ferranti

It was during a conversation with her brother about a decade ago that Miriam C. Davis first grew fixated on one of the more finicky serial killers in American history. In contrast with modern super-villains like the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized in part because they seemed capable of striking anyone at any time, this boogieman favored a very particular kind of victim: Italian grocers.

The Axeman of New Orleans, as the killer is most commonly known, was believed to have attacked roughly a dozen people in the Big Easy during the second decade of the 20th century, killing several. His reign of terror has enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, with the character factoring into season three of American Horror Story, Rick Geary's graphic novel The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, and fictional takes like Ray Celestin's The Axeman Jazz. But local songwriter J.J. Davilla first helped popularize his crimes way back in 1919 when he penned the song, "The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)." While attacks on immigrants and their descendants weren't exactly unusual at this time in American life, the Axeman's brutality quickly became the stuff of legend.

In her new book The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story, Davis tries to get past the pop culture phenomenon to learn the facts of the case—which was never solved by police. VICE recently chatted with her for a sense of how the murders paralyzed the city's inhabitants, why some residents played loud jazz music at night in hopes of avoiding his wrath, and whether the mafia factored into this grisly American story.

Here's what she had to say.

VICE: How did the Axeman first emerge in New Orleans?

Miriam C. Davis: Although the attacks began in the fall of 1910, it was not until June 1911 that one of them was fatal and Joe Davi died. Then the Axeman (or "the Cleaver" as he was known in 1910-1911) disappeared for six years. It was when he returned—beginning with his murder of the Maggios in May 1918 and culminating with his brutal attack on Charlie and Rose Cortimiglia and murder of their little daughter Mary in March 1919—that the Axeman had New Orleanians thoroughly terrorized.

Because this is New Orleans, jazz factored into the popular lore almost from the start, right?
On March 16, just a week after the attack on the Cortimiglia family, the Times-Picayune published a letter that purported to be by the Axeman. Calling himself, "a fell demon from hottest hell," he claimed to also be a lover of jazz. He said that on the next Tuesday night he would walk the city looking for a victim, and that any residents who were listening to a jazz band would be safe. In Ready to Hang, Robert Tallant said that night "in New Orleans seems to have been the loudest and most hilarious of any on record." Contemporaneous sources indicate that while some certainly partied the night away listing to jazz, the more superstitious were really frightened, and most people ignored the letter. No one was attacked that night.

How tough was it to separate fact from fiction in reporting this book given the propensity for urban legends to run wild at the time and the decades that have passed?
In some ways, it was surprisingly easy: By not relying on Robert Tallant's version, which was an amalgam of a sprinkling of the newspaper accounts that he'd apparently dug up, and of what I suspect was oral history, I got back to the original sources, or at least as close to the original sources as I was going to come: all of the newspaper accounts—New Orleans had at least three or four different newspapers at the time—the homicide records, arrest reports, coroner's reports, census reports, draft registration cards, death and marriage records and one three-volume transcript of a case appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

At the same time, I tried to track down anything else anyone had written on the Axeman or on Italians in New Orleans that I hoped would elucidate the case, including a number of unpublished theses and dissertations. Sometimes verifying details was difficult, especially if the newspaper accounts didn't agree. For major aspects of the crimes, I've looked for general agreement between the main sources like newspapers and homicide reports, although in some cases I had to make choices about which seemed more likely, just to keep up the narrative going.

Talk a little bit about how this guy worked. What made him tick?
The first Axeman attack seemed almost tentative. The second, on the Rissettos, was certainly worse, but it took him three tries before he managed to kill someone, grocer Joe Davi. And his murder of Davi was certainly cruel. Davi's face was battered with a weapon consistent with a butcher's cleaver, and his brains literally beaten out of his skull. The attack was so brutal that the force of the blows knocked a 15-degree angle into the mattress. When the killer returned to New Orleans after an absence of six years, his second set of victims were the Maggios in May 1918.

With Joe Maggio, the Axeman indulged almost in overkill. He hit him a couple of times with an axe, fracturing his skull, and then cut his throat....Catherine's throat was cut and she drowned in her own blood. After that, the Axeman always left at least one person dead or dying, hitting his victim(s) on the head and face with an axe.

You make a case in the book that it was tough to untangle the Axeman's killings from organized crime. But killing people with an axe seemingly at random doesn't strike me as mafia activity, exactly.
Several of the murders that were attributed to the Axeman were, I argue in my book, more likely to have been the result of Italian criminal violence. At the time, there was no New Orleans "Mafia" in the way it is popularly understood today—that is, no highly sophisticated, or really even highly-organized criminal organization, although New Orleanians certainly believed one existed. There was "Black Hand" crime, a form of blackmail peculiar to Italian immigrants perpetuated by various gangs.

There were certainly vendettas between different groups of Italians who were reluctant to take their difficulties to the police. I think the murder of Tony Sciambra and his wife and that of Mike Pepitone can be best understood in that context. Italian criminal gangs, or the "Mafia," it you want to call them that, usually handled their problems with a gun or a bomb, not at axe. Pepitone, despite what Tallant wrote, was not killed with an axe. And Italian gangsters in New Orleans didn't usually attack women or children. Mary Sciambra was shot accidentally, while her husband Tony was deliberately targeted.

This killer only went after a very specific group—Italian grocers—though, right?
I think you have to understand the social situation of Italians in New Orleans in the early 20th century: In the late 19th and early 20th century, Italians (about 80 percent of whom were Sicilians) were brought into Louisiana and Mississippi to work in the cotton and sugarcane fields. They didn't fit in very well to the black-white dichotomy of the segregationist South. They were not black, but were also considered not-quite-white. And most of them weren't content to stay laborers. These immigrants tended to work very hard, live on little, save every dime and go into business for themselves as soon as they could, often starting as peddlers or fruit vendors.

By the time of the Axeman of New Orleans crimes, 1910-1919, Italian grocers were in the process of taking over the corner grocery niche in New Orleans. Some Italians were doing even better, like Antonio Monteleone, a Sicilian immigrant who became one of the wealthiest men in the city. I think the Axeman crimes are probably best understood as a native-born white laborer (eyewitness accounts confirm this) who had some grudge against the Italians who were leaving day labor behind to become small businessmen, possibly out of social envy or anxiety. Or he could have been a burglar who was sent to jail by an Italian grocer. But we know he was white and we know he attacked Italian grocers.

Did any victims break from the Italian grocer type?
In my book, I show that when you look carefully at the evidence of these cases—the attack on Louis Besumer and Harriet Lowe, and attacks on Mary Schneider and Sarah Laumann—they were not Axeman attacks at all. They don't fit his pattern. The Besumer-Lowe incident looks more like a case of domestic violence, and the attacks on the young women look more like interrupted burglaries.

Finally, I have to ask about your general interest in serial killers. I'm obsessed with them, and it seems like there's a new TV show or movie appealing to that crowd every month. But what makes these despicable figures so compelling?
Part of it is the idea that someone who can appear to be normal can be so evil underneath. Initially, I was fascinated by Ted Bundy because I envisioned him as someone who led a perfectly normal, successful life who had another, secret life as a killer. From what I've since learned about serial killers, once you scratch beneath the surface even a little bit, they are not so normal. Bundy, for example, had a history as a petty thief.

The BTK Killer, who murdered ten people over a 17-year period, turned out to be Dennis Rader—family man, city employee and church leader. But John Douglas, a retired FBI profiler, thought that Rader's wife probably noticed ways in which he was "off" and that if the police had released information about the likely personal characteristics of BTK, the wife or other members of his family might have recognized him. Criminologist Scott Bonn argues that the media glamorizes serial killers in movies such as Silence of the Lambs. He also thinks that society "presents [the serial killer] as a monster in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible nature of his crimes."

I think there is some truth in all of this, but basically I think human beings are fascinated with evil.

Learn more about Davis's book, which drops Wednesday, March 1, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.