Just after dawn on the morning of 22 May 1918, police called to a respectable dwelling in the poorest quarter of New Orleans discovered a horrific sight. A baker by the name of Joseph Maggio and his young wife, Catherine, lay sprawled on a double bed sticky with blood. The couple had been brutally attacked by a man wielding an axe. Both victims had been struck several times in the face, and Catherine’s throat had been cut so violently that her head was almost severed from her body.
The Maggios were the first of no fewer than 12 victims of a murderer who earned the soubriquet ‘The Axeman of New Orleans’ – killings which ran until the autumn of 1919, were never solved, and stopped as mysteriously as they had started. The murders became infamous not merely for their violence but for the bizarre modus operandi of the Axeman himself. Each victim was Italian, and either a grocer or a baker. Each was killed in his own home by an assailant who gained entry by carefully chiselling a panel out of the backdoor. On each occasion, the murder weapon was left behind for the police to find – the axe used to kill the Maggios was discovered propped up in their bath.
And then there was the Axeman’s unexplained obsession with jazz.
The Louisiana murderer was the first serial killer since Jack the Ripper who was popularly believed to write to the press about his exploits, and his communications were not merely as terrifying as the Whitechapel killer’s – they hold definite Fortean interest. In one communication, the Axeman claimed to be no mortal murderer but ‘a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell’, and as it became clear that the police had no leads and no prospects of an arrest, there were many in the city who believed him. Then, in March 1919, ‘the greatest bogeyman that New Orleans has ever known’ wrote to the New Orleans Times-Picayune to make this direct threat:
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.
As the Times-Picayune reported, the citizens of New Orleans did their best to follow the Axeman’s instructions to the letter. Restaurants and clubs all over town were jammed with dancers; friends and neighbors gathered in their homes to “jazz it up”, and every musician in the city had been engaged. By midnight almost every house in the city was alive with noise, many of them pounding out a new composition by the well-known local composer Joseph Davilla entitled “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz”.
The Axeman spared New Orleans that night, but he returned later that same year to claim at least four more lives, the last of them that of another grocer named Mike Pepitone. There was a coda to the story, nonetheless. A year after Pepitone’s death, in December 1920, his widow was arrested in Los Angeles after shooting dead a man whose name is generally given as Joseph Mumfre. According to Mrs Pepitone, she had recognised Mumfre as the Axeman.
The Crescent City killings remain arguably the most perplexing unsolved murders in US history. Was Mumfre really the New Orleans murderer? Why was the Axeman so interested in Italian shopkeepers? Was there evidence, as the police claimed, that he had struck before, in 1911? And why did the murders stop abruptly when they did?
Most of these questions, unanswered at the time, remain unanswered today; there has never been a book devoted to the Axeman case. The notion that a series of very similar killings of Italians took place in New Orleans in 1911 – mentioned occasionally in 1918-1919 and in every account of the story written between then and the mid-1990s – was effectively demolished a few years ago when the author Michael Newton completed the first reliable research into the Axeman and discovered that the killer’s earliest alleged victims either did not exist or had not actually been murdered by a killer with an axe. Other than that, though, little new information emerged until a few months ago, when a long article appeared in a privately published journal devoted to Mafia history.This paper, ostensibly devoted to the rise of the earliest Los Angeles Mafosi, turned out to have a good deal to say about the Axeman killings (Richard Warner, ‘The first Mafia boss of Los Angeles? The Mystery of Vito Di Giorgio, 1880-1922.’ In The On The Spot Journal, summer 2008).
There had, it’s fair to say, been vague suggestions earlier that the Louisiana Axeman had had some sort of links with the Mafia. New Orleans was the first city in the United States to have a Mafia family of its own (its links with the Sicilian society go back at least to 1879), and early twentieth century Mafiosi in both New York and New Orleans used grocery stores as fronts for rackets and extortion (see my The First Family (London: Simon & Schuster, 2009 pp.84-5,115-16, 119). Warner, though, seems to confirm it. According to his extensive research in the newspapers and legal records of the time, the attacks on Italian grocers attributed to the Axeman of New Orleans were actually by-products of small wars fought between the Mafiosi of the city.
The story Warner tells is complex and, in typical Mafia fashion, largely inscrutable. It begins on 12 March 1910, when a Mafioso named Paul DiCristina attempted to murder the city’s then boss, Vincenzo Moreci. The attempt was unsuccessful – Moreci survived, albeit with extensive wounds. Scarcely surprisingly, DiCristina himself was then killed, on 13 April, with a shotgun, in a grocery store. The owner of the store, and the man who killed him, was Pietro – Peter – Pepitone.
In Warner’s fully-referenced telling of the story, the DiChristina murder was followed by several others involving Italian grocers. ‘Perhaps in retaliation,’ he writes, ‘on July 13, 1910, a man demanding money shot Joseph Manzella, who owned a grocery store and a saloon, to death in his store. Manzella’s seventeen-year-old daughter grabbed her father’s gun and fatally shot the gunman, Giuseppe Spennazzio. Manzella had received several Black Hand letters prior to his death. [And] after grocer Joseph Davi was beaten to death and his bride wounded, an investigator was warned to stop looking or face serious harm himself.Attacks on grocers continued with the killing of 52-year-old Anthony Genna on May 8, 1912, and then of Anthony J. Salambra (or Sciambra), a 27-year-old grocer who was shot to death, and his wife injured, while they were both asleep in bed in their home on May 16, 1912. Finally, on 19 November 1915, Moreci himself was killed, shot down by three assassins on the street. The man held by the police as chief suspect in this killing was one Joseph Monfre, who had only recently been released from serving a short prison sentence.
Writers on the Axeman case have frequently asserted that the ‘Joseph Mumfre’ who was involved in the Mike Pepitone murder had served several terms in prison, and that his intervening spells of freedom coincided uncannily with the Axeman murders. Warner’s evidence certainly suggests that Monfre might perhaps have been involved in the New Orleans grocery killings of 1910-12.
According to Warner, the chief suspect in the Axeman case was really named neither Mumfre nor Monfre, which may explain why some sceptical researchers, attempting to follow up leads, have been perplexed to discover no reference to any man named Mumfre in the Los Angeles newspapers of the time. Manfre, he writes, did indeed relocate from New Orleans to Los Angeles around 1919. He was
otherwise known as the infamous Frank “Doc” Mumphrey. Apparently he was also known as Joseph Monfre.
Known as “Doc” Mumphrey because he was a pharmacist by profession, Manfre led a double life. Manfre is believed by students of New Orleans folklore and authorities on serial killers to have been the “Axe Man of New Orleans,” responsible for a string of killings of grocery store owners and their families from 1910 and then 1915 to 1919. To many New Orleans citizens, it appeared to be more than a coincidence that there was a gap in the grisly murders while Manfre was doing time in prison. As Joseph Manfre, he was believed to have been connected to the 1907 Lamana kidnapping [a noted Mafia crime]. He was arrested for dynamiting the grocery store of Charles Graffagninno in 1908, and was considered an intermediary between Di Giorgio and his extortion victim Joseph Serio. He was given a twenty-year sentence and sent to prison two years later. While awaiting sentencing, the first in the series of grocer killings began. After his release in 1915, he and Angelo Albano were picked up for questioning by New Orleans police. Peter Pepitone, also recently released from prison, told police that two men had tried to break into his home two weeks before Vincenzo Moreci’s murder. Monfre was “detained as a dangerous and suspicious character” until further investigation.
Manfre/Monfre, Warner adds, was joined in LA by his old associate Albano, who moved west and opened – you guessed it – an Italian grocery store.
Manfre and his daughter moved to 1719 E. 24th Street and operated a small drugstore in San Bernardino. The Albanos moved to 554 E. 36th Street. Reportedly they had a real estate business together, but Albano didn’t like his way of “doing business” and bought out Manfre’s share. One day in October 1921, Manfre paid a visit to Albano and he never returned. Albano’s wife suspected that Manfre killed him and told the LAPD. Two months later, on December 5, 1921, after getting nowhere with police authorities, he arrogantly came to her house to confront her and demand money. When he attempted to hit her, she reached for a gun and shot him in the head, chest and abdomen. Leone J. Manfre, 45, died instantly.
After she killed Manfre, Mrs. Albano told authorities that she was previously married to a grocer by the name of Michele Pepitone. On January 12, 1921, she went to Los Angeles to attend her niece’s wedding and met Albano there. Albano had been married to Mrs.Pepitone’s sister, but she had since passed away. Four months later he proposed and they were married on September 12th. However, an examination of the marriage licenses and certificates of marriage for Esther Pepitone and her niece reveal a different story. The niece, Rose Albano, seventeen at the time of her wedding, married Frank R. Cusimano, 26, on September 7, 1921, not January 12th. Esther Pepitone married Angelo Albano using the name Pasqua Pipitone on September 2, 1921 – less than a week before the niece’s wedding.
She added that Manfre not only killed her second husband, but her first as well. One of the murders attributed to the “Axe Man of New Orleans” was of Michele “Mike” Pepitone, 35, who was killed October 27, 1919. Mike Pepitone was a grocer who operated a store at the corner of South Scott and Ulloa streets, was the son of the same Peter Pepitone who was sent to prison for killing Paul Di Cristina in 1910. On the 27th he was seen arguing with two men described as Italians. Later that night, at about 1:50 a.m., his wife woke to his groans after he was beaten in the head with an 18-inch pipe with a 3-inch nut. His head was beaten beyond recognition, and died within hours. Although he was killed with a pipe, this murder has been linked to the other axe murders in the press. When interviewed at the time, the future Mrs. Angelo Albano gave the police only vague descriptions of the two killers as they left their room at the back of the store. Either she knew more than she was letting on, or she discovered additional information later. Esther Albano pleaded self-defense and was sentenced to ten years in prison.
So there you have it. The Axeman of New Orleans was not so much a serial killer as a Mafia vendetta. Taken as a whole, Warner’s evidence, richly referenced, strongly suggests that the entire case was the offshoot of various internal criminal disputes in the Crescent City, and that the murders themselves were either the products of extortion plots or of power struggles within New Orleans’s Mafia family. At the very least, Warner’s work has put on record important new information relating to the Pepitones and Joseph Mumfre/Manfre/Monfre – not to mention referencing the Pepitone/Mumfre murder properly for the first time. Those interested in the Axeman case would do well to follow up his work by consulting the following sources:
Michele Pepitone death: Ancestry.com, New Orleans, Louisiana Death Records Index,1804-1949 (Provo, UT: Ancestry.com, 2002), originally from State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management, and History, Vital Records Indices, vol. 177, p. 578. A Michele Pipitone [sic], 21, is noted to have married a Pasquala Albano, 16, on April 24, 1906, in New Orleans (Ancestry.com, New Orleans, Louisiana Marriage Records Index, 1831-1925 [Provo, UT: Ancestry.com, 2002]: Originally from State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management, and History, Vital Records Indices, vol. 27, page92??); New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct 27-29,1919
Manfre Mafia background: New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 18, 1908.
Manfre and Albano murders: Certificate of Death for Leone J. Manfre, No. 8327, County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Archives; Los Angeles Daily Times, Oct 30, Nov 6, Dec 6-29, 1921, Los Angeles Evening Herald-Examiner, Dec 8-15,1921.