Jazz, the Devil, and the Axeman of New Orleans
Everyone knows that the blues is the devil’s music, ever since Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for musical success. But, according to a letter to the City of New Orleans a century ago, it is jazz that the inhabitants of the underworld prefer.
A serial killer walked the beautiful but vaguely ominous streets of 1918 New Orleans, chiseling his way into back doors of the homes of local merchants. He usually did not bring along a weapon, but would search his victim’s abode for an axe, using it to inflict a horrific, bloody wrath and, in some cases, an end to the lives of the occupants. He would then help himself to a bite to eat from their kitchens before disappearing into the night.
The first attack officially attributed to the Axeman was that upon a Mr. and Mrs. Maggio. Mr. Maggio was an Italian immigrant and a grocer — attributes common to most of the Axeman’s targets. The attack upon the Maggios was fatal, though several subsequent victims would survive. The few who were able to give a description described a very large, dark-skinned (but caucasian) man in dark clothing and a “slouched” hat. His purported large size was incongruous with his usual mode of entry: chiseling out a panel of the door and squeezing through, leading some in the superstitious Crescent City to speculate on the killer’s other-worldliness.
The Axeman did his part to fuel the supernatural speculation. In a letter dated March 13, 1919, and addressed to the “Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans”, someone claiming to be “what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman” and “a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell”, promised to attack again the following Tuesday. But he offered one path of mercy:
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 out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Dance houses, music halls, and private homes were alive with music that Tuesday evening, and no one was visited by the Axeman. A local songwriter wrote a tune for the occasion:
Either the letter writer was simply the work of an ingenious jazz promoter, or the “demon from hell” was appeased — the Axeman did not strike again in New Orleans until August, and his bloody reign in the city ended after a final attack in October. In all, his murder spree lasted approximately a year and a half.
Or did it? Some speculate he began much earlier, and moved on after 1919 to continue killing in new places. In the period between 1911-1915, a series of similar murders had taken place in New Orleans in which the main weapon was a cleaver and the victims were, again, largely Italian immigrants.
This documentary theorizes that the Axeman actually began his murder spree in the late 1800s. The video details a trail of axe murders all across the late 19th century United States which, if the details are accurate, exhibited a strikingly similar M.O. to the jazz era slaughters. The victims were couples and families attacked in their beds with an axe, usually belonging to the victim, by a killer who would spend time in the home, similar to the Axeman’s habit of having a snack in his victims’ kitchens. But unlike the New Orleans crimes, the earlier, cross-country culprit often spent days hiding out in the attics of his targeted homes.
The spate of axe attacks in the US ceased after the Axeman’s last appearance in October of 1919. Did he die? Give up his murderous ways? Return permanently to the underworld?
Or did he go abroad?
In Germany, in the spring of 1922, three generations of a family were found murdered, bludgeoned by a mattock (a farming implement not so different from an axe) near the town of Hinterkaifeck . It appeared the murderer spent several days on the farm, both before and after the killings.
The possibility of the Hinterkaifeck killer being the same man responsible for the slayings across the United States is the subject of a 2017 book by Bill James called The Man From the Train. According to the book, a message scrawled at the scene of one of the US murders was written in German, and a survivor of one attack claimed to have heard the killer speaking in German. Of course, it is entirely possible that none of these series of murders were related, despite the similarities. It is also possible that they were all the work of one of the country’s earliest and most prolific serial killers.
In this writer’s opinion, New Orleans is a fantastically creepy place, its sinister history belying its beauty and charm. All these years after the Axeman stalked its streets, it is still the home of jazz, which any evening walk through the French Quarter reveals. It is easy to imagine the Axeman, a black silhouette under the street lamps, roaming through town in the humid night, in search of any home from which the sound of jazz did not emanate, any who dared defy the Axeman’s warning.
*Many thanks to Andrew Donaldson for his recent ponderings on jazz which inspired this piece.