Louisiana Cultural Vistas - Spring 2006 - (Page 30)
JAZZ NOTES music history by Bruce Raeburn The Axeman Cometh In 1919, a cryptic threat prompted a night of music On March 13, 1919 the New Orleans Times-Picayune received a letter from an individual identified only as “the Axeman,” giving a return address as “Hell.” It ran the next day: “Esteemed mortals: 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 what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman. 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. Let them not try to discover who 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 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 — 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 those people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there is any) will get the axe.” For almost a year prior to this letter, murders involving dismemberment of mostly Italian grocers (Joseph Maggio, Joe Romano, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Cortimiglia) had occurred in the city, and, according to observers, many locals took the Axeman’s threat (which fell on Saint Joseph’s Day) very seriously. Here’s an observation from a collection of historical accounts in Gumbo Ya Ya: “cafes all over town were jammed. Friends and neighbors gathered in homes to ‘jazz it up.’ Midnight found the city alive with the ‘canned music’ of the period — inner-piano players and phonographs. In the levee and Negro districts banjos, guitars and mandolins strummed the jazziest kind of jazz — Not a single attack occurred that night.” Almost immediately, a song titled “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me, Papa)” by Joseph John Davilla was published in New Orleans, presumably written by a non-murderer, with a cover depicting frantic jazz activity of all descriptions. Two more axe murders occurred during the summer of 1919, and then the Axeman went on a seemingly permanent vacation. To this day, his identity remains a mystery. For a time there was suspicion of one Joseph Mumfre, who was murdered in California by Esther Albano, the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman’s last victim, but there was no real evidence to back up the connection, so the trail went cold. Now, in retrospect, I don’t think the police tried very hard to solve these crimes, because it seems to me that several fairly obvious clues were overlooked. First of all, take the return address of “Hell.” Am I the only one who has a problem with this? Given a resident population that routinely made it through New Orleans summers without air conditioning, were they supposed to be intimidated by the prospect of Hell? I don’t think so. Orleanians go to hell for vacations. Granted, Hell may be a question is — what was this guy’s day gig? We have a few clues to work with here. First, the axe. Who uses axes all the time? A woodman? Not in New Orleans, the trees are supposed to be protected. How about a volunteer fireman? Papa Jack Laine, the leader of the Reliance bands, was a fireman with Dennis Sheen’s Volunteer Company and according to him, they spent most of their time drinking and playing cards, which can be very stressful, despite outward appearances, especially if you lose a lot. Second, whose interests are served by promoting jazz, both live bands and recordings? Two possibilities: Band manager (we all know what they’re like) or a retail record salesman working on commission, maybe at Werlein’s or Maison Blanche. Since most New Orleans jazz bands managed themselves during this period, I would opt for few degrees hotter, but it doesn’t have the humidity. Based on this and the fact that the locals are addressed as “you people,” I’m guessing that this guy was not from here. Probably a Yankee, or maybe even a Californian — could be a Hollywood director looking for a home away from home in the French Quarter. Cecil B. DeMille, for example. He loved a good spectacle. So, first point in the profile — “Definitely not from here.” Point 2. Anyone whose idea of a good time is hacking people to pieces with an axe at night is very likely to be carrying around a huge amount of unresolved stress accumulated during the day, so my 30 LOUISIANA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES\Spring 2006
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