“The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story”
Author: Miriam G. Davis
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
Perhaps the most famous serial killer of all time was Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the Whitechapel District of London in 1888.
That deranged killer attacked prostitutes, stabbed the women, slashed their throats and sometimes partially disemboweled them.
The city of New Orleans, in the years between 1910 and 1920, was likewise terrorized by some kind of madman, dubbed “The Axeman.”
Miriam C. Davis of Montgomery, a professor of history for 16 years at Delta State University, with a PhD from UC-Santa Barbara, who is now a freelance writer, has laid out surely all there is to know about the Axeman, in this fully researched account. There were earlier articles and even books about the Axeman, which Davis has rigorously examined and, probably rightly, found wanting.
The killer struck in the middle of the night, while his victims were asleep.
He would move through backyards and there find his murder weapon. There was a woodpile, chopping block, axe and hatchet behind nearly every house. The Axeman would usually remove a door panel, reach in and unlock the back door, and then, shoeless, quietly enter the bedroom and attack the husband, striking him repeatedly in the head, then the wife and sometimes baby children.
It seems he then left in a leisurely fashion.
It seems the killer liked blood; there was lots of it.
Most of the victims died, but not all, so there were some eyewitness accounts, understandably sketchy.
Police, and the public in general wanted to think of these as burglaries gone wrong, but the Axeman rarely stole anything, sometimes ignoring obvious cash and jewelry.
Like the London newspapers 25 years earlier, the New Orleans papers feasted upon these killings and headlines proclaimed a fiend on the loose.
But where Jack attacked prostitutes, the Axeman attacked Italian grocers.
Davis’ account of the Italian, more accurately Sicilian, community in New Orleans, is perhaps the best part of her book. By 1920 between 100,000 and 290,00 Italians had passed through New Orleans into Louisiana.in This community of Sicilian immigrants must have been among the most industrious migrants in the world. A newcomer would work at some job in the Louisiana cane fields, at the docks or in construction, make as much as $1.50 a day, save every penny, and then open up a small business, sometimes a shoe repair shop or barber shop, usually a small grocery and saloon.
The little grocery would be run by the wife and the saloon by her husband. The family lived in back of the businesses which were open 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, earning a modest living.
As arduous as this may seem, Davis explains that, back in Sicily, the husband would probably have been an agricultural worker with no possibilities, just a lifetime of toil. Here, he and his wife could be independent business people.
In a time before electric refrigerators, housewives shopped every day, sometimes twice, and there was a need for a small grocery on nearly every corner. At one of them, Central Grocery, the muffuletta was born.
Because the victims were Italians, police liked to think the killings were Mafia-related, the Black Hand at work, either revenge in some vendetta or perhaps punishment for grocers who had failed to pay extortion money.
As Davis makes quite clear, the New Orleans Police Department was both incompetent and corrupt. Hiring was controlled by the political machine. Some confessions were coerced, witnesses were bullied. The CSI methods we are all so familiar with now hardly existed. There was still little use even of fingerprinting, and “profiling,” important in apprehending serial killers, who had no discernable motive, was unknown.
Mafia violence was not unknown, but the Axeman was not Mafia.
We never do learn WHY he wanted to strike sleeping Italian grocers in the head with an ax.
Although Davis eliminates several suspects, describes the trials of some falsely accused, like Frank and Iorlando Jordano who narrowly escaped the gallows, and narrates the crimes themselves in amazing detail, the identity of the Axeman is never actually revealed. This is disappointing, true, but not a deal breaker. “The Axeman” is still a nicely detailed true-crime tale with some fascinating social history thrown in.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.