Esther and the Axeman

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First the Axeman

Axeman of New Orleans
Axeman of New Orleans

New Orleans in 1918-1919 was held captive by a man known only as the Axeman.  This serial killer would break into the homes of Italian grocers and kill them with their own axes or straight razors.  Depending on what sources you read he injured or killed up to 12 people, and then just disappeared. Or he possibly moved to Birmingham Alabama where there were more than 20 people slain by an Axeman, most of the immigrant grocery store owners.

Immigration to Louisiana from Italy, mostly Sicilians began after the Civil War.  A lot of the African American former slaves moved up north or off the plantations to farm for themselves or work where they could make more money.  A new labor force was needed to tend the cotton and sugar cane fields.  The Sicilians turned out to be almost ideal.  They were hard workers, needed little to live on and saved their money.  The main problem was as soon as they saved enough money, they left to start their own businesses. 

Cart Peddler in New Orleans
Cart Peddler in New Orleans

Giuseppe Uddo was one of the more famous of these.  He immigrated from Italy in 1907 worked the fields for a while and then began selling from a horse-drawn cart.  He then started Progresso Foods beginning with canned Italian foods that were only found in Italy.

By 1918, almost 50% of all the neighborhood grocery stores were owned by Italian immigrants.

In 1910-1922 in and around the New Orleans area the Axeman appeared and killed a few people and then disappeared for six years.  In 1918 he reappeared and killed up to 12 people beginning with Joseph and Catherine Maggio on May 23, 1918.  They lived above their business which was a grocery and barroom.  They were asleep when someone broke into their home and slashed their throats with a straight razor.  He bashed them in the heads as he left.  These were terribly gruesome murders.  They were found by Joseph’s brothers who for a while were suspected of the murder.

Maggio Murders
Maggio Murders

The next victims of the Axeman were Louis Besumer and his mistress Harriet Lowe.  They were attacked in the morning of June 27, 1918.  They lived in quarters behind Louis’s grocery.  Louis was hit in the head just above the right temple, which resulted in a possible skull fracture.  Harriet was hacked over the left ear.  They were found by the unfortunate baker, John Zanaca, who was making an early morning delivery.  When the police investigated the living quarters while Louis and Harriet were in the hospital, they were both alive at this point. 

They found letters written in German, Russian and Yiddish and decided that Louis was a German Spy, remember World War I was still going on.  Harriet told the police that he was in fact a German Spy.  Then it came out in the papers that Harriet and Louis were not married so Harriet quit helping the police.  Harriet had surgery for her injuries and died two days later.  Her deathbed statement was that Louis had attacked her.  He was arrested and charged with murder, served nine months in prison awaiting trial and was acquitted after just a 10-minute jury deliberation.

This victim is my personal heroine!  Anna Schneider was attacked by the Axeman on August 5, 1918.  Anna was 28 and eight months pregnant at the time.  She woke up to find someone standing over her bashing her in the face and head.  Her face and head were covered in blood when her husband found her a little after midnight when he returned home from his job.  Anna gave birth to a healthy baby girl two days later.  What a woman!!! 

Joseph Romano was the next victim.  Joseph was elderly and lived with his nieces, Pauline and Mary.  They awoke on August 10, 1918 to a commotion in their uncle’s bedroom.  They rushed in and saw what they described to police as a dark-skinned heavy-set man wearing a dark suit and a slouch hat.  The man had given Joseph several blows to the head.  He unfortunately died two days later from head trauma.

This was the sixth axe attack/murder in four months.  New Orleans was under attack by a murderer they called the Axeman.  And then the murders stopped again. 

Cortimiglias Murders
Cortimiglias’ Murders

Unfortunately, they started again on March 10, 1919, with the Cortimiglia family.  The Cortimiglia’s lived across the Mississippi river in Gretna.  Charles, Rosie, and their two-year-old daughter Mary were all attacked by an axe.  Iorlando Jordano the grocer across the street heard the screaming and rushed across the street.  Rosie stood in the door, her head bleeding holding her dead baby.  Charles was alive but barely, bleeding all over the floor.  A bloody axe was found in the back yard and the back door had been broken.  Both Charles and Rosie suffered from skull fractures. 

Rosie accused the Jordanos of the attack, while Charles vehemently denied it.  First Iorlando was 70 years old and too weak to wield the axe with enough force to crack their skulls. Second, Frank the Jordano son, was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds.  He never could have fit through the panel that was broken out of the back door.  They were arrested anyway, tried, found guilty, and Frank was sentenced to hang and Iorlando was sentenced to life imprisonment. Rosie felt guilty and went to the police and recanted her statement.  Since her statement was the only evidence the Jordanos were released.

Iorlando and Frank Jordano
Iorlando and Frank Jordano

August 10 , 1919, Steven Boca was the next victim.  Steve too, was a grocer.  He woke up and found someone standing over him.  He lost consciousness and woke up to run across the street to his neighbors Frank Genusa.  His head had been cracked open.  Steven survived.

Sarah Lauman was the next to be attached on September 3, 1919.  Sarah was 19 and lived alone.  A bloody axe was found on the front lawn, so the neighbors broke into Sarah’s apartment. Sarah was unconscious and missing several teeth.  Sarah recovered but couldn’t remember anything about the attack.

Esther and Michael Pepitone
Esther and Michael Pepitone

Mike Pepitone, another grocer was the final victim on October 27, 1919.  His wife, Esther, woke up and went to his bedroom where she saw a large man with an axe running out of the room.  As most of the others, Mike had been hit in the head with the axe and there was blood splatter all over the room.  The Pepitones had six children who were luckily unharmed.

A few months later Esther moved to Los Angeles and there the story continues…

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