From Hell: The Axeman Returns
During the spring and summer months of 1918, a sinister killed known only as the “Axeman” kept the city of New Orleans in a state a panic. Seemingly random attacks were carried out by a killer who was able to vanish without a trace. The police had no leads and were no closer to capturing the maniac than they had been when the string of murders began. After a failed attack against a grocer in September, the Axeman mysterious vanished – but he did not stay gone for long.
During the early morning hours of March 10, 1919, the Axeman struck again. Iorlando Jordano, a grocer in Gretna, just across the river from New Orleans, heard screams coming from the living quarters of another grocer across the street. He rushed over to the apartment of fellow grocer Charles Cortimiglia and found the man’s wife, Rose, sitting on the floor, still shrieking, and blood gushing from her head. The body of her two-year-old daughter, Mary, was clutched in her arms. Charles Cortimiglia lay silently on the floor nearby, drenched in blood.
Jordano tried to take Mary from her mother’s arms, but she wouldn’t let the child go. He got wet towels from the bathroom and tried to bathe her face and that of her husband. Cortimiglia was still alive, but fading fast. Frank Jordano, Iorlando’s young son, ran over to try and help. His father sent him to call an ambulance. Both of the Cortimiglias were taken to the hospital with fractured skulls. They survived the attack, but Mary was dead.
When the police searched the property, they found all of the familiar signs of the Axeman: the back door panel chiseled out, and a bloody ax, which belonged to Charles Cortimiglia, on the back steps. Once again, nothing was stolen. It was obvious that the Axeman had returned.
As soon as she was able to talk, Rose Cortimiglia told of what she had seen that night. She had awakened to find her husband struggling with a large white man in dark clothing who was armed with an axe. The man tore himself loose from the hold that Cortimiglia had on him, sprang backward and then struck once with the axe. When her husband fell to the floor, the Axeman spun around Rose seized Mary, who was asleep in her crib next to her parents’ bed. Rose clung to the little girl, begging her attacker for mercy, at least for the child. But he swung the axe anyway, striking both mother and daughter before fleeing the house. The little girl was instantly killed and Rose’s skull was shattered.
Both of the Cortimiglias were badly injured but Charles recovered first and left the hospital. A few days later, Rose made another statement, an accusation that stunned the police, “It was the Jordanos! It was Frank Jordano and the old man helped him. It was those Jordanos!”
Charles Cortimiglia was questioned, as startled as the police by his wife’s accusations. He told them, “It was not the Jordanos. I saw the man well and he was a stranger. No, it was not Frank Jordano.”
In spite of this, both Jordanos were arrested, charged with murder and placed in the Gretna jail. The police were so eager to say that they had captured the Axeman that all logic was thrown out the window. The Jordanos fervently proclaimed their innocence. Frank, who was only eighteen and about to be married, said at first that he had been home all night, then admitted that he was out with a girl and didn’t want her name to be brought into the affair. The elder Jordano, sixty-nine and in poor health, told his story about discovering the attack over and over again.
And yet Rose Cortimiglia told her story over and over again too. Frank and Iorlando had both been in the room. It was Frank who had attacked them and killed her baby. She said that the Jordanos hated her husband because both families were in the grocery business in the same block. It was jealousy, she claimed. She gave the police everything they needed – eyewitness testimony and even a motive. Charles Cortimiglia continued to deny her story, “My wife must be out of her mind.”
A few police detectives questioned her story. Frank Jordano was more than six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds. Making a test with a man of similar size, they admitted that a man of Frank’s size could not squeeze through the panel of a door. A sarcastic reporter at the Times-Picayune suggested that perhaps the Axeman was a midget.
When Rose was released from the hospital, she was taken to the Gretna jail. There, she identified the Jordanos again. Pointing a finger at them, she screamed, “You murdered my baby!” and fainted. It was announced that, despite the lack of any real evidence and a continued denial of their guilt by Charles Cortimiglia, the Jordanos would go on trial for murder in May.
But before that could happen, the unfortunate Louis Bossumer went on trial on April 30. He was still being held for the attack on Annie Lowe the previous June, when she had also accused him of being a German spy before she died. The trial was brief and few witnesses were called. District Attorney Chandler Luzenberg summoned Coroner Joseph O’Hara for the state, who described Annie’s wounds and her cause of death. Zanca, the baker, said that Bossumer did not seem to know what he was doing that morning when he opened the door or to even realize that Annie was hurt. The police officers to whom Annie had made her accusation against Bossumer admitted that she had not been very coherent when she said it. Dr. H. W. Kostmayer said that only a very powerful man could have inflicted himself with the kind of wound that Bossumer suffered and he did not believe the defendant was strong enough to have accomplished it. To top it off, federal officers admitted that they had no real evidence that the defendant was a German spy. The next day, the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before finding Bossumer not guilty. Released, Bossumer told reporters that he believed the Axeman had attacked Annie and himself as he had attacked others and that his imprisonment had been due almost entirely to “war feelings,” because he was thought to be a German and was not.
Meanwhile, following the Cortimiglia attacks, New Orleans was again filled with terror. As soon as the attacks appeared in the newspapers, the police began to receive numerous reports of chiseled door panels, axes being found and dark, heavy-set men lurking in neighborhoods, particularly around grocery stores. Many residents, particularly Italian grocers, appealed once more to the police for protection. The newspapers reviewed all of the cases from 1918 and editorialized on the mystery. Police Superintendent Frank Mooney announced that he had assigned a special task force for uncovering the perpetrator of the attacks. He expressed the opinion that he was “sure that all the crimes were committed by the same man, probably a bloodthirsty maniac, filled with a passion for human slaughter.”
Strangely, though, with this being New Orleans, not all of the reaction to the new 1919 attacks was grim and fearful. Probably because the war was over and people were in a more celebratory mood than they had been the day before, there were some who joked about him and even found a bit of humor in the situation. In a bizarre way, the Axeman had become sort of a cult figure in the city. There were reports of “Axeman Parties” and a New Orleans composer wrote a song called “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz” or “Don’t Scare Me Papa!” which became a local favorite. Then, on Friday, March 14, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was printed by the editor of the Times-Picayune. The letter appeared as follows:
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.
The Tuesday on which the Axeman promised to visit the city was March 19, St. Joseph’s Night, a night when New Orleans residents gave parties and dances to celebrate a break in Lent. So, the locals did their best to follow the Axeman’s instructions to the letter. Restaurants and clubs all over town were jammed with revelers. Friends and neighbors gathered in homes throughout the city to "jazz it up" and midnight found New Orleans alive with activity. Banjos, guitars and mandolins strummed into the night and Joseph Davilla’s song, “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz,” became the theme song for the occasion. The cover of the sheet music featured a drawing of a frightened-looking family playing musical instruments in their living room as a young woman peers nervously out the front door.
When the sun rose the next morning, it was learned that not a single attack had occurred that night. Even though it’s doubtful that every home was filled with the sounds of jazz, the Axeman passed over the city, perhaps satisfied by the celebration that was held in his honor.
Frank and Iorlando Jordano went on trial on May 21 for the murder of Mary Cortimiglia. The Gretna courtroom of Judge John H. Fleury was packed with friends and neighbors of both the victims and the accused, making it a chaotic scene. Tensions were running high as the judge called the courtroom to order.
The first witness was Coroner J.R. Fernandez, who described the cause of Mary’s death. In the front row, Rose Cortimiglia, dressed in black, was tense and obviously near hysteria from the moment the proceedings began. Her husband was seated a short distance away, but they did not look at or speak to one another. They had separated immediately after their disagreement over the identification of the Jordanos. Louis Bossumer was in the room, having been called as a survivor of a visitation by the Axeman. He was brought to the stand early in the trial and stated that he could not identify either of the Jordanos as the man who attacked him and Annie Lowe. He couldn’t identify anyone, he concluded, because he never saw the Axeman.
Rose burst into tears when she took the stand, but she reiterated her identification, pointing to the two men again. Some of the people in the courtroom whispered about her and Judge Fleury had to call for order and threaten to clear the room. In spite of his warnings, whispering and angry voices were still heard from friends of the Jordanos.
Charles Cortimiglia once again flatly denied the man with whom he had struggled was either of the Jordanos. He could not understand his wife’s insistence on placing the blame on them, he said. He had seen the man. It had not been Frank or Iorlando – No! She was wrong!
Defense Attorney William F. Byrnes summoned a steady stream of character witnesses for almost all of two days. All testified that the accused were respectable men of fine reputation. Mrs. Iorlando Jordano took the stand and, nervous and tense, was only kept for a moment. She stated that her husband had been home all night and her son had been out with a girl. They had not harmed anyone.
During the second day, a reporter named Andrew Ojeda, was called by the defense. He testified that he had interviewed Mrs. Cortimiglia soon after she regained consciousness. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t know who killed Mary. I believe my husband did it!” This caused another commotion in the courtroom. A woman screamed in the back. Supporters of the Jordanos applauded, while friends of the Cortimiglias booed and hissed. Again the judge had to threaten to clear the courtroom. Charles Cortimiglia sprang to his feet, then sat down again.
The defense and the prosecution both summoned several doctors to the stand, all of whom were asked about Rose Cortimiglia’s mental condition. Predictably, witnesses for the prosecution considered her to be sane, while a doctor called by the defense said that he believed she was suffering from paranoia.
As the trial continued, more and more people fought their way into the courthouse. They brought along small children, babies and box lunches. Several times each day, the judge had to issue his threats because of the bedlam in the courtroom.
On the fourth day, the defense offer more character witnesses for the Jordanos and called another Gretna grocer, Santo Vicari, to the stand. He testified that someone had tried to chisel out a panel in one of his doors only two nights before the attack on the Cortimiglias. He knew the whereabouts of the Jordanos at the time. When Iorlando Jordano took the stand, he said that he thought Rose Cortimiglia was not in her right mind. He had loved little Mary. She had called him “Grampa.” Only a lunatic could imagine that he would have harmed her. He had been as shocked and grieved by the attack as if he had been the child’s grandfather. He had run to the Cortimiglias’ home in answer to Rose’s screams, then his son had come and later his, his wife. All they had tried to do was help.
Frank Jordano was on the stand for two hours. He answered every question with a strong, clear voice and did not waver under the prosecutor’s cross-examination. He had been at a dance with a girl that night. He had lied about that, yes, but had done so to protect the girl and keep her out of the situation. He had been at home and in bed for a little while when he heard Rose Cortimiglia screaming. He had followed his father to her home. His father had been trying to help.
Sheriff L.H. Marrero testified that Rose Cortimiglia had accused the Jordanos at once. There had been no hesitation on her part to do so, he said, no doubt in her mind. She had been positive.
On the fifth day, the case went to the jury and they deliberated for only forty-five minutes. The Jordanos were found guilty. The courtroom erupted with angry shouts of protest. A few days later, sentence was passed. Frank Jordano was sentenced to be hanged. Iorlando Jordano was sentenced to life in prison.
During the excitement of the Jordanos’ trial, and throughout the summer of 1919, the Axeman had been silent. He had either left New Orleans, or his bloodlust had been satiated for a time. But just as the city was getting back to normal again, the killer struck once more. The Axeman had returned.
To be continued….