The Weekly LSA

The Case Chase Episode 1

The Case Chase Episode 1

By Tanika Kline

Welcome to a new series of articles that will be published in the weekly La Trobe LSA newsletter. The series will follow true crime cases and present for easy reading.

The cases may include offences that may be disturbing to some readers, so read with discretion. Any cases and the people mentioned in them are done so with respect and for the purpose of education.

This week’s case will be THE AXEMAN OF NEW ORLEANS.

The person dubbed the Axeman was responsible for a spree of murders between 1918 and 1919, attacking their victims with their own axe. On first appearances, the crime scenes appeared to be robberies gone wrong; as he would break in through the houses’ back doors using a chisel, but nothing was ever taken from the homes.

 

The Victims:

The Axeman’s victims were mainly from Italian backgrounds or Italian immigrants, possibly implying a racial motive. The murders became a local media sensation with the Mafia attempting to claim responsibility for them, however there was never any evidence that this was true. Victims were both male and female, yet police believe that the men were only killed for attempting to protecting the women.

There are twelve known victims thought to be connected to the Axeman.

Joseph and Catherine Maggio, an Italian grocer and his wife, killed as they slept on the night of the 22nd of May 1918. The couple sustained fatal lacerations to their necks, Catherine’s injuries were so bad that her head was barely attached to her body. The Axeman then then took the Maggio’s own axe and continued the attack. The killer’s bloody clothes were found in the Maggio’s home. No money or valuables were taken from the victims’ home.  The bloody axe was found in the couple’s backyard and the straight razor was later found in the neighbour’s property. The blade belonged to Joseph’s brother, Andrew, a barber who lived next doors to the victims. Andrew was home the night of the murders but claimed he didn’t hear anything until he’s brother’s dying groans woke him up two hours after the brutal attacks. No actions were taken against Andrew as police could not disprove his statement that he had not heard the murders because he was intoxicated and his account of an unknown man lurking near the Maggio home prior to the killings. Nor could they prove that Andrew had been the one who used the razor in the attacks.

Louis Besumer and Harriet Lowe were seriously injured in the early hours of the 27th of June 1918. The pair were found in Louis’ living corners of his bakery, when a deliveryman noticed the bakery closed and a panel of the back door had been chiselled off. Louis suffered a strike to the right temple and Harriet had been struck above the ear, both by the same axe. The axe belonged to Louis and was later found covered in blood in the bathroom of the property. The couple were found barely alive as they laid in their own blood. Harriet’s injuries were far worse than Louis’s. Yet again, no money or belongings were taken from the property, ruling out robbery as a motive. A man employed by Louis a week prior, Lewis Oubicon, was arrested for the attacks but was later released on the grounds of no evidence.

While being treated in hospital, Harriet alleged that Louis was a German spy and when she had confronted him about it, Louis attacked her with the axe. The police found letters in Louis’s apartment written in foreign languages, so they arrested him. Only for Louis to be later released and the officers who arrested him were demoted for falsely accusing Louis of being a German spy. Harriet died just days after making the statement and 7 weeks after the Axeman attack. Police then arrest Louis again, this time charging him with murder. Louis served 9 months in prison, before being acquitted when his case was appealed.

Anna Schneider, a 28-year-old woman was attacked the night of the 5th of August 1918. She was 8 months pregnant at the time that she woken by a person lurking over her who then hit her repeatedly over the head. Anna was found covered in blood by her husband when he returned from work. Her entire body was covered in lacerations, but her attacker had particularly targeted her face. Anna was missing most of her teeth and had cuts all over her face and scalp. Despite Anna’s horrendous injuries, she gave birth to a healthy baby days after the attack. Nothing was taken from the house and Anna claimed she didn’t remember the attack. There were no signs of forced entry, no weapon was found leading to police hypothesising that Anna was hit with a bedside lamp rather than an axe. An ex-convict, James Gleason was arrested following the attack because he ran from police. Gleason said that he ran from police because he had been in and out of jail all his life and had become wary of police because of this. Gleason was soon released due to insufficient evidence.

Joseph Romano, an elderly man attacked on the 10th August 1918 and died 2 days later. The victim had sustained a blow to the head, by an axe found in the property’s backyard. A suspect was seen running from the scene. Romano’s home had been ransacked and a panel had been chiselled off the back door but once again nothing was taken from the home. After this attack, police had decided they were dealing with a serial attacker. The story gained the public’s attention and soon the police were inundated with alleged sighting of men walking around the city carrying axes but each time police followed leads, but they all ended up being dead ends. As the story gained attention, the Axeman’s attacks seemed to stop, and it wasn’t until 9 months after Joseph Romano’s death that someone else was allegedly attacked by the Axeman.

Charles, Rose and their daughter Mary Cortimiglia were attacked by an intruder on the 10th March 1919. A nearby neighbour, Charles, heard screams coming from the family’s home. When the neighbour entered the house, Rosie was stumbling towards them covered in blood from a head injury and holding her dead daughter. Rose had been holding her daughter as they laid in bed when they were attacked. While Charles was found slumped on the floor of the bedroom with injuries to his head also. Nothing had been stolen from the house and the intruder had entered through the back door where a panel had been chiselled off. The axe used in the attack was found at the back of the house. After losing her daughter, people believed Rose to have gone insane. During police questioning Rose accused the neighbour, a frail 69-year-old man. When police questioned her further about neighbour and his inability to pick up an axe, she then also accused the neighbour’s son. However, police weren’t convinced as the intruder had gotten into the house through a small panel in the back door and neighbour’s son was over 6 feet tall and wouldn’t have fit through the hole. At the same time, Rose’s husband was denying anything his wife was saying to be true. Despite this, police charged both neighbours with murder. Charles was sentenced with life in prison and his son was sentenced to death. It was only once Charles divorced Rose that she withdrew he allegations and the men were released.

Steve Boca was attacked as he slept on the 10th of August 1919. He woke in the night to find his attacker standing over him before he was struck over the head by the axe-wielding man. Once regaining consciousness, Steve managed to crawl to a neighbour for help. Steve survived but had no recollection of the attack. Once again, a panel had been chiselled off the back door and nothing had been stolen.

Sarah Laumann, a 19-year-old woman was attacked at night on the 3rd of September 1919. She had sustained a serious head injury from a blunt weapon and was missing several teeth. In this instance the attacker had climbed in through an open window and the bloody weapon was discovered on the front lawn of the property. There is room for speculation as to whether it was the Axeman who attacked Sarah or a copycat as the attack hadn’t chiselled their way in like in other attacks.

Mike Pepitone had hit over the head with an axe as he slept on the 27th of October 1919. His wife, Ester, had been asleep in the living room when she heard the attack. When she reached the bedroom where her husband slept, she saw two intruders leaving the scene. Mike had been hit with the axe 18 times and died at the scene. When police arrived, they noted that Ester seemed unusually calm. These leads to more speculation as to whether this was another copycat murder. There had never been reports of axemen only of one Axeman and no other victim of the Axeman had been struck so many times. Either way, Mike is considered the last known victim of the Axeman of New Orleans.

 

The letter:

The only defining characteristic known of the Axeman was that he may have been a fan of jazz music. A letter thought to be written by the Axeman himself was published in newspapers. In the letter, the Axeman wrote;

“I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared whose home a jazz band is in full swing… if everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people.”

And so, on the night of the 19th of March, just like the Axeman had described, every dance hall, house and street in New Orleans was packed the people of New Orleans as they listened to jazz bands perform.

However, with the publicity that surrounded the Axeman and his possible attacks, many think this letter was a hoax. Hoax or not, the night of the 19th of March 1919 all lives were spared.

 

Who could be the axeman?

The Axeman was never caught, and a century later there are still no answers. Only to add to mystery of the attacks, one day they just simply stopped.

There is no evidence that robbery was a motive. He would break into the house only to attack and not steal anything. Or maybe the motive was racial. Piecing together the similarities in attacks, the police found that victims were either Italian immigrants or from Italian heritage who owned businesses and were quite successful.

Some people point fingers at the mafia, and some think the many of the supposed Axeman victims were attacked by copycat killers. However, there is only one theory that points to a particular person as the Axeman.

Mike Pepitone’s wife remarried after his death and on the 2-year anniversary of his death, her second husband went missing. Soon after the disappearance, Joseph Momfre who had done deals with Ester’s missing husband showed up. Momfre demanded Ester pay him $500 and her jewellery. In the hostile situation Easter went to retrieve her jewellery only to return with a gun that she then used to shoot and kill Joseph Momfre. When Easter was arrested for murder, she told police she killed him because Joseph Momfre was Mike Pepitone’s murderer.

Upon investigating Momfre, police discovered a colourful criminal record. He had been a member of gang that targeted Italian people. Momfre had also been in and out of jail throughout his life and the times when he had been released lined up with the Axeman attacks. However, that’s where the evidence against Momfre ends.

And so it seems the Axeman of New Orleans will never be solved.

 

Are you a sucker for true crime stories? If you have any case suggestions be sure to send them to publications@latrobelsa.com

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