It’s an odd expression, isn’t it. Have you ever considered the true meaning – to party as though you would die if you didn’t? Outside of the film Crank (and presumably the sequel, although I couldn’t tell you for sure as I refuse to watch it due to the fact that no explanation can possibly explain away the main character having died at the end of the first film) there aren’t many circumstances where one would be forced to party on pain of death so it boggles the mind to think how the expression came into popular use. I can only put it down to the somewhat limited vocabulary of teenagers when the expression rose in popularity, combined with the exaggerated importance youth places on the simplest of affairs. However, there is one other possible explanation and that is the tale of the Axeman of New Orleans. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
And this particular beginning is actually an ending, sadly. Specifically it is the end of two lives as Joseph and Catherine Maggio were discovered brutally murdered on May 22nd 1918. Joseph, a grocer by trade, lived with his wife in the rooms above his shop. Across the hallway were his two brothers Jake and Andrew and it was they who first heard Joseph’s cries for help. They immediately leapt up and rushed to aid their brother, but each was entirely unprepared for the scene that waited in their brother’s bedroom. Catherine was dead on the bed beside Joseph. She had been beaten savagely around the head several times with an axe, and her throat had been cut so deeply that she was almost decapitated. Joseph had survived the initial attack but his wounds were almost as grave as Catherine’s and he died mere minutes later. When the police arrived, it was soon confirmed that the murder weapon was the Maggio’s own axe, which the murderer had taken and replaced after using it for his dastardly deed. Further investigation showed that a chisel found in the bedroom had been used to remove a panel of the front door and gain entry to the house.
As terrible as this attack had been, the Axeman wasn’t done yet and he would return barely a fortnight later on June 6th, attacking yet another grocer. This time it was a man by the name of Louis Besumer who was attacked. While critically wounded, Besumer survived the attacks and eventually recovered, but he was not as alone at the time as he would have liked his wife to think. Beside him in bed was his younger mistress, Anne Lowe, and she died of her wounds a few hours later in hospital. Louis was no doubt left with a lot of explaining to do. Having seen two grocers attacked, police began looking at rival grocers around New Orleans as well as investigating a possible organised protection racket angle but all of their leads came up cold. Likewise, the trail seemed to be cooling as the axeman disappeared for two months. He returned on August 5th with an attack that shocked even the officers who had attended his previous crime scenes. Mrs Edward Schneider awoke to find a shadowy figure standing over her with an axe raised and ready to strike. As she screamed, the silhouette brought the axe down on her head. Again neighbours were alerted by screams and again they came running and yet again the axeman disappeared without a trace, completely unseen by Mrs Schneider’s neighbours. Mrs Schneider was found with gashes to her face and teeth knocked out but otherwise the eight months pregnant woman was unharmed. She survived her injuries and gave birth to a healthy baby girl three weeks later.
This change in what had been assumed to be the axeman’s modus operandi threw the police, but the next attack only five days later was a return to form. Joseph Romano was an elderly grocer who lived with his two orphaned nieces, Pauline and Mary Bruno. The axeman showed surprising stealth in this attack, managing to brutalise Joseph without waking either of the nieces. It was only a creaking floorboard that caused Pauline to wake up in the middle of the night and find the shadowy figure looming over her. Her scream woke Mary and, faced with two young and active targets, the axeman jumped out of the second storey window and disappeared into the night. And then the murders stopped though not, it seems, for lack of trying on the part of the axeman. Four grocers (Al Durand, Paul Lobella, Joseph Le Boeuf and Mr A. Recknangle) found that their doors had been damaged during August. In two of these cases an axe and chisel were found resting against the door. Manhunts filled the city and rumours were rife – everyone had a tale to tell of seeing the killer, each more outlandish than the next. The axeman, however, had disappeared.
The Great War ended and so many soldiers came home. The streets were filled with celebration and the world began to heal. Innocence lost at such a tremendous loss of life started to be regained and people concentrated on forgetting. As time went on without another murder the city the axeman started to be written off as another horror of the past, but this horror was far from over and his return would undo much of the healing the people of the city were attempting. It was eight months after his last attack (and seven months since the last confirmed attempt) when the axeman struck again. Nobody knows why he waited so long but my personal theory is that he had a relative return from the war and had to repress his urges. When he returned on March 10th 1919, it was with a vengeance. Rose Cortimiglia, wife of a grocer in Gretna (just across the river from New Orleans), woke to find her husband struggling with a large man who was dressed in dark clothing and armed with an axe. Her husband Charles fell to the floor leaving Rose as the last thing standing between the axeman and Mary, the two year old daughter of the Cortimiglias who had been sleeping in her mother’s arms. Despite Rosie’s pleas the axe fell and the child died from a broken neck. Rosie herself was left with a fractured skull sustained while trying to protect her child. When neighbours arrived they found the poor woman cradling her child while on her knees beside her husband’s body. Rosie survived the attack but would never forget it and the axeman seemed determined that no-one in New Orleans would ever forget him again.
Perhaps he was inspired by the famous “From Hell” letter that had helped Jack The Ripper attain some form of immortality or perhaps the legend surrounding his own seemingly inhuman escapes from detection had started to change his view of reality. Perhaps what happened next wasn’t even truly attributable to the axeman, but on March 13th 1919 someone claiming to be the axeman sent the following letter to the largest paper in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune.
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.
– The Axeman
There were many who scoffed at the letter, some even going so far as to invite the killer to try his luck at their houses. One letter sent to the Times included a polite request that the axeman not damage his door alongside a promise that a window would be left open to accommodate entry. Not everyone showed such bravado though and the majority of the city followed the instructions given to the letter. New Orleans, a city best known for massive parties, witnessed the largest party it has ever seen in its long history. Restaurants and clubs opened their doors to all comers and played jazz all through the night. Families and neighbours joined together in homes with collections of jazz records (big round things that stored recorded music in the olden days) and partied as if their lives depended on it, mainly because they did, which rather neatly brings us back to the start of this post.
The axeman, whether he wrote the letter or not, kept true to its word and no-one was attacked on March 15th. The axeman did go on to kill three other people between August and October in 1919, each time using an axe belonging to the victims and leaving the axe and chisel behind. He was never identified, nor did the police ever come close to having a solid suspect for the case. As suddenly as the murders had begun, they ended. Historians have occasionally put forward theories about other sets of spree killings being linked to the New Orleans murders although the supporting evidence has always been circumstantial at best and entirely fictional (such as the later murder of a man by the widow of the last victim) at worst. The events went on to inspire the Mysterious Axman’s Jazz, written by a local musician towards the end of 1919. In typical New Orleans fashion it went on to be a local hit and death was once again turned on its head to become a reason to party in the city.