Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Axeman of New Orleans

The Black Hand

Canal Street in New Orleans (Corbis)
Canal Street in New Orleans

About a block away from the small grocery store where the Maggios were murdered, two detectives came across a strange message, written on the sidewalk in chalk: "Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney." They carefully copied it (although different sources report the wording differently. One says, "Just write Mrs. Toney," but the newspapers report it as the former statement.) The writing resembled that of a schoolboy and it seemed an important clue, but at that moment, no one was sure what to make of it. Some said that it had been written by an accomplice to warn the killers that Mrs. Maggio was on guard. After some digging, they eventually spotted a possible connection to earlier crimes in the area.

In 1911, seven years earlier, there had been either two or three incidents of horrendous axe murders (depending on whose account one reads. One crime writer, Michael Newton, claims that there is no record of any of these deaths. However, it was printed in the newspaper in 1918, described by the retired detective who had been involved in the investigations.) The supposed targets were Italian grocers. Since all of the couples had been grocers, Italian, asleep in bed, and killed with an axe after a break-in through a panel in the back door, it seemed that there must be a link, although all three incidents went unsolved. According to reports, which could be nothing more than folklore, detectives puzzled over the names from the scribbled message to try to discern a connection.

According to Tallant, the first victim's name was Cruti (no wife), the second Rosetti (killed with his wife), and the third Schiambra (also killed with his wife). This latter man's first name was Tony, so Tallant says the police wondered if it had some connection with the "Mrs. Toney" of the enigmatic chalk message. Perhaps it was the women, rather than the men, who were targeted.

It wasn't long before people in the Italian community began to talk about a possible connection with the Mafia. These people had been Italian, and perhaps they had not paid their "dues." Perhaps they'd borrowed money and then failed to meet their obligations. The Mafia was known to teach people lessons for such perceived effrontery. A few Italian citizens of New Orleans requested police protection. Some whispered about an organization called "The Black Hand," a Mafia splinter group believed in 1911 to have been responsible for that spate of killings.

Police Chief David Hennessy, sketch
Police Chief David Hennessy,

There was a time in New Orleans when organized crime was a dominant force, to the point where much blood had been shed. In 1890, a group of Mafia assassins were believed to have gunned down Police Chief David Hennessy, as described in Gumbo Ya Ya, just steps from his home. Supposedly he'd arrested a Mafia leader and had threatened to expose the criminal records of others at an approaching trial. They could not allow him to testify. Suspects were arrested, but at their trials jury members were threatened and bribed, so one by one each of the men got off. The citizens of New Orleans were incensed at the outcome. They formed a mob, marched on the prison to find those who were left inside, and lynched 11 men that they believed were responsible for the crime. This was done to make a statement to organized crime rather than to exact justice against specific men. The citizens were tired of being pushed around and having their elected officials endangered or corrupted.

However, organized crime remained, and the Black Hand was still a secretive force in 1911. The society was so named because those who did not comply with its demands received notes imprinted with a black hand to warn them of terrible reprisals. Many Italians were expected to give up portions of their wages to this criminal group, and if they didn't, they were repeatedly harassed and even killed. It was believed that the Black Hand offered an assassination school for those who swore loyalty to the society, and there they learned how to intimidate people. While many said that the Black Hand had been squashed with a series of trials in the Midwest in 1907, the Italian community feared that members were still at large. Since the murder of the Maggios was so similar to the 1911 series, there was talk of the resurgence of organized crime, and those rumors would grow and get worse as more events occurred.

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