Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Axeman of New Orleans

The Next Attack

It had been two weeks since the Maggios were killed and the city was settling down again.  Then on June 6 (Newton says June 28), John Zanca took a delivery of bread to one of his customers, a grocery store owner named Louis Besumer (or Besemer), when he found the store on Dorgenois and La Harpe streets locked up tight.  That was unusual.  Mr. Besumer, 59 and a native of Poland, was always up early, waiting for his bread.

Zanca went around to the side door to knock.  He heard movement inside, which relieved him.  But then Besumer opened the door, and Zanca was shocked to see that his face was covered in blood.  Besumer said that someone had attacked him, and he pointed with a shaking hand toward the bedroom.  Zanca went to look and found Besumer's wife on the bed (whom, it turned out, was actually his mistress), covered with a blood-soaked sheet.  She had a terrible head wound and bloody barefoot prints led away from the bed to a swatch of false hair.

Zanca wanted to call the police, but Besumer tried to stop him, wishing instead to call his private physician.  However, Zanca contacted the police and asked for an ambulance for both victims.

Once again, investigators found that the entry was made by prying out a panel of the back door with a wood chisel, and once again, a rusty hatchet was the murder weapon.  It belonged to Besumer and was found in the bathroom.  However, Besumer was not Italian and had lived in the city only three months.  Despite the fact that he was conscious and alive, he was unable to give a description of either the attack or the attacker.  The victim, Anna Harriett Lowe, 28, was taken to the hospital.

Suspicion fell on a black man who had been in Besumer's employ for the past week.  He was arrested, and although he told conflicting stories, he was released.

Then Anna, before she succumbed to her wounds and died, gave several stories.  First she said she'd been attacked by a "mulatto."  Then she changed her story and accused Besumer of hitting her with an axe and of being part of a German conspiracy—that he was, in fact, a spy.  During this time of apprehension about the war, it was a believable premise.  The newspapers printed a tale that trunks filled with secret papers were found in Besumer's home, that his grocery store might be a front to cover his affairs, and that he had letters written in German, Russian, and Yiddish.  He also had opiates, and a neighbor said that he and his wife were drug addicts.  Federal authorities came in to investigate, but the local police wondered if the estranged couple wasn't just saying things to hurt each other.

When Besumer got out of the hospital, he admitted that Anna was not his wife, though he was living with her.  He then asked to be assigned to investigate his own case.  That made the police suspicious, since Besumer was a grocer, not a police officer.  Obvious to them was the fact that he wanted to keep something quiet.  They began to think that the attack was the result of a private, if bloody, domestic quarrel, and Besumer had simply concocted the tale of an attack.  Although fingerprinting was used in criminal investigations at the time, no one dusted for prints in the Besumer or Maggio homes.  There is no mention of what they did with the bloody footprints, although at one point, both Lowe and Besumer said that they had walked across the floor after being attacked.

They arrested Besumer for murder.  Yet he was clearly not the New Orleans Axeman.

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