Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Axeman of New Orleans

Jekyll and Hyde

Book cover: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Book cover: Dr. Jekyll &
Mr. Hyde

In 1886, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson had published the tale of an upstanding citizen who takes a secret elixir that changes him into a rampaging madman. Inspired by a dream, the tale follows the monster's attacks. No one suspects Dr. Jekyll, who is in fact guilty, since by all appearances he's a normal professional man. The short book created an international sensation, and over a century later it is still referenced when investigators want to describe someone who appears to function with two opposing personalities—one good and the other evil. They had heard about it in New Orleans.

Detective Joseph Dantonio, who had investigated the axe murders in 1911 and then subsequently retired, made reference to this type of person when interviewed by the local papers.

"Students of crime," he said, "have established that a criminal of the dual personality type may be a respectable, law-abiding citizen… Then suddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it." To Dantonio's mind, the recent spate of attacks was linked to those that he had investigated. He believed the man could have lived respectably for a decade and then suddenly had the impulse again. What that meant to people who followed this line of thought was that the killer was more or less invisible, living and working right alongside his potential victims, and no one would be the wiser. In fact, there seemed to be something almost supernatural about his ability to get in and out of places, and even to be seen without a single victim recalling any clear details. It wasn't possible to go arrest a "dark, looming figure."

Yet he did not show himself for the rest of the year. New Orleans eventually settled into its normal routines. Months went by without a report of the Axeman. People wondered if he might have left the area, or if his murderous agenda had been fulfilled. World War I ended and their thoughts turned to other concerns. They were soon to find out that their assumptions about their local killer were wrong.

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