The Serial Killer Who Loved Jazz: The Infamous Story of the Axeman of New Orleans (1919)

If you are a fan of “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Sto­ry” you might remem­ber a char­ac­ter in Sea­son Three (“Coven”) played by Dan­ny Hus­ton, broth­er of actress Anjel­i­ca, son of direc­tor John. He was called The Axe­man, and if you were not par­tic­u­lar­ly steeped in New Orleans lore or ser­i­al killer his­to­ry, that par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence might have flown right past.

But denizens of the city know him full well, because of his bru­tal killing meth­ods, his weapon of choice, his ran­dom attacks…and his love of jazz. Oh, and the fact that he was nev­er caught.

Let’s talk about that jazz, though. At the time of his attacks, between 1918 and 1919, jazz was in its infan­cy and rapid­ly evolv­ing in this south­ern port city, which was new­ly unseg­re­gat­ed in the years after the Civ­il War. It was a mix of African-Amer­i­cans, Jews, Cre­ole, whites, and every­body else, and jazz was the sound of a young gen­er­a­tion ready to par­ty. (Need­less to say, old­er gen­er­a­tions hat­ed this music.)

At first the killer was not known as the Axe­man, but a mys­te­ri­ous intrud­er who had chis­eled open front doors, hacked own­ers (and their wives) to death with his axe, and dis­ap­peared, leav­ing behind his sig­na­ture weapon (which, it turned out, usu­al­ly belonged to the home own­er). The news­pa­pers at the time report­ed on every lurid detail and sent the city into a state of fear dur­ing the sum­mer of 1918.

His vic­tims were all Ital­ian shop­keep­ers, but that wasn’t enough to add his name to the his­to­ry books. But on March 14, 1919, that changed, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune pub­lished an infa­mous let­ter from the hand of the killer him­self:

Esteemed Mor­tal of New Orleans:

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 (and the worst), 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 out on that spe­cif­ic 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

Did you note the part in bold (our empha­sis)? Read­ers in 1919 cer­tain­ly did.

That Tues­day, the musi­cal city was even more live­ly than usu­al. If you had a record play­er, it played all night and loud­ly. If you had a piano, you were bang­ing away at the keys. And if you had a jazz club near­by, it was stand­ing room only. It might have been the biggest night of jazz in his­to­ry. And indeed, nobody got the chop that evening.

The Axe­man struck four more times that year, with only one vic­tim suc­cumb­ing to his wounds. And after that The Axe­man dis­ap­peared. With no fin­ger­prints, sus­pects, or descrip­tions of the killer, the case was nev­er solved.

His­to­ri­ans haven’t done well in uncov­er­ing his iden­ti­ty either, but one thing they agree on: the killer prob­a­bly didn’t write the let­ter.

His­to­ri­an Miri­am Davis has a the­o­ry that it was one John Joseph Dávi­la, a musi­cian and a jazz com­pos­er. Right after the pub­li­ca­tion of the Axe­man let­ter, he pub­lished a sheet-music tie-in called “The Mys­te­ri­ous Axeman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa)”, and made a bun­dle of mon­ey from it.

Cash­ing in on a mur­der­ous event and pub­lic hys­te­ria? Now that’s quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can, my friends, just like jazz.

For more on this sto­ry, read Miri­am Davis’ book, The Axe­man of New Orleans: The True Sto­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A New Series About A Young Crime-Fight­ing Sig­mund Freud Is Com­ing to Net­flix

Some Joy for Your Ears: New Orleans Brass Band Plays Life-Affirm­ing Cov­er of Mar­vin Gaye’s “Sex­u­al Heal­ing”
Guns N’ Ros­es “Sweet Child O’ Mine” Retooled as 1920s New Orleans Jazz

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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