The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story
From 1910 to 1919, New Orleans suffered at the hands of its very own Jack the Ripper–style killer, while two innocent men nearly paid for one of his crimes with their lives. The story has been the subject of websites, short stories, collections of true crime, novels, a graphic novel, and most recently the FX television series American Horror Story. But the real story of the Axeman of New Orleans has never been written—until now. The Axeman of New Orleans tells this true story of gruesome murders, sympathetic victims, accused innocents, public panic, the New Orleans Mafia, and a mysterious killer.
The Axeman repeatedly broke into the homes of Italian grocers in the dead of night, leaving his victims in a pool of blood. Iorlando Jordano, an innocent Italian grocer, and his teenaged son Frank were wrongly accused of one of those murders; corrupt officials convicted them with coerced testimony.
Miriam C. Davis here expertly tells the story of the search for the Axeman and of the eventual exoneration of the innocent Jordanos. She proves that the person mostly widely suspected of being the Axeman was not the killer. She also shows what few have suspected—that the Axeman continued killing after leaving New Orleans in 1919. Only thirty years after Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel, the Axeman of New Orleans held an American city hostage. This book tells that story.
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Preview Chapter 1
Meet the Characters
Joseph Mumfre was an ex-con, extortionist, blackmailer, and petty criminal typical of the so-called “mafia” that preyed on Italian immigrants in early twentieth-century New Orleans. He’s also the man most often named as a possible Axeman suspect. But was he? The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story definitively answers this question
Harriet Anna Lowe
Who was Anna Harriet Lowe? Was she Louis Besumer’s wife? His mistress? The mysterious young woman was savagely attacked with an axe but later kept changing her story about the assault. Was she another victim of the Axeman? Or a victim of Louis Besumer’s rage?
Italian immigrant Iorlando Jordano had looked upon Louisiana as the land of opportunity and after forty-six of hard work, America had fulfilled its promise. He’d built a successful business and looked forward to quietly spending his remaining days surrounded by his wife and children. But then he and his son Frank were accused of the brutal axe murder of a neighbor’s child, and Iorlando was condemned to live out the rest of his life in prison, branded a killer
At only seventeen, Frank Jordano was a hard-working, accomplished son of immigrants with a world of promise ahead of him. But that world vanished when he was accused and convicted of the murder of two-year-old Mary Cortimiglia. Sentenced to hang, Frank’s only hope was the sole witness against him, the murdered child’s mother Rosie.
He didn’t know the term, but Police Superintendent Frank Mooney realized that he had a serial killer on his hands. He understood that the “fiend” wouldn’t stop killing until he was caught, and he used every weapon at his disposal to protect New Orleans against him. In the end, Mooney was defeated as much by city politics as he was inadequate understanding of those monsters who kill for sport.
Rosie Cortimiglia lost her child, her marriage, and her business the night her family suffered a grisly axe attack. Two-year-old Mary died and Rosie, under pressure from the local sheriff, identified seventeen-year-old Frank Jordano and his elderly father Iorlando as the killers. Based on little more than her eye-witness testimony, Frank was sentenced to the gallows and Iorlando to life in prison. But after the Cortimiglias’ business failed, their marriage disintegrated, and Rosie herself was arrested for immoral behavior, her conscience began to trouble her in a way that led to a life-changing decision, for her and for the Jordanos.
The son of an Italian immigrant in the days when Italians weren’t welcome on the New Orleans police force, Detective John Dantonio’s knowledge of the Italian immigrant community made him a nationally sought after “mafia” expert.” His years of experience gave him special insight into the Axeman crimes.
At first glance, grocer Louis Besumer appeared to be another victim of the Axeman. But police soon grew suspicious: he was a small grocer who boasted of wealth, a man with known aliases who was accused by Harriet Anna Lowe of being a German spy. Before she died of her injuries, Lowe accused Besumer of attacking her. Was he an innocent victim of the Axeman? Or a victimizer crafty enough to pose as a victim?
Young, but already an experienced crime reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jim Coulton became so convinced of the innocence of Frank and Iorlando Jordano that he went beyond reporting the story: he became part of it. Reaching out to the victim of a horrific crime, Coulton tried to help two wrongly convicted men.
Even the most rabid true crime fans might be surprised to learn that, just about a century ago, a serial killer was operating in New Orleans. Between 1910 and 1919—with a still-unexplained six-year gap in the middle of that period—a killer known first as the Cleaver and then as the Axeman, targeted Italian grocers, breaking into their homes and attacking them with an ax or similar instrument. To this day, we don’t know the identity of the killer, or what his motive was, although multiple theories exist about both. The author, a historian, brings an analytical eye and a keen sense of skepticism to the story, dredging through the sparse historical record (which includes contemporaneous newspaper and police reports, as well as some speculation by true-crime writers years after the events took place) to try to bring some sense of coherence to the case. And that is no small task: the story of the Axeman is a story of false leads, bad assumptions, sloppy police work, racial hatred, and even outright deceit on the part of some of the alleged victims (one women knowingly fingered an innocent man as her attacker and almost sent him to the gallows). A riveting story of a serial-killer investigation in a time long before modern-day investigative techniques, or even the term “serial killer,” was invented.
Davis’s (Dame Kathleen Kenyon) first foray into true crime is a great read. Her research into these long ago unsolved crimes, in which Italian grocers and their families were attacked and murdered in New Orleans, first by meat cleaver, then by axe, is exhaustive and thorough. She picks apart previously held theories about the Axeman and his crimes as well as clears old suspects, such as Frank and Iorlando Jordano, who were accused of attacking the Cortimiglia family in Gretna, LA, in 1919. Davis also carefully exposes crimes originally grouped with the Axeman’s, but, at this far viewing, do not appear to be related. Davis uses modern theories and ideas about serial killers and profiling to help explain what the police and newspapers could not—that the Axeman was driven to kill by compulsion—and the similarities of the murders—all Italian grocers living in corner buildings, attacked the same way with an easy-to-find and -discard weapon—are more important than rumors of the Black Hand or vendettas that waylaid the police. She skillfully connects previously unidentified cases with the Axeman post-1919 in other parts of Louisiana. VERDICT A superb read for those who love historical true crime writing, New Orleans history, and real-life tales of serial killers.
Review from Louisiana Life
That same, cleaver-wielding man went on to terrorize the city of New Orleans — specifically Italian grocers — for nine more years according to Miriam Davis, in her newly published book “The Axeman of New Orleans.” This book is distinctive in the canon of Axeman literature because it goes against the widely held belief that the murderer was only active for 18 months during 1918 and 1919.
Robert Tallant is a legend among New Orleans history and literature lovers, so it’s no small hurdle Davis clears when she discredits some of his assertions about the Axeman in his much-loved book, “Ready to Hang.”
Davis says her book contains the most comprehensive research and exploration of the crimes — and after reading it, I agree.
Davis is a formidable opponent to Tallant’s barroom-style research — she holds a PhD in history and works as a Smithsonian Journeys lecturer; her book contains 22 pages of notes, an 11-page bibliography as well as 28 photographs, floor plans, cartoons and maps from primary sources.
Don’t let the highbrow credentials scare you though, the book reads like a modern-day thriller:
“Moving noiselessly, the intruder passed through the kitchen through the grocery store, and on into the bedroom. There, he pulled back the mosquito netting that protected sleepers in subtropical New Orleans from harassing insects, raised the stolen meat cleaver, and struck the sleeping grocer twice.”
What follows is a recounting of the crimes Davis believes can be attributed to the Axeman. Using police documents, newspapers and other source material of the day, she follows the killer’s trail as he moved through New Orleans, DeRidder and Lake Charles. She tests the theories that police subscribed to during their investigations; was he a murderous burglar, drug addict or member of the Black Hand?
Davis says the reason the crimes remain unsolved is due to lack of forensic capabilities. Additionally, the New Orleans police department was a late-adopter of basic crime scene preservation procedures and woefully undertrained. The 1911 force is described thusly in her book:
“Poorly paid, haphazardly paid, often inexperienced, New Orleans policemen were almost as much a menace as the criminals they pursued. They routinely broke the law against carrying concealed weapons. Worse, when they drew their revolvers, they were lousy shots, usually missing the criminals at whom they aimed and frequently hitting innocent bystanders.”
Despite this, Davis finds herself in agreement with one of the Axeman investigators regarding the murderer’s profile and she points out that serial killers are notoriously difficult to identify, even today. She also works to disprove that the man long-suspected in the media of being the killer was in fact, not.
The last quarter of the book is devoted to the highly emotional and legal arc (think “To Kill a Mockingbird”) of the father-and-son duo falsely accused of one of the Axeman’s crimes, Iorlando and Frank Jordano.
“The story of Frank and his family merits telling because it illustrates the experience of Italian immigrants and the niche they carved out for themselves in the social hierarchy of early 20-century Louisiana as well as the social prejudice against them,” Davis writes in her preface.
Davis REALLY did her research for this book, delving deep into NOLA records (which isn't always easy, post-Katrina!), and presents a true cold-case with no true clear suspect(s). One really has to wonder while reading the book, at how modern technology could have possibly made a dent in the evidence recovered, and if a DNA match would ever have been made, bringing the culprit to justice. Instead many families fell prey to the Axeman, for no apparent reason. For some, their lives were never the same. This is a true story of the immigrant middle class of NOLA, and how they lived the American dream, and then had it snatched away in the middle of the night.
It's also an interesting look at how law enforcement was in the early 1900s and how as detection technology and techniques helped to raise it into a profession of astute individuals. David gives a riveting page turner, that takes the facts of the cases and offers possible scenarios and events leading up to the crimes, that make them all the more horrific, for their unsolvability. And while Davis gives the goosebump idea of The Axeman cutting a swath across Louisiana, one can only wonder who knows the true story, hidden in a family diary, and who can answer the one question no one can: "Why?".
If you love history, especially that if NOLA, be sure to put this one on your holiday wish list!
(And Kudos to Davis for a great cover art selection-it really sets the tone for the book!)