Stranger Than Fiction: The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz

Cover of the 1919 sheet music

Cover of the 1919 sheet music

May 22, 1918 was a typically hot sweltering night in New Orleans. Joseph Maggio, a local grocer, and his wife Catherine had just settled into bed for a good night’s sleep. The next morning, Maggio failed to report to work. Later that day, the New Orleans Police found the bodies of the couple in their bed where their throats had been slashed with a straight razor and their heads bludgeoned with an axe.

In the apartment, law enforcement agents found the bloody clothes of the murderer, as he had obviously changed into a clean set of clothes before fleeing the scene. The bloody razor was found in the lawn of a neighboring property. Police ruled out robbery as motivation for the attacks, as money and valuables left in plain sight were not stolen by the intruder.

The violent murders were the first of 11 that occurred over the next 18 months. The killer’s use of an axe earned him the moniker “The Axeman.” The killings baffled police who ran down any possible lead only to have their best efforts thwarted. Citizens were afraid to walk the streets at night and were careful to lock their windows and doors. Local gun shops quickly sold out of weapons as citizens sought to arm themselves.

The killings came to an abrupt halt in 1919 and the Axeman vanished having never been identified nor captured. His violent crime spree came to a most unusual end when he sent a letter to the local newspaper offering to spare the city any more tragedy if they were willing to throw a party. The letter read:

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.

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.

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.

The Axeman

The following Tuesday, the city of New Orleans was alive with the sound of jazz emanating from nearly every home, business and night in the city. Nervous citizens partied in hopes the Axeman would be true to his word.

Strangely enough, the murderer kept his word. As the citizens “jazzed it up” the killer ceased to claim victims. The murders were never solved and the following year, 1919, composer Joseph John Davilla wrote the song “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa)”. Published by New Orleans based World’s Music Publishing Company, the cover depicted a family playing music with frightened looks on their faces.

Michael Williams has written a book entitled “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

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Source: Michael Williams, Jefferson County Post Staff Writer