Who’ll be next?” is the question being asked by detectives and Italians of New Orleans.
— The Times-Picayune
For over a year, from May 1918 to October 1919, the City of New Orleans was in a frenzied panic over a roaming serial killer dubbed the “Axeman”. The first to succumb to the sharp blade of the Axeman were an Italian grocer named Joseph Maggio and his wife, Catherine on May 23, 1918. As they lay sleeping in their apartment above the Maggio grocery store the killer cut the couple’s throats with a straight razor before bashing in their heads with an axe. When law enforcement began to investigate they found the bloody clothes of the murderer, as he had obviously changed into a clean set of clothes before fleeing the scene. Police ruled out robbery as motivation for the attacks, as money and valuables left in plain sight were not stolen by the intruder. Near the couples home, a message written in chalk read: “Mrs. Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just write Mrs. Toney”. Investigators immediately questioned several people but all were released for lack of evidence.
A little more than a month later, another couple was attacked in the early morning hours of June 27, 1918. Louis Besumer, a grocer, and his mistress, Harriet Lowe, lived in quarters at the back of the store. When no one opened the store in the morning, they were discovered lying in a pool of blood. Besumer had been struck with an axe above his right temple and Lowe was hacked over the left ear. Though badly injured, both were still alive. Once again people were questioned and one man arrested, but they were later released. Though the crime made the newspapers, of bigger note to some was the “scandal” of the mistress. After the attack, one side of Lowe’s face was partially paralyzed and on August 5th, she had surgery performed in an effort to correct it. Two days later she died, but before she passed she told authorities that she suspected it was Louis Besumer who had attacked her. Besumer was then charged with murder and served nine months in prison before being acquitted on May 1, 1919, after a ten-minute jury deliberation
On August 5th a third similar attack was made on a Mrs. Edward Schneider who was 8 months pregnant. As the 28-year-old lay in bed, she awoke to see a dark figure standing over her, and was bashed in the face repeatedly. Shortly after midnight, she was discovered by her husband who was just returning from work. Her scalp had been cut open, and her face was completely covered in blood, but she survived the attack to give birth to a healthy baby girl two days later. One man was arrested on suspicion but soon released for lack of evidence. By this time, investigators began to publicly speculate that the attack was related to the previous incidents involving Besumer and Maggio.
Just five days later, yet another grocer, a man named Joseph Ramano was attacked on August 10th. The elderly grocer lived with his two nieces who awoke to the sound of a commotion in the adjoining room where their uncle resided. The girls entered Ramoano’s room to find that he had taken a serious blow to his head and saw the assailant was fleeing. The grocer, though seriously injured was able to walk to the ambulance once it arrived, but he died two days later due to severe head trauma. The girls were able to provide a brief description of the killer — a dark-skinned, heavy-set man, who wore a dark suit and slouched hat.
Other clues of the crime were similar to the previous ones, such as the scenes were often ransacked but nothing was ever stolen, that the killer used the owner’s hatchets and blades, that panels of doors or windows were chiseled away to gain entry, and that the majority of the victims were Italian.
Yet another in a series of murders and assaults by the Axeman created sweeping fear in the city. Police were inundated with reports from citizens claiming to have seen an axeman lurking neighborhoods, axes chisels found in backyards, and doors and windows that appeared to have been tampered with. People began to carry loaded shotguns and family members took turns watching over their families at night. One report alleged that the Axeman was masquerading as a woman, another that he had been seen leaping over a back fence.
The people were afraid, determined to protect themselves, and bordered on panic. But, perhaps the heat generated by that terror was somehow transferred to the Axeman, as the killings and assaults stopped, as quickly as they had started.
Over the months, the fear waned and the neighborhoods returned to normal until March 10, 1919, when the Axeman struck again. Charles Cortimiglia was an immigrant and grocer who lived with his wife, Rosie, and two-year-old daughter, Mary, in the town of Gretna, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. When screams were heard coming from the Cortimiglia residence in the early morning hours, neighboring grocer, Iorlando Jordano, rushed across the street to investigate. There he found that the three had been attacked.
Rosie had awakened to find her husband struggling with a large man wielding an axe. When her husband fell to the floor the assailant turned on her as she held her daughter and begged for their lives. Undaunted, the killer slammed the axe down on both mother and daughter.
When the neighbor arrived, Charles lay in a pool of blood on the floor as Rosie stood in the doorway with a serious head wound, clutching her deceased daughter. The couple was rushed to the hospital where both were treated for skull fractures. Charles we released two days later, while his wife remained in the care of doctors.
Upon gaining full consciousness, Rosie stated that the attack was made by neighboring grocer Lorlando Jordano and his 18-year-old son, Frank. Though Lorlando, a 69-year-old man, was in too poor of health to have committed the crimes and Frank Jordano was too big to have fit through the panel in the back door, the pair were arrested. Though Charles Cortimiglia denied his wife’s claims the Jordanos were charged with the murders, and would later be found guilty. Frank was sentenced to hang, and his father to life in prison. After the tria, Charles divorced his wife. About a year later Rosie Cortimiglia reversed her claim, stating that she had falsely accused the two out of jealousy and spite. With her claim being the only evidence against the Jordanos, and they were released from jail shortly thereafter.
Following the Cortimiglia murders, New Orleans was again filled with terror and once again began to arm themselves. The police stated that they believed all of the crimes to have been committed by the same man… “a bloodthirsty maniac, filled with a passion for human slaughter”.