The Bizarre Case Of The Axeman Of New Orleans

By Jeff Kelly on Saturday, November 16, 2013
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“All the police are going to get me for is running a funeral parlor without a license.” —John Wayne Gacy

In A Nutshell

When you think of serial killers, your mind probably jumps to Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, and the Boston Strangler. But there was another, lesser-known serial killer terrifying the city of New Orleans in 1918 and 1919 who offered people a unique way to guarantee he wouldn’t kill them. He told them he’d spare anyone playing jazz music in their homes. This was the bizarre modus operandus of the man known as the Axeman of New Orleans.

The Whole Bushel

For whatever bizarre reason, we’ve always held a certain gruesome fascination when it comes to serial killers. From Jack the Ripper, to the Zodiac Killer, to the Son of Sam and the Boston Strangler, our morbid curiosity keeps these mass murderers in the forefront of popular culture. That’s why it seems oddly peculiar that so few people seem to have ever heard of the Axeman of New Orleans.

The Axeman operated from May 1918 until he vanished in October 1919, but in that span he terrified the city of New Orleans, who all feared they’d wake up in the middle of the night to find him brandishing his axe at the foot of their beds. The majority of his victims were of Italian descent, which has led to theories ranging from these being a series of hate crimes to possibly having Mafia connections.

What made the case more bizarre was a letter penned by the Axeman and published in the local paper, in which he said that anyone playing jazz music in their homes would be spared. This in turn led to a completely off-the-wall theory that, for whatever reason, the Axeman was simply a jazz enthusiast who was trying to promote his favorite style of music.

In all, the Axeman is believed to have attacked 11 people, including women and children. The case was so brutal and strange that it led one former New Orleans detective to describe it as a real-life version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To this day, no one is sure who exactly the Axeman was, though there was some suspicion it was a man named Joseph Mumfre, who was shot to death in December 1919. Mumfre was believed to have left the city shortly after the final victim was killed, and the person doing the shooting was the widow of that last victim. In true Hollywood fashion she confronted him dressed all in black, stepping out of the shadows to cap the potential mass murderer.

After Mumfre was killed, the Axeman murders stopped in New Orleans. It could simply be a coincidence, or it could have been the fact that the woman doing her best Charles Bronson impression had in fact chosen the right target. The widow, who had told police she had seen the murderer fleeing the scene of her husband’s grisly demise but could not identify him at the time, spent three years in prison for killing Mumfre, only to vanish upon being released, presumably roaming the country serving up justice by way of hot lead.

Show Me The Proof

Crime Library: Axeman of New Orleans