Tuesday, February 4, 2014



New Orleans is a city that was literally born in sin. From the original charters that were based on fraud to the emptying of the French prisons to provide settlers to the region, widespread government corruption, gaudy social functions, rampant prostitution and frequent lapses in any civilized moral code, New Orleans has a long and very colorful history of crime and vice. Known for many years as America’s “murder capital,” it has seen more than its share of blood over the years.

One of the most mysterious – and still unsolved – crime sprees to grip the city came in the years of 1918 and 1919 with the arrival of the enigmatic “Axeman.” Who was this strange and terrifying creature? Was it a man bent on revenge, a crazed serial killer, or perhaps something worse? The period of death and bloodshed that was reigned over by this allegedly supernatural creature is still remembered as one of the darkest times in city’s history. He arrived in May 1918 and his coming began a period of terror that would last for the next eighteen months. With the fall of darkness, the residents of New Orleans spent each night listening intently for suspicious sounds and nervously shrinking from every shadow. They opened their newspapers with trembling hands each morning. It seemed that no one in the city was safe.

The “boogeyman” had come to New Orleans.

In 1918, the people of New Orleans were not thinking about a murderer in their midst. Like most Americans of the day, they were busy worrying about and waiting for the Great War to end in Europe. In the spring of that year, no one knew that the war would end in November, although there was hope that it would not go on too much longer and, of course, great optimism that the Allies would win. But on the morning of May 24, another kind of headline dominated the morning editions of the newspapers – a headline of blood and savagery.

On the morning of May 23, Joseph Maggio, an Italian grocer, and his wife, were butchered with an axe while sleeping in their apartment behind the Maggio grocery store. According to the police, the killer had entered their home just before dawn. He had chiseled out a panel in the rear door of the apartment, and slipped inside.  He had struck each of his sleeping victims once with an axe and then had slit their throats with a straight razor. Mrs. Maggio was found on the floor with her head nearly severed from her body. Joseph Maggio was sprawled half out of bed. The razor lay on the floor in a pool of blood and the ax, as blood-soaked as the razor, was found on the steps leading out into the backyard.

A small safe in the room was open and empty, yet more than $100 was found beneath Maggio’s blood-soaked pillow, and on the dresser was a small pile of Mrs. Maggio’s jewelry, including several diamond rings. The police stated that they did not believe that robbery was the motive for the crime, although the killer had opened the safe to make it look like it was.

In rooms on the other side of the house lived Joseph’s brothers, Andrew and Jacob. They discovered the bodies after hearing moaning sounds coming from the other side of the wall. They went into the bedroom together and found Joseph half out his bed and still alive. They called the police at once. The police arrested both men after a neighbor reported that he had seen Andrew coming home some time between 2: 00 and 3:00 a.m. Later in the morning, detectives made a curious discovery. Written in chalk on the sidewalk, a block away from the house, were these words: “Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.”

Investigators began digging into old files, looking for possible cases that matched the Maggio murders, and to their surprise discovered that three murders and a number of attacks against Italian grocers had already taken place in 1911. The murders bore a striking resemblance to the Maggio crime in that an axe had been used in each and access to each home had been gained through a panel in the rear door. These earlier crimes had been thought to be a vendetta of terror organized by the Mafia. Was the vendetta starting again? The Italian residents of the French Quarter began preparing for the worst and many of them demanded protection from the police.  

In the meantime, Andrew and Jake Maggio were in jail swearing their innocence. Andrew admitted that he had been out late, celebrating his call to serve in the military and had come home drunk. Both brothers were respectable, hard-working men and they insisted they had nothing to do with the murders of their brother and sister-in-law. Jake was released the following day and Andrew on May 26. Andrew tearfully told a reporter for the Times-Picayune newspaper that he would never get over his arrest. He was quoted, “It’s a terrible thing to be charged with the murder of your own brother when your heart is already broken by his death. When I’m about to go to war, too. I had been drinking heavily. I was too drunk to have heard any noise next door.” But he and Jake were free and were cleared of any suspicion.

The police continued their investigation and several suspects were questioned and let go because of a lack of evidence. The newspapers returned to covering the war and when nothing else happened, many residents probably forgot about the Maggio case. And then, just over a month after the Maggios were murdered, the killer struck again.

On June 28, a baker named John Zanca, made his morning call to deliver bread and cakes to a grocery store owned by Louis Bossumer. The store was closed when he arrived, so he went around back to where Bossumer lived with the woman that Zanca believed was the grocer’s wife, Annie Harriet Lowe. The baker did not want to take a chance of the bread being stolen if he left it in front of the store. When he reached the back door, he stopped and stared in horror -- a lower panel on the door had been carefully chiseled out. Zanca tried to open the door but it was locked.

Suddenly, the door burst open and Louis Bossumer stumbled into the doorway. Blood was streaming from a wound in his head. He cried out, “My God! My God!”

Zanca rushed past him into the house and found Annie lying on the bed, bleeding from a ghastly head wound. Both victims were badly injured, each having been struck with an axe. Zanca immediately called the police and Charity Hospital.

The police believed that Annie had been attacked on the porch that was located on one side of the living quarters, based on the amount of blood that they found there. She had then dragged herself or had been carried to the bed, possibly by Bossumer. An axe, which belonged to the grocer, was discovered in the bathroom, still dripping with blood. Bossumer, the newspapers stated, was Polish and had lived in New Orleans for only three months. He had come to the city from Jacksonville, Florida and before that, had operated a farm in South America.

Louis Bossumer's grocery with apartment in back. 

The following day, there were further developments. It was stated that letters written to Louis Bossumer in German, Russian and Yiddish had been found in a trunk in his apartment. Rumors flew that his grocery store was actually a front for a German spy ring. The country was in the middle of a war and despite the fact that there was little so suggest he had anything to do with spies, many took the allegations seriously. Finally, on July 1, Bossumer’s own statements were made public. The first thing he is reported to have said was, “That woman is not my wife.” He said that Annie Lowe had come to New Orleans with him from Jacksonville and that they had been living together ever since. His own wife was ill, he said, with relatives in Cincinnati. He swore he did not know what had happened. Someone had struck him while he slept. When he regained consciousness, he found Annie on the floor and carried her to bed. He had been about to summon an ambulance when Zanca knocked at the back door. He was not a German, he was Polish, and he had no use for Germans. He spoke and received mail in a half dozen languages. He was certainly not a spy, he stated. He offered the police his full cooperation.

On July 5, Annie Lowe finally regained consciousness at Charity Hospital. She made her first statement to the police and said, “I’ve long suspected that Mr. Bossumer is a German spy.” Bossumer was arrested at once.

On July 6, she was interviewed again. She told the police, “I am married to Mr. Bossumer. If I am not, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Then she added, “I did not say that Mr. Bossumer is a German spy. That is perfectly ridiculous.” A few days later, Bossumer was freed from custody.

Eventually, Annie spoke of the attacks. She said that Bossumer had been working on his accounts around midnight, sitting at a table with a lot of money in front of him. She always worried about how careless he was with money, she said, and warned him that he should put it in the safe. Then she smelled prunes cooking in the kitchen and went into the kitchen to look at them. Then her memory left her. She guessed it was from the blow to the head. She could not even remember going to bed. Her next memory was of waking up. She said that she had awakened in bed with a man standing over her. She described him as a rather tall white man, heavy-set with dark hair that stood almost on end, wearing a white shirt that was open at the neck. He had an axe in his hands and he stood there, making motions with the axe, but not hitting her. She recalled, “The next thing I remember is lying out in the gallery with my face in a pool of blood.”

Her story changed again on July 15. In another police interview, Annie said that she was not in bed when she was struck. She was on the porch. The police thought this made more sense – and agreed with their thoughts at the crime scene – and Bossumer was once again looked at with suspicion. They questioned neighbors and learned that the Bossumers occasionally had violent quarrels. Annie was thirty years younger than the fifty-nine-year-old grocer and he was often jealous. A check with the authorities in Jacksonville and Cincinnati confirmed that the two were not married and that Bossumer had a living wife. That did not help matters and they were still concerned that he was a German spy. The neighbors gossiped about his odd ways and his ability to speak a number of languages, including German. Could he have tried to kill Annie, and then wounded himself, in an imitation of the Maggio murders, perhaps because the woman knew too much about his clandestine activities?

The police were skeptical about how Bossumer could have fractured his own skull with the ax but were ruling nothing out. On August 3, doctors at Charity Hospital performed surgery on Annie. Two days later, she died but before she did, she again stated that it had been Bossumer who had attacked her. He was arrested and charged with her murder.

The Axeman chose that night, August 5, to strike again.

Edward Schneider, a young married man, was working late that evening and it was after midnight when he arrived home. When he reached his bedroom and turned on the light, he was horrified to find his wife unconscious on the bed, her head and face covered with blood. Mrs. Schneider, who was expecting a baby in a few days, was rushed to Charity Hospital. She remembered seeing a tall, phantom-like form standing over her bed and she remembered screaming when the axe fell, but nothing else. She ended up with a large gash in her head and several missing teeth.

Luckily, she recovered and gave birth to a baby girl less than a week later. She was never able to tell more about what had occurred. The police searched the Schneider home, but there were no clues to be found. To add to the general confusion, the Axeman had entered the house through a window instead of through the back door. As usual, nothing was stolen.

A day after the Schneider attack, a newspaper printed a headline that asked the question that many city residents had been asking each other for months: “Is an Axeman at Large in New Orleans?”

During the early morning hours of August 10, Pauline Bruno, age eighteen, and her younger sister, Mary, age thirteen, were awakened by strange noises coming from the bedroom where their uncle, Joseph Romano, was sleeping. Pauline crept to her uncle’s door and peered into the room. She saw a man standing next to her uncle’s bed. She later described the man as, “dark, tall, heavy-set, wearing a dark suit and a black slouch hat.” Pauline screamed and the man just seemed to vanish. Joseph Romano lurched out of bed, staggered through a door on the other side of the room and collapsed on the floor in the parlor.

Pauline later told of the attack to the newspapers: “I’ve been nervous about the Axeman for weeks and I haven’t been sleeping much. I was dozing when I heard blows and scuffling in Uncle Joe’s room. I say up in bed and my sister woke up too. When I looked into my uncle’s room this big heavy-set man was standing at the foot of his bed. I think he was a white man, but I couldn’t swear to it. I screamed. My little sister screamed too. We were horribly scared. Then he vanished. It was almost as if he had wings!

“We rushed into the parlor, where my uncle had staggered. He had two big cuts on his head. We got him up and propped him in a chair. ‘I’ve been hit,’ he groaned. “I don’t know who did it. Call the Charity Hospital.’ Then he fainted. Later he was able to walk to the ambulance with some help. I don’t know that he had any enemies.”

Romano died two days later in the hospital, without being able to make any further statements. The police found that all of the Axeman’s “signatures” were in place. An axe was found in Romano’s backyard, covered in blood. The panel of the rear door had been cut out. Nothing in the house had been taken, although Romano’s room looked as though it had been ransacked. The only thing that was odd was Romano was a barber, not a grocer like so many of the earlier victims had been.
By this time, hysteria was sweeping through the city, especially in the Italian neighborhoods. Families divided into watches and stood guard over their relatives as they slept. People went about with loaded shotguns and waited for news of the latest "Axeman sightings." A few were said to be leaving the city.

The police began to be flooded with reports about the Axeman after the Romano attack. On the morning of August 11, Al Durand, a grocer, reported finding an axe and chisel outside his back door. Joseph LeBeouf, a grocer at Gravier and Miro Streets, only a block from the Romano home, came forward with the story that someone had chiseled out a panel on his back door on July 28, a day when he was not home. Still another grocer, Arthur Recknagel, told of finding a panel in one of his doors removed back in June, and of finding an axe in the grass in his backyard. Recknagel lived only a few blocks from the Romano home. On August 15, several people telephone the police to tell them that the Axeman had been spotted in the neighborhood of Tulane and Broad, masquerading as a woman. A manhunt was organized, but without success. On August 21, a man was seen leaping a back fence at Gravier and South White Streets. A woman reported that she clearly saw an axe in the man’s hands. Immediately, the neighbors organized a search, as other people ran from their houses screaming that the Axeman had just jumped their fence. A young man named Joseph Garry stated that he had fired at the Axeman with his shotgun. Police arrived on the scene, but no one was apprehended. The excitement quieted down around midnight, although it’s doubtful that anyone in the vicinity slept very well that night – or for several nights thereafter.

On August 30, a man named Nick Asunto called the police to tell them that he had been awakened by strange sounds on the lower floor of his home. He went to the top of the stairs and saw a dark, heavy-set man standing below with an axe in his hands. When Asunto yelled at him, the man ran out the front door. On August 31, Pau Lobella, a notions store proprietor on Zimple Street, found an axe in his alley. There were a dozen similar reports around this same time.

Meanwhile, the police were still focused on the Bossumer case, stating that they did not believe that it was of the now ordinary variety. They made public Annie Lowe’s last story that claimed that Bossumer struck her with an axe after she asked him for money. He then chased her down the porch, screaming, “I am going to make fire for you in the bottom of the ocean!” She had reiterated, too, that Bossumer was a German spy. Therefore, the police were sure that this was not the Axeman at work, although they believed that all of the other attacks, including the one on Mrs. Schneider, were the crimes of a single person, perhaps a “homicidal maniac.”

Joseph Dantonio, a retired detective, told a reporter, “The Axeman is a modern ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ A criminal of this type many be a respectable, law-abiding citizen when his normal self. Compelled by an impulse to kill, he must obey this urge. Some years ago, there were a number of similar cases, all bearing such strong resemblance to this outbreak that the same fiend might be responsible. Like Jack the Ripper, this sadist may go on with his periodic outbreaks until his death. For months, even for years, he may be normal, then go on another rampage.”

On September 15, a grocer named Paul Durel found that someone had attempted to cut through his rear door. A case of tomatoes that had been resting against the inside panel had foiled the attack.

Then, as if he were exactly as Detective Dantonio theorized, the Axeman vanished as mysteriously as he had arrived. After the Romano attack – and the unsubstantiated attacks, scares and hysteria that followed – nothing happened at all happened. Weeks and months passed, the war ended, Christmas came and then the New Year and no more attacks occurred. The people of New Orleans, even the Italians, breathed a little easier. The police, still mystified, were no closer to solving the crimes. From time to time, suspects were arrested, but all of them were eventually released. Only Bossumer remained in jail since he was the only real suspect that they had in connection with any of the crimes.

And then, in March 1919, the Axeman returned with a vengeance.

To be continued….

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