Here at the Crime Museum we have a particular interest in bizarre crimes, especially in October, when we’re working to bring you Fright at the Museum. Working with Kalila Smith, an expert on New Orleans history and the paranormal, we bring you the first in a series of discussions of history’s creepiest crimes, from the perspectives of paranormal experts and forensic scientists alike.
It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.
In May of 1918, a year and half long reign of terror struck the French Quarter leaving a trail of blood and a mystery that remains unsolved today. Many residents of the city believed the killer to be some sort of supernatural creature, others merely a psychotic serial killer with a taste for blood. The nature of the massacres indicated that the killer used an ax, giving rise to the media calling him the Axeman.
In 1911 and 1912, similar murders left forty-nine people slaughtered in their sleep across portions of Louisiana and Texas. The trail of carnage began in Rayne, Louisiana where a young woman and her three children were found slaughtered in their family home. A month later, a family of three had been found in the same manner in Crowley, Louisiana, then shortly afterwards, another four found dead in Lafayette. All of the victims were asleep when decapitated and dismembered with what appeared to be an ax.
An illustration of the Maggio family, two of the Axeman’s many victims.
Entire families were slaughtered mercilessly over the next year in various areas between Lafayette, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas. The killer left a note for police at one home that read, “When He maketh the inquisition for blood, He forgetteth not the cry of the humble, human five.”
Baffled police speculated whether the killer was a man or woman and even suggested that he might be a midget. The chiseled panels in the door, which afforded entry, were not large enough for a full-grown man to fit. Some police began to blame supernatural forces. The elusive killer evaded police and continued the bloodbath accessing homes through small openings in doors hardly large enough for a child to fit into. Those lucky enough to survive described images of a shadowy or phantom-like figure seen fleeing the scenes of the crimes; one witness described a phantom that disappeared quickly, as if he had wings.
On March 14, 1919, the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune received a letter from the killer. It read:
Hell, March 13, 1919
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 demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know who they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse 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 with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little 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 just 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 your 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 it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, 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 fancy.
The city followed the instructions of this maniacal killer filling homes, restaurants and the streets of the French Quarter with music. One local songwriter, Joseph Davilla, created a song called “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz,” which became very popular. No murders occurred that night.
Many witnesses described the Axeman as a shadowy figure.
The brutal killings resumed again on August 3, 1919, again maiming and killing victims ending in October that same year with the murder of grocer Mike Pepitone. The grocer’s wife and six children lay asleep in the room next door as the Axeman wielded fatal blows to his sleeping victim.
A little over a year later, the person who many believed may have been the Axeman had been shot in California. A man named Joseph Mumfre had been shot and killed by a woman, Esther Albano, AKA, Mrs. Mike Pepitone. Mumfre led a ring of blackmailers in New Orleans’ Mafia and had served time in jail beginning in 1911 at the end of the first set of murders, then released in 1918 shortly before the next. The case remains a mystery as no actual evidence ever surfaced proving that Mumfre was the Axeman. The phantom never returned to New Orleans after his murder. No one will ever know.
For the full story, buy Tales from the French Quarter here.
MO and Signature Analysis
by Tara Wright
In serial killing investigations, it is important to identify the killer’s modus operandi (MO) and signature to identify all possible crime scenes. An offender’s MO is the specific actions taken during the perpetration of a crime in order to complete that crime. Their signature is a little different. Often referred to as their ‘calling card,’ it is a specific set of indicators that point to an individual offender’s personality. These are not always necessary when identifying offenders, but can be useful when attempting to link multiple cases together.
In the early 1900s, New Orleans experienced a chain of horrific axe murders. The authorities linked the Axeman murders through several similarities in each of the cases. In all of the murders, a wooden panel was chiseled out of a back door. Also, an axe was the weapon of choice in these murders. It is hard to determine if these similarities were signatures or MO.
Many have speculated that this removal of the panel from the door was the Axeman’s way of entry into the homes. If this is the case, then the chiseling of the door is a part of his MO. But is it possible that it is his signature? Questions have arisen concerning the likelihood that a grown man could fit through small panels in order to enter the home. If chiseling the door panel wasn’t how he entered the houses, then what exactly was it? In every case, the murderer left the chisel on top of the removed panel, meaning the Axeman had to get another chisel every time he broke into someone’s home.
Serial killers’ signatures often leave the investigators confused as to their motivations. While the chisel could have been the Axeman’s modus operandi, I find it more believable that this was his signature. As an MO, it would require a lot of extra effort. In general, you would expect an offender’s MO to evolve into something that would lower the risk of apprehension and would be easier overall. I’m sure an offender would be able to think of much easier ways to break into someone’s home besides chiseling out a panel.
Weapons of choice are also possibly illuminating. While it’s difficult to know exactly why the killer selected a certain weapon, speculations can be made. What made the Axeman pick up the axe? Interestingly, he never brought the axe with him and instead found an axe, or hatchet, at the victim’s home. In his search for the axe, he probably walked past several potential weapons, like kitchen knives or shaving razors. Why not use any of these other potential weapons?
Does this automatically mean the use of an axe is his signature? Not necessarily, he could have been used to using an axe. He knew he could handle the axe well, and it would get the “job” done effectively. In this case, logical reasoning was employed to commit the murders; therefore, the use of the axe was his MO.
What if logic had nothing to do with it? Is it possible that emotional satisfaction plays a more important role in the offender’s choice of weapon? In his fantasies, the Axeman could use the axe to commit the murders. If he goes against these fantasies, it will not produce the same thrill and joy as following them exactly as he imagined. This could explain why he had to find the axe in each victim’s home. Maybe just using an axe wasn’t good enough. He even used their own axe to kill them–using their own weapon against them might add extra pleasure. If pleasure and emotional satisfaction were the factors in choosing the axe as his weapon, then the axe was more of a signature than the MO.
In the Axeman murders, it is impossible to be sure exactly what his MO and signatures were. No suspects were ever convicted so none of these questions could be answered. All that can be made are speculations based upon the several similarities in each of the murders.
What do you think?
However you see the Axeman—as a phantom with unknown powers, able to enter a home through the smallest of openings, or as a brutal but human madman with a creatively undetectable means of entry—the case is certainly bizarre. The Jack the Ripper-style letter submitting music requests, the strangely consistent use of an axe and a chisel at each scene… We’ll never know for certain what they mean or who the Axeman was. All we can do is speculate, and hope that history never repeats itself, carrying an axe into our homes. Keep checking the “Truly Chilling” page of the blog for more mysterious and spooky tales.
For more spooky experiences here in DC, come to Fright at the Museum.
And of course, a trip to New Orleans isn’t complete without Haunted History Tours, a great opportunity to hear more chilling tales of New Orleans history!