Pauline Bruno was terrified of the ax man. Like most residents of New Orleans, the 18-year-old had spent weeks reading the morbid newspaper accounts of his attacks. Each home invasion was remarkably similar: The assailant would use a chisel to pry out a door panel, unlock the entrance, and then find the master bedroom. Using an ax—one that usually belonged to his victims—he’d hack and swipe at couples who were sound asleep in the early morning hours. He would take nothing and leave only one clue behind: the bloodied hatchet, caked with gore and strands of hair.
Pauline had dreaded the potential for her home to be targeted. On the evening of August 10, 1918, she had been sleeping next to her younger sister, Mary, when they heard their uncle, Joseph Romano, screaming.
The girls rushed to his bedroom and opened the door. Standing over Joseph was a tall man wearing a slouch hat and a dark suit. Their uncle moaned, blood spreading across the sheets.
Pauline’s worst fear had come true. She was in the presence of the ax man.
The girls screamed. The killer, who had not been above slashing women or children in previous attacks, fled. It was too late for Joseph. Medical examiners would later find two gaping wounds in his head. He died hours after being admitted to the hospital.
For nearly two years, the ax man of New Orleans would terrorize residents with an uncanny ability to materialize in their homes, bludgeoning them with axes kept in their own tool sheds, and then disappearing without a trace. His face and voice were reduced to hazy memories by survivors. He would never be caught. And while all of this would be enough to commit him to history, his March 1919 letter to a newspaper guaranteed his infamy.
Writing from “the depths of hell,” he expressed joy over the bloodshed he had caused. Residents terrified of being targeted had one recourse: If they liked jazz music, and if he heard it while approaching his next victim, he would spare their lives.
While the ax man’s spree appeared to begin with the December 1917 attacks on the four members of the Andollina family—husband Epifania, his wife, and their two sons, all of whom survived glancing blows from a hatchet—authorities soon speculated his work had started much earlier.
What happened in the early part of the 1910s is still up for debate—some historians insist that this was mass hysteria, but others insist that it really happened. But the story goes that on August 13, 1910, grocer August Crutti and his wife awoke to a man demanding money. He brandished a meat cleaver and struck both in the head. Then he strode, barefoot, out of their home, where a neighbor would testify that she saw a man carrying the couple’s bird cage a few feet before releasing the mockingbird inside. Putting on his shoes, he sauntered off.
Those victims survived. So did the Rissettos, who endured more cleaver strikes before the prowler took off. And so did Marie Davi, a woman who was attacked in June of 1911. Her husband, Joe, became the cleaver intruder’s first fatality, dying of his head wounds.
By this point, perhaps the killer realized how surprisingly difficult it was to murder someone with a hacking assault. He struck just once more in this period, shooting and wounding Tony Sciambra and killing his wife on May 15, 1912.
Why, if a gun was used, were the Sciambras suspected of being victimized by the same man? It would be six years before the reason became apparent. In May 1918, Joe Maggio and his wife were discovered by Maggio’s brothers after being struck with multiple ax wounds, their throats sliced with a straight razor. Mrs. Maggio’s head was cut nearly clean off her body. An ax was left in the bathtub.
While surveying the scene, detectives found an unusual message scrawled in chalk just a block from the Maggio residence: “Mrs. Maggio is going to sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.” The “Mrs. Toney,” they theorized, referred to Sciambra’s wife, who was referred to as “Mrs. Tony” by some of their customers.
It was a thin line between the rash of murders, but police had little else to go on. The killer laid out a pattern: He’d usually chisel out a door panel to access the internal lock and used an ax already on the property to attack his sleeping victims. He’d leave the weapon on the scene, usually in such a halfhearted attempt to conceal it that it made investigators believe he was mocking them. Although he sometimes demanded money and rifled through belongings, he rarely took anything. Most unusual—and concerning—was his tendency to target small business owners of Italian descent, who often lived in apartments or homes connected to their stores.
After six documented home invasions and several near-misses—some reported attempted break-ins foiled by warning shots—that resulted in eight deaths and 10 injuries, the ax man made his most audacious move yet. On March 14, 1919, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a letter purporting to be from the hand of the killer. He wrote:
"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."
Apparently in the mood to display some restraint, the (assumed) killer decided to be charitable:
"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."
That following Tuesday, March 18-19, was said to be a boisterous evening even by New Orleans standards. Thousands of homes blasted jazz music loud enough to be heard by any passing murderers; those who didn’t own home stereos stuffed themselves into clubs and lounges or held block parties. A morbid piece of sheet music, “The Mysterious Axman's Jazz,” was circulated, the cover art depicting a family frantically playing a piano while on the lookout for an intruder.
Whether the threat was credible or not, no one died of ax wounds that night.
The ax man would strike four more times that year. He took one swipe at 19-year-old Sarah Laumann, knocking out her teeth, before her screams made him flee; Steve Bocca was hacked but had the strength to stagger to a neighbor’s door for help; William Carson actually shot at an intruder, apparently missing but successfully scaring him away; on October 27, Mike Pepitone was smashed with an iron bar, an impromptu weapon when the killer presumably found that Pepitone didn’t own an ax. All but Pepitone survived—his face had been warped into an “unrecognizable mass,” according to the Times-Picayune—and there were no more assaults.
Detectives had suspected the killings might be mafia-related, since many of the victims were Italian and might have been subject to intimidation. Others dismissed that theory, believing the organized crime of the area had ironclad rules that prohibited harming women and children.
Only one suspect was ever circulated by amateur sleuths in the proceeding decades, but it's likely he became associated with the case due to his death at the hands of Pepitone's widow, Esther. She had remarried, and shot a man named Doc Mumpre after believing he had something to do with her second husband's disappearance in Los Angeles. Owing to several aliases he used—Leon Manfre, Frank Mumphrey—his identity became intertwined with that of a Joe Mumfre, who was in and out of prison in New Orleans around the time of the second series of killings. It's unlikely—though not impossible—the two men were one and the same.
With no fingerprints, reliable eyewitness identification, or plausible suspects, authorities never solved the case of the ax man who had terrorized New Orleans. At the height of his rampage, some families took turns sleeping to keep watch for any sign of forced entry and to blare jazz music at high volume.
Whether he was truly a music lover will never be known. For a man who relished an opportunity to brutalize people with an ax, the fact that a city held a loud party and wrote a song in his honor may have been satisfaction enough.
Additional Sources: The Axman Came from Hell and Other Southern Stories