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I’m pretty stoked that TM2M is releasing one hometown murder each week and there’s no better way than to start with a gruesome ‘murder by gaslight’ type of story like this one.
BIG SHOUT-OUT to Tyler for requesting this story. Honestly, I probably would of never even heard of this one if he didn’t.
Lace up your shoes and sharpen your axes, because you guys are in for a real treat!
The drink tonight is the Jazz Fest cocktail, which was as good as it looks in the picture.
I decided to start the story with one of the most brutal cases from the Axeman so please forgive me.
It’s four days after Mardi Gras, so March 9, 1919, and around 3 am in the morning at the home of Charles Cortimiglia, his wife Rosie, and (sadly) their 2 year old daughter Mary.
A neighbor, Frank Jordano, 17 and his sister Lena, 20 are one of the first to witness the gruesome murder that took place just several feet away from their own beds.
Charles suffered two severe cuts through the top of his skull so deep that it cut into the soft tissue of his brain. Swelling of his brain inside the skull resulted in brain matter to ooze out through the fractured bone.
Rosie suffered several deep gashes in the head and one to her left ear.
The two year old daughter, Mary, died instantly. Her burial days later would be known as “one of the saddest funerals ever held in Jefferson Parrish.”
Once Dr. Jerome Landry arrives to the scene he immediately performs a craniotomy on Mrs. Cortimiglia which will help relieve built up pressure caused by swelling in her skull.
*Keep in mind anesthesia wasn’t as common of a practice as it is today.
Who was the Axeman and was he so successful during his reign of terror?
As for who, no one will most likely ever know. As for his successful killings and evasion of local police, we could start to answer by defining his M.O (modus operandi).
- For the majority of his murders he used a weapon (either an axe, cleaver, or hatchet) that was owned by his victim.
- The Axeman would enter into the residence by chiseling out a panel and removing it (usually near the kitchen).
*The left side of this image shows the panel the Axeman would crawl through.
- The Axeman would only attack Italian grocery owners (more on that later).
- He would discard the murder weapon in the home, usually by throwing it under stairs or in the tall grass outside.
- Not all of his victims would end up dying as in the photo below of John Andollina showing off his axe wound.
Why was the Axeman only targeting Italian grocery owners?
An Italian Grocer. Photo credit Smithsonian Magazine
To answer this we must first dive into a brief history of New Orleans.
New Orleans was founded on May 7, 1718 and named after Philippe II ‘Duke of Orleans’.
Hey man, nice tights.
New Orleans was and still is a melting pot of culture and, in fact, since it’s founding the city has went through 6 different national affiliations.
In Justin Nystrom’s (professor of history at Loyola University of New Orleans) book – New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom
“In 1860 New Orleans stood at the apex of it’s wealth and strength. With nearly 170,000 residents in 1860, it was nearly 4 times the size of Charleston or Richmond. New Orlean’s strategic location on the Mississippi River combined with westward expansion and the advent of steam powered river transportation, had transformed it from its status as a colonial port at the time of the Louisiana Purchase into the unrivaled economic capitol of the antebellum South.”
The Italians (mostly from Sicily) migrated here and were slaves (although paid, measly wages of course) and would work along side the West African slaves.
This is where the Italians got there name “Dagoes” from.
The Italians were hard working and frugal with the little money they did earn; eventually saving enough to start local groceries.
The Axeman’s first kill.
The first known attack by the Axeman happened on a Saturday night August 13, 1910 at John and Harriet Crutti’s home.
On this particular night, maybe because it was his first attempt, the Axeman demanded cash from Harriet saying, “Give me your money or I’ll do to you what I just did to your husband!”
John Crutti was injured pretty bad when the police arrived, but ultimately he survived the brutal attack and recovered fully.
Harriet did provide a description to the police:
- 36 or 37 years old
- 5 feet 6 inches tall
- broad shoulders
- clean shaven
- dark hari
- thick nose and lips
- rough husky voice
- dark trousers
- loose blue workingman’s shirt
- wearing a black derby hat
Mass hysteria and the Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz
One of the most compelling parts of this case for me was trying to picture in my mind the mass hysteria the locals must have experienced during the Axeman’s murder spree.
At the height of this hysteria comes a letter from the Axeman (supposedly but unverified) to a local news editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune
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 whom 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.
As you can imagine this letter sparked quite the excitement prompting numerous sleepless nights.
This is a cartoon depicting the mood at the time. Notice the exhausted looking family forcing themselves to stay awake and play jazz music so as not to get butchered.
Here is a video I found of the Axeman’s Jazz (ragtime version 1919)
And I believe that this is the more modern day version of the same tune.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.
A local newsman reached out to retired detective Joseph Romano for an expert opinion on the Axeman (50 years before the term “profiler” existed).
“The murderer is likely a Jekyll and Hyde personality, like Jack the Ripper. A criminal of the dual personality type may be a respectable, law abiding citizen when his normal self. Then suddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.”
Was the Axeman a vigilante that spawned his hatred from the Italian ‘Black Hand Mafia?
Ten years before the Axeman’s first murder an influential and well-respected police superintendent, David Hennessey was walking home after a late night at the office.
As he was about to enter his home he was gunned down in cold blood in front of his doorsteps.
Hennessey whispered that his assailant was a “Dagoe”, the slang-term for Italian.
This prompted a complete roundup of nineteen Italians who were all charged with the Hennessey’s murder.
However, due to minimal evidence and reasonable doubt all nineteen were found Not Guilty, provoking outrage in the courtroom.
Following the trial a group of 18,000 vigilantes marched on the prison steps demanding Italian blood be shed for the murder.
Could the Axeman have been a vigilante seeking revenge for the former police superintendent’s murder?
The Axeman’s final murder (that we know of)
Father of six Mike Pepitone was brutally murdered on October 27, 1919 in front of his wife Esther Pepitone.
When police arrived they noticed the couples mattress was saturated in blood and a picture of the Virgin Mary had been “speckled with crimson dots.”
Both left and right walls were covered with Mike’s blood as he was chopped at least eighteen times in the face leaving his appearance, “bashed and battered into an almost unrecognizable mass.”
What I found most creepy is Esther claimed she saw two silhouettes of men leaving the room that night.