From 1910 to 1919, New Orleans suffered at the hands of a serial killer. The story has been the subject of short stories, novels, and the television series American Horror Story. But the full story of gruesome murders, accused innocents, public panic, the New Orleans Mafia, and a mysterious killer has never been written—until now. The Axeman broke into the homes of Italian grocers in the dead of night, leaving his victims in a pool of blood. Iorlando Jordano and his 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 exoneration of the Jordanos. She proves that the person suspected of being the Axeman was not the killer—and that the Axeman continued killing after leaving New Orleans in 1919.
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About the Author
Miriam C. Davis has a PhD in history and is the author of Dame Kathleen Kenyon, a life of the most important female archeologist of the twentieth century. She lectures for Smithsonian Journeys and lives in Montgomery, Alabama.
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The Axeman of New Orleans
The True Story
By Miriam C. Davis
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Miriam C. Davis
All rights reserved.
3 AM, Sunday, March 9, 1919
THE KILLER BALANCED ON the chair as he looked through the window, straining to see the figures in the bed. It was a moonless night; he couldn't see much by the light of the one electric bulb dimly illuminating the room. It didn't matter. He knew they were there. He went around to the back and broke in in the way for which he was famous, carefully chiseling out a panel of the heavy kitchen door. He worked steadily, taking his time, pausing when he needed to; no reason to hurry. When the panel finally came off, he slipped his gloved hand through the door and eased back the bolt. Once in, he moved surely through the tiny kitchen, in stocking feet so his heavy boots wouldn't clatter on the wood floors, straight through the dining room, past the door leading to the small grocery, and stopped at the bedroom door. He paused, listening to the breathing of the sleeping figures. Then, getting a tighter grip on the heavy axe, he entered the bedroom.
Minutes later, his work done, he walked unhurriedly through the dining room and the kitchen, out the door, and down the steps. He tossed the axe carelessly under the house, human hair still clinging to the quickly drying blood. Sitting down on the stoop, he pulled his boots back on, tugging at them firmly before lacing them up. Then he vanished into the night. The Axeman of New Orleans had claimed another victim.
* * *
Carnival had just ended. Only four days before, the murderer and his victim had both jostled with the crowds flooding the streets of New Orleans. Mardi Gras was meant to be a sedate affair this year, very unlike the one two years before in 1917. That year it was celebrated with all its magical grandeur, perhaps with a little more intensity than usual given that anyone could see that the United States was about to go to war. The Carnival season, between Epiphany and Lent, was a season of balls, pageants, parades, and general exuberance. It culminated in two hedonistic days before Ash Wednesday. New Orleanians were not reticent about enjoying themselves in anticipation of Lent; maybe they thought they needed the pagan holiday to get through the penitential season.
Each year on the eve of Mardi Gras, Rex — King of Carnival, Monarch of Mirth — arrived at noon, steaming up to the landing at the foot of Canal Street in his royal yacht, where he was met by thousands of his frolicsome subjects. Dressed in white satin and silver cloth, he led his parade through the heart of the city, accompanied by mounted police, artillery battalions, sailors, marines, National Guardsmen, and Boy Scouts. At city hall, the mayor presented Rex with the keys of the city, inaugurating his merry thirty-six-hour rule. On Fat Tuesday, Rex again processed through the streets, leading a parade of floats so elaborate they took their krewes a full year to create. In 1917, framed in a great golden crown, Rex had led a dazzling pageant of twenty floats whose theme, "The Gift of the Gods to Louisiana," used glittering images from ancient mythology to illustrate the wonders of the state. The crowds loved it.
Mardi Gras wasn't just about parades and pageants. On Fat Tuesday the population itself took to the streets in costumes and masks. Clowns, gypsies, elves, and pirates packed into Canal Street and danced to jazz bands playing on street corners; red devils and black-faced minstrels added a touch of the grotesque, children dressed as bumblebees a touch of the comical. The city center became a playground for high-spirited antics. Identities safely hidden, people dared what they'd never do unmasked. Maskers danced with complete strangers; respectable women invaded bars; masked matrons peeked into houses of ill repute on Basin Street.
But in 1919, Rex announced that this year he would not leave his palace in Araby the Blest to descend upon New Orleans. Celebrations had been canceled in 1918 because of the war. Such frivolity didn't seem quite right with American boys dying in French mud. The thousands who enjoyed the pageants and parades and costumes swallowed their disappointment and looked forward to the resumption of festivities at the end of the war. March 1919, however, just four months after the end of a conflict that left over 116,000 Americans dead, still seemed too soon. The celebration of Carnival was scaled back. A few modest parades were planned, private masked balls were permitted, but the TimesPicayune tried to lower expectations: "There will be no gorgeous pageants to fill the streets with a blaze of color and light."
Apparently, no one checked with the people of New Orleans.
By ten on the morning of Mardi Gras, the spirit of Carnival had overwhelmed the city fathers' reluctance and spontaneously impelled thousands of masked merrymakers into the streets. Costumed in bright silks, satins, and velvets, revelers swaggered up and down the banquettes, hung out of slick new automobiles, and hitched rides on horse-drawn wagons. The twang of banjos and the reedy hum of clarinets floated through the air. A truck carrying a calliope pushed its way through the crowds, adding its steam-driven whistles to the general din. Elves, gnomes, hula dancers, Spanish dons, Cherokee warriors, and harem beauties made their way down Saint Charles Avenue. Cross-dressing was surprisingly popular, with young women uniformed as soldiers competing for attention with grown men made up as Japanese geishas. No "modest, even ... somber Carnival" was this. By midday any pretense that the day was in any way normal had vanished; the city was one big party. Businesses closed. Housewives found themselves abandoned by household help who had joined the masked throngs. Even the weather cooperated, an approving sun driving out threatening clouds.
Frank Jordano and his girlfriend Josie Spera joined the flood of humanity that darkened the Central Business District, floating along with the crowd down Canal Street, laughing at the masked sprites, the satin-clad cavaliers, the women dressed as redbirds. They tried to listen to the primitive jazz band at the corner of Saint Charles and Canal, heroically attempting to make its ragtime heard over the cacophony of the crowd. They gaped at the red devils and harlequins driving delivery wagons. They ate hot dogs on Canal Street from a vendor hawking them from the back of his wagon. All day and into the night, they shared the streets with the happy crush of surging humanity.
They also shared the streets with a more sinister companion. He, too, enjoyed the crowds and the masks and the music. But his was a malevolent spirit that threatened Frank and Josie and their future happiness.
That night, that memorable Mardi Gras, Frank was a happy young man, ambitious and optimistic. An exemplary son of Sicilian immigrants, he worked hard and made big plans. At seventeen he was already an insurance agent and engaged to Josie, a sweet local girl; he anticipated a flourishing American life, a happy family, a prosperous business. But three nights after Mardi Gras, Josie had a dream. She dreamed that evil was about to descend on the neighborhood. She was prescient. Frank's life was about to become a nightmare.
* * *
Screams tore through the quiet Gretna neighborhood on an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning. Hazel Johnson, a young black woman, bolted out of the Cortimiglias' combination residence and grocery, yelling for someone, anyone to help — the Cortimiglias had been murdered!
Frank Jordano was upstairs in bed when his twenty-year-old sister Lena's hysterical cries — "Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!" — punctured his sleep. Panic-stricken, thinking something had happened to their mother, he tumbled down the stairs, dressing on the way. Facing his sister, shirt unbuttoned, shoes on without socks, he demanded, "Lena, what's the trouble? Is it Mama?"
"They're dead," she wept. "Mr. Cortimiglia, Mrs. Cortimiglia, and the baby are dead." Dazed, he stared at her: "Do you mean that?" "Yes," she insisted. "Hazel Johnson came running out hollering that they were dead."
At that moment, he looked up to see Ella Kennedy, Hazel's aunt who had accompanied her on her errand to the store, coming out of the alley that led to the back of the Cortimiglias' place, screaming that the baby was dead.
Still buckling his belt and buttoning his shirt, Frank raced into the alley that separated his home from that of the Cortimiglias, ran down it and around to the kitchen entrance to the Cortimiglia home. Despite the recent dispute between the families over rental property, he liked the Cortimiglias. And he adored their little girl. Sprinting up the steps to the little house, he joined the growing crowd that crammed into the single, small bedroom. Peering over the heads of the others who'd already arrived, what he saw there changed his life.
Charles Cortimiglia and his young wife Rosie lay draped across their bed from opposite sides; the body of their dead toddler lay still between them. The room was soaked in crimson. Blood drenched the bed; it speckled the wall and stained the curtains; it pooled on the floor. You could have wrung buckets of it out of the mosquito bar, the gauzelike netting that had covered the sleepers. From one wall, a picture of the Virgin Mary gazed serenely down on the pain and blood.
Frank's parents had beaten their son to the scene. Even old Mr. Jordano, achy with rheumatism, had moved faster than he'd done for months and had followed his wife from their house to their neighbors', curious and frightened at the same time. Mrs. Jordano took in the situation at a glance: Rosie lay still. Charlie was barely conscious, awash in his own blood, half on and half off the bed, kneeling with his upper body slumped across it. Going over to him, Mrs. Jordano asked, "Mr. Charlie, Mr. Charlie, what can I do for you?" A voice from the back of the crowd advised, "Don't do anything until the doctor comes." Charlie Cortimiglia could barely shake his head. Feeling helpless but desperate to do something, Mrs. Jordano went to get a bucket of water and a cloth to bathe his bloodied face. Frank took her place by the side of the bed, asking, "Charlie, for Christ's sake, who done this?" Charlie couldn't speak before he passed out. Frank cradled his neighbor in his arms as he kept him from falling over. As he did so, he glanced at the body of the toddler lying beside him. The little girl had been playing at his house only days before. Frank — big, husky, 275-pound Frank — began to cry.
Charlie came to and moved his lips as if trying to speak. Frank leaned down to make out what he was saying. Charlie was only able to get out "Frank, I'm dying. Get my brother-in-law" before lapsing into unconsciousness again.
Determined to carry out what seemed very likely to be Charlie's dying wish, Frank left him in the care of his parents and the other neighbors and went outside. As he left the house he ran into his sister Lena, who had finally found her nerve and come to see for herself what had happened. Pale and wiping away tears, Frank knew that she wasn't ready for the scene he'd just left. "Don't go in there," he snapped as he darted past. "If you see what's in there, it'll kill you." Running on, he hurriedly hitched up his horse and buggy, leapt into the seat, and snapped the reins.
Under the circumstances, Frank reckoned that finding a doctor was a higher priority than locating a brother-in-law. Charlie Cortimiglia would forgive him if he briefly delayed his errand. The first doctor he called on was not at home. Having better luck with his second choice, Dr. G. W. Rossner, he begged him to hurry to the Cortimiglias: "People are dying down there!"
After the doctor promised to head right over, Frank turned his buggy in the direction of Amesville, a small farming community about three miles up the river from Gretna. Setting his horse to a brisk trot along the dirt track running next to the Southern Pacific Railroad line, he thought unhappily of news he had to deliver: that the Cortimiglias had been cut up and robbed. For that, reasonably enough, was what he assumed had happened. Perhaps the thought flitted across his mind that they had been victims of the "fiend" — that's what the newspapers called him — from across the river. But no, he had never struck in Gretna, always in New Orleans itself. Frank flicked the reins to make the horse go faster.
Dr. Rossner arrived at the Cortimiglias' to find a houseful of people milling about the bedroom. He took one look at the figures on the bed and realized he could do nothing for them. What they needed was Charity Hospital, and as soon as possible. Fortunately, Manny Fink had already realized that.
Emmanuel Fink — "Manny" to his neighbors — engineer, machinist, businessman, and city councilman — was an energetic man used to taking charge. Living only half a block from the Cortimiglias, he had been one of the first to be roused by Hazel's cries. After seeing that Rosie and Charlie were still alive, he left the bedroom and grabbed Tony Winters, the first person he met on his way out of the house, and ordered, "Come back here; these people are all chopped up." He stationed Winters at the bedroom door with orders not to touch anything and not to let anyone else touch anything.
Fink then telephoned everyone he could think of: the sheriff, the chief of police, a couple of doctors, and the Charity Hospital ambulance. Charity Hospital was not as helpful as he had expected. The big-city hospital, he was informed, did not extend their ambulance service to his side of the Mississippi. The unpaved roads of little Gretna were so bad that the hospital was afraid of the ambulance getting stuck on the far side of the river. For God's sake, Fink insisted, two people are dying here. Well, the hospital offered, we could have the ambulance meet you at the foot of Jackson Avenue. You just have to get them to the ferry and across the river.
Fink wasn't left with much choice. He returned to the Cortimiglias' to find the police chief and deputy sheriff. He reported the hospital's response and then went home to get his own horse and wagon. Hitching up his horse as quickly as he could, Fink drove back to the Cortimiglia place.
There, someone had found a thin mattress to use as a stretcher. Gingerly, Rosie was placed on the mattress and numerous hands gently lifted her into the wagon. But what about Charlie? Fink looked around, not seeing another potential stretcher. Then someone had the clever idea of using the bathroom door. Someone else grabbed the axe — covered in congealed blood — that had already been found underneath the house and knocked the door free of its hinges. As Charlie was carried out of the room, Fink glanced back to see two pieces of skull lying on the bed. Shaking off the sight, he snatched up the reins and sent his horse as fast as he dared down the dozen blocks to the ferry.
Little Mary Cortimiglia's body was left lying on the bed. A neighbor put a blanket over it. Someone else called Fred Leitz's undertaking parlor.
* * *
Dr. Henry Leidenheimer strode down the wide hallways of Charity Hospital toward the Accident Room. As the surgeon on duty, new cases were reported to him first. At thirty-nine, he was an experienced surgeon. And Charity, despite the name, was a good hospital. Established for the poor in the early eighteenth century, it was one of the oldest public hospitals in the country and a well-regarded teaching hospital for Tulane Medical School. The main building dated from 1832; the very solidity of the imposing three-storied brown structure, lateral wings flanking both ends of the central corridor, was reassuring. Overcrowded and chronically short of funds, Charity nevertheless managed to provide a fairly decent standard of care for the city's needy, both white and "colored," by the standards of the time. The Cortimiglias would need all the expertise Charity and Dr. Leidenheimer had to offer.
In the treatment room, Leidenheimer examined the couple, now lying on clean white metal hospital beds instead of their makeshift stretchers. Axe wounds didn't particularly surprise him; the presence of axes and hatchets in most homes for chopping firewood made them obvious weapons of choice in domestic disputes; irate people in New Orleans periodically took a swing at each other. Only last year, a man had gotten himself shot when he took after a friend with a kitchen axe. But these were particularly bad cases. A quick glance told him that Charlie probably wouldn't live: two severe cuts had sliced through his head, fracturing his skull and cutting into the soft tissue and brain beneath; his traumatized brain had swollen, oozing through the fractured bone like mud through the slats of a chicken crate. Dr. Leidenheimer shook his head. All he could do for Charlie was clean his wounds with antiseptic, dress them, and hope for the best.
Excerpted from The Axeman of New Orleans by Miriam C. Davis. Copyright © 2017 Miriam C. Davis. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Evil Descends 1
2 The Cleaver 14
3 Dagoes, Sugarcane, and Muffulettas 27
4 The Davi Murder 37
5 The Black Hand 62
6 The Cleaver Returns 75
1 A German Spy? 104
8 Axeman Hysteria 123
9 The Mysterious Axeman's Jazz 142
10 "Hung by the Neck Until Dead, Dead, Dead" 168
11 Verdict 189
12 False Lead 210
13 Bosie and Saint Joseph 228
14 The Final Chapter? 252
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Author Davis' retelling of these crimes is very detailed and well researched. She gives an unbiased report on how these serial murders occurred, but does not blame any one specific group. While she does believe that the assailant was white, I am disappointed that she did not give her readers a name or names other than just suspects like her claims insist. However, her intelligence on the matter does give her readers that she is the first writer of these murders that gives the best explanation there has ever been on these murders. If you are a fan of true crime and particularly centuries-old cases, Davis is amongst those definitive writers who is credit worthy and a leader of her