Monday, July 27, 2009

I'm Not Going To Be Able To Sleep Tonight (Part 6)

The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer active in New Orleans, Louisiana (and surrounding communities, including Gretna, Louisiana), from May 1918 to October 1919. Press reports during the height of public panic about the killings mentioned similar murders as early as 1911, but recent researchers have called these reports into question.

As the killer's pseudonym implies, the victims were attacked with an axe. In some of the crimes, the doors to the victim's homes were first bashed open with the same tool. "The Axeman" was not caught or identified at the time, although his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed.

Not all of the Axeman's victims died, but the savagery and utter randomness of his attacks terrorized much of the populace. Some early victims were Italian American, in particular the son of Pietro Pepitone who had killed Black Hand extortionist Paul Di Cristina (Paolo Marchese) several years before, leading the newspapers to assume the killings were somehow Mafia related (similar to Chicago's Black Hand assassin "Shotgun Man"). However, later crimes clearly did not fit this profile, and the apprehension of the general public grew. His victims included a pregnant woman and even a baby killed in the arms of its mother. The Axeman also seemed to draw direct inspiration from Jack the Ripper: he (or someone claiming to be the Axeman) wrote taunting letters to city newspapers hinting at his future crimes and claiming to be a supernatural demon "from Hell".

Most notoriously, on March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in the newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans's dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

Not everyone was intimidated by the Axeman. Some well armed citizens sent the newspaper invitations for the Axeman to visit their houses that night and see who got killed first. One invitation promised to leave a window open for the Axeman, politely asking that he not damage the front door.

Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been "Joseph Momfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in December, 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim". Wilson's theory has been widely repeated in other true crime books and web sites. However, true crime writer Michael Newton searched New Orleans and Los Angeles public, police and court records as well as newspaper archives, and failed to find any evidence of a man with the name "Joseph Momfre" (or any reasonable facsimile) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles. Newton also was not able to find any information that Mrs Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano, and in others simply as a "woman who claimed to be Pepitone's widow") was arrested, tried or convicted for such a crime, or indeed had been in California. Newton notes that "Momfre" and variants was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time of the crimes. It appears that there actually may have been an individual named Joseph Momfre or Mumfre in New Orleans who had a criminal history and may have been connected with organized crime; however, local records for the period are not extensive enough to allow confirmation of this, or to positively identify the individual. Wilson's explanation is an urban legend, and there is no more evidence now on the identity of the killer than there was at the time of the crimes.

Two of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home in the early morning hours of May 16, 1912. The male Schiambra survived while his wife died. In newspaper accounts, the prime suspect is referred to by the name of "Momfre" more than once. While radically different than the Axeman's usual MO, if Joseph Momfre was indeed the Axeman, the Schiambras may well have been an early victim of the future serial killer.

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