Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Axeman of New Orleans

The Devil

Superstitions around New Orleans were not uncommon, as depicted in the folklore accounts in Gumbo Ya Ya. People spoke of "Needle Men," who stabbed women into unconsciousness and carried them off. Then there were the "Black Bottle Men," who killed patients at the hospital and then gave the body over to medical students. More mysterious was the "Gown Man," who wore a long black gown and rode in a black car, looking for girls out alone. Some who feared him believed he was a malicious type of ghost. He was just as likely to jump out of a tree as pull up in his car, similar to the "Domino Man" in Gentilly, a New Orleans suburb. Wearing a white hooded robe, he'd leap in the midst of groups of girls and send them running.

Then in 1914, as reported in Gumbo Ya Ya, someone dubbed "Jack the Clipper" managed to cut off the locks of three school girls. More cases were reported and girls began to protect themselves. "Jack" vanished as quickly as he had come.

It was no surprise, then, when many New Orleans residents began to speak of the Axeman as a spirit, a devil in their midst, especially when one witness said they had seen him dressed in black, wearing a black slouch hat. He was tall and thin, like most good phantoms.

Journey into Darkness: Ghosts
and Vampires of New Orleans

It is partly for these reasons that Kalila Smith, New Orleans historian and author of Journey into Darkness: Ghosts and Vampires of New Orleans, collects tales about the Axeman. "I was interested because I wrote about vampire stories that had been documented in town," she explains, "and I was intrigued with statements from an eyewitness that the Axeman had disappeared as if he had wings. Then there was that letter about him being a spirit. They never found a murderer, and in some instances there was no sign of break-in. It was a mysterious rash of murders in the city, and I went with the idea, what if he wasn't actually human?

"New Orleans has a history of people going crazy. In the late 1800s, there was a voodoo craze, where people killed each other because they thought someone had put a spell on them. We've had periods like that. It's possible that these attacks could have been by someone who believed he was superhuman. Homicidally deranged people can have such delusions of grandeur. Yet he did make a dare that they wouldn't catch him, and they didn't. The murders were never solved. During the 1980s, when New Orleans was considered the murder capital of the country, I had hoped to write about these unsolved murders. But I think the story has gotten distorted by fiction writers and some of the facts are embellished. It's hard to know what really happened."

Yet there are some who say the Axeman was identified… and killed.

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