The Axeman of New Orleans Preyed on Italian Immigrants

A mysterious serial killer prowled in a city rife with xenophobia and racism

The Axeman preyed on Italian-American families such as these who ran grocery stores in the New Orleans region. (American Italian Cultural Center)
smithsonian.com

By August of 1918, the city of New Orleans was paralyzed by fear. In the dead of the night, the Axeman of New Orleans (as he came to be known) broke into a series of Italian groceries, attacking the grocers and their families.  Some he left wounded; four people he left dead. The attacks were vicious. Joseph Maggio, for example, had his skull fractured with his own axe and his throat cut with a razor. His wife, Catherine, also had her throat cut; she asphyxiated on her own blood as she bled out.

Several lethal attacks that didn’t target Italians were also thought to be the work of the Axeman although this would later prove not to be the case. Nevertheless, New Orleanians were terrified. The press noted that the Italian immigrant community was especially fearful, with panic-stricken men staying up all night to guard their families. New Orleans Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney suspected that the murderer was a “murderous degenerate … who gloats over blood.”

The Axeman struck households in New Orleans from 1917 to March 1919. Then the killer crossed the crossed the Mississippi River to the neighboring town of Gretna. On the night of March 9, he assaulted Charlie Cortimiglia in the familiar fashion, badly injuring Charlie and his wife, Rosie, and killing their two-year-old daughter.

Mooney believed this was the work of their “degenerate.” The Gretna authorities – Police Chief Peter Leson and Sheriff Louis Marrero – however, settled on the Cortimiglia’s next door neighbors, elderly Iorlando Jordano and his 17-year-old son Frank, as the culprits. As grocers, they were business competitors of the Cortimiglias and had recently taken them to court over a business dispute.

The trouble was that no evidence implicated the Jordanos. The officials handled this inconvenience by haranguing the injured Cortimiglias as they lay in Charity Hospital, asking repeatedly, “Who hit you?” “Was it the Jordanos? Frank did it, didn’t he?” According to the doctor who treated her, Rosie always said that she didn’t know who had attacked her. When she was well enough to be released, Marrero immediately arrested Rosie as a material witness and incarcerated her in the Gretna jail. She was released only after she signed an affidavit implicating her neighbors.

When Iorlando and Frank went on trial for their lives, the only evidence against them was Rosie’s identification, an identification that even her own physician thought unreliable. Yet, after a trial of less than a week, they were both convicted of murder. Sixty-nine-year-old Iorlando was sentenced to life imprisonment; Frank was to hang.

Nine months later, Rosie walked into the newspaper office of the Times-Picayune and retracted her testimony. She said that St. Joseph had come to her in a dream, and told her she had to tell the truth. Rosie signed another affidavit, this time declaring that she hadn’t seen her attackers and had been pressured into identifying the Jordanos.

Despite Rosie’s retraction, the prosecution didn’t immediately give up. At one point, Rosie was threatened with perjury charges if she didn’t stick to her original story. But finally, in December 1920, Iorlando and Frank walked free.

Why were the Gretna authorities so quick to assume that neighbors, against whom there was no evidence, must have been the killers? Why were they so willing to ignore the advice of the New Orleans police chief, who had come to believe that there was a bloodthirsty fiend targeting Italian grocers?

The Crescent City had known Italians from its earliest days, and an Italian business community established itself in the city well before the Civil War. These early arrivals hailed mostly from northern Italy, but it was the need for a cheap workforce in the late-19th century that led to the great influx of Sicilians into the state and the city and enticed men like Iorlando Jordano (Americanized from Guargliardo) to make the journey from Sicily to Louisiana.

Sicilian laborers delighted the sugar planters of post-emancipation Louisiana who found them, as one planter wrote, “a hard-working, money-saving race, and content with … few of the comforts of life.” By the 1880s and 1890s, Sicilians flooded into the port of New Orleans and dominated Italian immigration into Louisiana: over 80 percent of the Italian immigrants who arrived in New Orleans were Sicilian. Some stayed. By 1900, the city had the largest Italian community in the South; about 20,000 (counting the children of immigrants) lived in New Orleans.

But most left to labor on the sugar cane and cotton plantations, an arduous life that nevertheless gave them the chance to save money. An immigrant who carefully hoarded his wages could strike out on his own within a few years. As far as the planters were concerned, this was the one problem with Italian workers. Planters grumbled that they couldn’t keep Italians in the field because in a couple of years they would have “laid by a little money and are ready to start a fruit shop or grocery store at some cross-roads town.” By 1900, small Italian-owned businesses had sprung up all over Louisiana.

But the commercial success of Sicilian immigrants couldn’t protect them from the racial prejudices of the American South. Italians never entirely replaced black labor in Louisiana but worked alongside African-Americans in the fields. While Italians, not understanding the racial hierarchies of the South, found nothing shameful about this, for native whites their willingness to do so made them no better than “Negroes,” Chinese, or other “non-white” groups. The swarthy Sicilians were often considered not white at all, nothing but “black dagoes.” It wasn’t lost on a contemporary observer that even African-American laborers distinguished between whites and Italians and treated their fellow workers with, as one he described it, “a sometimes contemptuous, sometimes friendly, first-name familiarity” they would never have dared employ with other whites.

The notion that “dagoes” were no better than “Negroes” helps account for growing prejudice against Italian immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s. They faced suspicion and the occasional lynch mob. In 1929, a New Orleans judge expressed a common view of most Sicilians in New Orleans as “of a thoroughly undesirable character, being largely composed of the most vicious, ignorant, degraded and filthy paupers, with something more than an admixture of the criminal element.”

In New Orleans, the French Quarter, the oldest section of the city filled with decrepit Creole townhouses, had become the Italian neighborhood. By the early 20th century, so many Sicilians congregated in the lower French Quarter near the river that the area from Jackson Square to Esplanade Avenue, between Decatur and Chartres, was known as “Little Palermo.”

One of the most common upward trajectories for an ambitious Sicilian in New Orleans and elsewhere was that from plantation worker to truck farmer and peddler to grocer.

By the early 20th century, Italians were taking over the corner grocery business. They owned only 7 percent of grocery stores in New Orleans in 1880. By 1900, 19 percent were Italian-owned, and by 1920 they ran fully half of all groceries in the city.

Some Italians did very well indeed in New Orleans: After laboring on the sugar cane plantations, Joseph Vaccaro peddled fruit from a mule-drawn cart. He later used a fruit stall in the New Orleans French Market to launch his wholesale business and eventually made his fortune importing oranges and bananas. Giuseppe Uddo began his career hawking olive oil and cheese from a horse-drawn cart before founding Progresso Food Products.

Despite such successes, unpleasant stereotypes clung to Italian immigrants, some of which had a basis in reality. The Sicilians brought with them to America a clannishness and distrust of the authorities that led them to settle their disputes the old-fashioned way: the vendetta. This system of justice survived in Sicily into the 20th century; immigrants brought it with them to New Orleans, and vendettas, both personal and professional, weren’t particularly uncommon. So many shootings and knife fights occurred along Decatur Street that it was nicknamed “Vendetta Alley.”

The fear of immigrant crime culminated in 1890-1891 with the murder of New Orleans Chief of Police David Hennessy. The popular official was met with a volley of shotgun fire as he arrived home on the night of October 15, 1890. Mortally wounded, Hennessy insisted, “The dagos got me.” He’d previously been involved in a violent dispute between two Italian factions, the Provenzanos and the Matrangas.

New Orleanians found it easy to believe that Hennessy’s murder was connected to the feud and that organized Italian criminal gangs the press often referred to as “the Mafia” were responsible.

The police arrested a number of Sicilians, who were to be tried in two groups. After an initial set of acquittals, a mob stormed the jail, murdering 11 of the accused. They lynched some who’d been acquitted, as well as some who had yet to be tried.

Criminal Italian gangs were certainly active in New Orleans, although as crime historian Humbert S. Nelli has pointed out, their criminal activity “could not accurately be ascribed to Mafiosi.” Historian Robert M. Lombardo has explained that, “the Mafia was not a secret criminal organization but a form of social organization that developed in Sicily and the south of Italy under very specific circumstances.” It was, he notes, “a form of behavior and a kind of power, not a formal organization.”  

On the other hand, a type of petty extortion known as Black Hand crime—a practice rather than an organization—did exist in which the victim was threatened with violence if the money demanded wasn’t paid. Such crime was ubiquitous in southern Italian communities all over the U.S. by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including New Orleans, and only disappeared when the descendants of immigrants became sufficiently Americanized to complain to the police.

Citizens of New Orleans tended to conflate the vendetta, the Mafia, and the Black Hand, by the early 20th centuries using “Mafia” and “Black Hand” interchangeably, using both to refer to a formal criminal organization.  Given this history, it wasn’t entirely surprising when New Orleanians suspected that the attacks on Italian grocers might be connected to a vendetta or Black Hand blackmail attempts.

However, New Orleans detective John Dantonio, a nationally known expert on the “Mafia,” rejected the idea, saying that a Black Hand attack wouldn’t have left any survivors as the Axeman frequently did. He agreed with Frank Mooney, New Orleans’ police superintendent, who was convinced that the attacks were the work of a “fiend,” “a Jekyll and Hyde personality, like Jack the Ripper. … [S]uddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.” In other words, what we’d now call a serial killer.

Despite Mooney and Dantonio’s view, when the Axeman attacked the Cortimiglias, the Gretna authorities could more easily accept a vendetta between two Italian businesses than they could the idea that a bloodthirsty “fiend” stalked the streets. Even some New Orleans police officers still believed that the vendetta could explain the Axeman murders.

The Gretna officials had also had enough exposure to the Old World traditions of the Sicilian immigrants to have few qualms about manufacturing evidence against their “obvious” suspects; for this abuse of power no excuse exists. But for their ignorance of serial killers – at the time a novel concept – they cannot be blamed. And suspecting an Italian vendetta wasn’t entirely unreasonable in a period when disputes among Italian immigrants not infrequently resulted in assault or murder.

A close examination of the attacks attributed to the Axeman shows that not all of these assaults were actually his handiwork. But someone was specifically targeting Italian grocers, both in 1917-1919, and in 1910-1911 when a similar spate of attacks occurred. According to eyewitness accounts of survivors, the Axeman was a white working-class male in his 30s when the attacks began. From the ease with which he broke into the groceries and his use of a railroad shoe pin, a common burglary tool, the police concluded that he was an experienced burglar.

The Axeman vanished from New Orleans after the attack on the Cortimiglias. (The murder of Mike Pepitone in August 1919, while sometimes attributed to the Axeman, actually appears to have been part of a longstanding vendetta.) Evidence from police records and newspaper accounts, however, show that he struck elsewhere in Louisiana, killing Joseph Spero and his daughter in Alexandria in December 1920, Giovanni Orlando in DeRidder in January 1921, and Frank Scalisi in Lake Charles in April 1921. The killer’s modus operandus was the same: breaking into an Italian grocery in the middle of the night and attacking the grocer and his family with their own axe. The Axeman then disappeared from history.

The Italians of New Orleans didn’t. They continued to prosper. Although as a result of the growth of supermarkets, the corner groceries eventually disappeared, they, like so many immigrants before them, joined mainstream American society while continuing to maintain their own ethnic identity. 

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