Though the figure of the axe-wielding maniac is a staple of horror movies and campfire tales, he is largely a figment of the popular imagination. In reality, serial killers rarely rely on axes.
The most famous axe in American criminal history, of course, was the one that belonged to Miss Lizzie Borden, who, according to folklore, used it to give her sleeping stepmother “forty whacks” in the face (and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one). Lizzie, however, was no serial killer but a chubby, thirty-two-year-old spinster with long-simmering resentments who apparently went berserk one sweltering day in August 1892. In short, her crimes (assuming she committed them, which seems fairly certain, in spite of her acquittal) were a one-shot deal—a lifetime’s worth of stifled emotions exploding in a single savage deed.
Another fatal female who was handy with an axe was the notorious Belle Gunness, who murdered at least fourteen of her husbands and suitors. Some apparently were poisoned, others were dispatched in their sleep with a hatchet. Though the fat, ferocious Gunness cut a more frightful figure than the ladylike Miss Lizzie, she was no wild-eyed thrill killer. Rather, she was a cold-blooded mercenary, killing to collect on her spouses’ life-insurance policies or inherit their savings.
Closer than either of these lethal ladies to the popular stereotype of the axe-wielding psycho was a hard-bitten drifter named Jake Bird. Roaming around Tacoma in 1947, Bird hacked a mother and daughter to pieces with an axe he found in their woodshed. Alerted by the victims’ dying shrieks, neighbors summoned the police, who managed to subdue Bird after a violent struggle. Bird pled innocent until forensic analysis established that the stains on his trousers were human blood and brain tissue. Before his execution in 1949, he confessed to no fewer than forty-four murders throughout the United States, a number of them committed with his weapon of choice—the axe.
The most fear-provoking axe killer in the annals of American crime, however—one who kept a whole city in a state of panic for over two years—was a maniac whose identity remains unknown. This is the shadowy figure known as the “Axeman of New Orleans.”
On the night of May 23, 1918, a New Orleans couple named Maggio was butchered in bed by an intruder who smashed their skulls with an axe blade, then slit their throats with a razor, nearly severing the woman’s head. Thus began the reign of terror of the so-called Axeman, a real-life boogeyman who haunted the city for two and half years. His MO was always the same. Prowling through the darkness, he would target a house, chisel out a back-door panel, slip inside, and find his way to the bedroom. There, he would creep toward his slumbering victims, raise his weapon, and attack with demoniacal fury. Altogether, he murdered seven people and savagely wounded another eight.
Panic gripped the city, particularly since the police were helpless to locate the killer. Hysterical citizens pointed fingers at various suspects, including a supposed German spy named Louis Besumer and a father and son named Jordano, who were actually convicted on “eyewitness testimony” that later proved to be fabricated. Since many of the victims were Italian grocers, there was also a theory (wholly unsubstantiated) that the killer was a Mafia enforcer. To cope with their fears, citizens resorted to morbid humor, throwing raucous New Orleans-style “Axeman parties” and singing along to a popular tune called “The Mysterious Axeman’s Jazz.
Though the serial killer was never identified, some people believe that he was an ex-con named Joseph Mumfre, who was shot down by a woman named Pepitone, the widow of the Axeman’s last victim. Mrs. Pepitone claimed that she had seen Mumfre flee the murder scene. Whether Mumfre was really the Axeman remains a matter of dispute, but one fact is certain: the killings stopped with his death.