Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Axeman of New Orleans

From Hell

A sketch of the supposed likeness of Jack the Ripper, attacking a young woman (Corbis)
A sketch of the supposed like-
ness of Jack the Ripper, attack-
ing a young woman (Corbis)

In London in 1888, over a period of 10 weeks, a man brutally murdered five prostitutes, often cutting pieces out of them and taking them with him. He was never identified or caught, but several letters came to the police during the course of the killings, one of which was signed, Jack the Ripper. Another, which appeared to contain a piece of a kidney said to be from one of the victims, was unsigned. It simply said, "From Hell" and promised more violence.

The Axeman's Jazz
The Axeman's Jazz

Now, it seemed, the Axeman had written a similar missive. The letter is reprinted in total in Tallant's book, in Gumbo Ya Ya and in Julie Simon's novel The Axeman's Jazz (named after a whimsical song composed at the time).

Dated, "Hell, March 13, 1919," it said:

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a fell demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come again and claim other victims. I alone know who they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with the blood and brains of him whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police not to rile me. Of course I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigation in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to amuse not only me but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don't think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship to the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to visit New Orleans again. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of those people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and as it is about time that I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, and that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fantasy.

The Axeman

Whether a prank or the real thing, people took the letter seriously. It's been said that, while the residents of the "Big Easy" will use any excuse for a party, there has never been a louder, more raucous evening than that St. Joseph's Night on March 19. One host issued the Axeman an invitation, promising him "four scalps," but insisting he abide by protocol. He could come through an open bathroom window, so would he please leave the door alone?

And no one was murdered that night.

Around this time, in April, Louis Besumer went on trial, but now the war was over and no one cared if he was a spy. The coroner testified that only a man much stronger than Besumer could have inflicted on himself the wounds that Besumer had, so the jury took 10 minutes to acquit him of the murder of his common law wife.

Then on August 10, another Italian grocer suffered an ordeal. While he slept, Steve Boca was hit with an axe. He stumbled from his home to get help from a friend. Although Boca recovered, he had no memory of the details of the attack. A panel had been chiseled from his door and the axe left in his kitchen. Nothing had been taken.

Then three weeks later on September 3, the Axeman (or someone) gained entry to the home of Sarah Laumann, but not through a door panel. The 19-year-old girl was found unconscious in her bed, with multiple wounds to her head. A bloody axe was left outside an open window.

The next victim was Mike Pepitone on October 27. During the early morning hours, his wife heard a struggle in her husband's room, which was adjacent to hers. She rushed in, nearly colliding with a man fleeing the scene. Mike lay in his own blood, and the weapon of attack clearly had been an axe. It was left behind on the back porch. Once again, a panel had been cut from the door.

Their daughter ran for the police, summoning Deputy Ben Corcoran, who found Mrs. Pepitone standing over her husband. "It looks like the Axeman was here and murdered Mike," she commented. They transported him to Charity Hospital, where he died.

Mrs. Pepitone claimed that she had seen two men in her home, not just one, and both had been large. After attacking her husband, both had fled, taking nothing with them. Oddly, there were eight people in the house at the time, yet the attackers had not been intimidated by the possibility of being identified. Another odd thing was that Mrs. Pepitone had never screamed and as she answered questions posed by the police, she did not appear to be distraught.

A newspaper, the States, offered a speculation about the killer, wondering whether he was a fiend, a madman, a robber, a sadist or some supernatural entity. It was a question that others were asking as well. People had noticed that the door panels removed from each crime scene were too small for a grown man to get through. Nor could he have reached in to unlock the doors, and anyway, the doors were always found locked. How did he get in and out…unless he was other than human?

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