The death-defying dance of life in New Orleans

On Friday, thousands of New Orleanians will gather to mark the much-discussed Mayan apocalypse with song and dance.

Ninety-three years ago, the city’s residents also fought fear by flipping their tail feathers, but the threat that inspired them had its basis in blood rather than astrological speculation.

A letter claiming to be from the Axeman was published in New Orleans newspapers on March 13, 1919.

A letter claiming to be from the Axeman was published in New Orleans newspapers on March 13, 1919. Image from Wikipedia.

A serial killer appeared to be on the loose in the city, linked to the deaths of at least eight people slain in their homes, with a axe or straight razor, by an assailant who gained entry by chiseling a panel out of the back door. The criminal never robbed the victims. On each occasion, the murder weapon was left behind for the police to find.

On March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the killer appeared in New Orleans newspapers, vowing to kill again on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, at 15 minutes past midnight. Those who wished to be spared, the letter said, should find their way to a place where “a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned.”

Although the letter contained no details to suggest that its author was actually the killer, New Orleans leapt to the promise of saving themselves while passing a good time doing so. The city’s dance halls were filled to capacity on St. Joseph’s Night, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

One of the tunes that likely was performed that night was “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa),” by local musician Joseph John Davilla. The sheet music for the song, published by New Orleans based World’s Music Publishing Company, is on display through Feb. 8 as part of the “Something Old, Something New: Collecting in the 21st Century” exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal St.

Killings attributed to the Axeman ended seven months later, on Oct. 27, 1919, with the slaying of Mike Pepitone, a grocer who operated a store at the corner of South Scott and Ulloa streets. Speculation on the identity of the killer centered on Joseph Momfre, an idea that gained credence a few years ago, with the publication of “The first Mafia boss of Los Angeles? The Mystery of Vito Di Giorgio, 1880-1922,” by Richard Warner, in a privately published journal.

Di Giorgio lived most of his life as a grocer in New Orleans. Mafiosi at the time often used grocery stores as fronts for rackets and extortion. The Axeman’s victims were predominantly grocers and bakers of Italian descent. Warner’s research on Di Giorgio links the identities of Joseph Momfre and Leone J. Manfre, who was killed by Mike Pepitone’s widow in Los Angeles on Dec. 5, 1921.

From its earliest days, New Orleans has grappled with disaster. If its people breathe their last on Friday, they will pass a good time doing so.

The Axeman’s letter

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

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.

The Mysterious Axman's Jazz, courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 2008.0052

The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz, courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 2008.0052

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 Axeman

Much has been written about the New Orleans Axeman. Here are a few links:

Travel Channel report on “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz.”

A humorous take by Bruce Raeburn.

An article on the Richard Warner paper on Vito Di Giorgio.

A pay site offering access to the Richard Warner paper.

An article on St. Joseph’s Day altars. I find it relevant that St. Joseph’s Day was a highlight of the year for Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans.

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