Friday, February 7, 2014


Aftermath of the Axeman

After the brutal slaughter of Mike Pepitone on October 27, 1919, the Axeman vanished as mysteriously as he had arrived in New Orleans in the first place. That was the last murder attributed to the Axeman. Like his other crimes, the murder was never solved. It was almost as if the cruel attacks had been committed by a supernatural being, by a “demon from the hottest hell,” as the letter purporting to be from the Axeman had put it. Many men had been charged, but all of them had been set free. No clue of the killer’s identity was ever found. Who was the Axeman? Had there been one Axeman – or several? Had each attack been the work of a different person? Or had there been several killers at work?

The Axeman’s true identity was never learned – or was it?

Joseph Mumfre

More than a year after the Axeman’s final murder, New Orleans police learned of a strange occurrence in Los Angeles. At first the news seemed almost unbelievable, but later they seemed almost too anxious to believe it.

Los Angeles in 1920

On December 2, 1920, a former New Orleans man named Joseph Mumfre was shot to death in Los Angeles. He was walking down a busy street one afternoon when a woman “in black and heavily veiled” stepped from the doorway of a building with a revolver in her hand. She emptied the gun into Mumfre, who fell dead on the sidewalk. The woman stood over him, still holding the gun, making no effort to escape.

The woman was taken to the police station. At first, she would only say that her name was Esther Albano. She would not reveal the reason why she killed Mumfre. Days later, she changed her mind and confessed that she was Mrs. Mike Pepitone, the widow of the last victim of the New Orleans Axeman. She explained why she shot Mumfre: “He was the Axeman. I saw him running from my husband’s room. I believe he killed all of those people.”

The New Orleans police were immediately drawn into the case. They knew a lot about Mumfre. He had a criminal record and had spent quite a bit of time in prison. Dates were checked carefully. He had been released from a prison term in 1911, just before the earlier slaughters of Schiambras, of Cruti and Rosetti – cases that many linked to the earlier crimes of the Axeman. Then he had been sent back to jail on other charges and was freed just weeks before the Maggio attack began the latest series of murders. In the lull between August 1918 attacks and March 1919 on the Cortimiglias, he had been in jail on burglary charges. It was known that Mumfre left New Orleans just after the slaying of Mike Pepitone.

The timeline seemed to fit, but it was almost too perfect. Despite the dates, there was no real evidence to say that Mumfre was the Axeman. As the newspapers pointed out, the dates might be just a coincidence. He might have been the man who killed Mike Pepitone, but the rest was just conjecture.   

Mrs. Pepitone was tried in a Los Angeles court in April. She entered a guilty plea and the proceedings were brief. Her attorney claimed that it was justifiable homicide, and while this was disregarded, she did have the sympathy of the court. She was sentenced to ten years in prison but served less than three. She subsequently vanished into history.

Had the murder of Joseph Mumfre solved the Axeman murders? Probably not since it seems unlikely that this neatly-wrapped ending the story ever happened at all. It seems that the entire story (including that Joseph Mumfre had some ties to Mafia extortion rings) may have been the result of poor research, misunderstandings and one author after the next passing on the original, flawed research. Recent research has revealed that there are no police or public court records in New Orleans nor Los Angeles that mention a man named “Joseph Mumfre” (or even “Momfre”) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles.  In addition, other investigators have failed to find any record of Mrs. Pepitone being arrested, tried, or convicted for such a crime.

Here is what has been found in subsequent research:

* On April 11, 1922, Mrs. Esther Albano of Reno, Nevada was tried for the murder of Leon Menfre on April 11, 1922 after she shot him in self-defense after he had entered her home and demanded $500 under threat of death. She testified that she believed the man was responsible for the disappearance of her husband, Angelo Albano. She was acquitted at the trial.

* In 1940, a woman named Esther Pepitone Albano died in New Orleans of natural causes.

It appears that the Nevada murder case was somehow confused with the New Orleans Axeman’s crimes, perhaps due to inaccurate records at the time. We cannot say if Esther Pepitone Albano was related to Axeman victim Mike Pepitone, although her death in New Orleans may be suggestive. In any case the woman in Nevada blamed Leon Menfre for the disappearance of her husband, Angelo Albano, who was not an Axeman victim. There – at least for now, the matter rests as it began, as a mystery.

1911 Murders

The Joseph Mumfre connection may turn out to be a dead end, but what about other possible suspects in the murders? In the beginning of the case, many of the police detectives drew parallels between the current Axeman murder and a series of attacks on Italian grocers in 1911. At that time, most believed the 1911 murders were linked to the New Orleans mafia and “Black Hand” extortion plots. But what if they weren’t?

In 1911 and 1912, axe murders left more than four dozen people slaughtered in their sleep across portions of Louisiana and Texas. All of the victims were asleep and many of them were dismembered and even decapitated by a killer wielding an axe. (I wrote a separate blog about this murders: Click Here to see it) While those murders appeared to be religiously driven, purifying the white race against what the killer saw as an incursion by African-Americans, many have noted the similarities between the murders in New Orleans and what were known as the “Mulatto Ax Murders.” Were they also connected to the Axeman? It seems unlikely.

Jake Bird

Some researchers have connected a convicted murderer and self-confessed serial killer to the Axeman legend. Bird was eventually tried and executed for the axe murders of Bertha Kludt and her daughter, Beverly June Kludt, which took place in Tacoma, Washington on October 30, 1947. Criminologists who studied him before his execution came to believe that he may have killed as many as forty-six people. Survivors of the Axeman attacks stated that the killer was a “large, white man,” which seems to rule our Bird, who was African-American, but some researchers have still insisted that he is a suspect.

Axe murderer Jake Bird, believe by some (although not this author) as a viable suspect in the New Orleans Axeman murders.

Bird was born in 1901 in Louisiana, although he could not recall the location. He was a transient and supported himself as a manual laborer and with railroad work, which kept him moving from place to place. He had an extensive criminal record, including burglary and attempted murder and had spent thirty-one of his years in jail in Michigan, Iowa and Utah. In his later confession, Bird said that he entered the Kludt house to commit robbery and hit Bertha in the head with an axe while trying to flee the house after she discovered him and tried to stop him. When Beverly June came to her mother’s aid, he killed her. Detectives didn’t believe his story. They were convinced that Bird had entered the house to commit rape and had killed Bertha in her bedroom while trying to sexually assault her. He killed the daughter, they believed, while trying to escape.

The bodies of the Kludts were found by police after they apprehended Bird, whom they saw flee the Kludt residence when they arrived in response to calls that there were screams coming from the house. They saw the barefoot man run out and crash through a picket fence. They gave pursuit and had to scale several fences before cornering them in an alley. Bird attacked the officers with a knife before he could be subdued. His clothes were covered with blood and brain matter and his shoes were back at the house. There was an axe on the kitchen floor where the body of Beverly June lay lifeless. Her mother was found dead in her bedroom.

Bird was charged with first-degree murder and held without bail. His trial began on November 24, 1947 and lasted two days. Bird's request to represent himself was denied, and a court-appointed attorney represented him. Bird recanted his confession at the trial. His defense attorney claimed that Bird's confession was inadmissible, as it had been obtained under duress as Bird claimed the police had beat him. The judge permitted the confession to be admitted into evidence. The confession, along with the bloody clothes and Bird’s fingerprints at the scene were enough to convict him. The jury deliberated only thirty-five minutes before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

After his conviction was announced, Bird was allowed to make a final statement. He spoke for twenty minutes, noting that his request to represent himself had been denied and that his own lawyers were against him. He then added, “I’m putting the Jake Bird hex on all of you who had anything to do with my being punished. Mark my words you will die before I do.”

Allegedly, six people connected with the trial died: Judge Edward D. Hodge of a heart attack within a month of sentencing him to death, as did one of the officers who took his first confession. A police officer who took a second confession died, as did the court’s chief clerk, and one of Bird's prison guards. J.W. Selden, one of Bird’s lawyers, died on the first anniversary of his sentencing.

The execution at the Washington State Penitentiary was scheduled for January 16, 1948, but Bird claimed he had committed forty-four other murders, which he was willing to help the police solve. Washington governor Monrad C. Wallgren granted him a sixty-day reprieve. Police from other states interviewed Bird, and eleven murders were substantiated. He was knowledgeable enough about the thirty-three other murders to be considered a prime suspect. The interviews with Bird enabled the police departments of many states to declare many unsolved murders as solved. In addition to his Washington state murders, the transient Bird apparently had killed people in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. He mostly preyed on Caucasian women. Bird had dispatched his victims with an axe.

It should be noted that none of those murders included the New Orleans Axeman victims.

During his reprieve, Bird attempted to appeal his death sentence, but it was denied. He was hanged on the morning of July 15, 1949 and buried in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery.

Who was the Axeman?

While many New Orleans’ residents of the early 1920s were willing to believe the stories that the Axeman had been murdered in Los Angeles, most were not. Most dismissed the idea that they had been Mafia murders as well. Detective Dantonio stated that the crimes never fit the Mafia pattern. The Mafia did not attack anyone but Italians and they never murdered women.

A fairly typical door on a New Orleans home. The panels inset in the wooden door are what the Axeman would remove and then somehow work his way into the house. It seems impossible that the killer could have been as "large" or as "heavy-set" as some victims described him. How did he get through the door panel and then disappear just as quickly?

The Axeman had a signature. The modus operandi in the attacks was the method of entry (through a chiseled hole in a door) and the weapon used in the attacks – an axe. The method of entry into the homes was quite puzzling. It would have taken a lot of work to chisel a panel from a door and then would leave a very small space to crawl through. Many have claimed that the openings were too small for a grown man to pass through. Robbery was never the motive in the attacks. Money and jewelry was always left behind. The majority of attacks were against Italian-Americans leading some to believe the attacks were racially motived. Since many of the victims were grocers, some wondered if the attacks were Mafia hits conducted to pressure the businesses into paying “protection taxes.” Leading detectives of the time dismissed this idea, though.

Some have pointed out that most of the attacks seemed to target women and could have been sexually motivated, especially given the fact that Axeman seemed to only kill male victims when they obstructed his attempts to murder the women. A sexual motive to the crime seems to fit with Dantonio’s theory that the killer as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” maniac, hiding his compulsions until the need overcame him and forced him to strike again. Perhaps the Axeman just killed for pleasure and had no other motive at all.

Again, though, we return to the majority of victims begin Italian grocers? Why these certain people? Did he hate Italians? Did he hate grocers? Or just Italian grocers? Did the Axeman want to kill all of the grocers in New Orleans? And if so, we come full circle again? What about the victims that were not Italian grocers?

 We will never know any of the answers to these questions for certain. His ability to quickly flee the scene (“as if he had wings”) and the fact that the door holes that he used to enter the homes were unusually small led the citizens of New Orleans to wonder if Axeman was even human or if, as his infamous letter stated, he was "the worst demon that ever existed either in fact or in the realm of fancy?”

All that we can say for sure is that the Axeman vanished from New Orleans in 1919 and he never returned. It is unlikely that we will ever know anything more than that. The Axeman came, haunted the city for a time, and then disappeared without a trace, leaving one of the great mysteries of American crime in his wake.

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